With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 10 to 21.
Amendment 100, page 224, line 42, schedule 13, at end insert—
‘Each of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice must at all times engage in a programme of action which is designed—
(a) to secure, so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so, that appointments to listed judicial offices are such that those holding such offices are reflective of the community in England and Wales;
(b) to require the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so, to secure that a range of persons reflective of the community in England and Wales is available for consideration by the Judicial Appointments Commission whenever it is required to select a person to be appointed, or recommended for appointment, to a listed judicial office.’.
Government amendments 23 to 59.
New clause 7—Enforcement services
‘(1) The Legal Services Act 2007 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 125 insert—
125A (1) For the purposes of this Part (and sections 1, 21 and 27 as they apply in relation to this Part)—
(a) the Bailiffs and Enforcement Agents Council is to be treated as an approved regulator;
(b) enforcement services are to be treated as a reserved legal activity;
(c) a person authorised under sections 63 and 64 of the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act services is to be treated as an authorised person in relation to that activity;
(d) the Bailiffs and Enforcement Agents Council is to be treated as a relevant authorising body in relation to such a person, and
(e) regulations under the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 and the National Standards for Enforcement Agents are to be treated as regulatory arrangements of the Bailiffs and Enforcement Agents Council as an approved regulator.
(2) For the purposes of sections 112 and 145 (as extended by this section), a person authorised under sections 63 and 64 of the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act, is to be treated as a “relevant authorised person” in relation to the Regulator.”.’.
New clause 17—Protection of vulnerable debtors
‘(1) At any time after a notice required under paragraph 7, Schedule 12 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 is served on a debtor, the debtor may apply to the court to stay or suspend the notice on terms on either of the following grounds—
(a) the enforcement action being taken is disproportionate to the debt and circumstances involved; and
(b) the debtor’s goods may be insufficient in value to satisfy the debt involved.
(2) The court may, in its discretion and if satisfied with the above grounds, suspend or stay any judgment or order given or made in prior proceedings for such time and on such terms as the court thinks fit.
(3) Enforcement proceedings under Schedule 12 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 are proceedings for the purposes of section 71(2) and section 88 of the County Court Act 1984.
(4) Subject to the regulations under section 64 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 complaints against holders of certificates shall be considered by a designated judge and may include both complaints regarding compliance with the terms of certification as well as the exercise of legal powers under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Further to which—
(a) the designated judge may, on consideration of a complaint, exercise powers under section 64 to suspend or cancel a holder’s certificate; and
(b) the designated judge shall publish an annual report.
(5) The Lord Chancellor shall periodically review data concerning complaints against holders of certificates, update guidance where evidence of bad practice arises and respond to any recommendations set out in a report under subsection 2 within six months.’.
Government new clause 5—Supreme Court chief executive, officers and staff.
Government new clause 6—Making and use of recordings of Supreme Court proceedings.
Government amendments 60, 77 to 80, 82 and 83.
I shall start by speaking to the Government amendments, but I should also like to hear the comments of Mr Straw, the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny
Chapman) and my hon. Friend Mr Buckland, if he arrives. I shall start with amendments 22, 57 and 58.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Government are making a number of changes to the judicial appointments process, including to the selection process for the Lord Chief Justice and the heads of division. As part of the changes, the details of the selection process that are currently in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 will move into secondary legislation. There are many reasons for doing that, and many improvements are being made. There is an urgency to this, however, because the Lord Chief Justice is about to retire and we hope that it will be possible to deal with the new appointment and any consequential appointment of a head of division under the new system rather than the old. The amendments aim to achieve that by briefly inserting the new selection process into the 2005 Act, so that it applies to the appointment of Lord Judge’s successor. I must stress that it will be a transitory measure and will cease to have effect after the appointment of the next Lord Chief Justice and any consequent head of division. It is then intended that the secondary legislation will follow.
Amendments 25 to 55 deal with the technical aspects of the change to the Lord Chancellor’s role in the judicial appointments process, including the transfer to the Lord Chief Justice or the Senior President of Tribunals, as appropriate, of the power to decide upon selections made by the Judicial Appointments Commission for certain judicial offices below the High Court. The Government intend to retain the Lord Chancellor’s role in all other aspects of these appointments, particularly terms and conditions for fixed-term judicial appointments where a fee is paid. However, the Bill currently transfers the power to renew, or to refuse to renew, fixed-term judicial appointments to the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals. Amendments 25 to 55 therefore amend schedule 13 so that that power is retained with the Lord Chancellor. They ensure that, in exercising that role, the Lord Chancellor must, as now, if deciding not to renew a fixed-term appointment, comply with any requirement to secure the consent of the Lord Chief Justice or Senior President of Tribunals.
