Clause 3 - Short title and extent

Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 9 July 2002.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department) 10:45, 9 July 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 7, and leave out subsection (3).

As I am sure many hon. Members will know, the background to the privilege amendment is set out in ''Erskine May''. Where a Bill originates in the other place and contains provisions that may infringe the privileges of this House with regard to the control of public money, a privilege amendment is formally added.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

Is the Minister aware that there is some controversy in the Government about this? Lord Williams, who is a highly distinguished and important member of the Government, has proposed that such arrangements should be withdrawn and that the Lords should be able to amend legislation with regard to public funds. There is huge embarrassment in the Government—to which I do not want to add in any way.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. I have already admonished the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead for a long intervention. The intervention of the hon. Member for Stone was long, too but it was also a matter of order. The Standing Orders have not changed. Nor have the arrangements between the two Houses. The situation is as it is today and not as it might be according to the future decision of another Committee.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Stone was merely casting further—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North put it very well—pieces of gold before parliamentary swine. Thank you, Mr. McWilliam, for your clarification.

A privilege amendment is required where a Lords Bill contains provisions that deal with charges upon the people or upon public funds. Since 1972, this House has generally proceeded with a Lords Bill that would have as its main object the imposition or, as in this case, the alteration of a charge upon the people or on public funds, provided that it contains the standard formula that no such charge is imposed or altered and that a Minister of the Crown takes charge of it in the Commons. The standard formula is incorporated into the Bill before it leaves the Lords to avoid the formal infringement of the Commons' privileges.

Hon. Members will see that the privilege amendment negates the financial consequences of the Bill and thereby demonstrates that the ability of the other place to legislate on such matters is not absolute, but subject to the tolerance of this House. The provisions that, but for the privilege amendment, would have the effect of creating or altering a charge have now been authorised by the money resolution, which was agreed to immediately after Second Reading in this House. Therefore, the privilege amendment may safely be removed. As Hon. Members will recognise, this is a purely technical and formal process, and I hope that the Committee will accept the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This is, of course, a technical amendment, and we all understand why it is necessary, but it has a certain resonance in this Bill because it will remove the disclaimer that nothing in the legislation shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, which is one of the points that I raised on Second Reading. I asked the Minister precisely how the shortfall in funding that has been experienced so far, and which will continue until the matter is rectified, would be made up. I asked whether a cross-subsidy would be introduced to protect the most vulnerable recipients of the service of the Public Trustee at the expense of others who will end up paying more. Given that the explanatory notes set out a time scale in which the shortfall should be made up, it would be extremely helpful to the Committee and

the House if the Minister could make available at least a draft scale of the fees and charges that she is thinking of introducing, because it is by no means clear what they will be.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

All the points that needed to be made were made on Second Reading, when we did not oppose the Bill. There are no amendments apart from this one, to which I have no objection, so it seems to me that nothing further needs to be said.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I want to endorse one or two points that I mentioned during my intervention on the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, which have also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I do not want to go over the same ground again, but I would like to know how the charges will be fixed. What qualifications do people at the Public Trustee office have? Is it necessary for the good functioning of that office, which does not deal with vulnerable people, to recruit more people?

I should like to know what the Government's plans are for the future of the Public Trustee office. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made a valid point on Second Reading, which I was unable to attend. He asked the Minister to confirm that the legal person of the official trustee is now identical to the legal person of the Official Solicitor, and if it is, how that has been achieved in law. The Minister said that she would write to my hon. Friend, but I should be grateful if she could respond to that question now. There is a significant deficit. How do the Government propose to catch up? Do they propose a perpetual subsidy? If there is to be an increase in fees, we should have an opportunity to debate that.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman considerable latitude. Most of his speech was more appropriate for a clause stand part debate, so I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I will seek your guidance, Mr. McWilliam, on whether my point would be better made during the stand part debate. My point is brief, but it follows from the point made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), with whom I have served on Committees in the past. He made an excellent point about the relationship between the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have been in correspondence with her Department about a Mr. Eric Walker and his Strelley social club, which became bankrupt and was wound up, leaving assets that were available for distribution to the individual surviving members. Those members are ageing, as we all are. Some have passed away. The sum to be divvied up among those members is in the hands of the Official Solicitor.

The Minister knows the ins and outs of the case. Does she feel that it is appropriate to refer to the matter of funding under clause 3(3), or should I refer to it in the clause stand part debate? That is my only technical question about the Bill.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

Hon. Members have raised several points, some of which were also raised on Second Reading. I shall reiterate my answers for the benefit of

the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The debate refers only to public subsidy to support genuine last resort work where there is a socially desirable need for it, which will not be cross-subsidised by additional fees to other clients. The hon. Gentleman may recall from debates on the Public Guardianship Office that the issue of cross-subsidy caused the Public Accounts Committee some concern. Changes have been made to avoid some of those problems recurring.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the new fee structure. The details of any future fee system remain to be settled, so it would be impossible to place draft fees before the Committee. In the short term, the current fee arrangements are based on fees linked to the size of the trusts and are likely to continue. However, the future system will be based more on charging commensurate with work done, as opposed to making a percentage charge, as happens now.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

What the Minister said is interesting because it reflects what happened in private practice 30 or 40 years ago, when a percentage charge was left for a proper hourly rate charge. However, we would like to know how that hourly rate would be fixed. The public should be made aware of that, too.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department) 11:00, 9 July 2002

The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that, when we considered fixing the fees for the Public Guardianship Office, several matters were taken into account. When we consider the hourly rate charge, we shall take into account commercial charges and how we might take heed of Treasury rules. Balancing that, we shall also take into account the charges made in other agencies, such as the Public Guardianship Office. When we consider setting a rate, we want to achieve a balance and ensure that hardship is not caused to any of the beneficiaries. Therefore, we would strike that balance, using benchmarks in similar situations. I am sorry that I cannot give further details of future fee structures.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind, when her Department introduces an hourly fee structure, that there should be the same ability to appeal fees as there is to appeal lawyers' fees where clients can apply for taxation of those fees.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have published a widely welcomed remissions procedure in the Public Guardianship Office. I will bear his comments in mind.

