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9.32 pm

Simon Hughes: The Bill started as a measure of one part, grew to one of two parts and ended up as one of three parts. It is none the worse for that—indeed, the third addition is broadly welcome.

Like others, I am grateful for the constructive way in which everybody has participated. It is fair to say that, although part 1 was controversial, it probably reflects the broader majority view across the House. Although some have concerns about adding to lawyers’ opportunities, we must none the less hope that they will be restrained.

I say to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that counsellors’ advice to Ministers, which I was kindly shown, on the “may” or “shall” option was persuasive. Perhaps he will be slightly reassured by that, although I am happy to try to persuade him outside later.

It is regrettable that, in your absence, Mr. Speaker, and through no fault of yours, we were unable to debate the last three groups of amendments on Report. One would have allowed us to raise the other definition issue that rightly took up time in Committee and the House of Lords—whether “desirable activity” was the right phrase. Again, I was encouraged to know that Treasury counsel and those who advise the Government and the draftsmen and women see the merit of a good argument. They nearly appeared to suggest that an alternative might be more acceptable. They just backed off that in the advice that the Under-Secretary shared with me.

Mr. Brazier: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his earlier back-handed tribute. The two points to which he has referred are, of course, inextricably linked. The case for having “may” rather than “shall” is that the Bill contains the
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enormously wide and rather vague term “desirable activities”. Had we had a narrower term—as I think the hon. Gentleman would have wanted, and as we certainly did—there would have been a case for “shall”.

Simon Hughes: I hope that we have not lost the watching millions as a result of our tightly argued case for the legal alternatives. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I had hoped to persuade Parliament that phrases such as “an activity of social value” or “socially valuable”, which are to be found elsewhere in case law, would make a better argument, not least because they would not allow ambiguous interpretation. That is, they would not allow someone to ask to whom the activity was desirable. By definition, they would mean that it was valuable to the community, whereas “desirable” could mean that it was desirable merely to an individual. However, the opportunity to win that argument in the last round was counted out by the time constraints on our debate.

The second substantive issue on the provision of claims management services contained only one major controversial point, and it remained controversial to the end. That was the issue of whether trade unions should be included or excluded from the provisions. I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the amendments that will allow for the subsequent statutory instruments to be debated in both Houses as a matter of course. That means that the matter can be returned to and that we will have the debate that I, and the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and some other Labour Members, want to have. There are arguments on both sides; this is not a cut and dried case. However, the consumers out there need the reassurance that they will have a good, properly regulated service, and that they will not be abused, as some people have been in the trade union context, along with many more outside that context. That is our objective.

When the Bill was first introduced, we were all keen to use it as an opportunity to deal with the great needs of mesothelioma sufferers. I pay tribute to the Minister, her civil servants and those who worked with them to ensure that we had the amendment on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) raised a small matter, which could be corrected without any prejudice to anyone when the Bill goes to the Lords, to ensure that everyone is best protected. I would be very keen to work with colleagues across the House to ensure that the final drafting does not delay the Bill beyond the end of this Session, as it is the Minister’s wish and mine that that should not happen. I want us to make the Bill watertight, so that we do not restrict the opportunity of people with the disease, or their families, to get compensation. I am sure that, with that good will, we will be able to deliver.

The thing that will be remembered about the Bill is that last change. It will be remembered as the Bill that gave a chance of being compensated to thousands of families—in as much as money can ever compensate them—for a serious disease that often remained undiagnosed for a long time but in the end took its toll very quickly. Up and down the land, people will now be able to get some compensation. That is a good bit of work done. As the Minister said, Parliament sometimes comes together across party boundaries to make sure that we look after the people who send us here.

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9.38 pm

Mr. Clapham: This is a small but significant Bill. Part 2 was obviously needed, as we have seen chaos develop after the miners’ coal health claims came into being, because of claims farmers. Those companies came in and cold-called people, collected claims together, and sold them on to solicitors. Sometimes, they would hold on to them before passing them on to solicitors later for a huge fee. We have heard from two colleagues about the kind of problems that those activities have caused in their constituencies. Part 2 is therefore very welcome, as it will bring regulation and order where there was none.

I thank the Minister for her hard work in bringing forward new clause 13, which will provide an opportunity for people suffering from mesothelioma to have their compensation paid fairly. It will reverse the Barker decision, which, in my estimation, involved a great deal of unfairness. The Minister gave a great deal of thought to the issue of retrospection. That retrospection will provide an opportunity for most of the cases caught between the Barker decision of 3 May and the current position to be reviewed. I thank the Minister for what she has done. She worked hard to bring forward new clause 13, which will be beneficial.