Amendments 23 and 24 also deal with the selection process for judicial appointments and the move from primary to secondary legislation. As part of these changes, the original idea was to move the requirement for there to be a commissioner with special knowledge of Wales on the commission into secondary legislation, but on further consideration, the Government decided that it was important to retain an appropriate level of input by a lay member of the commission with a special knowledge of Wales and that that requirement should remain in primary legislation. The amendments therefore reinstate the requirement in the 2005 Act that those selecting persons for appointment as commissioners should ensure, as far as practicable, that there is at least one lay commissioner with special knowledge of Wales.
Amendment 59 relates to the judicial deployment provisions in schedule 14. The objective is to give the Lord Chief Justice more flexibility in deploying judges to different courts and tribunals. That supports an important objective for the Government because it means that judges can be used efficiently. Individual judges will also benefit, if they have a wider breadth of experience and can develop their judicial careers as a result. The policy was brought forward in partnership with the judiciary and the aim has always been to move forward collectively in the delivery of our shared aims and objectives. After further consultation with the judiciary and further thought, it has been decided that the particular skills and experience needed in the Crown court mean that it should be removed from the flexible deployment provisions. Those matters should be dealt with by Crown court judges, as happens now.
Amendments 10 to 21 are technical and minor amendments dealing with the single family court provisions. I can be brief, because there is only one point of substance. At the moment, magistrates courts can vary maintenance orders registered with them, but because in future the family courts will be able to issue those orders, it is necessary to provide that magistrates will no longer have that variation power, which will lie with the family courts—a victory for the Committee, the other place and, of course, the Government.
New clause 5 relates to the appointment of the chief executive of the UK Supreme Court. I am confident it will be welcomed. A new clause along similar lines was tabled in the other place and again here in Committee. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justicesaid at the time that we were going to discuss the matter with the powers that be. The appointments process for the chief executive of the UK Supreme Court has been discussed with the president of the Court, and I am pleased to report that those discussions have been successfully concluded, and the Government have therefore tabled the new clause with the Court’s agreement. Thus the president of the UK Supreme Court, not the Lord Chancellor, is responsible for the appointment of the chief executive. It is no longer necessary for the chief executive to agree the staffing structure with the Lord Chancellor, and the provision also clarifies that the Court’s officers and staff will be civil servants—something that needed to be done.
New clause 6 deals with broadcasting in the Supreme Court. To clarify matters, clause 28 expressly disapplies section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which prohibits sound recordings in court, to facilitate court broadcasting below the UK Supreme Court. It looks odd not to confirm at the same time that the Supreme Court is able to be exempt, so new clause 6 achieves that. Let me be clear that this is about clarifying the matter; there is no question that this has caused any problem in the past.
Amendments 60, 77, 78 and 82 make consequential amendments. I now reach the point where I can say that I am looking forward to hearing the right hon. Member for Blackburn and other colleagues presenting their new clauses and amendments.
Let me start with a positive. We are pleased that the Government have seen fit to include new clause 5. These provisions were debated favourably in the other place and were introduced by the Opposition in Committee. The creation of the Supreme Court was, I think, an excellent achievement of the previous Government and it is right that Ministers have accepted the argument put to them by the Opposition and many in the profession for a further transfer of powers to strengthen the Court’s independence. We welcome the Government’s agreement with the recommendations and their decision to include in the Bill these important changes.
Continuing on a positive note, we completely accept the other Government new clauses and I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will be pleased that a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission will have special knowledge of Wales in the future.
Amendment 100 was tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr Straw. I have not heard what he is about to say, but I feel confident that I should agree with it. The Opposition are strongly in favour of that amendment. My noble Friend Baroness Hale gave a lecture a few weeks ago, in which she stated she was going to
“start by taking it for granted that judicial diversity is a good thing.”
For the purposes of this debate, I shall use a few more words to echo the arguments that will be put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, but I think the House will agree that my noble Friend also speaks with considerable expertise on this issue.
