With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
This amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the needs of persons who are digitally excluded when allowing or disallowing Online Procedure Rules to be made.
Amendment 88, in clause 27, page 42, line 31, leave out “require online procedural assistance” and insert “are digitally excluded”.
This amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to arrange for the provisions of appropriate and proportionate support for persons who are digitally excluded.
Amendment 89, in clause 31, page 44, leave out lines 11 to 15 and insert—
““persons who are digitally excluded” means persons who, for reasons including their inability to access the internet or digital devices, lack of basic digital skills, or problems with confidence and motivation, experience difficulty in engaging with computers or online processes”.
This amendment inserts a new definition of “persons who are digitally excluded”.
New clause 2—Online Procedural Assistance—
“(1) Online Procedural Assistance, must be made available and accessible to any party or potential party to proceedings governed by Online Procedure Rules that requires it. In delivering this duty, the Lord Chancellor must have due regard to the intersection of digital exclusion with other factors, such as age, poverty, disability and geography and deliver support services accordingly.
(2) It must include assistance to enable such a party or potential party to have a reasonable understanding of the nature of the proceedings, the procedure applicable under Online Procedure Rules and of how to access and navigate such procedure. To this effect, it will provide both advice and technical hardware, as appropriate, and will provide assistance to such individuals throughout the course of their proceedings.
(3) Anyone who requires Online Procedural Assistance must have the option of receiving it either via remote appointments or in-person appointments at a site local to them.
(4) Online Procedural Assistance must include, for a party or potential party whose first language is not English, assistance, by interpretation or translation as appropriate, in a language that is familiar to the party or potential party.
(5) The delivery of Online Procedural Assistance must be evaluated at yearly intervals by an independent evaluation team. To assist in these evaluations, data must be routinely collected relating to the protected characteristics of those using the service, outcomes of cases that used Online Procedural Assistance and the frequency and location of the appointments provided. This must also be made publicly available.”
This new clause clarifies the nature of online procedural assistance.
We now move to part 2, chapter 2 of the Bill, which sets up powers to make online procedure rules for specified proceedings in civil, employment, family and tribunals to be started, conducted, progressed or disposed of by “electronic means”. The Opposition recognise the importance of expanding the use of online procedures in our court processes, and its role in making the system more efficient and cost effective, and so are broadly supportive of the provisions of this chapter.
However, we seek some reassurances about the provisions for digitally excluded individuals in the Bill. Research by Lloyds Bank shows that 16% of the UK population lack basic digital skills and are unable to
“participate in a digital society.”
It is vital that these people are not left behind by the provisions in this Bill.
The amendments aim to introduce further safeguards and accountability and scrutiny mechanisms at points we think may be appropriate, so as to ensure the measures do not preclude practical access to justice. I look forward to hearing what the Minister thinks of them.
The amendments relate to the parts of the Bill that refer to
“persons who require online procedural assistance.”
“Powers to make Online Procedure Rules…are to be exercised with a view to securing…that practice and procedure under the Rules are accessible and fair,”.
Clause 18(4) states:
“For the purposes of subsection (3)(a), regard must be had to the needs of persons who require online procedural assistance.”
Clause 24(4) states:
“In deciding whether to allow or disallow rules,”— made by the Online Procedure Rule Committee—
“the Lord Chancellor must have regard to the needs of persons who require online procedural assistance.”
Clause 27 places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to arrange for support that is
“appropriate and proportionate for persons who require online procedural assistance.”
Such persons are defined in Clause 31, which states
“‘persons who require online procedural assistance’ means persons who, because of difficulties in accessing or using electronic equipment, require assistance in order to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means in accordance with Online Procedure Rules;”.
“It is unclear if “persons who require procedural assistance” is a socio-economic, physical, mental or other difficulty.”
It also recognises that this
“seems to raise potential equality and diversity issues.”