Overall, the Bill is significant. We will look back on it for two main reasons: first, for bringing regulation were there was none, to control the claims farmers; and secondly, for new clause 13 on mesothelioma.

9.40 pm

Mr. Brazier: The experience of this Bill has been valuable, and we have produced a modest but worthwhile piece of legislation. I thank both the Minister and Baroness Ashton, the Minister in the other place, for opening their door to the all-party group on adventure and recreation in society in a series of meetings. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—

Mr. Heald: Unwittingly, I did not congratulate my hon. Friend in my Third Reading remarks, although I have done so many times before. This Bill is the culmination of a campaign for him, and something for which he has fought very hard, so I would like to congratulate him.

Mr. Brazier: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend.

I thank the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) for his work in Committee and his support on a number of issues. I congratulate Lord Hunt on his terrific victory on clause 2 in the other place, and I also thank the Minister for the way in which she and Baroness Ashton swallowed their pride and ended up welcoming the provision, which is great.

In relation to the all-party campaign, I want to thank Ian Lewis, the director of the Campaign for Adventure, and Andrew Caplan, the legal adviser to the Scout Association, for their support. They made possible the contribution to the debate by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as well as that by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who cannot be here tonight.

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The only substantive point I want to make is that we have nearly got through the Hansard route what we would have liked to have seen on the face of the Bill—a slightly narrower definition of desirable activities and “shall” rather than “may”. Looking back over the record, I see that the Minister said in Committee that desirable activities must involve an element of collective value, not just the trivial, tautological individual desire to do them, which would apply in every case. We therefore have some limitation on desirable activities. Her answer to me tonight made it fairly clear that the court would normally be expected to take clause 1 into account. The examples given by her and the Minister in the other place of the kind of cases in which it would not be taken into account were a long way from the voluntary, sporting, educational and other activities that the all-party campaign exists to protect, so we have almost achieved what we wanted in that regard.

An awful lot of people are doing an awful lot of good in this country—the tens of thousands of scout masters and guide leaders, the huge numbers who work with young people in sports clubs, yacht clubs, canoeing clubs and more informal groups for hill walking, the teachers who take children out on school trips and so on. If the Bill stops the fatuous cases that we have seen in the lower courts over the past few years, including the one in Manchester, which I cited in my Second Reading speech, that took place during the Bill’s progress through the House of Lords—

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, and I realise that there is a certain element of mutual self-congratulation, but on behalf of my colleagues in the all-party scout group, may I tell him that his commitment and hard work, often unglamorous, from the early stages, has been greatly and widely appreciated throughout the voluntary movement, but especially in scouting? We are very grateful to him.

Mr. Brazier: I am really embarrassed by that. I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I must allow time for others to speak; I shall simply say that if the Bill puts a stop to the silly cases that come along every few months in the lower courts, Parliament will have done something worth while tonight.

9.44 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones: This has been described as a small Bill, but I believe that it will have a dramatic effect outside the goldfish bowl of Westminster. Part 2 is vital to the cleaning up of the most disreputable part of the semi-legal profession, the claims handlers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I have described the trauma and heartache that those organisations have caused in former coalmining communities. I congratulate the Government on their proposals to tighten up the claims handling industry, and I hope that the Bill will lead to its abolition and disappearance.

I also congratulate the Minister and her team. I agree with what the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said about her open-door policy: she has
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been prepared to listen to my representations and those of other Members. She has also pushed through a vital measure, new clause 13, which will have a dramatic effect on the lives of thousands of mesothelioma sufferers. Before I entered the House I was a full-time trade union official. I dealt with asbestos-related claims on a daily basis, and witnessed the heartache not just of individuals when they were diagnosed, but of their families afterwards. Some of them—mainly men—were only in their forties. No amount of compensation can make up for the misery and cruel deaths that those people suffer, or for the heartache that their families undergo, but I believe that the new clause will right a wrong. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who chairs the all-party asbestos group, on his tremendous work in pursuing not just this issue but the general issue of asbestos victims.

This is a good Bill. When people ask what the difference between a Conservative and a Labour Government is, we can say that although the all-party support for new clause 13 was welcome, it would probably not have been there without a Labour Government. We should not forget that, when we ask how Labour can make a difference in constituencies.

9.47 pm

Mr. Hollobone: I have approached the Bill from an unusual perspective. My constituency contains a company called National Accident Helpline—not to be confused with the Accident Group or Claims Direct—which has a very good reputation for helping people to win compensation. It has been right behind the Bill ever since it was suggested, and as its advocate I am proud to speak up on its behalf.

