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Office of the Public Guardian

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:16 am on 19th July 2011.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation) 11:16 am, 19th July 2011

I am sorry. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to be able to put the role of the office on the record and deal with the case presented by the hon. Member for Cardiff West. If I then have time, I will of course take the hon. Lady’s intervention.

Once a deputy has been appointed by the Court of Protection, the Public Guardian assigns him or her to an appropriate level of supervision. That process follows a risk-based assessment that ensures that all deputies receive adequate and proportionate oversight and support. An annual supervision fee is payable to the Office of the Public Guardian, which is proportionate to the degree of support or scrutiny required. In most cases, the supervisory regime requires the deputy to report to the Public Guardian on at least an annual basis. It can also result in further contact from the office throughout the year, to confirm that the deputy is carrying out his or her duties properly and to identify any need for additional support. In certain cases, it also involves a visit from an independent Court of Protection visitor, who reports their findings to the Public Guardian.

If a third party has concerns that a deputy has abused his or her position, that they are not acting in the person’s best interests, or that the person who lacks capacity is otherwise at risk, they can raise such issues with the Public Guardian. That can be done in confidence, as the office has a well-established whistleblowing procedure. In this case, the third party has plainly consistently been in touch with the Office of the Public Guardian, not least in the past three years through the hon. Member for Cardiff West.

After an initial assessment, if the concerns warrant further investigation the case is passed to the dedicated compliance team, which has responsibility for investigating allegations or concerns brought to the Public Guardian’s attention. The issues raised vary considerably, from relatively simple matters to extremely complex ones. An investigation often uncovers a number of different views as to what is in a person’s best interests, and those views can differ radically.

When considering allegations or concerns, the Public Guardian always considers first and foremost the impact on the person who lacks capacity. He considers to what extent their best interests are being met by the deputy and whether or not, in his view, the person’s interests might better be met by alternative arrangements. If there are significant concerns about how the deputyship is operating, the Public Guardian might make an application to the Court of Protection to seek either the removal of the deputy or limits on his or her powers. If there is evidence of a criminal offence or if serious issues are uncovered, the Public Guardian passes the details to the police. If no major concerns are uncovered but some residual issues bear greater scrutiny, the Public Guardian can allocate the deputy to a higher category of supervision, which enables his office to keep a closer eye on the situation or to provide a higher degree of support to the deputy. Finally, it is entirely possible that he might find the complaint unwarranted, or that there is insufficient evidence to pursue it.

It is always open to a third party to make an application of their own volition to the Court of Protection, seeking an order in relation to the management of a person’s affairs. For example, were a third party unhappy about the outcome of an investigation carried out by the Public Guardian, they would be entirely at liberty to make an application to the court to seek a deputy’s removal. That is the situation with the case that has been presented today.

This case concerns a dispute about the sale and maintenance of a foreign property in which two parties have a shared interest. One of the parties lacks capacity and has a deputy appointed to manage his affairs. The second party is of the view that the deputy has failed to do what is required from her side in order that the sale of the shared property can be progressed. I also understand that there are ongoing issues concerning the appropriate level of contributions to the maintenance of, and the shared service fees relating to, the property.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a significant interest in the case and has written on a number of occasions to raise concerns. As we have heard, he wrote most recently to the Public Guardian in March 2011, but the office has no record of that letter, which is why the hon. Gentleman has not received an answer. I regret that that has happened. I obviously have no idea why, but I hope that today I can provide the hon. Gentleman with appropriate assurance on the issues that he has raised.

I am aware that there is a view that the Public Guardian could, and indeed should, take over active management of the case—as implied by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks today—and that his office should progress the sale of the property. However, that is not one of the functions of the Public Guardian, nor does it fall within the scope of his powers. Indeed, even if the Public Guardian had such powers and responsibilities, I am not convinced that this case merits such an intervention. On the face of it, it seems to be a dispute between two private parties, albeit complicated by the lack of capacity of one of the parties and the fact that the property is located abroad.

I have sought advice on the case, and it has become evident that it is not even wholly clear whose responsibility it is to advance the sale of the property. When the parties where divorced, Cardiff county court ordered, on 20 December 2000, that Mrs F’s solicitors shall have conduct of the sale of the property. I am not certain whether the property referred to in that direction is the property under debate; if it is, it is absolutely clear that it is Mrs F who should be progressing the sale. Since Mrs F has the keys to the property, I would want to see more evidence of obstruction by the deputy of a process that she should be progressing.