Justice is also concerned that the definition is “unduly narrow and unclear”. Although the Opposition support the inclusion of the duty to arrange support for persons who require online procedural assistance, we share the concern that the current definition of such persons undermines the effectiveness of the duty. Justice explains that people may be able to access or use electronic equipment but may still be unable to effectively engage with or participate in online proceedings for other reasons—for example, people who speak English as a second language, people with learning difficulties, cognitive or sensory impairments, and those who require different modes of communication, such as braille or sign language. Furthermore, digital exclusion can be situational, because people
“who might normally be confident online may struggle with online services when faced with crises such as divorce or debt which reduce people’s confidence and capability.”
Those are some of the findings from Justice’s excellent 2018 report, “Preventing Digital Exclusion from Online Justice”, of which I am sure the Minister is aware. Justice also notes that it is unclear whether the definition as currently drafted would include people who are able to use electronic equipment but do not have access to the internet—for example, because they cannot afford the data, as opposed to the equipment, such as a phone, tablet or computer. Will the Minister please provide some clarification on this point? I hope the intention is that the definition will cover such scenarios.
In its 2018 report, Justice argued for the need to provide effective support to those who are digitally excluded, in order to realise the full potential of online justice services and improve access to justice for many people. In the report, Justice used the term “digitally excluded” to describe people who, for reasons such as
“an inability to access the internet or digital services, lack of basic digital skills, or problems with confidence and motivation”, experience difficulty in engaging with computers and online processes. We think reflecting that meaning in the legislation would ensure that the duty to provide support to those who need it would be most effective and would encompass all those who may need assistance. To that end, amendment 89 inserts a new definition into clause 31, stating that
“‘persons who are digitally excluded’ means persons who, for reasons including their inability to access the internet or digital devices, lack of basic digital skills, or problems with confidence and motivation, experience difficulty in engaging with computers or online processes.”
Amendments 86, 87 and 88 insert the phrase
“persons who are digitally excluded”
in the place of
“persons who require online procedural assistance” at the points I mentioned previously. The Opposition and Government have the same intention here: to provide support to those who need it, so that no one is precluded from accessing justice. I hope the Minister can see where we are coming from and will look favourably on the amendments.
I turn now to new clause 2, which is another approach to dealing with some of the concerns. It simply clarifies the nature of online procedural assistance, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address each of its subsections and tell the Committee whether they are matters that he and his team have already considered, and whether he envisions that the Bill as drafted would cover them. Does the duty on the Lord Chancellor currently include consideration of other factors that intersect with digital exclusion, such as age, poverty, disability and geography? The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was helpful on these issues in an earlier debate, when he spoke up for older people. I am sure that he, too, will want answers to our questions and, I hope, a few of his own.
Will the assistance cover both advice and technical hardware, and will it be available throughout the proceedings? Will persons receiving the assistance be able to do so via either a remote appointment or an in-person appointment at a site local to them? For those whose first language is not English, will assistance be provided through interpretation or translation, as appropriate, in a language that is familiar to the party or potential party? Will the assistance be monitored and evaluated at regular intervals? If so, how and by who? We want to be able to offer the Government keen support for the proposals, so I look forward to the Minister’s response to the concerns we have raised.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to talk through the issues of digital exclusion. These are important issues. As colleagues know, much of the Bill, particularly once we go beyond the judicial review clauses, relates to digitisation and I feel very strongly that digitisation has many benefits.
Colleagues will remember the evidence from the Scottish Law Society. One of its most interesting points was how, in Scotland, its experience had been that the use of video technology and so on had kept justice going during the pandemic. That has certainly been the case in England and Wales. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is not saying otherwise—he is looking at those who are excluded. In principle, in many ways digitisation can enhance access to justice. In the greatest collective challenge to access to justice that this country has seen for many decades—the pandemic—digitisation maintained access to justice when otherwise many more cases would have been stuck and the backlog would have been even worse.