The Government have recognised in the Bill that diversity in our judiciary is desirable, and unless we hold with the idea that talent is innately concentrated in one social group, we must acknowledge that for every exceptional judge we have, we are losing out on able candidates because we do not do enough to find them. Measures to support diversity seek not to give credit where it is not due, but to encourage ability wherever it may be found. We have seen many instances where it has been argued that merit and diversity are mutually exclusive, but we have argued that a diverse judiciary is not artificial or missing out on talent—it is quite the other way round. Diversity matters in both principle and practice. A judiciary that incorporates a range of voices, backgrounds and experiences brings more to the table. The differences, as Baroness Hale put it,
“add variety and depth to all decision-making.”
The amendment confers a duty on the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice
“as far as it is reasonably practicable to do so”
—that is important—to encourage the establishment of a judiciary that better reflects the society that it serves. That brings many obvious and stated benefits, not least public confidence in the courts.
One of the major strengths of the amendment is that it has a precedent. It is modelled directly on a law in Northern Ireland that was implemented to ensure that all sections of society were respected in judicial appointments. It is popular across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and has met with considerable success there. I understand that it is reasonably uncontroversial. A second strength of the amendment is that it is in the spirit of the diversity provisions that are already in the Bill. It does not specify process or demand the filling of quotas, and it is in keeping with the aim to bring about a long-term shift in the present culture. It asks for awareness, intelligent decision making, and encouragement for the best from every background to enter the profession. We are rightly proud of our judiciary, and we want that pride to continue.
The Government have taken some welcome steps in the Bill, not least the introduction of flexible working conditions and the tipping-point provision, and I commend them for that. As I am sure they recognise, however, the limit of the tipping point is that it requires a candidate to reach that point in the first place. We need a good pool from which to recruit. Opening up the possibilities of recruitment and promotion in the profession is vital if we are to gain the best and the brightest young people from the length and breadth of our constituencies. I do not know how many of my constituents have become judges. I assume that some have, but probably not as many as I would wish.
The amendment is a proven and highly desirable provision. It proposes a small change in the law that would present opportunities for many more talented individuals to prove their ability to guard and interpret the law as members of the judiciary. It represents welcome progress, although it is long overdue. Should my right hon. Friend wish to press it to a vote, he will have our support.
New clause 7, entitled “Enforcement services”, deals with the issue of an independent complaints procedure for bailiff practice. It allows a complainant against a bailiff redress through an ombudsman. The issue has some history in relation to the Bill, in which this important provision has previously been included. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it back to the House, but it is more than a little disappointing to have to argue yet again for its inclusion in the face of Government opposition.
The new clause amends the Legal Services Act 2007 to provide for enforcement services to be treated as a reserved legal activity, which means that the Office for Legal Complaints would have jurisdiction to deal with complaints about bailiffs. It was first introduced as an amendment by Baroness Meacher, who said that it
“seeks to provide some protection for vulnerable people who have suffered unacceptably at the hands of a bailiff.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 December 2012; Vol. 741, c. 1475.]
It was supported by a majority of the Lords, who passed it in a Government defeat.
The fact that aggressive and unlawful bailiff action is a problem that is both serious and too widespread is not in contention. The Government’s consultation has acknowledged the unacceptable occurrence of intimidating, aggressive and threatening behaviour by some in the bailiff industry. Citizens advice bureaux report receiving over 24,000 complaints against private bailiff practice in 2011 and 2012. After too many months of silence following their consultation, the Government have made a great deal over the past few weeks of their intention to transform bailiff action, but their proposal is to implement part 3 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 introduced by the previous Government, which codified over 800 years of enforcement law and paved the way for extensive reform to challenge bad practice. Part 3 sets out improved procedures and rules for the seizure of goods, including scope for regulations to be brought forward on a clear fee structure.
Credit is due on both sides of the House for recognising that problem. Some of the Government’s proposals, in particular regarding banning the use of force against the person, are to be commended, but, unfortunately, that is where the congratulations should end. The previous Government laid out the foundations of the Act with the intention of building on them. It was, and remains, the Opposition’s position that the clarification of enforcement law should be backed by a robust independent system of regulation. The enhanced certification regime is a key thread of the Government’s package and was intended as an interim measure en route to this long-term goal. The Government have not only stopped, but settled halfway along that road and so are offering a bit of a half-hearted solution.
New clause 7 provides for one small but central element in an independent regulatory system: an independent grievance process. The Government’s position is that such a system is unnecessary, but we disagree, as did the majority of the advice sector respondents to the Department’s consultation. They do not believe that the in-house system of complaints in relation to enforcement firms is objective or adequate. Rather than building on the foundations of the Act, the Government chose in Committee to knock down the progress that had been made and to force the removal of the new clause.
