Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill

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Clause 3

Short title and extent

10.45 am

Ms Winterton: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 7, and leave out subsection (3).

As I am sure many hon. Members will know, the background to the privilege amendment is set out in ''Erskine May''. Where a Bill originates in the other place and contains provisions that may infringe the privileges of this House with regard to the control of public money, a privilege amendment is formally added.

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Mr. Cash: Is the Minister aware that there is some controversy in the Government about this? Lord Williams, who is a highly distinguished and important member of the Government, has proposed that such arrangements should be withdrawn and that the Lords should be able to amend legislation with regard to public funds. There is huge embarrassment in the Government—to which I do not want to add in any way.

The Chairman: Order. I have already admonished the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead for a long intervention. The intervention of the hon. Member for Stone was long, too but it was also a matter of order. The Standing Orders have not changed. Nor have the arrangements between the two Houses. The situation is as it is today and not as it might be according to the future decision of another Committee.

Ms Winterton: I am sure that the hon. Member for Stone was merely casting further—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North put it very well—pieces of gold before parliamentary swine. Thank you, Mr. McWilliam, for your clarification.

A privilege amendment is required where a Lords Bill contains provisions that deal with charges upon the people or upon public funds. Since 1972, this House has generally proceeded with a Lords Bill that would have as its main object the imposition or, as in this case, the alteration of a charge upon the people or on public funds, provided that it contains the standard formula that no such charge is imposed or altered and that a Minister of the Crown takes charge of it in the Commons. The standard formula is incorporated into the Bill before it leaves the Lords to avoid the formal infringement of the Commons' privileges.

Hon. Members will see that the privilege amendment negates the financial consequences of the Bill and thereby demonstrates that the ability of the other place to legislate on such matters is not absolute, but subject to the tolerance of this House. The provisions that, but for the privilege amendment, would have the effect of creating or altering a charge have now been authorised by the money resolution, which was agreed to immediately after Second Reading in this House. Therefore, the privilege amendment may safely be removed. As Hon. Members will recognise, this is a purely technical and formal process, and I hope that the Committee will accept the amendment.

Mr. Heath: This is, of course, a technical amendment, and we all understand why it is necessary, but it has a certain resonance in this Bill because it will remove the disclaimer that nothing in the legislation shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, which is one of the points that I raised on Second Reading. I asked the Minister precisely how the shortfall in funding that has been experienced so far, and which will continue until the matter is rectified, would be made up. I asked whether a cross-subsidy would be introduced to protect the most vulnerable recipients of the service of the Public Trustee at the expense of others who will end up paying more. Given that the explanatory notes set out a time scale in which the shortfall should be made up, it would be extremely helpful to the Committee and

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the House if the Minister could make available at least a draft scale of the fees and charges that she is thinking of introducing, because it is by no means clear what they will be.

Mr. Cash: All the points that needed to be made were made on Second Reading, when we did not oppose the Bill. There are no amendments apart from this one, to which I have no objection, so it seems to me that nothing further needs to be said.

Mr. Burnett: I want to endorse one or two points that I mentioned during my intervention on the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, which have also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I do not want to go over the same ground again, but I would like to know how the charges will be fixed. What qualifications do people at the Public Trustee office have? Is it necessary for the good functioning of that office, which does not deal with vulnerable people, to recruit more people?

I should like to know what the Government's plans are for the future of the Public Trustee office. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made a valid point on Second Reading, which I was unable to attend. He asked the Minister to confirm that the legal person of the official trustee is now identical to the legal person of the Official Solicitor, and if it is, how that has been achieved in law. The Minister said that she would write to my hon. Friend, but I should be grateful if she could respond to that question now. There is a significant deficit. How do the Government propose to catch up? Do they propose a perpetual subsidy? If there is to be an increase in fees, we should have an opportunity to debate that.

The Chairman: Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman considerable latitude. Most of his speech was more appropriate for a clause stand part debate, so I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

Mr. Allen: I will seek your guidance, Mr. McWilliam, on whether my point would be better made during the stand part debate. My point is brief, but it follows from the point made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), with whom I have served on Committees in the past. He made an excellent point about the relationship between the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have been in correspondence with her Department about a Mr. Eric Walker and his Strelley social club, which became bankrupt and was wound up, leaving assets that were available for distribution to the individual surviving members. Those members are ageing, as we all are. Some have passed away. The sum to be divvied up among those members is in the hands of the Official Solicitor.

The Minister knows the ins and outs of the case. Does she feel that it is appropriate to refer to the matter of funding under clause 3(3), or should I refer to it in the clause stand part debate? That is my only technical question about the Bill.

Ms Winterton: Hon. Members have raised several points, some of which were also raised on Second Reading. I shall reiterate my answers for the benefit of

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the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The debate refers only to public subsidy to support genuine last resort work where there is a socially desirable need for it, which will not be cross-subsidised by additional fees to other clients. The hon. Gentleman may recall from debates on the Public Guardianship Office that the issue of cross-subsidy caused the Public Accounts Committee some concern. Changes have been made to avoid some of those problems recurring.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the new fee structure. The details of any future fee system remain to be settled, so it would be impossible to place draft fees before the Committee. In the short term, the current fee arrangements are based on fees linked to the size of the trusts and are likely to continue. However, the future system will be based more on charging commensurate with work done, as opposed to making a percentage charge, as happens now.

Mr. Burnett: What the Minister said is interesting because it reflects what happened in private practice 30 or 40 years ago, when a percentage charge was left for a proper hourly rate charge. However, we would like to know how that hourly rate would be fixed. The public should be made aware of that, too.

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that, when we considered fixing the fees for the Public Guardianship Office, several matters were taken into account. When we consider the hourly rate charge, we shall take into account commercial charges and how we might take heed of Treasury rules. Balancing that, we shall also take into account the charges made in other agencies, such as the Public Guardianship Office. When we consider setting a rate, we want to achieve a balance and ensure that hardship is not caused to any of the beneficiaries. Therefore, we would strike that balance, using benchmarks in similar situations. I am sorry that I cannot give further details of future fee structures.

11 am

Mr. Burnett: I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind, when her Department introduces an hourly fee structure, that there should be the same ability to appeal fees as there is to appeal lawyers' fees where clients can apply for taxation of those fees.

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have published a widely welcomed remissions procedure in the Public Guardianship Office. I will bear his comments in mind.

The hon. Member for Stone firmly claimed that there was nothing more to be said, which obviously follows his probing speeches on Second Reading. I am grateful that he feels that most of his questions have now been answered.

The need to recruit more people was raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. I think that 90 people have transferred from the previous Public Trust Office to the staff of the Public Trustee to continue the necessary work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned an important problem. I know how concerned he has been about his constituent and Strelley social club. In many senses, his point is

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relevant to the amendment because we are considering the use of public money to alleviate difficult situations. He has written to me on the subject, we have discussed it and I am ready to meet him on any occasion about it, as he has worked extremely hard on it.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been some confusion, not only in this debate but on Second Reading, about the duties of the Official Solicitor as compared to those of the Public Trustee. His question relates to the Official Solicitor, and we will be more than happy to pursue the matter outside the Committee.

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