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My constituent’s case illustrates several of the abuses that the CAB has catalogued, including harassment, intimidation, failing to exercise discretion in the case of a vulnerable person, removing or threatening to remove protected third-party goods, and, I think, but
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am not sure, refusing reasonable offers of payment. The CAB has catalogued other abuses such as the misrepresentation of powers, false threats of imprisonment and the overcharging of fees. The latter is an interesting one that I came across in a subsequent case involving someone who has observed the practices of bailiffs in the course of his work, and then had personal experience of those practices. He is a sort of street engineer, and he has seen bailiffs put notices through people’s doors, without knocking, thus incurring an extra fee for those visits. He then experienced the same treatment in his own case.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman has told us about a very moving case, but does he agree that there is an argument that so-called exempt goods should appear in the Bill and not be specified by regulations? If they were clearly included in the Bill, perhaps some of those abuses could be prevented.

Mr. O'Hara: There is a case for that, but it needs to be examined carefully in Committee.

I do not doubt for a moment that there is much responsible bailiff practice. Indeed, my local council, Knowsley, has such a tight system for the bailiffs that it employs that it has not had a bailiff complaint for seven years. Features of that good practice include employing bailiffs only as a last resort after other preliminary procedures have been gone through. Its bailiffs are employed by contract from tender and have to be members of a relevant professional association such as the Enforcement Services Association or the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies.

The council’s bailiffs must also follow strict procedures. As I said in an earlier intervention, they have to take careful account of vulnerabilities such as advanced age, disability, recent bereavement, the welfare of young children, long-term, acute illness, and if someone lives in sheltered property. If there are such circumstances, the bailiffs must use discretion and seek the council’s guidance if necessary. If they do not, their contracts can be cancelled. The council uses mystery shoppers who are presented as debtors and report on the conduct of the bailiffs who visit them. Also—I shall finish on this point, although I could say more—bailiffs are required to make notes about every visit and record them on a computer. Those computer records are then accessed and monitored by the council. Further procedures, with which I shall not burden the House, show that it is possible to control the behaviour of bailiffs.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be more sensible to leave implementation of the extra powers until the regulations have been sorted out?

Mr. O'Hara: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I was just coming to that point. Unfortunately, not all bailiffs’ clients are fortunate enough to be protected by a code of procedure such as that laid down by my local authority. The opportunity is missed in a Bill that is otherwise excellent in many ways to provide a proper and effective system for the regulation of bailiffs.

David Taylor: It is true that a sizeable minority of bailiffs and firms routinely threaten, harass, intimidate, lie to and overcharge clients. Firms that are guilty of such bad practice are, in theory, being supervised by
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county court judges. That is the flaw. We put too much faith in that process, and there is almost never any withdrawal of the certification that the court can provide.

Mr. O'Hara: That is central to my point. Only 2 per cent. of Knowsley’s council tax is collected in that way, and most debts are collected with no trouble at all because of the checks and balances. The unfortunate cases to which I referred were all from county courts.

The opportunity is being lost to put a proper regulation system in the Bill. The Minister will be aware of the Bailiffs (Licensing) Bill, introduced by Lord Lucas, which would provide for a bailiffs licensing authority with powers to issue licences, lay down rules, receive complaints, conduct investigations, impose fines and revoke licences. However, I realise that the Government do not see the need for such a body, which I understand, given the existence of the Security Industry Authority. However, the terms of reference and powers of that body are deficient in that, importantly, it has no role in handling and resolving complaints, for example, and there must be recourse to the courts. Those interventions and sanctions are missing.

I am aware that shortly before the Bill’s Report stage in the House of Lords the Government conceded—reference has been made to this—to the pressure for more robust regulation of bailiffs by publishing the consultation paper setting out options for such regulation. That is welcome, albeit late in the day, but does not go far enough. The consultation process will take anything up to six months. This Bill will be out of Committee by 27 March and will be well on the way to enactment before that consultation process is completed. Any strengthening of regulation that may arise from the consultation will have to be implemented in other ways, presumably through secondary legislation by amendment of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, as permitted in that Act. What is the problem with that? It is that the process of secondary legislation bypasses full scrutiny of the measures by the House. I think many hon. Members agree that those measures are important enough to be subject to that full scrutiny.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister will be aware of my early-day motion 220 on this subject. Eighty-three Members of the House seem to share my view that it is not good enough to proceed in the current fashion. The abuses are too rife and the victims frequently too vulnerable for there not to be a more stringent approach to the matter. I ask the Minister to reflect on the importance of establishing a regulatory framework in the Bill, which otherwise has so much to commend it.

