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5 Mar 2007 : Column 1326

Simon Hughes: I take the view, as I think the hon. Gentleman does, that judicial review should be carried out by High Court judges, and we might be able to bring in retired High Court judges to do that. We are talking about important decisions on whether the Home Office has broken the law. There is a proposal towards the end of the Bill that would allow the higher court to replace the lower court’s decision with its own. If that is to happen, there is even more reason to make sure that a judge of authority is involved. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are arguing along the same lines; if we are to have a new regime, the higher part of the tribunal regime should include High Court judges of authority who can say whether a council, Government Department or agency of Government was wrong, who can say what should happen, and who can make the decision in the body’s stead. If that last power is to be added, there is even more reason for someone of authority to make the initial case.

To return to the substantive part of the Bill, one of the things that troubles me, and that clearly troubled the hon. Members for Knowsley, South and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and others, is that there have been fits and starts in getting the process right. The Government have been consulting on the measures for a long time, but we then got into a muddle. There was a draft Bill last year, and there were consultation responses to the draft Bill, but they were not published or assessed. We went from a draft Bill—draft Bills are meant to be a good new procedure for discovering what people out there think—to a final Bill before we had seen any of the information, and that is bad practice.

I will defend the Department for Constitutional Affairs as an important Department, and I hope that we soon have a properly constituted ministry of justice to replace it. However, if we are to do the job properly, and if pre-legislative scrutiny is to matter, we should do more than just put Bills out for consultation in draft; we should listen to the responses, publish them, and let everybody—not least Parliament—evaluate them. Consultations are not just for Ministers; they are for Members of Parliament, too.

I want to make some proposals, but like the Conservative party, we will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. There is much that is good in the Bill, and I hope that we will work together in Committee to improve it. We will see how far we can get before Report. The Joint Committee on Human Rights made many points about the European convention on human rights, suggesting that there are rights that are not being met, and that are certainly not met under the Bill. I shall not read all its points on to the record, but the Minister will know that there are sets of proposals in the two reports, which only came out in the past two months. Indeed, the second was published last month. They include proposals about rights of entry and the right of forced entry. I would be grateful if Ministers told us whether they accept all the Committee’s proposals, recommendations and requests for the House to consider matters.

Do the Government accept that there ought to be a difference between residential premises and commercial premises? It seems to me that there is all the difference in the world. Having bailiffs break into someone’s home—the hon. Member for Knowsley, South, gave a
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good example—is significantly different from having bailiffs break into an office where somebody works. There should be greater protection for people’s homes and for residential properties than for commercial businesses. Similarly, I have always believed that a crime against a person should, in principle, always be viewed more seriously than a crime against property, because human beings are much more vulnerable than any building.

Derek Conway: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that is echoed by bailiffs. They are concerned that some of the provisions will put them at greater risk. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned for the vulnerable, but he also speaks for those people who will enforce the Bill. Not everyone is completely happy with what is proposed.

Simon Hughes: None of us argues that every bailiff firm does bad work or does not do its job responsibly; there are some very good examples. Some of them have made representations to us, and have said clearly that they do not want more powers, in certain areas. For example, they do not want people below the level of bailiffs acting for the High Court to be given the power to restrain people physically. They say that that is not their job, and I agree with them. We should be careful about that.

James Brokenshire rose—

Simon Hughes: I will give way one more time, but then I want to finish.

James Brokenshire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the Government have, in part, accepted the logic of his point about the distinction between commercial and residential purposes, particularly on the issues of distraint and rent arrears? As the Government accept the distinction in that context, they are not a million miles away from moving on to the issues that he is addressing.

Simon Hughes: Yes, I am aware of that, and it is welcome. I think that the logic should be followed through, completely.

Vera Baird rose—

Simon Hughes: Of course I will give way to the Minister.

Vera Baird: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not have a problem with considering whether the regulations should provide different levels of protection for homes and commercial properties. I thought that I set out a fairly good list of conditions that would have to be met, in respect of homes. We are open-minded about whether there should be fewer conditions for commercial properties, or whether the conditions should be changed around in some way. We want to stop the abuse that occurs.

Simon Hughes: I welcome what the Minister says. I have a proposal on a subject that I asked the Minister about. The real issue for most people is whether the person at the door is someone with authority. People
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can usually tell whether someone is a police officer; they know what to expect from police officers, and they know how they behave, and what their powers are. However, people may appear at the door in civilian dress. They may present a piece of paper, but who knows what its authenticity is? The person at home may not have anything to do with the debt that was incurred; they may be family or a friend, on a visit. I am sympathetic to the possible way forward that the Minister mentioned, namely that people of authority, specifically if they have the authority ever to break into someone’s property, should be uniformed.

In this day and age, we need a broader debate about the role of the people in authority in all our communities who are not police officers, including community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. They may not all want to be uniformed, and I am not arguing that they should be; I am just opening up the question of how we can make sure that someone—whether it is the 87-year-old lady on her own, or the person who has just moved in—can identify people in authority who come to their front door. That is a real issue, and we need to protect people from the fright and fear that is caused when the knock on the door is not justified.

