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4.45 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): This Bill is important in its way, and I am glad to allay the Minister's fears by assuring her that the Opposition do not intend to divide the House. It is an uncontroversial Bill. Indeed, during the Bill's passage in the other place, the proceedings were somewhat truncated—the Liberal Democrat spokesman managed only 16 lines of speech, while the official Opposition spokesman managed only 10 lines. We are not, therefore, trying to break any records by ensuring that we exceed that minimum standard. One or two things

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need to be said about the Bill, however, and I intend to detain the House for a little longer than the other place was detained.

I knew the Public Trust Office extremely well, as, when I first got married, I was living in Lincoln's Inn Fields, exactly opposite it. I would also like to pay tribute to the Liberal party, if not to the Liberal Democrats, as, although it was claimed in the other place that it was their work, the original Liberal party was responsible. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats clearly differentiated himself from the Liberal party. As a Conservative, I certainly would not do that, as the Liberals did a great deal in the 19th century that was extremely effective and very good.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I believe that I am still on the residual body of the Liberal party executive—the real Liberal party.

Mr. Cash: I am extremely delighted to hear that, especially as the hon. Gentleman is my opposite number in whichever party he belongs.

We should not say simply that this is an excellent Bill, and let it sail through without comment. Only a few days ago, towards the end of last week, the Minister and I, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the hon. Gentleman from the erstwhile Liberal party—now the Liberal Democrats—exchanged views on the question of enduring powers of attorney and the issue of fees. That is at the heart of this Bill, too, as it is important to note, not only from the explanatory notes but from the way in which the process has been working, that there is a great deal of uncertainty about how to calibrate the fee system in the context of what we could describe generally as free—or relatively free—legal advice and when the Public Trust Office or the Public Guardianship Office is involved.

The transfer of responsibility to the Lord Chancellor's Department represents a determination to try to reduce some of the fees substantially. As we found in relation to the statutory instrument last week, however, some of the fees being charged have increased up to threefold. There is some inconsistency in that. Enthusiastic as people might be about the proposal, the fact that the Lord Chancellor and not the Treasury will fix fees in relation to the Public Trustee's trust work—that will bring those fees into line with other fee-setting provisions—does not necessarily solve the problem. I do not want to call it the wallpaper difficulty, but the question is whether the sums required to run the functions under the Public Trustee Act 1906 will be adequate. We also need to ensure that the people who will be affected—they will often not be well-off—are not overcharged.

I have described the balance that must be struck, but that is a matter for the future. However, I shall watch the situation as it progresses, because an inherent difficulty is implicit in the proposal; there is no answer in itself. We need to know how the money from the fees will be worked out. Will the proposal be fair and will it strike a proper balance?

The Minister described the interesting exception to section 7 of the 1906 Act. It somewhat defies belief that a provision should have been enacted in 1906 and that it

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has taken until 2002 to discover that it is of no effect. I am delighted that the Government have taken this opportunity to rectify the position, but it is astonishing that it should have taken so long to discover that simple legal fact or point of law.

The other point that I wish to mention is the relationship between the Public Trust Office, the Public Guardianship Office and the Public Accounts Committee. Although I do not intend to do so, I could spend some time on the criticisms of the Public Trust Office made in the 35th report of the Public Accounts Committee. However, those criticisms are part of the reason why I want to spend a little more time on this debate than was taken on Second Reading in the other place. We are being asked to consider the liability in fees of the Public Trustee, so we should take account of the Public Account Committee's severe criticisms of the running of a public body.

Given the recent changes and the transfer of functions to the Lord Chancellor's Department, we should be mindful of the fact that all is not plain sailing. In particular, I refer to three specific comments made by the Public Accounts Committee. In relation to the welfare of people with mental incapacity—I alluded to them earlier—it said:

That is pretty severe criticism. Secondly, the Committee said:

Thirdly, it said:

A further 30 pages of material and cross-examination demonstrates the basis on which such criticisms were reached.

It is not simply a matter of going over the past for its own sake because that would do no good. The real question is to what extent the Bill is adequate in changing the regime, attitude and behaviour of the Public Trust Office and its successor in a manner that will genuinely remedy the problems identified by the PAC. If it is not possible for the Bill, because of its long title, to ensure that the problems are remedied, the Minister must assure us that the matters reported by the PAC are being taken seriously by the Lord Chancellor's Department and that the Government are going to do something about them.

4.56 pm

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Hon. Members will be pleased to learn that I shall be brief, because I want to concentrate on a constituency case.

The PAC and the National Audit Office have produced a series of critical reports, dating back to the PAC's report of 1994 which made damning criticisms of the Public Trust Office. Having read the reports, I think it is clear that their findings are conclusive, and the Bill has widespread support on both sides of the House.

There are various problems with the Public Trust Office. In the case that concerns me, my constituent's mother died and the Public Trust Office is holding

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£40,000 of her money that it is not keen to release. In a letter, my constituent explains that it is

I suspect that many hon. Members will have come across similar problems with the Public Trust Office.

The quinquennial report by the Lord Chancellor's Department mentions that, in the receivership division of the Public Trust Office, the

That is a hefty sum—about £0.25 billion pounds is being held purely by the receivership division, as in my constituent's case. I hope that the changes mean that public offices will not hold on to money for as long, and with the same determination, as the Public Trust Office and its successor, the Public Guardianship Office.

The 1906 Act made the Public Trust Office self-financing, which means that it cannot be subsidised by the Treasury. The Bill changes that provision and the Treasury will be able to provide subsidies if needed.

My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the repeal of certain sections. Will she assure me that future beneficiaries, who would have been covered by the liability of the Public Trust Office, will not lose out? Will she also assure me that the Bill's provisions will lead to greater efficiency?

4.59 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the way in which she introduced the Bill. Brevity is not necessarily a sign of inconsequentiality, and the Bill, albeit short, is important, so I cannot guarantee that I will be as brief as my colleagues in another place.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) for his comments. Many hon. Members have constituents who have had difficulties because of the performance of the Public Trust Office, and they will be pleased to know that changes have taken place. However, we must wait to see whether those changes have been effective in ensuring a better service for our constituents.

I am always careful when I see that we are to amend an Act from 1906, from the extraordinary reforming Government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who were the fount of a great deal of judicial common sense and social reform.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Is the hon. Gentleman certain that the Bill was not prepared by the preceding Conservative Government and then implemented by the incoming Liberal Administration?

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