I would like to deal briefly with one other issue that has already been mentioned—the powers of forced entry and, in particular, the proposals to extend bailiffs’ powers when they enter domestic premises. The threat of forcible entry is a technique already frequently employed by bailiffs, but, when the Bill comes into force, in many cases that technique will no longer be needed because bailiffs will have the right of entry by law.

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I was interested to hear what the Minister said about this issue—that “minimum conditions” have to be laid down to enable an enforcement agent

which is a quotation from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I largely welcomed what the Minister had to say about the circumstances that a judge would have to consider before granting a warrant, and I was encouraged by her suggestion that the vulnerability of the client would be taken into account. That is certainly an important consideration in respect of the vast majority of clients of bailiffs in my constituency. I recognise that some people who try to avoid enforcement by bailiffs may be better off than the creditors trying to get the money back from them, but my constituents, by and large, fall into the vulnerable category. I believe that stronger safeguards should be included in the Bill to ensure that forcible entry is a last resort, that vulnerable debtors are protected and that reasonable offers of settlement are not rejected out of hand.

As I said at the beginning, there is much in the Bill to be commended and I intend to support its Second Reading, but I hope that the Government will listen, take heed and be prepared to include in the Bill those provisions that I and many other hon. Members feel are missing from it.

Vera Baird: I just wanted to take up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is unfortunately no longer in his place. He asserted that the bailiffs mentioned in the anecdotes must have been certificated by a county court judge, but that is not the case. They need not have been. Under our provisions, all bailiffs will have to be certificated, but, at the moment, quite a lot are not certificated at all.

Mr. O'Hara: The intermediate step is missing. Certificates may be issued and they may not be reissued in the light of evidence, but currently missing from the Bill are the power of intervention, sanctions and revocation of licences. We would like their inclusion so as to strengthen the Bill.

5.38 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am proud to represent a part of London where Charles Dickens lived when he was young and where his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison, which was cited in some of the most famous books in the English language—“Oliver Twist”, “Little Dorrit” and so forth. When we discuss these issues, I have to say that the image that first comes to my mind is one that Dickens portrayed most vividly about 150 years ago—the poor being oppressed by people who came to take away their goods, irrespective of whether it was justified. Sometimes it was the landlords who did it, sometimes other people.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) represents a constituency in the north-west in which many people are living on low incomes or are out of work. Parts of the Minister’s constituency are also like that, as are parts of mine. I believe that I represent the constituency with a higher percentage of council properties
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and a lower percentage of owner occupation—something in the order of 10 per cent.—than any other English MP.

The reality is that all hon. Members—you, too, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure—see at our surgeries week after week people who have suffered at the hands of people coming to knock on their doors and take things away in all our communities. These are live issues, and it is very proper that we are debating them and that the Government have introduced proposals to deal with them. Of course, there are other very important things in the Bill, but these issues relate to the core, the most significant and the most controversial provisions—parts 3, 4 and 5—and I will make a brief comment or two on the other important issues and then return to the substantive parts.

The Minister started by introducing part 1, on the restructuring of the tribunals system, and we support the proposal that it should be restructured. Administrative law has grown over 50 years and become a recognised part of the English legal system. There has been a growth in the number of places that are not courts but tribunals, which seek to resolve, bluntly, the implications in large measure of the welfare state, which is clearly a welcome development of British society since the last war. It is good that the public should understand that there is an administrative court structure and that there should be some independence about it. I welcome the fact that the Bill will give it independence. The Liberal Democrats welcome the House of Lords Judicial Committee becoming the supreme court—it will give it independence and it will be seen to be different from the legislature and the Executive.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not welcome it.

Simon Hughes: I know that the hon. Gentleman does not, but the Liberal Democrats in both Houses have consistently welcomed it, and we are sure that it is the right way forward. This is another step in giving the judicial system welcome independence.

Something has not yet been mentioned, but I hope that it is a corollary of what is being done: one of the most important things in all these systems is that we have good mediation processes. My borough has a well respected, well reputed and well supported mediation service. We need to ensure that, as we develop the possibilities of legal remedy, we also develop the agencies that can resolve the problems before they ever reach a tribunal or a court. I want to put down a marker for the importance of the mediation process before we have to bring disputes before legally qualified tribunals.

