My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as a member of the independent advisory group of Marston Holdings, which is a judicial services company, and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I welcome the announcement in the gracious Speech that legislation will be introduced to modernise the courts system. As noble Lords who have some experience of that system will recognise, investment in its services is much needed, and I hope that that will improve the situation, particularly for those who find themselves with no other route of redress. Civil court users include many small businesses and individual creditors who resort to the civil court to regain money that is owed to them and which is often the life-blood of their businesses or vital to their needs in some other way. Such creditors use the civil court to obtain a county court judgment that orders the individual or entity named to pay money that they owe. At present, county court judgments for debts of less than £600 or debts regulated under the Consumer Credit Act may be enforced only by county court bailiffs—directly employed staff of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. Creditors report waiting times of more than 10 months in some cases for a court order to be enforced by a county court bailiff. Such delays can have serious consequences for cash flow and are all the more difficult to bear when it is considered that it is civil creditors who subsidise the courts system for other users.
In the review of the civil court structure that Lord Justice Briggs conducted, which was published in July last year, he described a “serious blight” on the county court bailiff service and noted that criticisms of it had gone “entirely unchallenged.” It could be concluded that the underperformance of county court bailiffs results from long-standing underinvestment in the service, but Lord Justice Briggs expressed the view that investment at this stage would be unlikely to resolve the service’s shortcomings. Industry associations have long called for access to private sector enforcement for such debts, and Lord Justice Briggs recommended that a “detailed bespoke review” of civil enforcement processes be undertaken. The coalition Government had committed to reviewing the restrictions on private sector enforcement following a review of enforcement regulations that were introduced in 2014. No such review has yet been published, which has left civil creditors without clarity as to whether they can hope for greater choice in enforcement. I hope that your Lordships will agree that access to justice for civil creditors should be considered as part of the Government’s programme of court reform, so that those who subsidise the courts are better assured of achieving the remedy that they seek.
We know that Brexit casts its shadow across much that this Parliament will do. Whatever shape Brexit takes, local government will still be there, delivering local leadership and serving our communities and businesses. Driving local and regional economic growth will require investment in infrastructure, skills and enterprise and an ongoing willingness on the part of central government to trust its local and regional partners and to continue with the job of devolving powers and resources. Delivering local growth will be critical in reducing demand for council and other public services and in putting councils on a sustained financial footing. For too long, regional economies have underperformed in comparison with London and the south-east. It is estimated that, if the northern economy could just halve the gap between its productivity and the national average, that would add £34 billion to the value of the national economy. If the local economy in my home city of Bradford performed at a level that was commensurate with the city’s scale, it would be worth at least £13 billion, in comparison with the £9.5 billion that it is worth today.
To secure a sustainable future for local services, inclusive and balanced national and regional economies, and safe, vibrant and cohesive communities, we cannot afford to let devolution die or to let it flourish for some and lie fallow for others. That was the case before Brexit and it will continue to be the case beyond Brexit.