In Committee, the Minister suggested that the vote on that provision in the Lords was born out of frustration that the Government had not yet responded to its consultation on bailiff action. I wonder whether he will now concede that support for the provision is born out of frustration that the Government have responded, but have done so disappointingly, and have prevented an effective and reasonable safeguard from being included.
The Minister centred his argument on the premise that the Government’s proposals will make a robust complaints procedure unnecessary. He said that things have “moved on” and that most of the reasons for current complaints will be removed. It is not good enough for the Government to say “We’ve dealt with this and there will be fewer problems next year”. We do not believe that.
Members across this House know what is facing families in the months to come. In the next year, hundreds of families, including many working households, will be hit by the 1% uprating of social security, the bedroom tax, cuts to working tax credit and many other austerity measures. I am not making a political point here; I am just observing that that is the case. We predict that many people will be pushed into tough times and will have to face bailiffs for the first time.
The Minister acknowledged in Committee that there will be cases where “things go wrong”. The Government’s consultation acknowledges that there is confusion over who should deal with complaints against bailiffs, not least among the victims. Citizens advice bureau guidance for victims of aggressive action has to navigate the variety of factors that govern what complaints can be taken where, including the unhelpful truth that a victim might have to ask the aggressive agent where they should register a complaint. We should not tolerate that.
We do not hold with the Government’s arguments for removing the new clause. The Minister has stated that he believes it subjects the industry to over-burdensome regulation, and that the Government’s proposals offer a more “measured and proportionate” response to concerns. We simply disagree with that. Ombudsmen are not extraordinary in public life. They are pretty much the norm, and we have them in the fields of health, housing, local government, financial services, legal services, telecommunications and prisons. Do we really believe it is disproportionate for a person who has redress to an ombudsman over a phone bill disagreement also to have redress to an ombudsman if their door is kicked down or their family are threatened by an aggressive bailiff?
The Minister also made the point in Committee that some bailiff practice is already subject to the jurisdiction of the local government ombudsman. If ombudsman action is appropriate for some complaints, why do the Government believe it is not appropriate for all complaints? In particular, why would they hold it disproportionate to ensure that the entire private bailiff sector, which generates the vast majority of complaints, is covered, rather than just the public sector work?
We believe that an independent complaints procedure is an important and necessary safeguard, and would like to see it re-included in the Bill. An ombudsman can provide objective redress, root out bad behaviour, publish data on good and bad practice, and suggest improvements. I should make it clear to the House, just as Baroness Meacher made it clear in another place, that the legal ombudsman is able and willing to take on that role, which is compatible with other responsibilities of that office. This is a volatile area, and we would like the Government to commit to a robust complaints procedure.
Under the Legal Services Act 2007, the legal ombudsman only investigates cases about the service provided to the customer; it deals only with legal services that have been badly provided. If we were to say, “Oh well, let’s include bailiff services”, that would be very nice for the creditor, who would be able to report to the legal services ombudsman, but it would not help the debtors. They are the people for whom the hon. Lady is speaking, but they would not be able to complain to the legal services ombudsman because a service is not being provided to them.
It was not me who made that suggestion; it came from the legal services ombudsman. So clearly there is a way around this matter and the Minister may wish to explore that a bit further. His intervention shows that the Government are not going to do this, but we would like them to commit to a robust complaints procedure to sort out the problems that our constituents face. They deserve access to a robust complaints procedure when things go wrong, as they too often do, so we hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support our proposal.
I shall speak briefly in support of a probing proposal, my new clause 17. I listened carefully to the speech made by Jenny Chapman, and I entirely share and sympathise with the thrust of her argument: we do need to make sure that the regulation of the behaviour of bailiffs is not just about certification; and the continuing behaviour of individual bailiffs does need to be monitored, tracked and adequately assessed, so that regulations are adjusted to keep pace with changing practices in debt collection.
We all know that debt collection is a sad fact of life that affects a large number of our constituents. We have all, in our case loads, doubtless come across worrying stories about abuses of power. It is right to acknowledge that the Government are moving, with their transformative agenda, to address large parts of the concerns that Members rightly have. Using the existing legislation to create new regulations is a good step forward. Importantly, the strengthening of the certification process, in the form of training and the like, is a valuable way forward, as is the creation of the new fixed-fee system. As I have already said, that deals only with the point of certification and not with practice. We must be realistic and we must acknowledge that taking a snapshot of the behaviour of individual bailiffs will not deal with many of the problems that beset people who are in debt but still deserve to be treated with respect.
