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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): My right hon. Friend discusses a wide range of issues with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My hon. Friend knows that tackling pensioner poverty is one of this Government's key policies.
John Robertson: In Anniesland, more than 13,500 pensioner households are receiving the winter fuel allowance and more than 5,100 pensioner households receive an average pension credit of £45. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Chancellor not only continues that support for the poorest pensioners in our society, but does more for them?
I agree with my hon. Friend, whose constituency has one of the highest proportions of pensioner households in Scotland. He works assiduously to make sure that pensioners in his constituency get all their rightful benefits.
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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 30 November, 67 devolution issues have been intimated to me: 36 devolution issues related to criminal matters, including pre-trial delay, self incrimination under section 172 of the Road Traffic Acts and satellite monitoring of fishing vessels; the remaining 31 devolution issues related to civil matters, almost all of which concerned prison conditions.
Annabelle Ewing: Is the Advocate-General aware of any discrepancy in the Scotland Act 1998 that means that it is essential for the Prime Minister to declare his stay with a pop star, but that it is not essential for the First Minister to declare his stay with a political pundit?
The Advocate-General: Many of those casesfor example, the pre-trial delay caseswere copycat cases in which I had examined the legal issues in detail in relation to other cases. In one or two of those cases, I intervened and appeared in Privy Council to deal with the legal issues. Such matters depend on the type of issue and whether the issue has been raised before. I did not intervene on any of the particular issues intimated to me in the past month, but some of those issues have been raised in other cases, one or two of which I have intervened in.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the Gambling Bill is currently passing through the House and that it has important implications for Scotland. What discussions has she had with the Scottish Executive about the regulatory regime in Scotland? In particular, the Government indicated on Second Reading that use class orders in England and Wales will be changed to separate bingo clubs and
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casino premises. Has she received any indications from the Scottish Executive on whether they intend to pass similar legislation to amend planning in Scotland?
The Advocate-General: The important matters that my hon. Friend raises relate to policy, not legal issues. Policy discussions would not normally be carried out by me but by the relevant policy Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
It may be of some assistance if I give an overview of legal regulatory matters as I see them at the moment. My hon. Friend will be aware that although gambling is a reserved matter, Scottish Ministers exercise some powers as a consequence of Executive devolution. The Bill proposes that the Gambling Commission will regulate commercial gambling and issue operating and personal licences. There will be a right of appeal against that to the Gambling Appeals Tribunal. In addition, it is important to understand that licensing boards, which are devolved, will regulate the gambling premises and that the devolved planning structure will apply.
Mr. Carmichael: May I invite the Advocate-General to give some advice to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on his power in the Crown Estate Act 1961 to issue directions to the Crown estate commissioners? I suggest that had he done so, the shellfish farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland would not have found themselves in the position that they did shortly before Christmas, when they were faced with massive increases in the rents that they have to pay to the Crown estate commissioners, who are the only possible landlord to whom they can turn.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): My Department continually reviews and monitors private finance initiative procedures for new court building projects, including plans for Essex magistrates courts, to secure the most effective and efficient contracts on behalf of the taxpayer.
May I urge the Minister to take a personal grip on this particular issue, as the position to date has been absolutely lamentable? The time that has elapsed since the day that the decision on the private finance initiative for the new Colchester courthouse was taken is longer than the duration of the second world war. If Churchill can win a war in six years, why cannot this Minister build a new courthouse?
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Mr. Leslie: It is certainly a challenge that I am tempted to take up. I have to say, however, that we are at an early stage in contracting for this private finance initiative. I understand the hon. Gentleman's keenness to see such older court facilities improved and to get on with the more exciting proposals that are on the table, but we have a duty to ensure, on behalf of the taxpayer, that the contractual arrangements that we enter into are fit and proper and efficient, and we are working on that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The claims management sector must be properly regulated. We have given claims handlers one last chance to put their house in order. If they do not, we will consider how formal regulation could be introduced in the context of our consideration of Sir David Clementi's report.
Paddy Tipping: Does the Minister accept that in coalfield areas such as mine, claims handlers are causing real difficulties by making unnecessary charges for coal health claims and raising unrealistic expectations about industrial injury claims, and that some of them seem to have intimate connections with firms of solicitors? Many of us do not want our constituents to continue to be ripped off in this way, so is this the last-chance saloon?
Mr. Lammy: Yes, it most definitely is. My hon. Friend will know that last year the Law Society did much work on this with solicitors' firms. The cold-calling, sharp practices and unfair preying on vulnerable people must stop. We have asked the Claims Standards Council to consider the situation and to work with the industry on getting its house in order. If it does not, we will regulate to deal with the gaps.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Am I right that one of the drivers of the proliferation of claims handlers is the no win, no fee rule, which has also led to a big increase in so-called ambulance chasers? What is the Under-Secretary going to do about contingency fees?
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that a previous Administration largely introduced the contingency fee regime. We have tried to simplify the regulations. The Better Regulation Task Force considered the matter, we accepted many of its recommendations and we are moving forward.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)
(Lab): Companies such as Industrial Disease Compensation Ltd., which is an unscrupulous claims handling firm in the north-east, cannot operate without close relationships with law firms, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary consider meeting coalfield Members of
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Parliament to discuss the issue? What representations will he make to the Law Society, which has a key role to play in ensuring that the act is cleaned up?
Mr. Lammy: I absolutely agree to meet Members who represent coalfield areas. I have regular discussions with the Law Society and have raised such issues with it in the past. I also have upcoming meetings. We take the matter seriously. As I said, the Government are actively considering regulationbut let us meet, continue the dialogue and ensure that we can bring the practice to an end.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux issued a report last month on the claims farmersunqualified intermediaries who are engaged in high pressure sales tactics and often mislead the public into ill-conceived litigation. If we consider that report with the comments that have been made, is it not odd that the Under-Secretary's policy is to allow those people to go further and take over or set up high street solicitors' practices? How will he tackle the abuses?
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is confused. The Government's policy has been to ask Sir David Clementi to consider the issues and to act once we have examined his report. We have said clearly that we need the right provisions to ensure that there are no sharp practices on the high street. We are working with the Law Society. David Clementi has specifically considered those matters and we are dealing with the issue; the Conservative Government did not.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I first raised the problems of claims assessors when I was elected in 1997, but the position has got worse. Claims assessors feed the myth of the compensation culture rather than present the facts. Would it not be more appropriate to regulate now, ask Clementi to reconsider the matter with specific reference to the proposed legal services board and suggest that claims assessors should be brought under its auspices in the same way as other people in practice? Is not the best advice to people who are injured simply to go to a reputable specialist personal injury lawyer, from whom they will get a much better deal than from the crooks?
Mr. Lammy: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned on those issues for many years. I also know what the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has said in the past few weeks about the matter. He knows that Sir David Clementi has just reported. We must examine the detail of the report, but we must also let the Claims Standards Council at least to have the opportunity to rectify the position.
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