I have two points to make on a personal note. I am not a lawyer by background, but I spent my year off as an outdoor clerk in the High Court, carrying bundles of paperwork around the Royal Courts of Justice, from window to window. Some were shut in my face, because it was not the right window or the person was going off for lunch—it is quite common, actually. There has always been an enormous amount of paperwork in the system, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith, who I believe was a barrister, will know. Trying to reduce those bundles will take time. In the Crown court in particular, we will still see large bundles of papers. We will still have large paper packs for the jury to look at; in many ways, that is still the most effective method. Stripping out the paperwork and increasing digitisation will have its moments of frustration for practitioners and staff. It will have its downsides. The system will never be perfect, but in general and in principle digitisation enhances the system.
The second personal point is about my business idea. Mr Rosindell, you will know about house prices in London. The idea was to enable groups of friends who were renting to buy property together. It was for flatmates to buy and was called “Share to Buy”. Once we had come up with it and had approached a lender, who was supportive, we realised that the problem was how to get people to apply. We decided that the only way to do it was online. At that time, there were not really online mortgage applications. We thought at great length about what to do if people do not have internet access and want to make a paper-based application. Obviously, that scheme is not as significant as the legal system, but the same principles apply. I am a great believer in the ability of the digital sphere to enhance accessibility, to increase people’s access to important things, alongside having the appropriate safeguards and support, which are the two key words.
We recognise that those who are digitally excluded may need assistance in starting or progressing their case online. Therefore, HMCTS has set up a digital service that is designed with and for users to help navigate the justice system. It will be supported through HMCTS user contact functions, who will issue guidance and help on the journey through the service over the phone and related call-centre channels, such as web chat. As I said in discussion on earlier clauses, HMCTS recently awarded a national contract to deliver positive and practical solutions to support users and break down barriers to digital inclusion across civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions.
Although the measures seek to direct as many users as possible through primary digital channels, some users may have problems accessing digital services. The hon. Member for Stockton North made some quite specific points about geography, age and disability. We recognise that some users may have particular problems. As I noted in the previous discussion, paper forms will remain available, and work is ongoing to review and simplify those forms. HMCTS will ensure users receive equal service no matter what channel they use to engage.
Amendment 86 would require regard to be had to the needs of persons who are digitally excluded when making online procedure rules, changing, as a number of the amendments would do, the terminology “require online procedural assistance” for that of being “digitally excluded”. Amendment 87 would require the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the needs to persons who are digitally excluded when allowing or disallowing online procedure rules to be made.
The duty to have regard to the needs of those who may be digitally excluded is addressed in clause 27, which requires the Lord Chancellor to make provisions for those who require additional support. Through that measure, court users will be supported through their online journey in person and remotely. When considering whether to allow or disallow rules, the Lord Chancellor must have regard to those who require online procedural assistance.
Amendment 88 would require the Lord Chancellor to arrange for the provision of appropriate and proportionate support for persons who are digitally excluded. The measures already seek to ensure appropriate and proportionate support for persons who are digitally excluded or who, in the Bill’s terms,
“require online procedural assistance” so that they are able to engage with online procedures. That includes assistive technology, such as a screen reader, and simplifying language to ensure that users understand what they are required to do.
Amendment 89 inserts a new definition of
“persons who are digitally excluded”.
As I have set out, there are provisions in place for those who are digitally excluded, so we do not think that changing the terminology or inserting a definition to go with it are necessary. HMCTS will provide persons who are digitally excluded with support through several means, including a service over the phone and more intensive face-to-face services. Those services will address an inability to access the internet or digital devices, a lack of basic digital skills, problems with confidence and motivation, and difficulty engaging with computers or online processes.
New clause 2 sets out extensive duties to provide online procedural assistance of a particular sort. I do not, however, consider that to be either necessary or desirable, though I accept that the hon. Member for Stockton North put a lot of work into it. I have set out the extensive safeguards in place. I stress that extensive support services will be delivered across different channels to ensure that all those who require support are able to access it. Those channels will include local centre support—there are more than 300 physical sites for users to attend in-person appointments, and we are currently adding more—over-the-phone support, remote one-to-one video appointments with those who have access to but need supporting navigating the service, and in-home, face-to-face support from a trainer in the region who will attend the applicant’s home with the necessary equipment to enable them to deliver support.