My next proposition is that there ought to be a local place where people can go to check registers of debt and judgment. Not everybody has access to websites and e-mails at home; a pensioner aged 75 who lives on their own will not immediately rush to check a website. More important, in a way, although it is a linked point, is the issue raised by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). We should ensure that we can address cases in which a bailiff has come to take property, and the person says, “But I’ve paid!” Certainly, I have done casework, as have others, involving people who have paid on the deadline, which was the Friday before a bank holiday Monday. The money may not have cleared by Tuesday, but that is when the people come in and take property away. We must have a system that allows us to check. We all leave some things to the last minute, and people often leave to the last minute the payment of money that they can barely afford, or that they do not want to pay. We need to be careful about that.

My last proposal is for a cooling-off period. When property is taken, it should be held for a time in a holding place, somewhere relatively local, so that if something is wrong, that property has not disappeared irretrievably. It is a bit like the car pound theory for vehicles. We need somewhere that property can be held, without it disappearing or being sold off to raise the money. That is a real issue, and I will play a constructive part in working out how that might be done.

Vera Baird: I would have thought that the ideal way forward was what pretty well happens now. The bailiff’s first task is to take walk-in possession, which means that he puts the item under his formal control, but leaves it in the house, in the hope that the person will come up with the cash, and will never need to have it seized. That is the best interim step, really.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely. One of the issues is that the system was already confusing. We must make sure that at the end of the exercise, the citizen or resident
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knows their rights, and knows the sequences of the process. It needs to be as simple as possible. I agree with the Minister that the first step should be technical possession, with the property being left in the home. The next should be possession elsewhere, with the property being recoverable, for a reasonable period. The third would be disposal.

In conclusion, part 4 deals with the enforcement of judgments and orders. From my days in the courts, I know that people who are asked to reveal their income when, for example, they are asked to pay child maintenance, often do not reveal the whole picture. Anyone who has heard people talk about their income in court knows that they may conceal the reality. The difficult enforcement of judgments and orders encompasses not just county court judgments but matrimonial payments, child maintenance payments and payments owed to Customs and to the Revenue. We need better to co-ordinate the different pieces of information on people’s financial circumstances held by the state. If someone appears in court and is asked how much they can afford to pay their ex-wife or ex-partner, how much they can pay to support the child of that relationship, or how much debt they can afford to pay off, all the information that the state holds on their circumstances should be made available to the court. I know for a fact that verbal statements are not always checked—they cannot be checked when the order is made—and further down the road other information appears on someone’s tax return, their benefit claim and so on. If we are to introduce a system to enforce judgments and orders, it must be based on the best information available. I resist the notion that the state should have any more information than it needs, but once someone appears in court, the court should have powers to obtain the information that it needs much more quickly. That information can be challenged by the individual if they think that it is wrong, but it provides the best foundation for enforcement, as it will be based on facts and is more likely to be credible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) produced a report based on Government figures last year that drew attention to the fact—and this is a recurrent theme of his—that increasing numbers of people are incurring higher debts. Some 1.5 million people say that they have fallen behind with bills or credit commitments, according to the Financial Services Authority last year, and a third of them are in serious financial difficulties. The number of mortgage possession proceedings has gone up, as there are more than 100,000 a year. At least 20 per cent. of people with credit cards do not pay off the full amount every month, and repossessions, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, have increased to more than 10,000 a year. Given that we have a debt-fuelled society—that trend is bad and wrong, and we should reverse it—we must be much more careful to put protection in place so that people are not doubly penalised by huge charges and inappropriate interventions in their lives and homes.

The Bill is an extremely important piece of legislation, and we must get it right. I hope that we can persuade the Minister that the best way to proceed is by
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introducing regulation that puts everything in one piece of legislation. We should wait for the outcome of the consultation on the regulation of the industry, and implement it with whatever measure is necessary to secure maximum agreement. It is better to take a little more time and get it right than rush and make mistakes that could lead to the sad, wrong and potentially fatal risk of citizens’ freedoms being impaired.

6.3 pm

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I agree with everything he said, particularly his peroration, in which he made the point that this important, much-needed legislation is welcomed by Members from all parts of the House. That is particularly true of parts 3 and 4, on bailiffs, and part 5, on debt. The measure is long overdue, and the Government are to be congratulated on its introduction.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey took us back to Dickens 150 years ago, and it is extraordinary that we should have tolerated a situation in which the law protects the most powerful. It is weighted in their interests, but it is weighted against the most powerless members of society, which is not right. The poorest members of society are driven further into debt and the little that they have is repossessed, in a hitherto unregulated world. The Bill is therefore welcome, as it demonstrates that we have begun to look at the problem. Of course there are decent, honourable and civilised bailiffs—we should not taint the whole profession—but the lack of regulation has resulted in a considerable discreditable minority who are no more than cowboys with enormous powers at their disposal, which they use carelessly, and often cruelly and thoughtlessly. The Bill is a further step on the road to correcting that imbalance. Its introduction is long overdue, but the fact that it has now been introduced is greatly to the Government’s credit.