My new clause takes a slightly different course from the Opposition amendment. It seeks to build on existing structures in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and to use those mechanisms to create a system whereby individuals who have been wronged can make complaints and seek redress of grievance. The grounds I have set out relate to behaviour that is disproportionate to the debt and circumstances involved and to a situation where the debtor’s goods are insufficient in value to satisfy the debt. Giving the court the discretion to stay orders made in prior proceedings is, I submit, a cost-effective, streamlined and appropriate way of building in the extra check and balance that is needed in the system of regulation.
My new clause does not stop there but goes on to deal in subsection (2) with the discretion of the court. Importantly, subsection (5) would give power to the Lord Chancellor to review data on complaints and allow the regulatory framework to be updated when, as a result of that review, a body of evidence demonstrates that change is needed. There are some concerns that the creation of such a system could lead to a flood of applications that would mean that the debt enforcement system fell into some form of disrepute. I do not accept that. I believe that the creation of such systems incentivises the behaviour of bailiffs so that their standard of conduct becomes even better. That is the thrust of the Government’s reforms and, I think, the combined will of Parliament. We want to see a change of culture and a constant striving for improvement.
My proposal would create a more streamlined procedure than the ombudsman path. It is simple, clear and allows individuals to have proper redress against bad bailiff behaviour. I agree that challenging the certification of bailiffs is important, but that path is hardly ever used. Unless there is a concomitant increase in the number of challenges to certification, I am worried that the system will not keep pace, however well intentioned the reforms are, with the change that so many of our constituents quite rightly demand.
As I have said, my amendment is a probing amendment. I look forward to hearing the comments of my hon. Friend the Solicitor-General in response to the arguments outlined by me and others.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman for her remarks in support of amendment 100, which we have tabled along with other hon. Friends, and to the Solicitor-General for what he had to say in anticipation of my remarks. I look forward to his acceptance of my amendment and to the other changes, which I broadly endorse, to the 2005 arrangements for judicial appointments.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has 12 justices. Just one has been a woman—Baroness Hale. Towards the end of last year, three vacancies on the Supreme Court bench arose. A special panel, as provided by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, was established to fill those vacancies. I am quite sure that the panel applied itself to the highest standards for the selection process. The candidates who were successful are all jurists of the highest quality. Their names were announced last month. All three are men. So this country’s highest court will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be composed of 11 men and one woman. Therein lies the problem.
“if…women are not less good judges than men, why are 80% or 90% of judges male? It suggests, purely on a statistical basis, that we do not have the best people because there must be some women out there who are better than the less good men who are judges.”
The figures are stark: the further up the judicial ladder you go, the fewer and fewer women there are to be found.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington referred to the important lecture that Baroness Hale gave recently. Baroness Hale set out the figures:
“22.5% of the judges in the ordinary courts…are women and 4.2% are British minority ethnic…Only 26.6% of the upper tribunal judiciary are women, though 11% are BME.”
“none of the five heads of division is a woman or BME; and in the Supreme Court there is still only me and the only ethnic minorities we have are the Scots and the Irish…The average”— for judiciaries—
“across the countries in the Council of Europe is 52% men and 48% women. At 23% England and Wales is fourth from the bottom, followed only by Azerbaijan, Scotland and Armenia.”
These days everyone—more or less—agrees with Lord Neuberger’s sentiment that women are just as qualified to do any job, including the top jobs, as are men. The problem is that, for the judiciary, the system is simply not delivering the equality of outcome that we all seek. It was supposed to do so. When the current statutory system of judicial appointments was established in 2005, one of the arguments advanced for the new, independent Judicial Appointments Commission was that it would be able to advance the diversity of the judiciary in terms both of gender and of ethnicity.
Initially, progress with that commission was frustratingly slow, as both I, as Lord Chancellor, and my permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, repeatedly made clear to its then chair. I happily concede that there have been some more recent improvements, and I know of the personal commitment of the new chair, Chris Stephens, to see the commission do better, and of the steps he is taking. Those steps are necessary but, with respect to Mr Stephens, they are not in my view sufficient.
