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Miners' Compensation

25. John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the efficiency of the office for the supervision of solicitors in dealing with complaints from hon. Members about the level of fees charged to miners and miners' widows for mining-related disease claims. [140734]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): On 26 September, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs announced that in his view the Law Society's office for the supervision of solicitors was not handling complaints efficiently or effectively. As a result, the Government are to appoint a legal services complaints commissioner with powers to oversee more closely the work of the OSS. Nevertheless, the Law Society remains responsible for investigating individual complaints, and it has assured me that it will investigate with urgency cases where solicitors are allegedly overcharging claimants for mining-related diseases.

John Cryer : On that basis, why do we not move towards abolishing the OSS and replacing it with a truly independent body? As my hon. Friend knows, it is seen as being far too close to the legal profession and far too timid when it comes to dealing with complaints.

Specifically in relation to complaints by miners and miners' widows, does my hon. Friend agree that the OSS—or the Law Society, which now deals with such matters—should be urged to get off its backside and go out to encourage people to register complaints? It should make clear the service that it provides vis-à-vis complaints and bring those complaints in, not just wait for them.

Mr. Leslie: I understand my hon. Friend's frustration. That is why the Secretary of State took action by introducing a new legal services complaints commissioner properly and more rigorously to oversee the work of the Law Society in these matters. My hon. Friend makes the reasonable suggestion that instead of just reacting to complaints, it should engage more proactively with users of legal services. We need to monitor the situation closely. I assure him that my Department will not tolerate malpractice by solicitors.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Minister get on to the Law Society hotline and tell it directly that, in view of the comments made in the Chamber today, hon. Members are fed up with miners who have given their health and their lives being ripped off? Solicitors in the handling agreement have already received payments in excess of £20 million: enough is enough.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend's anger is understandable. He is aware, as is the office for the supervision of solicitors, of cases where miners and their families have not been well served by the legal profession. As I said, more than 100,000 claimants have gone through the handling scheme at the Department of Trade and Industry. The typical charge by solicitors under the DTI-approved scheme is £1,800 per claim, so there can be few excuses for excessive legal fees.

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European Parliamentary Elections

28. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on the piloting of new voting methods in Scotland at the 2004 European parliamentary elections. [140738]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): My Department has asked the Electoral Commission to advise on up to three regions or nations that, in its view, would be suitable for piloting all-postal or electronic voting in the combined local and European parliamentary elections next June. The pilot provisions are the subject of measures that have been carried over into the Session. I anticipate that a decision will be taken in principle before Christmas.

Mr. Tynan : I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He will accept that turnout in the previous European elections was abysmal. I have been pressing for Scotland to be treated as a pilot area for European elections. Will he reinforce that argument and ensure that Scotland is included as a pilot area in those elections?

Mr. Leslie: I sense that there is a great demand for all-postal voting in Scotland, but I wait for the Electoral Commission to give its advice, on which I shall base my decision. Where all-postal voting has been piloted locally, it is clear that it has an appreciable impact on turnout. A typical turnout of 33 per cent. at the previous local elections was increased to 49 per cent. in areas where all-postal voting took place. It is therefore understandable that so many hon. Members want their region or nation to be part of the pilot scheme.


The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—


32. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on proposals to alter catering arrangements in the House. [140762]

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In the absence of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on parliamentary business, I have been asked to reply.

The House of Commons Commission has endorsed the view of the Finance and Services Committee that the current catering subsidy, which is nearly £6 million a year, is unjustifiable and must be reduced. Meals are provided for more than 4,000 pass holders who visit the parliamentary estate daily and the subsidy extends to all catering facilities, including those in the Press Gallery. In the first instance, the Commission is seeking a reduction of £350,000 a year in running costs. The Refreshment Department and the Catering Committee were asked to work out details and the measures

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recently communicated to hon. Members were drawn up accordingly. Hon. Members' views are welcome and should be directed to the Chairman and members of the Catering Committee.

Mr. Chapman : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his task this morning and accept that the concept of value for money must be pursued. However, given that last year represented the best trading year for the Refreshment Department since at least 1993, is not he as surprised and disappointed as I am that the proposals appear to have been issued without adequate consultation, without apparent consideration for staff and without sufficient justification? Given that they appear to be based on the concept that success means cuts, will the Commission consider the proposals perhaps with a view to increasing the facilities' use rather than discouraging it? Does he agree that the real villains of the piece are the so-called modernised hours that we have adopted and that so many of us would like to be changed?

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman knows that, personally, I have great sympathy with his last remarks. It is undeniable that if the House decides to change its hours, the pattern of life for hon. Members changes with that. As the hon. Gentleman said, the catering facilities have been widely used in the past 10 years. However, it is only fair to point out that, although their use has increased, there has been a decline from 17,000 to 7,000 covers in the Members' dining room.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recall that when a previous Leader of the House sold us the new hours he assured us that facilities would remain available to Members? Many people view the changes that will happen as a breach of that promise. The proposal got through with only a slender majority.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My hon. Friend will of course accept that I am not responsible for what the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) may or may not have said, but the fact remains that there is a subsidy. It represents only 4 per cent. of the Commission's budget, but it is still a large figure and the Commission is anxious to reduce it. The letter sent by the Chairman of the Catering Committee to Members reflects the Committee's attempt to grapple with this problem and to achieve a £350,000 reduction in the first year, but I urge my hon. Friend and others to make representations to the Chairman of the Catering Committee if they have specific suggestions about how the changes can be revised.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously we ought to look at the top, not the bottom, before anybody loses their job and if any wage cuts are to be made. I believe that compulsory notices have been issued to catering department staff, who are at the bottom of the tier. Is not that premature when we ought

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to be looking for a change in the hours, which will protect jobs, bring in the income and therefore alleviate all the problems we are seeing at the moment?

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Leader of the House, who is present, will have heard what the hon. Gentleman says about the hours. I pay tribute to the staff, who have served us so well in the catering department and throughout the House. They do a wonderful job and one does not want to think of them being subject to undue anxiety. I am assured that no redundancy notices have as yet been issued, but discussions are taking place with the unions. It is hoped that, if there are any redundancies, they will be voluntary.

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