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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister to his new duties. I wish him a long and adventurous career in his new post. I also need to declare an indirect interest. I think that I am almost unique in the Chamber in not being a lawyer.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): No.

Dr. Whitehead: There is one other non-lawyer. However, my wife is a salaried local authority lawyer and does a very good job.

Far from giving rise to the concern expressed by the Opposition, new clause 7 results directly from new clause 22, which I tabled in Committee. I commend the Minister for putting into the new clause the principle that I advanced in Committee. As he pointed out, section 11(3) of the Solicitors Act 1974 states:

Each year, that fee is charged for a practising certificate. The Law Society has the sanction of the law to charge it. Lawyers are required to pay it even if they do not join the Law Society, and the society can add various levies to it that are also enforceable by law. As far as I know, that is unique. No other professional society, trade union or organisation has such a power enforceable in law in the United Kingdom. I cannot believe that that is right.

I can believe that it is right and admirable that the Law Society charges a fee for the good work that it does. Everyone accepts that it does good work in setting professional standards, maintaining them, training the profession and, above all, regulating it. Those are wholly appropriate things for which to charge a fee, but the society should not have a power in law to do anything else that it wants to. It has been suggested that to say that

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this unique position needs to be examined is somehow an attack on the raison d'etre of the Law Society. That is nonsense. It is within the power of any society to levy a charge on its members for purposes for which it wishes to raise money. Indeed, I imagine that that is what, after discussion, the Law Society will do.

Mr. Dismore: We heard some talk earlier of the Law Society's anti-legal aid reform campaign. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the Law Society is not the only trade union operating in the legal profession. I am a member of the GMB, which is recognised by a number of law firms. If the GMB had been so stupid as to try to run a similar campaign, it would have had to pay for it out of its political fund, which is the subject of a separate ballot of members, a right to opt out and a separate levy identified as part of the subscription.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is peculiar that the Conservative party justifies the position of the Law Society under the present arrangements, bearing in mind the strong attitude that it took when in government to trade union political funds?

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point that I do not now need to make. It is suggested that the Law Society has immunities, privileges and powers in law that are not available to trade unions and which have been the subject of extensive debate in the House. Yet restrictions on trade unions' powers in this respect were advocated by the Conservative party.

In summary, the reason why I tabled the proposal in Committee was to bring to the Government's attention the principle that the Law Society should not be above the law, as it were. The Law Society should be subject to the same conditions as are assumed to apply to other professional societies. I am glad that the Government have discussed that suggestion with the Law Society. I am pleased to hear that the Law Society has listened carefully to it and appears to be willing to discuss with the Government exactly how such changes might be made.

So the conclusion to the new clause is a happy one. Somewhat to my surprise, I have had a postbag containing letters from solicitors who think that this is a long overdue reform which puts right a wrong that they perceived to be inherent in the Solicitors Act 1974. Despite the protestations of various solicitors, I think that we will eventually achieve a method of regulation for both the Law Society and the Bar Council, which are similar; this anomaly will be rectified, and it will be done in a civilised and straightforward way. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on putting the principle of what I suggested into a new clause and amendments which will work in the interests of all concerned in a way guaranteed to enhance the legal profession rather than to preserve indefensible anomalies.

Mr. Burnett: In view of the time, I shall make just a few points about new clause 7. It is deeply to be regretted that the Bill time and time again operates to arrogate more powers to the Lord Chancellor. Is there no area of the law that the Lord Chancellor does not seek to control and dominate? He is a prominent and powerful member of the Executive and the legislature, and he is the senior judge

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in the land. He now seeks to undermine the independence of the Law Society, taking powers to take control of many of its affairs.

I have had the privilege of serving on the Law Society's revenue law committee for some 12 years. In opposition and in government, Labour Members have had every reason to be grateful to that specialist committee and to the other specialists committees of the Law Society, which do excellent work in the public interest. That is an example of one sphere of the work of the Law Society over which the Lord Chancellor wants to take control.

It is fundamental to the constitution of any free country that the legal profession be independent. Liberal Democrats strongly oppose new clause 7; it is a vindictive measure against the Law Society for, rightly--I stress, rightly--opposing the removal of legal aid for personal injury cases. The measure will save no money and will prejudice the poor and the vulnerable.

Mr. Vaz: Goodness gracious, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not know what has become of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). Where has he been? What has he been taking? There is no reason to get all worked up about this measure. We are not doing anything to the Law Society; we have merely put a challenge to the society that it should justify its use of compulsory fees, over and above what we have proposed. There is plenty of time for people to consult, to put up a case and to put forward their views.

At the moment, the hon. Gentleman is busy discussing tactics with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we introduced the measures because we believed it right to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made several points--incidentally, I too pay tribute to my hon. Friend's wife; I am sure that she does an excellent job. He raised the whole issue of whether the measure seems to conflict with the European convention on human rights. It could be argued that an unfettered power to raise compulsory subscriptions conflicts with that fundamental human rights convention.

As to whether the measure is a vindictive act in a great conspiracy in which we sit in darkened rooms in the House plotting the downfall of the Law Society--that is, of course, rubbish. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough reminds me of the character from the film "In the Line of Fire" who is obsessed by a particular person. If we broke into his upstairs room, we should see cuttings of the Lord Chancellor pasted on the walls of that darkened room. The fact is that the new clauses are carefully thought out; as my hon. Friend the Member for Test said, they have received widespread support. I am certain that they will be welcomed.

I know that the Bar welcomes the new clauses. Members of the Bar have a responsibility, and they too face a challenge. At my last meeting with the chairman and the vice-chairman of the Bar--the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is a former member of the Bar Council and will be aware that it has been campaigning for these changes for many years--they were happy to rise to the challenge and to put forward a case.

Of course, the Bar and the Law Society still have access to voluntary funds and will be able to use them to fund the activities that have been referred to. As I have made clear, nothing will happen for 18 months. They will have an

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opportunity to put up a case and to rise to the challenge. I am confident that all the articulate, intelligent, clever and hard working members of the Law Society and the Bar Council will be able to enter a dialogue with the Government. That is all we seek to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Fees for solicitors' practising certificates

'.--(1) The Lord Chancellor may by order made by statutory instrument amend section 11(3) of the Solicitors Act 1974 (power of Law Society to apply fees payable on issue of practising certificates for any of its purposes) by substituting for the purposes referred to in it (at any time)--

(a) the purposes of the regulation, education and training of solicitors and those wishing to become solicitors, or
(b) both those purposes and such other purposes as the Lord Chancellor considers appropriate.
(2) No order shall be made under this section unless--
(a) the Lord Chancellor has consulted the Master of the Rolls and the Law Society, and
(b) a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.--[Mr. Vaz.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

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