I have put the third general administration point to the Minister before. There may be differences of view about the Government’s current proposals on legal aid, but I welcomed her answer in which she said that, where appropriate, the Government intend to extend legal aid in the difficult and important work that goes before tribunals. That seems the right way forward. One of the remedies is that the Minister’s Department must be much more resolute in batting towards the Treasury, under its present and any successive leadership, for a bigger share of the Government cake.

Ministers have heard me say before that the Department for Constitutional Affairs—the legal system—has not received proportionate growth in its
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finances, compared with the health service, education and the other parts of the welfare state. If we are going to do these things, we must ensure that they are adequately resourced. Yes, of course, we have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. [ Interruption. ] I concede to the Minister that it is perhaps even the most generous, but the growth has been much smaller—27 per cent.—since the Labour Government came to power, compared with three or four times that for health and education. If we want to support legal aid and people in the tribunal system, we need such growth.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Although I agree with my hon. Friend that there are circumstances where legal aid in tribunals is urgently necessary, I hope that he also recognises that many tribunal procedures are probably conducted more expeditiously if no lawyer is directly involved—I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for putting it that way—and that we do not want to encourage an expectation that legal representation is necessary at a wide range of tribunals, thus resulting in severe cost implications, as that would not achieve the objective that he and I share.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend: the presumption should be that there should not be lawyers and legal representation, but occasionally they will be needed. Lawyers should be the exception in tribunals, rather than the rule.

I want to make two more points about part 1. I mentioned one of them in an intervention. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has done us a good service, as always. It produced two relevant reports that address these matters and they make it clear that it is anomalous that immigration and asylum matters, alone, do not have a second tier of adjudication. Paragraph 6.31 of its second report of this Session states:

that is the European convention on human rights—

The Committee says that it will return to the matter in other reports. As somebody who does some of the highest amounts of immigration work—I have seen the Home Office figures—of any of my colleagues, I have to say that there is sometimes a feeling that people in that bit of the administrative system do not get the same fairness of treatment as people get in employment law, social security law or elsewhere.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman mentioned mediation. The Goodlad amendment, which went through in the other place, provides, in clause 24, for mediation. Does he agree that that is a positive move forward?

Simon Hughes: Indeed it is. The hon. Gentleman’s colleague in the other place was supported by colleagues on our Benches when that amendment was put forward. There was good work. I pay tribute to
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Lord Lucas for his work on bailiffs and so on. There was much collaboration across the parties, and with Cross Benchers too.

Vera Baird: There was originally a clause about mediation in the Bill, but we took it out because we thought that it was not necessary. It was then put back in, so it is a sort of belt-and-braces situation. I wanted to take the opportunity to agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who said that most tribunals were better off without lawyers. We wanted to reroute money into the social welfare law sector, not necessarily into tribunals. I hope that I made that clear.

Simon Hughes: I understand, and although two of us in this three-way exchange are lawyers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is an academic, as well as an esteemed politician. I spend huge amounts of my constituency time rescuing people from lawyers, rather than sending them in the direction of lawyers, because often that is the last place that they ought to be and it gives them more problems than they need. There are some very good lawyers, but one does not always need a lawyer to solve the problem. I welcome what I think is the intention now: that in the upper level of tribunal, any hearing of a judicial review application will be before a High Court judge. I am clear that, if one asks somebody to assess whether the rights of a citizen have been upheld by the state, they need to be somebody with the proper authority.

Part 2 of the Bill is welcome. I put questions to the Minister and I was grateful for her replies. We need to broaden the base of our judicial system and the proposals go in the right direction. We have talked about parts 3, 4 and 5 the most. We all had a litany of concerns that we had encountered as constituency Members of Parliament. Those of us who have been engaged in these areas have had representations from people outside this place who are properly concerned about what the new proposals mean. They are concerned that, since the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 came into place, there has been a step too far in giving powers to bailiffs. I am a bit troubled because, although the Minister said that, as far as she was aware, the new powers have been used sparingly, I do not think that we have seen evidence of how many times that means. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State for Wales could give us that information when he winds up. If that information has been given elsewhere and I have missed it, I apologise.

Mr. Heald: On the point about judicial review in the tribunal, if the hon. Gentleman looks at clause 18(8), he will see that it says that the judge presiding must be either, under paragraph (a), a High Court judge, or, under paragraph (b), one of

That is the point that I was raising a concern about.

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