Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill

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Mr. Allen: I will be brief, as I do not want to detain the Committee on the subject. If the Official Solicitor were to move expeditiously, the matter could be resolved in a timely fashion. Does my hon. Friend accept that as a possible way forward?

Ms Winterton: Yes. I understand that my hon. Friend, in his usual helpful fashion, has suggested to the Official Solicitor that he will talk to his constituent about tracing some of the other 1984 members of the Strelley social club. That is a good example of how we can work together to solve problems that sometimes seem intractable.

Mr. Burnett: I asked the Minister about recruitment, and she kindly confirmed that 90 staff had been transferred to deal with the trust cases. However, I have read somewhere that 2,500 cases were transferred. Is that correct? I see some of those near the Minister nodding. If it is correct, each member of staff will deal with about 28 cases. That is an enormous work load. Will she look into the matter and see whether there are sufficient personnel to deal with such matters?

Ms Winterton: The Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee will no doubt take heed of the hon. Gentleman's comments. I shall make every effort to ensure that staff do not have an undue workload.

Finally, it might be helpful if I quote from the letter that I sent to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome on 4 July, following the Second Reading debate on 1 July when a question was asked about the posts of the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee and the statutes concerning them:

    ''The Official Solicitor is appointed to that post by the Lord Chancellor under section 90 of the Supreme Court Act 1981, and the Public Trustee to his post under section 8 of the Public Trustee Act 1906. The Lord Chancellor has appointed the same person, Laurence Oates, to both statutory posts. It follows that the two statutory offices continue to exist separately but are currently held by the same person. It would be beyond the scope of the current Bill to change this and create a new single statutory post, and in any event I do not believe that there would be any substantive benefit in doing so.''

Mr. Heath: I have not yet received the letter, so I am grateful to the Minister for that extract. However, I am still not clear. If the Government intend the Official Solicitor to carry out the duties of the Public Trustee—presumably that is an ongoing situation; it is not because of the particular qualities of the present incumbent—is this not an opportune point at which to unite the two roles? A single clause amendment to the Bill could simply say that the Public Trustee shall be the Official Solicitor or vice versa. That does not seem to be beyond the scope of the Bill and I am surprised

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that there are any serious objections to reducing confusion.

Ms Winterton: I am afraid that we may have to beg to differ. We believe that it would be beyond the scope of the Bill. We do not wish to merge the two posts at this stage but think that we should let the current position stand and the new roles of the Public Guardianship Office, the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee become more familiar to the public. That will reduce the scope for confusion.

Mr. Heath rose—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman's point is not only beyond the scope of the amendment—it is beyond the scope of the Bill. He could have made it on Second Reading but cannot during the Committee stage.

Harry Cohen: Can the Minister give an indication as to the salary of the Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor, perhaps in writing after the Committee if the figures are not available now? It would be interesting to see them. Does the individual receive both salaries as he is in both posts?

Ms Winterton: That is possibly not the position, but I understand my hon. Friend's concern about public money and I shall ensure that he has the information.

Mr. Allen: There is a degree of confusion, of overlap and of complexity. Would it be helpful were those in the offices of the Public Trustee and the Official Solicitor to take it upon themselves to write to hon. Members on one side of A4, explaining what they do and what services they offer to hon. Members of all parties?

Ms Winterton: That is an extremely good idea. The Second Reading debate indicated that there was confusion about the various roles—not necessarily those of the Official Solicitor and the Public Trustee but perhaps concerning the Public Guardianship Office and the work that has been transferred. It might help hon. Members if we try to clarify that.

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Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend the Minister was helpful with the case that I mentioned. Would her office telephone me and let me know the name of the person in the Official Solicitor's office who deals with the case? Many middle people would then be cut out.

Ms Winterton: I shall certainly ask if that can be arranged.

I hope that I have answered hon. Members' questions on the amendment and that it will be accepted.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Allen: For the record, I thank the Minister for being extremely helpful and constructive. I believe that her comments will be of great benefit to my constituent.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Ms Winterton: I thank you for your excellent chairmanship this morning, Mr. McWilliam, and for the advice that you have generously given.

Mr. Cash: I concur with those remarks.

Mr. Heath: I, too, concur.

The Chairman: I thank hon. Members for their kind words and add that my peculiar posture this morning is not the result of hanging intently on to every word—I always do so. It is because my chair is broken.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)
Allen, Mr.
Baron, Mr.
Burnett, Mr.
Cash, Mr.
Cohen, Harry
Efford, Clive
Heath, Mr.
Hoban, Mr.
Kemp, Mr.
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Vaz, Keith
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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Prepared 9 July 2002