Compensation Bill [Lords]

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John Mann: Why does the hon. Gentleman want a regulator, in addition to the certification officer, union democracy and common law rights, spending his or her time on any issue, however frivolous or unrelated to his or her work, raised by anyone from the series—the 99.9 per cent.—of trade unions where nobody has demonstrated any problems, or if they have, from a union that the Minister can un-exempt, instead of spending his or her time concentrating on the problem and scandal, which means focusing precisely on organisations such as the UDM and Vendside which will not be able to opt in to the code of conduct? Any Minister with a blossoming career who allowed them to do so would pay a terrible price. The possibility of its happening defies common sense. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
Mr. Heald: I should be careful talking about blossoming in the Minister’s presence, and I do not intend to do so.
I looked into the point that the hon. Gentleman made the other day about the certification officer being the regulator, and I had the Library look into it, too. The certification officer has distinct and restricted statutory powers that do not cover somebody who acts as a claims handler, or ensure that that person acts in accordance with the code of conduct. It might be useful if the certification officer were the investigator, but the law does not currently allow for it. I do not want to accept a convenient solution or a fudge; I want something that works for all claims handlers. There is a danger that, with so much money at stake and so much poor behaviour behind us, people will take advantage.
John Mann: I do not want to reveal the hand that may be used in court for consumer rights against the UDM and Vendside, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that had a member complained, the routes to the certification officer would have been used some two-and-a-half years ago, with great success, I am certain. When there is a major problem rather than an individual, one-off complaint, the certification officer has the power of redress; however, that does not exist with the UDM, precisely because the complainants are not members. None of the members was charged, and on that basis, the certification officer will not even consider the case.
Mr. Heald: It is true that an allegation of financial irregularity can be made to the certification officer and that he can investigate it. If a member has some money taken off them by deception, which is one allegation, it can be investigated. However, the investigation would not fully cover the misbehaviour in the cases that we are discussing. As both hon. Members said, the unions acted as claims handlers, not only for members but for non-members. I want to ensure that they cannot do so.
Simon Hughes: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but, to be immodest, would it not be better to use the solution that I offer him now? Rather than the blanket ban on trade unions being exempted imposed by his amendment, we could change clause 14, which allows any order laid by the Minister to be subject to the negative procedure, so that it required the affirmative procedure. Then, if the Minister were to come to us with a proposal to exempt unions in general, types of union, or one union in particular, we would have to debate it and vote on it.
Mr. Heald: I will support the hon. Gentleman on that. It is a good idea, but I am still not satisfied. If the Minister said, “Look, here’s my draft code of conduct; here are the investigator and the powers. It will be the same as now, only with a different slightly self-regulatory route, and as effective,” that would be fair enough. However, she has not gone that far. Perhaps she will at a later date. I look forward to seeing the code of conduct, but I should like to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 10.
Division No. 1]
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Watkinson, Angela
Anderson, Mr. David
Atkins, Charlotte
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Hamilton, Mr. David
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Linton, Martin
Mann, John
Prentice, Bridget
Tipping, Paddy
Question accordingly negatived.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Enforcement: offence
Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 6, page 4, line 28, leave out subsection (3).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 32, in clause 10, page 6, line 24, leave out subsection (6).
Simon Hughes: This is a probing amendment to discover the Government’s latest thinking on sentencing policy, which is a mystery to most people given how many interpretations we have had of their views on the subject in recent days. At the moment, the offences that will be created could land someone who is tried in the High Court with a period of imprisonment of up to two years, a fine, or both, and someone who is tried in the lower courts with a period of imprisonment of 51 weeks or less, a fine, or both. Subsection (3) reminds us that as yet we have not seen the implementation of the much heralded and now much discussed Criminal Justice Act 2003, which is meant to change the sentencing system and will reduce the sentence to half of what it would otherwise be.
6.45 pm
If my amendment is passed, and subsection (3) and the parallel provision in clause 10 are removed, there will be a straightforward statement in the Bill that people can be sentenced to prison for two years in the higher courts and for up to 51 weeks in the lower courts, or be fined. I want the Minister to say whether passing the provisions into law will create a potential for imprisonment that will mean what it says. Out there, the great British public appear to believe—I always have great sympathy with their view—that when a judge says, “Mr. Heald, you will go to prison for six months,” Mr. Heald goes to prison for six months, not that he goes to prison for three months and spends the other half somewhere else.
