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5 Mar 2007 : Column 1314

Derek Conway: Quite understandably, and as is his usual practice, my hon. Friend has set out his concerns in a reasonable manner, but is he angered by the fact that the Bill, which on the whole seems to be welcomed by all sides, will be in Committee only until 27 March? Furthermore, whatever misgivings he sensibly puts before the House, consideration on Report and Third Reading will have to be completed on the same day. Is that enough time to consider legislation that will have such an historic impact on how we conduct affairs?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend comes from a tradition in this place of believing that it is important to have full debate. I remember serving with him some years ago on a Committee considering a criminal justice Bill, which I recall sat for 245 hours. That is the tradition that I know he wishes to uphold. I am sorry that the Bill is unlikely to have quite so long to be set in context, but I know that he is making a powerful bid to be a member of the Committee, and I am sure that he will grace it and enhance its deliberations.

Sir Patrick Cormack: As one who is not making a bid to be on the Committee, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he would be kind enough to agree that that is a classic illustration of the need for a second Chamber whose Members are not encumbered by constituency problems and who may devote plenty of time to critical scrutiny of a Bill? Does he agree that the House of Lords has done a brilliant job in this particular case?

Mr. Heald: I agree that the other place has done an excellent job on this Bill, and that it does an excellent job on many Bills, which we do not have adequate time to consider fully. I also agree that the powers of the other place must remain undimmed, unchanged and certainly not eroded. I would like to see a few more Members of the other place with some constituency interests—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Well, in two days’ time, I am winding up the debate on the composition of the House of Lords, so hon. Members will get the whole nine yards—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. There will be plenty of opportunities later this week for that debate to continue.

Mr. Heald: That is exactly my point, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To return to the exciting measure before us, the Opposition have some concerns about the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is struggling to manage its current responsibilities for the courts system. The Magistrates Association recently felt compelled to write to the Prime Minister to complain about chaos in the magistrates courts. The senior county court judge in London has also been highly critical of the situation in county courts. As the Minister knows, there is concern over legal aid, and the Government are behind on their freedom of information cases and are trying desperately to pull back using more restrictive rules. There is blistering criticism of the Department over electoral fraud.

It is being suggested, however, that the DCA should take over not just tribunals but prisons, the probation service, the Privy Council Office and criminal justice
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policy. If those proposals were building on strength, one might say, “That’ll be a challenge.” But the Department is already failing in almost all the areas that it covers. Can the Minister assure us that the Department is up to the challenge of taking over the world in the way that seems to be suggested?

Vera Baird: Yes.

Mr. Heald: I do not know how many would share the Minister’s blind confidence.

On the user-friendliness of tribunals, which the Minister mentioned, Sir Andrew Leggatt explicitly emphasised that tribunals exist for users, and should be as accessible as possible, unthreatening, relatively informal and consumer-friendly environments. Most tribunal members are good at relating to and dealing with the people who come before them. As the Minister knows, I practised in the then industrial, now employment, tribunals for many years. There was pride in the fact that the tribunal was not legalistic and its members were from and understood the workplace, and were often referred to as an industrial jury. One issue that concerns us is that the legally qualified members of tribunals are now to be called judges. Will the Minister explain that? The term “judge” is associated with courts, and is not the sort of title or standing that one associates with a tribunal, in which the person who fills that role has always been described as the chairman.

Vera Baird: I am happy to respond. It is intended that the usual form of address—“sir”, “madam” or whatever—will continue. The person filling that position has variously been called the commissioner, the chair and, as I remember from the Lands Tribunal, the member, but the name “judge” connotes independence, so we wanted that to be used.

Mr. Heald: I know that the name “adjudicator” has been abolished in favour of “judge” in the immigration jurisdiction, but in this case it seemed odd. If the Minister is saying that measures will be taken to ensure that the form of address is not “your honour”, and that the tribunal will remain informal, that would be helpful, and we would certainly like to see that happen.

Concerns have been raised about the ability of the new upper tribunal to hear judicial review cases. As the Minister knows, that area of law has traditionally been reserved for the administrative court list in the Queen’s Bench division, because of the nature of the work and the experience and competence that it requires. While we support access to justice for all, and judicial review is included in that, reforms must not be made at the expense of quality decision-making, particularly in a delicate and developing area of law that includes many cases with a human-rights element.

We all know of the Lord Chancellor’s recent comment that decisions under the Human Rights Act are common sense and anyone who says otherwise is bonkers. Now, however, he seems to be saying that it would be right for matters of this sort to be dealt with at a lower level than the High Court. Can the Minister explain why that decision was made? Obviously there may be a shortage of High Court judges, but is it really right to downplay such an important role?