Part 5 introduces debt management schemes and debt repayment plans. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey gave us figures to demonstrate the enormous growth of debt in our highly material and materialistic society, and anyone who has seen how citizens advice bureaux deal with the misery caused by escalating debt will accept that anything that begins to give shape and coherence to the way in which we organise debt is welcome. Traditionally, the House deals with our constituents’ grievances, but we should remember, too, that it is our duty as Members of Parliament to protect the weakest members of society—and there is no one weaker than someone who has nothing. It is not right that their few possessions and any money that they have, which constitutes their last shred of dignity and would allow them to protect their way of life and their families, should be taken away. If the Bill begins to correct those imbalances it is a thoroughly good measure, and we ought to support it.

Virtually every hon. Member knows more about the law and about those issues than I do, and we have heard good speeches from Members on both sides of the Houses in which they displayed genuine knowledge and expertise to which I cannot lay claim, except as a constituency MP. I wish to make one or two remarks,
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however, about part 6. It is a small, ancillary provision but, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, it is important to anyone who cares about the state of our museums, galleries and their worldwide reputation in the sphere of culture and fine art.

As the Minister explained, part 6 deals with the protection of cultural objects on loan, and provides immunity against seizure for objects from overseas that are lent to our museums and galleries. It sits oddly with the rest of the Bill, but it was introduced following pressure and lobbying from our great museums and galleries, including the Tate, the V and A, and the Royal Academy, which have observed the growing number of difficult cases in which objects whose provenance is at issue are threatened with seizure. The Minister cited the case of the Russian impressionist paintings in Switzerland that were seized. That is a serious danger, and if it is not addressed loans will dry up, or we will put at risk the system of temporary exhibitions on which museums and galleries depend for the growing attendance figures that justify public support and the expenditure that we rightly make in them. If that system is put at risk, so, too, is our reputation. Museums and galleries have lobbied for action to tackle that serious problem, and part 6 undoubtedly addresses it. We will join the United States and most European countries by introducing specific legislation to deal with the problem.

However, in addressing those problems and justified concerns, the Government have not yet got the balance right, and have not been as careful as they should about the interests of people whose families—typically, holocaust victims—owned works of art before the second world war that were looted by the Nazis or the Russians. The grievance that they rightly feel is not yet adequately addressed by the Bill, but it can be addressed through amendments to the Bill.

The problem is not confined to holocaust victims, although that is probably the most obvious and highest-profile case. Since the war in Iraq, the art market across Europe has been flooded with works looted from the Baghdad museum. That is a bad and dangerous development and leads to an atmosphere of great insecurity in the world of international museums and loans. Immunity is important, but we must protect those who have a right, or believe they have a right, to ownership. That element needs to be identified and pursued.

Depending on how it is implemented, immunity can mean that the rightful owner will see on display a work of art that they believe belongs to their family, but they will not be able to do anything about it. If we do not correct some of the weaknesses in the Bill, that will be the outcome. In the other place Lord Janner lobbied very well on the point, and made a powerful speech on Second Reading. I am glad that the Government have listened to the concerns expressed by him and others, such as Lord Howarth, about the imperfections in the immunity provisions.

The Government responded, and made some helpful amendments. For instance, museums and galleries will be required to exercise due diligence in trying to establish the provenance of a work of art. Museums will have to publish a list of objects before they are brought into the United Kingdom, and immunity will
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be granted only to a fairly small number of museums nominated and approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. All those are good amendments to the Bill as originally published, but there are still aspects that we must tighten.

For example, the nature, extent and form of due diligence is not clearly specified. Due diligence could easily be satisfied in a token way unless we pin it down much more precisely. The guidelines for applying due diligence are not specified. There is no provision for monitoring the enforcement of due diligence. There is no detailed specification of the quality of information that museums should publish about works of art, so that people who feel that a work is rightfully theirs can identify it. Unless the information is clear and is published, that will be difficult to do.

Crucially, there is nothing to stop a work imported into this country under immunity being sold while it is here and disappearing into the marketplace. That must be wrong. Such loopholes should be corrected if, despite the good intentions in part 6, we are to avoid the danger of the United Kingdom becoming an international centre for the laundering of works of art, instead of the international centre for great loan exhibitions.

These are not impossible provisions to get right, but they need further attention in Committee. I believe that the interests of the two sides can be reconciled. Other countries across Europe—such as Germany, France and Switzerland—have stronger and more specific legislation than part 6. We need to examine their legislation more carefully. With the exception of the state of New York, which is an aberration, the United States and Canada have good, clear legislation, with some characteristics that we should adopt in part 6.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? He said that he wanted amendments in Committee to prevent works of art from being sold. Is he saying that the owner of a work of art on temporary display in this country could authorise its sale?

Mark Fisher: Absolutely. Once immunity, and therefore protection from a suit—brought by somebody who believed that they had a better claim to ownership of the work—had been gained, while the immunity was in force and the object was in the country under an immune order, it could be taken off to Sotheby’s or Christie’s and sold. That is not satisfactory, and I am sure it is not what the Government intend.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course that would not be satisfactory, but if the exhibition ends, the work remains in this country and the owner decides that he or she wishes to sell it, the immunity is over. Although the hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly respect and admire in these matters, has raised an important point, I honestly do not think that there is a problem.

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