National Accident Helpline acts as the face, or the national brand, of a group of 100 solicitors around the country who specialise in winning compensation for many thousands of people. It exists because, whether we like it or not, a good many people are frightened of going to solicitors, and a good many others do not have the benefit of trade union representation or legal expenses insurance. They go to National Accident Helpline, which is able to assist them. It does not charge, it does not make cold calls, it does not sell insurance, it does not offer loans and it does not give legal advice. What it does is ensure that those with legitimate claims are put in touch with a solicitor in the National Accident Helpline Group, and receive the help that they deserve. It welcomes part 2 of the Bill, because it will bring proper regulation to the claims management industry.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that the reason why many of the solicitors have such an unsavoury reputation is the large slice they take of the compensation that they win on behalf of anyone they represent.

Mr. Hollobone: Absolutely. That point has been well made throughout the proceedings on the Bill—but the point is that not all solicitors have a bad reputation. National Accident Helpline is a very good national brand, and it is proud to be associated with the solicitors whom it represents.

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National Accident Helpline has commented on the Bill. It wants to ensure that genuine accident victims are able to access justice and are protected from any unscrupulous players entering the claims sector. That is why it sees the Bill as a vital opportunity to provide effective regulation in the sector and genuinely protect consumer interests. On that note, I congratulate the Minister on her progress with the Bill.

9.50 pm

Mr. Dismore: I think I have to pour a little rain on the parade, particularly in relation to clause 1. It is a pity we did not get to clause 1 on Report, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said. Despite what the Minister says, in my view it does create a new defence that companies will exploit, particularly in relation to accidents at work, because by definition, anyone who is at work should be, and probably is, performing a desirable activity. Therefore, their position will be weakened as a result of clause 1. I agree with the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that it changes the law but, in my view it changes it for the worse, not the better. On Second Reading I said that the clause stank, and I do not think that the smell has got any better in the debates we have had on it since then. It is a serious weakening of the rights of people who are injured, to the benefit of the big insurance companies.

I welcome the approach the Minister has adopted to mesothelioma claims. The Government have moved with commendable speed and vigour to come up with new clause 13. It is a pity that she could not go a little further and look at some of the outstanding issues around asbestos, but no doubt we will return to those debates.

I welcome part 2. I started campaigning on the issue of claims handlers when they were invented in the mid-1980s. My first meeting with the Minister’s predecessor in the Department in 1997 was on the need to regulate claims handlers, so I am pleased that the Government have caught up with that important need. However, some of the debates on the issue have been a little intemperate. There has been a risk of some of the babies being thrown out with the bathwater, particularly when it comes to trade union schemes.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the qualified exemption that trade unions have? Would he state how important it is that the assertions that have been made about malpractice in certain county or regional parts of trade unions must not be read over to the whole group of trade unions, particularly the National Union of Mineworkers?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am pleased that the Minister has come forward with an approach that offers a sensible way of sorting out trade unions. I was concerned about the amount of mud that was being thrown earlier, with the benefit of parliamentary privilege, at some trades unions and indeed some law firms. Perhaps I should correct my own position in relation to that matter. I was never a partner in Thompsons. I was a partner in Robin Thompson and Partners until 1995, when I resigned as
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I did not want to be part of the new Thompsons firm, for reasons that had nothing to do with the things we have been debating today.

I have no direct knowledge of the issues that the hon. Member for North Durham has raised, although I do know that that law firm has a long and proud tradition of representing workers, from the Poplar dispute in 1926 onwards, and has created a lot of important law, often on a pro bono basis. I am concerned because those who are not here to answer for themselves have been slagged off as they have—but any suggestion that I have an association with them, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, is wrong. I started my life as a trade union official, as he did, before I qualified as a solicitor, and I no longer work for that firm. I have no commercial relationship with it in any way, shape or form. I am concerned that a lot of very good firms have been traduced in the debate that we have had on the Bill.

What is important is that we recognise that trade unions are in a special position, and that they do a lot of extremely good work on legal issues on behalf of their members and their members’ families. We do not need to have the detailed regulation that the claims handlers, which are in large part very dodgy firms, need. I join my hon. Friend in the hope that those people will be drummed out of business as a consequence of part 2.

As I have said, I have grave reservations about part 1. If the Bill consisted of part 1 alone, I would not vote to give it a Third Reading. However, the downside of part 1 is balanced by the new provisions on mesothelioma and part 2, so I will reluctantly support the Bill—but I still think that clause 1 stinks.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Mr. Speaker: With permission, I shall take motions 1 to 8 together.

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