Part of the problem has been the wording of the 2005 Act, which requires the Judicial Appointments Commission to select solely “on merit”. I will come back to that loaded concept in a moment. The Bill seeks to qualify “on merit” by a provision in part 2 of schedule 13 which essentially allows the commission, where it judges that there are
“two persons of equal merit”,
to choose the woman, or the black or Asian candidate.
I am not cavilling, and that provision may help a little, but some of this country’s much better legal brains than me tell me that it can only help a little, since “merit” is likely to be narrowly defined for these purposes. Indeed, one of Lady Hale’s colleagues on the Supreme Court, Lord Sumption, has challenged the whole idea of equal merit. He was formerly a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission, and he said that at the
“upper end of the ability range there is usually clear water between every candidate once one looks at them in detail.”
He went on:
“If you dilute the principle of selecting only the most talented candidates by introducing criteria other than individual merit, you will by definition end up with a bench on which there are fewer outstanding people. But there is a more serious problem even than that. It is the impact that the change would have on applications.”
Happily, Lord Sumption’s view is not shared by Lady Hale, as her recent lecture made clear, nor, it would seem, by the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, who, I believe, is on the side of light and whose frustration with the present outcomes shone through in a recent interview he gave to The Guardian in which he dissected the concept of merit—that is my gloss, not his words—and discussed how loaded it could be in practice. He said of the appointment process:
“I’m not saying there is a subconscious bias…what worries me is that we may all be suffering from a subconscious bias which by definition may be difficult to show or to prove.”
It might, he suggested, be a subconscious expectation of
“having an image of a judge with…male-type qualities and a male appearance. I’m not saying we do have that but there’s a risk that we do and it’s difficult to know how to cater for it.”
I agree entirely.
When I joined the House 34 years ago, just 19 Members—less than 3%—were women. Today, there are 143 women MPs, or 22% of the 650—seven times the proportion when I became an MP. The Labour party has managed to increase its proportion of women MPs to over a third; the Conservatives are now up to 15%. The proportion of black and Asian MPs is now up to 4.2%. For the first time in my parliamentary career, the House of Commons is beginning to look more like the society it represents, but the numbers are still not good enough.
We know two things. First, progress could not have been achieved without the special measures for women’s selection pioneered by my party, and commendably adopted in modified form by the Conservative party. Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence that the quality of women MPs, or of black and Asian MPs, is any less than that of white men. I do not at this stage suggest that we adopt similar measures of explicit positive discrimination for the judiciary, although it may come to that if we continue to trail badly in the league tables. Canada adopted positive discrimination measures, which made a big difference to representation on the bench, and it has certainly not affected the quality of the Canadian judiciary.
Instead, the amendments that I have tabled with my hon. Friends would put on the statute book provisions that have been law in part of the United Kingdom for nine years, and which are plainly working, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington set out. Amendment 100 is a direct lift from provisions of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2004. The Minister may say in his reply that the Government are doing quite a lot, and urge us to look, for example, at paragraph 11 of schedule 13 on page 224 of the Bill. The problem—although that measure is better than other provisions—is that it requires the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice to
“take such steps as that office-holder considers appropriate for the purpose of encouraging judicial diversity.”
In other words, the test is entirely subjective, whereas as my hon. Friend said, our proposed provisions, which are already law, have been operated successfully by successive Governments, both Conservative and Labour, in Northern Ireland. As Lord Chancellor for Northern Ireland until the transfer of judicial functions in 2009, I operated those provisions, and they caused no difficulty at all. Instead of a subjective test, under the amendment the duties on the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice
“would secure, so far as it is reasonably practicable…that appointments to listed judicial offices are…reflective of the community in England and Wales”.
They would also ensure that a range of persons who are reflective of that community can come forward for those positions.
These provisions have worked, Northern Ireland having been a back marker on judicial diversity. For the avoidance of doubt, the problem identified by the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission was not principally that there was an under-representation of Catholics. It was that there was a gross under-representation of women. So from having been far behind us, Northern Ireland is now far ahead. According to the last figures that I have seen for the judiciary in Northern Ireland, 57% were men and 43% were women—streets ahead of our judiciary in England and Wales. Why? Because this House—not the Northern Ireland Assembly—put into the law provisions for the Northern Ireland judiciary.
