Duty to make support available for digitally excluded people

Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:25 am, 23rd July 2019

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 4, page 4, line 13, after “proportionate” insert

“including, but not limited to, a free help-line”.

This amendment would require the establishment of a free help-line to provide support to digitally excluded people.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 4 stand part.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

Essentially, amendment 2 is designed to protect people who are normally digitally excluded. The clause refers to a “proportionate” level of support, which we believe should include, but not be limited to, a free helpline. As I said earlier, there are people who do not have internet facilities in their home, have no access to the internet or cannot use computers—people have different challenges.

The helpline should be free because the very same people who are excluded from the internet also tend to be those who are financially in the worst position. Quite often, the helpline numbers for Government and other bodies or public officials may charge 3p, 4p, 5p or 10p a minute, which amounts to a lot of money for someone on a very limited income who has to spend half an hour or 40 minutes on the telephone. We therefore ask for a free telephone helpline for those people, so that they can make calls and get the information they need. We hope it will assist them, but at least it will not cost them.

I do not know whether other hon. Members have the same experience, but in my constituency there are many people who do not have a contract phone. They are often on pay-as-you-go, because it costs the least, and they try as far as possible not to use up too much credit. Not everybody has a contract phone that gets them free calls to certain numbers, and even for people who have one, many numbers are not free. That is why we are asking for a free helpline; it would probably not cost the Ministry of Justice that much more, but it would ensure that people who are digitally excluded can access free legal advice and assistance without having to pay either for the billing costs or for having someone help them.

There is another challenge with online procedures and things being done outside the courtroom. From my experience as a practitioner before becoming a Member of Parliament, often people would attend who were not legally represented, whether in civil or criminal court. Those people were either not able to get legal aid or were unaware of whether they could get it. The solicitors and barristers in the courtroom would offer them friendly legal advice to signpost them in the right direction when it was obvious that a person may have a defence. They try to guide them—they are not giving them formal legal advice, but they are able to assist.

The off-the-record general advice and assistance that lawyers provide people in the civil and criminal courts—not because they are their clients or anything, but to assist—will essentially go away when there is more and more reliance on online. Therefore, it becomes even more important that people who are digitally excluded or are in financial difficulties can access advice and support, because they will not have the advice, assistance, help, or friendly signposting that they can normally get in the courtroom. That is why I have tabled the amendment.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 9:45 am, 23rd July 2019

We’ve all experienced it haven’t we? We have all phoned up a Government helpline, waiting hours on hold while listening to crummy music. When we see our phone bill afterwards, it is in the tens, hundreds, or—for one of my constituents who has used immigration helplines—thousands of pounds, when all we are trying to do is access Government services. We have had numerous scandals in the past, including universal credit helplines charging extortionate amounts.

I am sure that, in a moment, the Minister will say that he does not want to tie the hands of the new-spangled committee that he is setting up, the truth is that committees and processes have time and again failed the poorest in this country. Those committees have failed them because they are populated by people who think it is not a problem to spend a few pounds on a telephone line, or who have an all-inclusive package. They very often do not understand the day-to-day concerns of our poorest constituents. I am not making a presumption about who will make up the committee, but looking at what has happened in the past with numerous telephone helplines.

An amendment that includes a provision for free access to telephone help and support, but is not limited to that—one that also ensures a telephone cannot be the only method of non-digital engagement—is important. It is important because, in the past, we have seen similar processes fail and our constituents charged extortionately. I therefore support the amendment.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

I support my hon. Friend. As a former practising solicitor, I have always thought it is very important to get things in writing—I often give that piece of legal advice.

The development of phone lines and helplines, as described by my hon. Friend, is unhelpful. There are no obligations in the clause on the nature of the support given to those who use the system. That leads to what is out of order in the broader support system within the legal aid structure, but we need to be much more specific about the range and type of support that will be given to people. They have real needs, and are just as entitled to use the justice system as are people of very considerable means.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am rather disappointed that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown regards Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach as “crummy”; far from it.