The hon. Member for Stone firmly claimed that there was nothing more to be said, which obviously follows his probing speeches on Second Reading. I am grateful that he feels that most of his questions have now been answered.

The need to recruit more people was raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. I think that 90 people have transferred from the previous Public Trust Office to the staff of the Public Trustee to continue the necessary work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned an important problem. I know how concerned he has been about his constituent and Strelley social club. In many senses, his point is

relevant to the amendment because we are considering the use of public money to alleviate difficult situations. He has written to me on the subject, we have discussed it and I am ready to meet him on any occasion about it, as he has worked extremely hard on it.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been some confusion, not only in this debate but on Second Reading, about the duties of the Official Solicitor as compared to those of the Public Trustee. His question relates to the Official Solicitor, and we will be more than happy to pursue the matter outside the Committee.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I will be brief, as I do not want to detain the Committee on the subject. If the Official Solicitor were to move expeditiously, the matter could be resolved in a timely fashion. Does my hon. Friend accept that as a possible way forward?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

Yes. I understand that my hon. Friend, in his usual helpful fashion, has suggested to the Official Solicitor that he will talk to his constituent about tracing some of the other 1984 members of the Strelley social club. That is a good example of how we can work together to solve problems that sometimes seem intractable.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I asked the Minister about recruitment, and she kindly confirmed that 90 staff had been transferred to deal with the trust cases. However, I have read somewhere that 2,500 cases were transferred. Is that correct? I see some of those near the Minister nodding. If it is correct, each member of staff will deal with about 28 cases. That is an enormous work load. Will she look into the matter and see whether there are sufficient personnel to deal with such matters?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

The Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee will no doubt take heed of the hon. Gentleman's comments. I shall make every effort to ensure that staff do not have an undue workload.

Finally, it might be helpful if I quote from the letter that I sent to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome on 4 July, following the Second Reading debate on 1 July when a question was asked about the posts of the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee and the statutes concerning them:

''The Official Solicitor is appointed to that post by the Lord Chancellor under section 90 of the Supreme Court Act 1981, and the Public Trustee to his post under section 8 of the Public Trustee Act 1906. The Lord Chancellor has appointed the same person, Laurence Oates, to both statutory posts. It follows that the two statutory offices continue to exist separately but are currently held by the same person. It would be beyond the scope of the current Bill to change this and create a new single statutory post, and in any event I do not believe that there would be any substantive benefit in doing so.''

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have not yet received the letter, so I am grateful to the Minister for that extract. However, I am still not clear. If the Government intend the Official Solicitor to carry out the duties of the Public Trustee—presumably that is an ongoing situation; it is not because of the particular qualities of the present incumbent—is this not an opportune point at which to unite the two roles? A single clause amendment to the Bill could simply say that the Public Trustee shall be the Official Solicitor or vice versa. That does not seem to be beyond the scope of the Bill and I am surprised

that there are any serious objections to reducing confusion.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am afraid that we may have to beg to differ. We believe that it would be beyond the scope of the Bill. We do not wish to merge the two posts at this stage but think that we should let the current position stand and the new roles of the Public Guardianship Office, the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee become more familiar to the public. That will reduce the scope for confusion.

Mr. Heath rose—

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. The hon. Gentleman's point is not only beyond the scope of the amendment—it is beyond the scope of the Bill. He could have made it on Second Reading but cannot during the Committee stage.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Can the Minister give an indication as to the salary of the Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor, perhaps in writing after the Committee if the figures are not available now? It would be interesting to see them. Does the individual receive both salaries as he is in both posts?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

That is possibly not the position, but I understand my hon. Friend's concern about public money and I shall ensure that he has the information.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

There is a degree of confusion, of overlap and of complexity. Would it be helpful were those in the offices of the Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor to take it upon themselves to write to hon. Members on one side of A4, explaining what they do and what services they offer to hon. Members of all parties?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

That is an extremely good idea. The Second Reading debate indicated that there was confusion about the various roles—not necessarily those of the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee but perhaps concerning the Public Guardianship Office and the work that has been transferred. It might help hon. Members if we try to clarify that.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My hon. Friend the Minister was helpful with the case that I mentioned. Would her office telephone me and let me know the name of the person in the Official Solicitor's office who deals with the case? Many middle people would then be cut out.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I shall certainly ask if that can be arranged.

I hope that I have answered hon. Members' questions on the amendment and that it will be accepted.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

For the record, I thank the Minister for being extremely helpful and constructive. I believe that her comments will be of great benefit to my constituent.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I thank you for your excellent chairmanship this morning, Mr. McWilliam, and for the advice that you have generously given.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

I concur with those remarks.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

I thank hon. Members for their kind words and add that my peculiar posture this morning is not the result of hanging intently on to every word—I always do so. It is because my chair is broken.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.