Incidentally, back in 2004 the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the same provisions be included in the 2005 Act for England and Wales, and it is a matter of great regret to me that my Government, though it was not me; I was abroad at the time—[Interruption.] I always say that; it is always true. It is a matter of great regret to me that my Government did not do that. The amendment is a serious one, moved with serious purpose, and I hope we can hear from the Minister that it carries his serious approbation as well.
I have received no such indication from a Minister. Kate Hoey is a ready source of information. She has now enlightened the House. I had not heard that news, but I imagine that it will now be well known to the Treasury Bench and her remarks will very soon find their way to Ministers, so my advice to her is that she should remain alert for any developments that might arise. I thank her for what she said.
May I start where Mr Straw left off? I entirely accept that what has happened since 2005 has been very disappointing indeed. We had high hopes. I was involved in the debates at that time and we expected that we would see far more women at the very top of the judiciary than we have done. He mentioned one out of 12 in the Supreme Court. I believe it is four out of 38 in the Court of Appeal. It is not acceptable and there is no question but that more needs to be done.
As the right hon. Gentleman conceded to some extent, we have done much in the Bill to try to achieve that, starting with flexible working, which could make a difference, and the tipping-point provisions where two people are of an equal standard. There has been a long debate in the legal profession and among judges about exactly what merit means in this context. Lord Bingham and Lord Phillips previously said that it was the judicial qualities, plus what the needs of the Court were, which had to be put together to establish what the commission should be looking for. One of the needs of the Court is to have the wisdom of highly intelligent women who have sat as judges for many years and who come to the role with the experience of women, which is, admittedly, different in all parts of the House. We are very keen to see the position improved.
There are one or two encouraging signs. For example, those entering the legal profession are now balanced and there is some progress, as the right hon. Gentleman said, at the lower levels. There is no question but that more needs to be done. The Bill makes a start with the flexible working and the tipping point. There was a great deal of discussion in the other place about how to try to make matters go forward faster, and it was accepted there that one way would be a statutory duty underpinning the leadership role of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. That is why, as the right hon. Gentleman said, paragraph 11 of schedule 13 provides that both office holders must take such steps as they consider appropriate for the purposes of encouraging diversity.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is correct that that is not the application of an objective standard. We are putting trust in the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor to take this matter seriously and come up with a plan for the steps they consider appropriate for the purposes of encouraging diversity. For my part, given that we have not done that previously, and given that I trust those office holders to take it seriously and pursue it vigorously, I am prepared to give them the chance without making it an objective standard. We are putting trust in them, under paragraph 11 of schedule 13, to do the job. I believe that the current Lord Chief Justice takes that very seriously—I have discussed it with him and he certainly gives that impression—as does the Lord Chancellor.
I have the highest regard for the Lord Chief Justice and, as it happens, for the Lord Chancellor, so that is not the issue. Will the hon. Gentleman explain something for me? Exactly the same arguments could have been used with regard to the Northern Ireland judiciary, because we were trusting the same Lord Chancellor—the same person—until 2009, and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland is a man of the highest quality. Therefore, if these measures have not only been needed in Northern Ireland but have worked, why is the hon. Gentleman moving on to say—I think he is about to do so—that they are not needed in England and Wales?
What I am saying is that the new provision was accepted in the other place, with wide acclaim—the Opposition thought that it was a major move forward—and an agreement about the way forward was established, so it is perhaps wrong for this House simply to say, “Oh well. Let’s nudge it another inch.” If Parliament is prepared to say that there will be a legal duty on those officer holders to take those steps, that seems to me to be a step forward. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman, when he was in that great role, would have taken it lightly if Parliament had told him that he must take such steps as he considered appropriate for the purposes of encouraging diversity.
I do not want to sound repetitious, because I know that this point has been made, but why is what is good for Northern Ireland not also good for the United Kingdom?
Of course, there are unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, as we know, and indeed as we have discussed today in other contexts. The point I am making is that an agreement was reached in the other place on the way forward and I think that we should give it a chance. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn that there has been a disappointing performance since 2005, and I am happy to make it clear from the Dispatch Box that I share his concerns about that. We have tried to do a good deal about it in the Bill. The other point I will make—I do not know how far I can take this—is that we are about to see appointments to the Court of Appeal and to very high positions in the judiciary, and there are some very good candidates who are women, but we will have to see what the outcome will be.