What will be the implication of a sentence of imprisonment passed under the Bill? How long will the person serve as a maximum sentence and how long will they serve as a minimum sentence?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points, but I fear that we are in danger of straying into the territory of my colleagues in the Home Office, and I do not want to go there.
Simon Hughes: That might be wise.
Bridget Prentice: I want to bring the focus back to the offences in the Bill and explain the transitional provisions that relate to the 2003 Act.
The current position is that magistrates courts have the power on summary conviction to impose a maximum sentence of six months. Once sections 281(4) and 281(5) of the 2003 Act are commenced, that maximum sentencing power on summary conviction will be increased to 51 weeks. Under the new arrangement, which is called custody plus, the court will decide the total length of the sentence, which must be no longer than 51 weeks.
The sentence can be split between a custodial period and a licence period. The custodial period must be between two and 13 weeks, and the licence period must be at least six months and is subject to conditions, which the sentencing court sets. If the offender breaches the licence conditions, they will be recalled to custody for part or all of the remaining supervision period.
Removing the transitional provisions would give magistrates courts a power that would be inconsistent with their existing powers and for which the magistracy will not have the advantage of preparatory measures for custody plus when it is implemented. It would be much better initially to make the sentencing powers consistent with existing powers and then to have a smooth transition to the new arrangements. Otherwise, the courts might find themselves using one system for some offences and another system for others. That is why we prefer the arrangement set out in the Bill. I hope that that the reassures the hon. Gentleman enough to allow him to withdraw the amendment.
Simon Hughes: As the Minister has nearly beguiled me, I will do her a deal. I will not pursue the matter if she shares with the Committee, without compromising her friendship with her colleagues in the Home Office, the date on which the 2003 Act will be implemented in relation to the provisions in the clause.
Bridget Prentice: I would love to be able to share that information, but unfortunately I cannot. However, I shall do my best to find out.
Simon Hughes: Because I am so sympathetic to the Minister’s predicament, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule agreed to.
Clauses 9 to 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Orders and regulations
Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 38, in clause 14, page 9, line 9, leave out from ‘section 5' to end of line 10 and insert
‘may not be made unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.
The amendment would change the provision so that orders made under clause 5 are subject to the affirmative procedure rather than the negative procedure. I hinted at this a moment ago, so I will simply put it on the record that it is entirely consistent for the Committee to agree the affirmative resolution procedure for such orders made under clause 5, which is about exemptions, just as we are asked to agree the affirmative resolution procedure for orders made under section 4, which is about the regulator. They are equally important matters. If I were in any doubt about that or if Committee colleagues, whatever their views, were in any doubt, I hope that the earlier debate made it clear how important the matter is. I also hope that the Minister will understand that it is important to me and will be important to my colleagues on Report.
I did not vote on the amendments on trade unions moved by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire because the right way to deal with the problem is not to close off in Committee the Minister’s power to exempt trade unions, but to give Parliament the right to decide when an order is introduced—automatically and only after a debate and a vote in both Houses—whether she should bring a particular exemption or exemptions to the House. I hope that she will be sympathetic to the amendment and that colleagues from all parties will see the merit in guaranteeing the subject a debate and vote in both Houses. It is important.
Mr. Heald: I support the amendment. It is sensible, as I said. It was a bit miserable of the hon. Gentleman not to support my amendment, but I hope that when we return to the subject on Report, I will find an even more felicitous way of putting it.
Bridget Prentice: Any decision to exempt people from a requirement for authorisation cannot and will not be taken lightly. It must be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny. However, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place, which by all accounts is a robust organisation, considered in detail all the delegated powers in the Bill and approved of our approach to exemptions. In its report, the Committee said of the Secretary of State’s power to exempt by order:
“Negative procedure is usual for exemption orders of this kind and we consider the provision to be appropriate.”
I know that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey is keen to ensure that parliamentary time is used efficiently. He said during the Committee’s previous sitting that we should avoid secondary legislation if it creates unnecessary work. I suggest that secondary legislation is required in this case, but that an order subject to the negative resolution procedure is more appropriate. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
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