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Vera Baird: We appear to be patenting a whole new method of parliamentary debate.

The Government accepted an amendment in the House of Lords inserting in clause 13 a stipulation that all judicial reviews that go to the upper tribunal must be heard by a High Court judge. That is a guarantee.

Mr. Heald: But the amendment also states that other judges can be allowed to do the work. Why is that?

Part 3 relates to enforcement. The enforcement of justice is vital to the rule of law; none the less, we shall want to explore in Committee whether some of the new powers that the Bill gives to enforcement agents justify greater protections for the vulnerable. We welcome the Government’s consultation on the regulation of enforcement agents, announced on 30 January, but it is regrettable that it was announced months into the Bill’s passage, when it should have been announced months in advance and subsequently included in the Bill. That it typical of the Government, who treat consultation in a rather contemptuous way. In the recent Greenpeace case they announced the outcome of the consultation halfway through it, and the Minister will recall that when the post of Lord Chancellor was to be abolished the Lord Chief Justice was allowed five minutes of consultation before the issuing of the press release.

Rob Marris: The post was not abolished.

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Gentleman says, it was then not abolished. It took 250 amendments in the other place, a U-turn and a concordat with the Lord Chief Justice to sort out that mess.

Rob Marris: I may share the hon. Gentleman’s reservations about some consultations, but the example he has just given is not a very good one. The proposal to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor went out to consultation, following which the post was not abolished. Ergo, it appears that the Government took account of the consultation.

Mr. Heald: I think the hon. Gentleman is describing as consultation what was in fact a forced U-turn, when the Government realised that what they were proposing would not work.

What worries us is that the Bill sweeps away ancient British rights with only the offer of protection by regulation some time in the future. In that respect in particular, it is very much a skeleton Bill. We will therefore aim to ensure that the powers of enforcement are not increased while individuals are left almost entirely unprotected.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I raised the question of the regulation of bailiffs just before Christmas, and received a somewhat unsatisfactory answer from the Minister of State. A consultation exercise is currently under way, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unfortunate that the Security Industry Authority will not be given any powers to handle and resolve complaints about bailiffs? People will still have to go to court. Moreover, the authority will have no powers to deal with persistent bad conduct on the part of firms or individuals, which is seen daily by citizens advice bureaux throughout the
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land. Are we not missing an opportunity to include the regulation of bailiffs in the Bill now, rather than at some uncertain time in the future following consultation?

Mr. Heald: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and, in a way, the consultation appears to be a response to the sorts of concerns that he, the citizens advice bureaux and others have been expressing.

Some of the examples given by citizens advice bureaux are worrying. One of them involved bailiffs forcing their way into a London woman’s flat to recover a parking fine that had, in fact, been imposed many months after she had sold the car concerned. She had confirmation of the change of ownership from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, so she had followed her responsibilities, but the bailiffs threatened to call the police, accused her of assaulting them and then listed property that they were going to take from the flat and said that they would not take it immediately if she paid them £200. Her grandmother, who was visiting, paid on her behalf, even though that woman did not owe a penny.

Simon Hughes: Am I right in inferring that the hon. Gentleman would be happy to work with colleagues on the Government Back Benches and members of my party and others to try to persuade the Government, as the Bill passes through the House, that it would be sensible to do the two things in one—to do both the review of the rights of bailiffs and the regulation of the entire industry of people who do that work—given that we now have a structure in place from legislation that we passed only about two years ago?

Mr. Heald: I would welcome that. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) has suggested the alternative, which is not to implement the increased powers at this stage—I would, of course, accept a commitment to that effect from the Minister—and then for the regulation to come in at the same time. That is what most Members of all parties consider to be the obvious way forward. [Interruption.] Members are expressing agreement. The Government’s proposals are a funny way of consulting on, and dealing with, these matters.

We hope to receive a cast-iron commitment that none of the important new powers in the Bill will come into force until the regulation of enforcement agents has been completed. Baroness Ashton was not prepared to give that commitment, although she promised that the regulations would be debated.

The regulations must set out clear standards of conduct for those who are given these new powers, and there must be clear and enforceable penalties for those who do not respect them. It must be known to bailiff and debtor alike what standards of conduct are expected. Those standards must be made clear at the outset of the process; the practice of High Court bailiffs offers a possible example to follow in that regard. A debtor should be handed a leaflet explaining the procedure and their rights, so that all is made clear and there is no scope for the sort of deception that we have heard about. There must be effective monitoring
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and a proper regulator. In terms of the common law right of distraint for arrears of rent, we agree to its abolition in the Bill. That will ensure that there is less scope for misconduct and that issues between landlord and tenant are resolved in court, rather than at the doorstep or on the street.