Turning to bailiff regulation, new clause 7 echoes an amendment that was agreed in the other place but later removed from the Bill in Committee. New clause 17 proposes a role for the court in relation to every warrant and provides for the judiciary to compile an annual report on bailiff complaints for the Lord Chancellor to consider. My hon. Friend Mr Buckland made a compelling argument on the need for a firm response to the misbehaviour of rogue bailiffs and suggested that one way of doing so would be through the court and its procedures. The Government’s approach, which I will come to shortly, is set out in the response to the “Transforming Bailiff Action” consultation, which was published on
It remains our belief that the package of reforms offers the most effective and proportionate response to the problem of aggressive bailiffs and that it will render unnecessary some of the cost and bureaucracy inherent in the proposals of Jenny Chapman and the Opposition. It will be a new world, if I may put it that way.
The Government’s reforms centre on part 3 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007—the background is one of all-party consensus—and they do six things. They remove antiquated, confusing laws and clarify what the powers of bailiffs are, so those powers will be known. Regulations that we will publish this summer and aim to implement in April 2014 will set out what goods can and cannot be seized. There will also be a clear and fair charging regime. It is iniquitous for a bailiff to turn up at a door to collect three debts and then demand three fees when he has made only one visit.
In the interests of moving the debate along, I have made it clear that we do not disagree with the Government on any of those things. Our point relates to when things go wrong. If the Solicitor-General could respond to that, perhaps we could make some progress.
The point is that these things have not been happening, but they will happen under the Government’s reforms. They will change the landscape. That is why the word “transforming” is in the title of the consultation—they will transform things. The enhanced certification and mandatory training will make a difference and we all agree that that is a good thing. The county court certificate to practise, which a judge can withdraw on complaint, and the offence of not having a certificate when attempting enforcement are powerful new remedies that did not exist before.
The hon. Lady mentioned the legal ombudsman. It is difficult to see how the system would work effectively under her proposal. Eighty per cent. of the cases are local council cases, so the local government ombudsman will be available for complaint. That is a remedy, but the hon. Lady is complicating things by suggesting that there should be another remedy on top of it. A certification complaint is one possible route of complaint and strong remedy, as are court procedures, which my hon. Friend Mr Buckland has mentioned, and the local government ombudsman. The hon. Lady also mentioned a whole host of internal complaint schemes and she wants to put another scheme on top of them, but her proposal will not work legally. She is trying to patch her proposed scheme on to the Legal Services Act 2007, but the legal ombudsman looks only into complaints about the service provided to the customer, and in these circumstances the customer is the creditor. It would be nice for the creditor to have an avenue of complaint, but that would not help the debtor.
The Solicitor-General will forgive me for saying that he is repeating himself. My point is that we want a simpler ombudsman service, under which there would be one ombudsman for complaints about bailiffs. That would be far simpler and I do not know why the Solicitor-General feels the need to repeat his earlier comments, which have already been dealt with.
The hon. Lady’s case is compelling in the sense that there are a lot of problems with bailiffs and their misbehaviour and that that needs to change. There is cross-party support for six changes that will change the landscape, but she is saying, “Oh, we want one more thing,” but that one more thing happens to be half-baked legally and would not do the job, so I have to make that point. Of course, it is wrong to repeat things over and over again, but I am trying to get the hon. Lady to agree that hers is not a sensible proposal.
I have failed to persuade the hon. Lady, but I will certainly not make a concession. I hope she will forgive me in due course. I am sure she will.
Although we believe that the underlying causes of most, if not all, complaints will be dealt with by our reforms, officials are working with the advice sector to consider once more the types of complaints received. They will work with them to ensure that they are adequately addressed in the regulations, which are due in the summer.
The reforms are a significant step forward and it is worth giving them a chance. I know that the hon. Member for Darlington knows that in her heart of hearts. We are confident that our reforms will have a positive effect on bailiff action. It is time for action and something is now being done. The Bill responds to the concerns that inspired new clause 7. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has pointed to some useful powers that can be held in reserve. It may be that in due course we will have to go that step further in court. We have given a commitment to review the reforms. That will happen one, three and, if necessary, five years after their introduction. We are working with stakeholders to ensure that there is a robust framework.
The Government are being reasonable and pro-active, so I ask the House to support the reforms. I urge the hon. Member for Darlington not to press new clause 7. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said that new clause 17 was a probing amendment so I hope that he will not press it. I say to the right hon. Member for Blackburn that we are disappointed, but we are doing a lot in the Bill. Is it not right to trust the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, when they are given a statutory duty such as the one in the Bill, to come up with a plan that works?
Amendment 22 agreed to.