Legal Services Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 12th June 2007.

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[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 10:30 am, 12th June 2007

I remind the Committee that copies of the money and ways and means resolutions in connection with the measure are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.

While on the issue of amendments, hon. Members will already have learnt of the experimental move to insist on explanation notes for each amendment that is submitted. It has been stated that the Government should have no problem with that because they have lots of staff to write the explanatory notes, as the main Opposition parties probably do. However, individual hon. Members might require assistance so it was thought proper to remind the Committee that all hon. Members, not just the Chairman, will have very well qualified Clerks to assist and to support them. They are not exactly at their disposal, but they are here to help.

We are in Committee and it is summer time, so hon. Members have the permission of the Chair to divest themselves of only their outer, upper garments if circumstances require them to do that. We should like them to preserve comfort and be able to discuss matters with ease.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I beg to move,

That—

(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday (12th June) meet—

(a) at 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 12th June;

(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 14th June;

(c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 19th June;

(d) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 21st June;

(e) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 26th June;

(f) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 28th June;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 and 2; Schedule 1; Clauses 3 to 12; Schedule 2; Clauses 13 to 19; Schedule 3; Clause 20; Schedule 4; Clauses 21 and 22; Schedule 5; Clauses 23 to 26; Schedule 6; Clauses 27 to 33; Schedule 7; Clauses 34 to 44; Schedule 8; Clause 45; Schedule 9; Clauses 46 to 76; Schedule 10; Clauses 77 to 83; Schedule 11; Clause 84; Schedule 12; Clauses 85 to 89; Schedule 13; Clauses 90 to 102; Schedule 14; Clauses 103 to 114; Schedule 15; Clauses 115 to 178; Schedule 16; Clauses 179 to 183; Schedule 17; Clauses 184 to 187; Schedule 18; Clause 188; Schedule 19; Clause 189 to 196; Schedule 20; Clauses 197 to 215; Schedules 21 to 24; new Clauses and new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 28th June.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I wish to thank you for attending the Programming Sub-Committee and for listening to its deliberations. You will know that the motion was agreed without opposition because, through my good friend in the   usual channels, the dates and timings were agreed beforehand. Indeed, you will also know that we have provided for a substantial amount of time—more than other parties asked for—to facilitate wider debate on certain areas of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

It is a pleasure to enjoy your chairmanship once again, Mr. Cook. We look forward to receiving the benefit of your guidance and perhaps forbearance during the coming weeks. I say “forbearance” because the hardest issue that we have in respect of the timing of the Committee and consideration of its programming has been the extent to which we have to go over issues that were raised in the other place. That is because, unfortunately, the Government have overturned much of the good work and most of the amendments that were agreed there.

Given the size of the Bill and the enormous knife that the Government intend to take to it through the amendments presented to us only last Wednesday, we are concerned that there has only been a week between Second Reading and Committee. That has severely curtailed the amount of time that we need to consult properly with interested parties, and has impacted unnecessarily and unfairly on our ability to do the Bill full justice in Committee. I can report that that has also been reflected in the comments made to us by interested parties. Therefore, the timing of this Committee shows a Government keen to get the Bill done and dusted before the Labour leadership change, rather than one who want to see the best Legal Services Act possible. That is unfortunate. However, having said that and given that we are where we are, I see no point in opposing the motion.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. What better way for me to spend my birthday than to serve on such a Committee? Indeed, it is becoming something of an annual event, having served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Legal Services Bill at a similar time last year. However, I do not want to be looking at and scrutinising the problems caused by this particular piece of legislation annually.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s concerns about the timing. I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to the conclusions of the Joint Committee and particularly to the comments in paragraph 73 of its report, which was concerned about the limited time for pre-legislative scrutiny. It stated:

“Given the significant impact of the Bill’s provisions—it is the first attempt to draw the entire legal services market within one regulatory framework—and the complexity of some of the issues involved, we believe that the priority should have been to ensure that the Committee had sufficient time to scrutinise the draft Bill effectively.”

Obviously, given the passage of time, there has been a lot of scrutiny in the other place. However, the report goes on to state:

“It is in the interests of both the executive and the legislature that the provisions of the Bill are right.”

Given the short time since the Bill was discussed on Second Reading, the timetable to scrutinise the unsurprising number of amendments is a matter of concern. After all, the Bill proposes a significant change to the profession and involves the concerns of consumers and the wider public interest. We need  proper time to get the Bill right to ensure that we are not returning in a year’s time to deal with problems arising from the legislation.

Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Richard Caborn, Minister of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Mr. Cook, may I welcome you to the Chair? The timing could also be affected if the principles of the Nolan Committee are ruthlessly enforced, debarring members of the Bar Council or the Law Society or anyone who is a legal executive from moving a specific amendment or participating in a vote that specifically impacts on their organisation. I do not ask for a rule at this stage. I ask for the matter to be considered by your good self, Mr. Cook, and your co-Chair.

There is a precedent for that. On two occasions, members on a Committee considering transport matters were asked to leave and not to participate. That is not my interpretation of the Nolan guidance, but it is one that has been used in the past. It is important that there is clarity in respect of legislation going through the House, because some of the amendments that are being moved are specifically related to professional bodies. If an individual is a member of a professional body—for example, the Bar Council—they could directly benefit from the consequences of that amendment.

The issue for contemplation is whether we interpret the Nolan principles as requiring merely that one declares one’s interest and then fully participates, which I would be totally happy with as a principle, although that impacts on other Bills as well, or we debar that ability to initiate legislation, which has been defined in the past as moving and voting on specific amendments on a Bill

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which displayed the characteristically perspicacious attitude that he applies to everything that he comes across. I must point out, however, that the question of Members’ interests is a matter for Members and the registrar—it is not a matter for the Chairman to rule on specifically. The House has rules relating to the registration of the relevant interests of Members, and if anyone is in any doubt, they should consult the registrar rather than the Chairman of the Committee. I have treated the matter more or less as a point of order, which is quite unusual, but it is on the record and I am happy about that.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook, and I am happy to serve under your chairmanship. For the avoidance of doubt about interests—we may as well deal with the matter at the beginning—I am a barrister and a member of chambers in the inner temple, although I do not practise, and have not for the long time that I have been in this place.

I support the Programming Sub-Committee’s decision; indeed, I participated in making it. It has taken a balanced view, especially in the light of the fact that, as we all know, the reality is that the second sittings on Tuesdays and Thursdays are open-ended, and we are therefore able to adjust the amount of time to accommodate the work load and progress. It means that we have three weeks, two days a week and two sittings a day, which should mean that we have the opportunity to deal with everything.

The Government amendments that will reverse the seven major changes made in the Lords were not unexpected—they were highlighted on Second Reading. Other amendments are consequential. If the Minister tables many more, the Liberal Democrats might protest, but we will leave such decisions until later.

There are two other matters that are worth registering. First, the pilot scheme for having explanations of amendments is valuable. It will help those who follow our proceedings and who have an interest in understanding what is happening, and those in the Government’s service when they consider Opposition amendments. It might also help us to understand the amendments that we debate. It would not be the first time that some of us have been in a Committee in which the intention of amendments eludes pretty well everybody, including, sometimes, the people who tabled them. The explanations might therefore reduce the number of amendments that have no great purpose.

Secondly, as I said to the Government Whip, my preference is for two weekends between Second Reading and Committee. I think that that is best practice, although I was not over-excited about that on this occasion. This is a large Bill. The bigger the Bill, the more reason for having the two weekends. If we have a timetable by which we are governed until the end of June, it is imperative with such a large Bill to have two weekends between the end of Committee and Report and Third Reading.

All of us and those who help us will have to do a lot of work in the next three weeks if we are to do justice to the Joint Committee on the Draft Legal Services Bill, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others served. We need to do justice to the Lords who have done a fantastic amount of work. I am glad that the Bill started there and not here, because it has taken some of the burden off us. But to do justice to everyone with an interest in the Bill, we will need to give proper time to it and to use the opportunity provided by the flexibility of the evening sittings and the time after Committee to deliberate so that amendments can be tabled for Report.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is merit in the timetable for the Committee, especially given that debates can be extended on certain days. The only interest that I should declare—I am not in any sense a qualified lawyer—is that I sat on the Joint Committee on the Draft Legal Services Bill. That Committee was concerned that there would not be sufficient time to look at what perhaps are important constitutional changes that might reduce the independence of the legal system. Clearly, the Government have a drive to do that—their attempts to remove the Lords amendments are symptomatic of it. Although I accept the merits of timetabling and the circumstances, there is no conflict with the fact that it would have been better to have a longer period for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—[Bridget Prentice.]

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I just want to say that this is a welcome innovation. This is not the first Bill where these arrangements have existed—I have sat on other Committees dealing with such matters—but it is a good way of ensuring that evidence received by Committee is in the public domain.

Question put and agreed to.