The hon. Gentleman is slightly concerned about fettering the committee.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

My hon. Friend is right. Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sounds crummy down a phone line.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a hearing problem. Perhaps the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown needed an induction loop to avail himself fully of the facility.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Maybe we should get back to the Bill.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Thank you, Sir Gary.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made a more important point in his concern that we should not seek to fetter the committee. It might help if we take a step back and think about what the Bill seeks, which to establish a committee that, in and of itself, will make a range of rules around how the court functions, the processes within the court and what the judge can and cannot do in a wide range of circumstances, which neither the hon. Gentleman nor I, nor any other member of the Committee, can predict.

Not every single legal process within a courtroom, or the entire judicial system, can be predicted. It is not sensible to try to cram as much as possible into the Bill so as to pre-empt the ability of the rule committee to decide what is appropriate for the various range of online procedures that we will roll out in years to come. It is not sensible to try to capture in the Bill the technology of 2019 in the hope that that lasts above and beyond wherever technology might take us.

I agree with the spirit of the amendment, but I believe we made changes to the Bill in the other place that make the amendment unnecessary. I will try to provide assurance—it may be a vain hope, but let me try. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has committed to providing a comprehensive package of assisted digital support through a number of different means, which includes telephone support. We have a network of trained call handlers dealing with telephone queries and helping to signpost people to relevant information. Those handlers assist with the completion of online forms, answer general queries and identify circumstances in which a person might benefit from more focused face-to-face support.

The use of webchat is also being trialled for those purposes, and we are testing screen-sharing software so that support staff can see the screen of callers to help point and highlight, and provide support in turn. Like all our new services, assisted digital support has been piloted, tested and improved on the basis of continuous user feedback, to ensure that it is targeted at those who need it most.

Let me also clarify that clause 4 is a legally binding duty on the Lord Chancellor to arrange for the provision of appropriate and proportionate support to those litigants who may be digitally excluded. As I have explained, telephone support is already a key component of meeting that obligation. HMCTS already provides a telephone helpline for litigants who require help, and there are no plans to remove that service.

Further, the hon. Lady clarified that, from her perspective, any helpline must be free for use. I agree that that is important, and can confirm that HMCTS does not charge for the telephone service, although admittedly some mobile networks might levy a call charge. Consequently, we are working on approaches to minimise those costs where they are an issue. We already call people back when requested and are exploring the introduction of an automated message to advise people as early as possible in their call of that option.

It is my view that the combination of support that the Government are providing to litigants with the legal duty in clause 4 means that the amendment is unnecessary, and I urge its withdrawal.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

What the Minister says, along with the text of the clause, indicates a potential problem. This is a major change and problems are anticipated. The Minister has put something on the record today, but where are the Government going to set down, if not in the Bill, the package of measures being introduced to ensure that people can have comfort that their needs will be addressed? Will that be in regulations? Will there be a code of conduct? Will it simply be in a letter sent to us by the Minister? I am not sure that what the Minister has said so far is sufficient.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am always nervous when telling the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced lawyer, how the courts work. He has spent far more time in courts than I have in my life. If I may rehearse my earlier point, clause 4 is a legally binding duty on the Lord Chancellor to arrange for the provision of appropriate and proportionate support to those litigants who may be digitally excluded.

In my view, that legally binding duty will encompass telephone supportbut it will be for the procedure rule committee to determine in each and every example where it has to formulate rules for online procedures whether that should include at least telephone support or over and above that. It will be within the ambit of the Committee to stipulate whether it wishes to do so, and whether a wider range of means of support may be appropriate for the technology of the time when it seeks to make those rules.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am not trying to be difficult, but we will push the amendment to the vote for two reasons. First, clause 4 states:

“The Lord Chancellor must arrange for the provision of such support as the Lord Chancellor considers to be appropriate and proportionate, for the purpose of assisting persons to initiate…”

Do we know what “appropriate and proportionate” mean? Although the rule committee presumably will decide what is appropriate and proportionate, it is important for it to know that our amendment adds the consideration of a free helpline. The support is not limited to that—other things could be included. It is important to include free phone lines so that the rule committee is assured that it can look at all possible options, including free telephonic support at the point of use.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 2 Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords] — Duty to make support available for digitally excluded people

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.