As that demonstrates, HMCTS has already considered a huge range of support, and I do not think that such a duty is necessary. I believe that the measures in the Bill provide significant safeguards for those who are digitally excluded, and the amendments are simply not necessary. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Stockton North to withdraw the amendment.
I was delighted to hear that in his earlier life the Minister was a kind of Wemmick figure to Mr Jaggers before his expectations were even greater and he came here. His account of carrying papers around the courts perhaps prepared him for the immense amounts of paperwork that one deals with as a member of the Government, from my memory of it. However, I could not disagree with him more on this part of the Bill, for three reasons.
The first is accessibility. There are profound problems with moving what was previously a personal connection or a written connection with any organisation or body to an online one. It is particularly disadvantageous for vulnerable groups, including people with learning difficulties, people with mental health problems, people with particular disabilities such as hearing loss, and the unsighted. The hon. Member for Stockton North mentioned the elderly too, and the Minister acknowledged that point in respect of his own parents, who he said were not as switched on to these matters as he doubtless is.
There are other issues too, such as security and confidentiality. There is an immense myth. I know that from having been in the IT industry and having been Security Minister. The combination of those experiences taught me a long time ago that online procedures and processes are very hard to secure beyond doubt, so I have great doubts about whether confidentiality can be maintained as it can by more conventional means.
Fundamentally, my problem is one of community. We have to ask in what kind of place we want to live, and how we want to conduct our lives. That applies to our work in Parliament, to the exercise of the law, and to business, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said. Personal interaction and the intimacy associated with face-to-face engagement are critical to framing and affirming our sense of community and connection with others. The more remote and anonymous we make that engagement, the more we will undermine that sense of what we share, so I have profound doubts about the whole move to online government, as I mentioned earlier.
The Minister is being extremely adroit in his handling of the Committee; indeed, I sent him a note to say how deftly he handled my earlier inquiries. I do not mean to patronise him, but I think he can be very proud of his performance. I have been in that seat many times, as he knows, and I know how tough it is. However, when I raised these matters previously he suggested—slightly untypically and rather clumsily—that I was regressive. He must know that the very concept of progress is suspect, because believing in progress means believing in a destination—a pre-ordained destination towards which we are all hurtling.
In truth, of course, that is profoundly philosophically unsound. I can only assume that, standing there under those dreadful Whigs in Gladstone’s Cabinet, the Minister has adopted the Whig theory of history that we are all merely actors who are acting out a script written for us by some other power. There is nothing regressive about my remark; there is perhaps something human about it. I want more politics on a human scale; I want it to be safe, secure and accessible to all, and I want it to affirm our sense of community and build on what we share.
For all those reasons, I seek extremely profound reassurances from the Minister—of the kind that he has offered previously, in the spirit that I recommended a few moments ago—that my constituents, particularly the most vulnerable, will not be disadvantaged by the legislation. The hon. Member for Stockton North alluded to geography. Well, some people in rural areas such as South Holland and The Deepings are not yet “online”, and I am sure that that applies to constituencies represented by Members on both sides of the Committee. I do not want those people to be at a disadvantage.
The Minister is right that during the pandemic we had to make do, and that did have some beneficial effects: it forced us to think about how we could perhaps do things more efficiently. In the end, however, I was desperate to get back to the business of meeting my constituents face to face, and of debating and engaging in person with colleagues in Parliament. I am sure that that applies to most right hon. and hon. Members in this House. Let us not hurtle down the road to moving everything online, only to look back in years to come and think, “My goodness! What have we done and what have we lost?”
I shall be brief. I felt half invited by the Minister to respond, but I will not tell a whole war story from the courts, as we used to do on the Justice Committee. I commiserate with him for his treatment by the Royal Courts of Justice; it is nothing personal that the windows are being shut in his face.
