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Miners' Compensation

21. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab): What representations he has received about the level of legal fees imposed on former miners and their families making compensation claims in relation to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and if he will make a statement. [140730]

22. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): If he will establish a legal services complaints commissioner to examine complaints about the level of fees levied by solicitors in handling claims for compensation for mining-related diseases. [140731]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): While my Department has received no direct representations on the matter, I should like at the outset to express my sympathies to all the individuals and families afflicted by mining-related diseases who, I hope, can gain some recompense from the Department of Trade and Industry claims handling agreement, which has been in operation since 1999. I am aware of the early-day motion calling for an examination of the alleged activities of certain solicitors who are overcharging for mining health claims. In the first instance, the Law Society, through the office for the supervision of solicitors, is responsible for investigating claims, and it has assured me that it will investigate any cases of this type with urgency and as a matter of priority. However, in general terms, the Department is planning to take steps to strengthen the oversight of the Law Society's complaints handling by appointing a new legal services complaints commissioner.

David Taylor : Early-day motion 94, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), does indeed draw attention to solicitors' activities in relation to mining

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compensation claims. Is the Minister aware that some firms that cold-call vulnerable former miners and their families in North-West Leicestershire and elsewhere proceed, when claims are settled, to rip them off in a most extortionate fashion? Will he condemn such utterly obnoxious practices, which sully the entire legal profession, and will he institute an inquiry into the whole sorry scandal?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes an entirely proper point. The DTI claims handling agreement of September 1999 was designed to meet all legal costs incurred by claimants, so there can be very few excuses for levying excessive fees on them. There must be firmer action to eradicate improper practices. There is an initiative to establish a new post of legal services complaints commissioner, who will, I believe, have better oversight of the supervision of solicitors.

Mr. Blizzard : I put this question in a spirit of solidarity between an oil and gas constituency and coal-mining constituencies, because this is a very serious matter indeed. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is now aware of the evidence against those solicitors who have been behaving in such a terrible way, and that he wants to take action. However, will he clarify the way in which the new legal services complaints commissioner will relate to the office for the supervision of solicitors? Will the work of the OSS, which has not been particularly rigorous in dealing with complaints, be taken away from it and given to the new commissioner?

Mr. Leslie: The Law Society will still be responsible for investigating individual complaints, but the Secretary of State, having looked at failings in the efficiency and effectiveness of the pursuit of complaints, has now agreed to the establishment of the post of legal services complaints commissioner under reserve powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999. The commissioner will oversee the OSS so that its handling of complaints is more effective and, if necessary, fines can be levied on the Law Society, in appropriate circumstances, if it fails performance criteria.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, represent a former coal-mining constituency, although I am not aware that this deplorable practice has occurred there. I accept that the hon. Gentleman does not have a direct regulatory role, but is it not open to the Lord Chancellor to write to solicitors as officers of the Supreme Court to remind them of their responsibilities and suggest that the only fee that they should accept is the DTI-recommended fee? Any other fee, if already taken, should be returned or, if promised, should be rejected.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that the DTI claims handling agreement made arrangements for a certain number of solicitors to be approved for activity under the scheme. The scheme was generous to those solicitors, and the DTI has actively discouraged claimants from using solicitors outside the scheme. For example, it has advertised in local mining communities to warn people about potential malpractice by a small number of solicitors. As I have said, I hope that any hon. Members who have received reports about such incidents will pass them on to the

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OSS, but the House can certainly be assured that the Government take the matter exceptionally seriously. We want to make sure that justice is done for those mining families.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his replies and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on the campaign that he has led. This matter is of great concern throughout the former coalfield communities. On local radio this morning, three former miners outlined what had happened to them. In one case, a miner had been awarded £10,000 and had had to pay £2,500 in fees. That is unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend make it clear that if he and the office for the supervision of solicitors do not bring the solicitors involved to book, a large number of hon. Members will have no compunction in using the privilege of this House to name and shame those companies?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on this issue, and I know that he will take every opportunity to stand up for his constituents. It is perfectly reasonable that he wants a firmer crackdown on any malpractice by a small number of solicitors. It is also important that we have taken the extra step of creating the new legal services complaints commissioner to oversee the office for the supervision of solicitors, which has, frankly, not been as efficient and effective as it could have been. The DTI handling agreement is the biggest personal injury scheme in British legal history, and possibly one of the biggest in the world. I believe that it is amply generous to the solicitors involved, and it has now worked for almost 100,000 claimants. I hope that all potential future claimants will agree that it is important to work with approved solicitors in that scheme.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): May I emphasise one point to my hon. Friend? A constituent of mine in her 80s recently received a compensation payment of about £40,000, from which solicitors deducted £10,000 as a success fee for a case in which the DTI had accepted liability and there was no risk. What such solicitors are doing is morally indefensible, but, technically, it might not be an issue of complaint, because as a result of a loophole they are entitled to act in such a way. Will he ensure that those solicitors are removed from the handling agreement and prevented from taking any more claims?

Mr. Leslie: I shall certainly pass on to the DTI the details of the case that my hon. Friend mentions, with a view to ascertaining whether the solicitor in question was involved in the approved scheme. I doubt whether that is the case; it sounds as though something has gone very badly wrong in that instance. I think that the legal fees awarded under the scheme are amply generous. As I said, there are few excuses for excessive fees. Some malpractice may have occurred in the smallprint, which the claimant might not have seen, but that is not acceptable. The office for the supervision of solicitors, which has a Member of Parliament hotline whereby it can be contacted in respect of any cases, should get on to that case as soon as possible.

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Law Centres

23. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): How many law centres have been opened since the launch of the community legal service. [140732]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Six law centres have been opened since the launch of the community legal service, in Devon, Surrey, Stockport, Trafford, Bury and the Isle of Wight. Law centres provide legal advice and support to an increasing number of communities and play an important part in the fight against social exclusion.

Mr. Kidney : I am pleased to hear about those expansions in the community legal service by way of law centres. Is it part of the Department's thinking that, under a comprehensive community legal service, there is a greater role to be played by law centres and salaried staff in achieving wider access to justice?

Mr. Leslie: It is true that the number of law centres, which are not the only providers of advice through the community legal service, is increasing. There are 52 law centres across the country, 45 of which are funded by the Legal Services Commission, but a large number of solicitors are also contracted to provide advice. I know that my hon. Friend does not have a law centre in his constituency, but I assure him that there are many solicitors with contracts to give legal aid advice. There is also an outreach service in the Stafford citizens advice bureau, of which I know he is well aware.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I say that I very much look forward to being the Minister's opposite number? It risks becoming midget wars with attitude, but we shall try to pitch the tone good and high.

Does the Minister agree that law centres have an important role in liasing with citizens advice bureaux, but that the problem is that the Government keep loading ever greater burdens on to local authorities, including expecting them to support law centres and citizens advice bureaux, without providing any dedicated funding to enable them to carry out such work? How much of the budget does the Minister estimate will be exclusively devoted to such support?

Mr. Leslie: First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new portfolio, although I am not sure about being characterised as a midget, given that at 6 ft 5 in I tower over the Dispatch Box. I am surprised that he cannot recognise that it must be the angle at which he is sitting.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs invests about £7.6 million in community legal service law centres, compared with £4.3 million in the first year of the CLS in 2000–01—a massive increase in funding. The hon. Gentleman urges more expenditure. We have to budget prudently for such matters, but we want more law centres to open up if we can afford it.

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