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26 Nov 2002 : Column 156—continued


38. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): How many complaints she has received about the operation of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors in the past year; and if she will make a statement. [81468]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): The responsibility for handling complaints about the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors falls to the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman. Information about specific numbers of referrals to the OLSO about the OSS is available in the ombudsman's most recent report, a copy of which is in the Library. However, concerns about the operation of the OSS have been raised in correspondence to the Lord Chancellor's Department, and the Lord Chancellor has warned that unless swift

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and substantive improvements are made, he will not hesitate to implement his reserve powers and establish a legal services complaints commissioner.

Mr. Cameron : What would the Minister say to my constituent, Mr. Fraser of Chipping Norton, who wrote to me stating:

Now that the number of complaints is so large, as the Minister said in her answer, the backlog is so significant, and the level of dissatisfaction is getting so high, can she set a deadline for when she will make a decision about whether or nor the current system is working?

Ms Winterton: With regard to self-regulation, the Government have always started from the position that the legal profession should be independent and self-regulating. Solicitors should be able to represent their clients freely and without fear, potentially against the Government, if necessary. It is important that we accept that as the ideal position. However, we are keenly aware of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about complaints, particularly about the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. As I said, the Lord Chancellor would prefer the office to get itself in good working order. However, if that does not happen, he has taken reserve powers that will be reviewed frequently to ensure that improvements are being made. If not, other action will be taken.

Legislative Scrutiny

39. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): What her policy is on scrutiny of Bills sponsored by his Department. [81470]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Queen's Speech highlighted the importance that the Government place on pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills by Parliament. We are keen to see much greater use of pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and legislation introduced by the Lord Chancellor's Department in future.

Mr. Allen : I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on their commitment in the Queen's Speech to ensuring more pre-legislative scrutiny, which will allow this place and the public outside to contribute to Bills. If her Department were to introduce a Bill on, say, courts or mental incapacity, would she look favourably on pre-legislative scrutiny in those areas? Looking further ahead, as Departments are now preparing Bills for next year's legislative programme, will she alert her Department—and I hope, with the President of the Council present, all other Departments in Whitehall—to ensure that time is now being built in for pre-legislative scrutiny, so that all Bills can be properly scrutnised by this House and the public?

Yvette Cooper: The points that my hon. Friend makes are extremely important. We will introduce a Bill on courts reform, as set out in the Queen's Speech. That will need to move relatively quickly into the House for discussion, so I understand that it will not be possible to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on that Bill. However,

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we are looking to future areas of legislation, including issues relating to mental incapacity, which he mentioned. I certainly believe that such legislation would benefit from the scrutiny afforded by prior publication in draft, although he will understand that I can give no commitment about the timing of publication, nor can I give any commitment about parliamentary scrutiny. He will understand that as well as timing decisions taken by business managers, the final decision must rest with parliamentary Committees. We are keen for them to take the decision to conduct more pre-legislative scrutiny when the opportunity arises.


The President of the Council was asked—

House of Lords Reform

46. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): To ask the President of the Council if he will make a statement on proposals for further reform of the House of Lords. [81510]

48. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): What progress has been made with his preparation for reform of the House of Lords. [81512]

The President of the Council (Mr. Robin Cook): The Queen's Speech stated that the Government look forward to considering the interim report from the Joint Committee on options for the composition of the House of Lords. I understand that the Joint Committee may reach a view on its interim report before Christmas. The Government have already given a commitment to facilitate the House reaching a decision on the options on a free vote.

Dr. Lewis : Will the President resist the temptation to shelter entirely behind the Joint Committee schedule and now give a firm pledge to this House that House of Lords reform will be implemented by the end of this Parliament?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman waves temptation in front of me. I am happy to say that I am very able to resist the temptation to shelter behind the Joint Committee. I have said before and am happy to say again that I would like us to take forward House of Lords reform in this Parliament. I would like it to be enforced by the time we reach the end of this Parliament, but whether I can arrive there depends not only on me, but on 659 Members of Parliament, how we vote and whether there is a centre of gravity for reform. I would be very concerned if we fell into the same trap into which the House has fallen on previous occasions, when the inability among those who wanted reform to agree on it left the field to those who were opposed to any reform. We must not fall into that trap this time around.

Tony Wright: When the House discussed this matter six months ago, on 13 May, my right hon. Friend said:

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We are now approaching the Christmas recess. I understand that when the Joint Committee next meets, it will be five weeks since it last met, and that three meetings have been cancelled. Does that not suggest that the speech for which he calls has not been forthcoming?

Mr. Cook: I took the precaution of checking what I said before I came into the Chamber. I added that the summer recess was a tough deadline. It is important that I do not get pushed into the position of speaking on behalf of the Joint Committee and defending its timetable or decisions, which are matters for its members. I welcome the fact that the Chairman said that he intends to report by the winter solstice, and I am grateful to those who pointed out that that takes place on 21 December. That is compatible with being before Christmas.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Given the hilarity with which the Government's White Paper recommendation for electing only a fifth was received, will the Leader of the House give a firm commitment that Labour Back Benchers are under no obligation, and not even encouraged, to support the Government's proposal?

Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that Labour Members are under no obligation to support it. I do not imagine that it would make much difference if they were under such an obligation. There will be a genuine free vote on the options. It is important that we emerge from the process of division with a centre of gravity around one favoured option to create the momentum to take it forward.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): In his extensive research into comparing international second Chambers, has my right hon. Friend come across any other second Chamber that gives religious leaders ex-officio positions and the right to vote on legislation? Is not it time to join the rest of the world and get rid of the bishops from the House of Lords?

Mr. Cook: I do not pretend to be an expert student of comparative second Chambers around the world, and I cannot therefore give my hon. Friend a blunt, frank answer. However, the future of bishops in the second Chamber is contentious and delicate and reflects views in the Church of England and elsewhere.

The royal commission suggested that a reduced number of bishops should sit in the second Chamber. We must wait and see the Joint Committee's view on the matter.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Building on the helpful reply that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), does he perceive no genuine obstacle to resolving Lords reform in this House by next summer, and to resolving it legislatively by the end of the Parliament at the latest? Will he assure us that the Government will use their best endeavours to ensure that the matter progresses in an orderly fashion, and

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that he will work as closely as ever with the Lord Chancellor to make sure that the other place acts in the same way?

Mr. Cook: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government will use their best endeavours to reach a conclusion on the matter. However, it is going a bit far to claim on the basis of my earlier reply that I perceive no obstacles. With only a moment's notice, I could produce 55 different obstacles that we might encounter. However, the House has to find a centre of gravity around a favoured method of reform. That is the prime issue. I hope that the process on which we have embarked through a Joint Committee and a free vote will enable us to reach that outcome.

We have rightly put Parliament in the driving seat to consider an issue of parliamentary reform. I hope that Parliament can rise to the occasion and establish an agreed method of achieving reform. If we can do that, I anticipate effecting it in the course of the Parliament.

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