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15 Oct 2002 : Column 260continued
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a different point of order, although it is linked to the previous one. Can you help me and, I hope, the House? If the next item of business runs until 10 o'clock, the debate on local government finance will have no time at all. Does that mean that the House will have no opportunity to debate a matter of considerable importance to almost every hon. Member? I say that in the presence of the Leader of the House, for whom I have the utmost respect. He has sought to make the procedures of the House more relevant and transparent.
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wished to thank the Leader of the House on behalf of the Liberal Democrats for his comments. We have this debate every time that local government expenditure is discussed on the Floor of the House. We never have enough time to debate it. It comprises a quarter of all Government expenditure, so I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that this debate needs more time than it is given, as does the local government settlement every year.
Right hon. and hon. Members will know that this is a short but important Bill affecting the work of the Public Trustee and his office. I am pleased to say that the Bill has received support from both sides of the House. In essence, the Bill makes changes to the Public Trustee Act 1906 in two areas. It removes the requirement for full cost recovery for trust work in order to prevent the large increase in fees that the current provisions would necessitate. The Bill also amends the 1906 Act to make the Lord Chancellor responsible for fees in respect of the Public Trustee's work, rather than the current formula which places that responsibility with the Treasury[Interruption.]
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order for the House to come to order so that those of us who are interested in the Bill can hear what the Minister is saying?
The Bill also repeals section 7 of the 1906 Act, which relates to the liability of the consolidated fund for liabilities arising from the activities of the Public Trustee and provides that for the future, were such liabilities to arise, they should be met from the Lord Chancellor's Department's estimate. The Bill also tidies up provisions on the Public Trustee's liability to beneficiaries. In preparing the Bill, we found that the purported exception to the Public Trustee's liability to beneficiaries in section 7 of the Public Trustee Act 1906 had no legal effect and thus serves no purpose. We have taken this opportunity to remove it.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, both sides of the House have acknowledged its importance and, in Committee, we had a constructive debate that did justice to the issues and the context in which they arise.
Mr. Allen: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she handled the Committee stage. She made a complicated matter clear, even to a non-lawyer such as myself. She made several points about a case of great concern in my constituencythat of the Strelley social club and the amount of money that needs to be disbursed to former members. She was very sympathetic, which was much appreciated in my constituency. Will she take this opportunity to briefly update the House on the position in the case at the moment?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Lady replies to that point, it might be helpful if I inform the House that a large firework display will take place across the river at any moment. It might cause loud noises and I would not wish the House to be confused about the cause of any disturbance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is as assiduous as ever in raising his constituents' concerns. I believe that 1,800 former members of the Strelley social club have been written to, and that about 1,000 have replied. Staff will look at the replies to sort out who will benefit from the residue of that fund.
I should also like to pay tribute to all those hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee and spoke on Second Reading. They drew attention to the work of the Public Trustee in dealing with the affairs of very vulnerable people, and in ensuring that the fee regime does not bear unduly harshly on them because of outdated legislative arrangements. I have appreciated the interest and good humour with which our proceedings have been conducted.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) noted the speed at which the Bill had passed through the other place. He has been replaced by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). We in this House have, rightly, spent a little more time on the Bill than was the case in the other place, but I hope that we can all agree that this modest Bill is worthwhile. I am happy to commend it to the House.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I can certainly welcome what the Minister has said about the Bill's importance. I thank her for her welcome to me, although I am returning to old haunts in reassuming my present role, as I have previously been Opposition spokesman for Lord Chancellor's Department matters. After a year's absence, I have that responsibility again, and I am delighted to be associated with the latter stages of this important Bill.
However, the Minister will know that some concerns have been expressed about the Bill. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) intervened earlier to ask about constituency issues, and my hon. Friend the
I have also encountered a case in my constituency that is not dissimilar to the one mentioned earlier in the Bill's passage through the House by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer). On behalf of those of my constituents who have been affected, I have expressed to one of the Minister's predecessors my concerns about the hugely long time it has taken the Office of the Public Trustee to respond to inquiries. I therefore take a particular interest in the changes that the Bill will make.
The Minister rightly said that there has been no dispute between the parties with regard to the Bill. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) will speak for the Liberal Democrats on this matter this evening, and I am sure that he will confirm the statement by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) at an earlier stage of the Bill's passage through the House. That hon. Gentleman said that his party, both in this House and in another place, welcomed the Bill.
However, I want to raise a couple of further concerns. One is the confusion that may be caused to constituents by the renaming of the office. Those who have followed the passage of the Bill will know that, on 1 April this year, the office was relaunched as the Public Guardianship Office. As it turns out, however, the same person will occupy the twin roles of Official Solicitor and Public Trustee.
The Minister rightly said that the Bill transfers financial responsibility from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Lord Chancellor. I do not have much confidence that the change will improve the efficiency with which matters will be handled in the future. My experience, as both a Front-Bench spokesman and a constituency MP, has been that the Lord Chancellor's Department does not respond as quickly as the Treasury when questions are asked of it. It would be useful if the Minister were to give a binding guarantee that constituents will not have to wait for months and months for correspondence even to be acknowledged by the new Public Guardianship Office and by the individual who will be both the Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor.
Also, if there are concerns in future about the operation of the Public Guardianship Office, I hope that the Minister's Department will respond with dispatch when hon. Members write on behalf of constituents. That was a huge concern under the old regime, before this Bill was introduced.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North asked a question in relation to the Strelley social club. I do not think that it would help the debate if I were to take that further, but the Public Trustee has a responsibility to look after people who are often severely disabled as a result of the effects of pharmaceutical drugs. They are among the most vulnerable people in our society. The case in my constituency to which I referred earlier involved people trying to look after seriously disabled relatives whose financial assets were under the control of