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15 Oct 2002 : Column 264—continued

Ms Rosie Winterton indicated assent.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister nods and I am grateful to her for acknowledging the problem.

I am also concerned about the size of the assets under the Public Trustee's control. We are talking about a very large amount of money. On Second Reading and in Standing Committee, the Minister gave general figures regarding the amount of money under the Public Trustee's management, but I hope that she will be able to give us in this debate the exact, up-to-date numbers. That will enable hon. Members who are not familiar with the Bill to see that we are talking about very considerable sums of money.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Would not the hon. Gentleman be interested in knowing the size of the office's work load, the number of cases that it has to deal with and the number of people available to deal with them? Knowledge of those figures would help to keep this debate brief.

Mr. Hawkins: The only figures that I have available were given to the House in the debate on 1 July this year, and they can be found in the Hansard report for that date. However, I agree that that is the sort of detail that the Minister should give the House this evening.

The PAC has reported on the various problems encountered by the Office of the Public Trustee in the past. In the debate on 1 July, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton referred to the Department's quinquennial review. The review stated:

My hon. Friend remarked that that was

I want the Minister to tell us that as a result of the changes that the Government are introducing in the Bill, that mess will be sorted out. There is a sorry history of poor management and lack of financial accountability. In its various reviews of this office, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that this was the worst aspect of Government that it had ever come across. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly said, there is no mileage to be had from making vulnerable people pay for the mistakes of Whitehall.

In another place, Baroness Scotland said on 27 May:

I would like the Minister's reassurance that the estates of vulnerable people, which are supposed to be looked after by the Public Trustee, will not, as a result of huge increases in charges from the Lord Chancellor's Department, be responsible for these overhead costs. I am always wary about seeing other people's money under the control of Whitehall bureaucrats. When the

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matter was debated just before the summer recess, the Minister was asked specifically why the accommodation and overhead costs had increased dramatically. Having looked at the Official Report, I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and others who raised that concern received a good enough answer.

Finally, although this is a welcome Bill that has received all-party support, I hope that the Minister will answer these important questions before we allow the measure to pass into law.

8.41 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I should declare that I am a lawyer, although I do not practise as such—[Interruption.] I am trying to get into everybody's good books right from the start. I welcome back the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)—it is a pleasure to see him with us.

This is an uncontroversial Bill, which has been welcomed on both sides of the House and in the other place. Nevertheless, there are further points to be made arising out of it.

In the explanatory notes to the Bill, clause 8 appears to conflict with the note that the Minister sent to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on 20 July 2002 which was circulated to all members of the Committee. The Minister's note makes it clear that the Public Trustee will continue to do trust work but that the trust work that it had been involved in on behalf of people with a mental incapacity was to be transferred to the Public Guardianship Office on 1 April 2001. That is a particularly inauspicious day for the clients of the Public Guardianship Office, and I shall refer to that in a moment. The Public Guardianship Office, it appears, operates under the aegis of the Official Solicitor.

The Minister will recall the debate that we had on 27 June 2002 when I and other hon. Members prayed against two statutory instruments. I opened the debate and set out, among other things, the complaints of a number of individuals, constituents and others, as to the inefficiency, delays and expense in dealing with the Public Guardianship Office. I have checked with some of my constituents and am told that unfortunately the performance of the Public Guardianship Office, far from improving, is still appalling.

My second point is about accountability. The Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee are two distinct legal bodies, although the same person, a Mr. Laurence Oates, is appointed to both statutory posts. The Minister has assured us that he receives just one salary and that it is paid at the appropriate civil service rates. In other words, he does not get two dollops. The two statutory offices continue to exist separately but are currently held by the same person. I should like the Minister outline to the House—or, better still, write to me—[Interruption.] She can circulate the letter to other Members who are interested in this riveting matter. Will she let me know why a new single statutory post should not be created, combining both that of the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee? What are the advantages of having the two posts, especially as both are held by the same person?

It would assist the House if the Minister were to explain in her letter exactly what cost savings would result from creating a new single statutory post. In that

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letter, would she also outline what personnel are currently employed in management posts in the two offices and the approximate savings that would be achieved if they were combined?

As I said earlier, the Bill is welcome as far as it goes, and we shall not oppose it tonight.

8.46 pm

Ms Rosie Winterton: First, I apologise to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I thought that he was standing in just for this evening, but as that is not the case, let me extend a very warm welcome to him in his return to the position that he previously occupied.

A certain amount of confusion has been expressed about the difference between the various officers and the changes that took place following the quinquennial review and the report of the Public Accounts Committee. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to the Public Guardianship Office, which is completely separate from the Public Trustee. The Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor are the same person.

Mr. Burnett: Will the Minister make it clear that the Public Trustee still acts in trusts, although not in trusts for those who are mentally incapacitated?

Ms Winterton: Yes, following the review, much of the trust work that dealt with very vulnerable people in particular, for example those who had been involved in road traffic accidents and so forth, was transferred to the Public Trustee. The Public Guardianship Office continues to look after people who are suffering from mental incapacity.

In addition, there has been some confusion about fees. The fee-setting powers have been transferred from the Treasury to the Lord Chancellor. In modern practice, the Minister with responsibility for the policy holds those powers. However, the powers to set fees for trust work as set out in section 9(1) of the Public Trustee Act 1906 provide for the Treasury to set fees with the sanction of the Lord Chancellor. We are regularising the position.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made some particular points about a constituent. I will be happy to explain some of the differences between the offices and where his constituent's problems may lie—he may be talking about a constituent who is having difficulties with the Public Guardianship Office, as opposed to the Public Trustee. I would be happy to deal with that if he would like to write to me or come to see me about those problems.

The amount of money under management is in the region of #250 million. I cannot give details of the exact number of cases at the moment, but I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman. I will also be happy to write to him about his detailed questions about the number of staff at the Official Solicitor's Office and the Public Trustees Office. He will know that I have written to explain that we did not think that it would be appropriate to separate the two posts at present. Indeed, that might well lead to increased, rather than decreased, costs. I will certainly write to him about the detailed matters that he discussed.

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On beneficiaries making up money, we are trying to make it possible for a proper remissions policy to be introduced so that full cost recovery under the Act is not necessary—a public subsidy is allowed. Of course, the Public Trustee will work within the general Treasury rules. We wanted to ensure that these very vulnerable people would have the possibility of remissions in fees and, if necessary, therefore, there would be a public subsidy. I hope that that answers some of the questions.

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