I will shock the Committee again: I agree with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. I am afraid that I am one of those people who still carries large amounts of paper around and cannot quite manage otherwise. That is possibly why it is good that I am not a practitioner any longer: the courts have adapted quite well to new technology—practitioners, the judiciary and the senior judiciary in particular are extremely adroit in that respect. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North that we have in common with the Government the intention to ensure that things are done as efficiently, quickly and economically as possible. I entirely agree that new technology has a big role to play in all that.
The Committee may hear a “but” coming. The “but” is that there are several ways, but two in particular, in which we must be very wary. First, there is the issue of access. We have all had to learn to deal with new technology, and an example of that is how we advanced our ability to do so under the stresses of covid. Zooming is as common to us now as face-to-face meetings.
It is a mark of both the sense and sensibility of the scrutiny of the Committee that the hon. Gentleman should be defending the Minister and the Government’s position from my mild but profound attack. It is a good Committee where that kind of communion, if I may put it that way, can be enjoyed.
I am going to impress the right hon. Gentleman even more in a moment by making a 180° turn and joining his critique of the Minister.
There may well be times when Zooming is more efficient and appropriate, but there will be many times when face-to-face meetings are more appropriate, including meetings with constituents. During the long debates that we had on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, I cautioned many times that it moved too quickly to exclude people from the system in the name of efficiency. There is a danger that we will do that here.
The Minister fairly said that we must proceed with caution and be aware of some people’s digital limitations. It is easy to say that, but it is more difficult to ensure that it happens, because the same people who struggle with matters online are those who cannot make their voices heard, and they just disappear from the system. We have excluded people even though it was not intentional.
A second important category—coroners—was touched on. I will not say much now because I expect that we shall come on to the plans to move those online when we come to that section. The Minister will remember that Mr Rebello, senior coroner for the Liverpool and Wirral coroner area and secretary of the Coroners Society, said that he liked to have everybody in the room. He was not saying that for its own sake, but because there are times, when evidence is being heard or judicial decisions are being made rather than in administrative hearings, when it is important for people to be present. Although doing things remotely may have been the best that we could do during covid, that will not always be the case.
I simply caution that if justice is to be properly done, we should be cautious before we throw out the methods that have served us not just for decades but for centuries in assessing the quality of evidence, in advocacy and in ensuring that we get to the best result we can in every case. I hope that we will be as modern and efficient as we can, and use as much technology as we can, but not at the price of excluding people or of not seeing justice done.
I appreciate the Minister’s sharing information about his past career; it is fascinating to find out what people have done in their previous lives. Perhaps one angle of his business could have been encouraging people to move to the north where, instead of buying a share in a house for £150,000, they could buy a lovely three-bedroom semi-detached house in Stockton; have access to our wonderful newly opened Globe theatre; and be 30 minutes from the Yorkshire moors, 40 minutes from the Yorkshire dales and only an hour from the Northumberland coast.
Very quickly, because it is incredibly relevant, I assure the hon. Gentleman that our business was entirely national. The reason that it was able to operate nationally, in every part of the country, is because it operated online.
That is why we welcome the way that we can move forward, even in the world of justice. We can move online as much as possible, but the Minister knows how much we have been pressing on the issue of safeguards.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was concerned that some people in his area, as in other areas of the country, might not have access. When he talked about face-to-face meetings and the importance of community, it struck me that he said that he did not want us to underestimate how important that is and to undermine those personal relationships. I have maintained throughout my contributions to the Committee that we do not want justice to be undermined as a result of moving online.
The Minister spoke about the Scottish experience. It did keep it going, but for those who had access to systems. He acknowledged the need for appropriate support and recognised that more detail must be provided. We look forward to seeing that detail in future.
My real concern is that some of the language in the Bill is a little on the soft side. I would rather see it more clearly defined and nailed down, to ensure that the people who are most likely to be excluded from digital services are given all the support they need, which might even mean providing them with the data that they require to use the systems that are available to them.
In the light of the debate, however, I do not intend to press any of the amendments to the vote, but I say again that some of the language is soft. We need that detail and I hope that there will be no devils in it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.