Part 4 of the Bill deals with the issue of access to debtor’s information, which we will want to pursue in Committee. We recognise, for example, that providing the details of a debtor’s employer might be important in enforcing a debt, but we would want to ensure that that is not misused by unscrupulous persons to harass a debtor.

Part 5 of the Bill covers helping people deal with over-indebtedness and multiple debts through debt management. Over-indebtedness is an issue of vital concern in our society. With the number of individual insolvencies reaching a record 107,000 in 2006, and with the amount people owe on credit cards, loans and mortgages now more than £1 trillion, this is clearly an area where help is needed. Over-indebtedness can be caused by low levels of financial literacy and awareness, and we would like more effort to be made in that regard.

The citizens advice bureaux state that

The debt relief orders will enable many people who were unable to access any of the debt solutions currently available to plan their debt repayments, and will help them in respect of the question of application fees.

We therefore cautiously welcome the intention behind the envisaged debt relief orders. As with much of the Bill, secondary legislation will be needed. For debt relief orders, it will cover the criteria specifying liabilities, and the levels of assets and of surplus income. The debt relief orders will also reduce some of the pressure on the courts, because to maintain the lowest application fee possible, applicants will need not to apply to them but to use the internet. With the court system currently in crisis, anything that can reduce the burdens is an important benefit.

Finally, the Bill also deals with objects lent from overseas for inclusion in exhibitions. This is an important area, because it affects the ability of museums to attract loans for exhibition, and the ability of those who have had artwork stolen to be aware of when those artworks travel and where to, and to make a claim in respect of them. We accept that great progress has been made on that provision in the other place, but we will continue to probe it in Committee to ensure that the Government strike the right balance.

The Bill deserves a Second Reading, although there are some important issues to deal with in Committee. On that basis, the Government have our support for its broad objectives.

5.21 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South) (Lab): I thank the Minister for, and congratulate her on, bringing to the House this much-needed Bill, which addresses much of the confusion and difficulty caused by the accretion of legislation and practice over the
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years. I thank her also for her generosity when presenting the Bill in giving way so much for the purposes of clarification.

I shall address my remarks narrowly—as, I suspect, other Members will—to the one or two opportunities that the Bill has missed with regard to the law on bailiffs, and in particular to regulation. I begin with an anecdote from my constituency about an incident that took place in the past couple of weeks. In fact, by coincidence, I have received several such anecdotes in the past couple of weeks, but the one that specifically concerned me was about an 89-year-old lady in my constituency who had a particularly harrowing experience.

The lady’s grandson, whom she had brought up since he was a child but who several years ago moved elsewhere in the country, incurred a parking fine in Ipswich. The address on his driving licence was Halewood, in my constituency, and to cut a long story short, she entered her house one day to discover a bailiff sitting in her chair. She said that he had made a forced entry. I do not know how he got in, but he was there when she walked in and he had made a list of her possessions. The fine was £120, which, with on-costs, had accumulated to £185; with bailiff on-costs, it had accumulated to about £485.

I have seen the bailiff’s inventory, which included the lady’s television, VCR, three-piece suite and fixed living room wall units—items that could not possibly have belonged to her grandson, even if he had lived on the premises. When she protested that she owned that property, the bailiff gave her 20 minutes to find the receipts. It just so happened that this lady—who is in very poor health, takes a cocktail of pills every day for heart problems, and has a husband who had just had a major stroke and been admitted to a nursing home—had during all that distress been going through the various papers, so she was able to produce the receipts. The inventory had been made, however, and he had taken possession of the items on it.

Some of the younger members of her family, who live within sight of her front door, saw that something was going on. Her daughter-in-law went into the house, and eventually she went to the bank, withdrew £480 and paid the bailiff. As he went off down the path, he was heard saying into his mobile phone: “I got all the money off those—blank, blank, blank—scousers.”

There were other aspects to that case. The lady’s son came in and, seeing a stranger in the house, confronted him and ended up being arrested by the police. I think that he got hold of the bailiff by the lapels, which I do not condone, but what could he do in those circumstances, not knowing what was going on? As I said, the lady is in ill-health. When she phoned my office on one occasion, my secretary diverted her to talk about how her husband was, because she thought that my constituent was going to have a heart attack just from talking about the incident on the phone. When I visited her several days later, I, too, was concerned for her physical well-being. Those were the effects of that bailiff’s visit.

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