Previous Section Index Home Page

Nick Harvey: It is entirely open to the hon. Gentleman to make such a proposal. He wears a variety of hats that would put him in a good position to do so. It is important to realise that what I described represents only part of what the UK is doing and that
4 Jun 2007 : Column 21
other schemes—of which he is well aware—funded by the Treasury and the Foreign Office support such work in many other ways. The House’s actions in that regard should not therefore be taken to represent the total of what the UK is doing.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware—I believe that he is—of the wonderful work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is very much part of this place, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s UK branch. They do a huge amount to help developing and emerging democracies with good governance and other matters that relate to democratic representation and democratic Parliaments. Could we not utilise the good offices of the IPU and the CPA a little more and thus answer the question that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) asked?

Nick Harvey: I entirely agree that the IPU and the CPA do a great deal of such work—indeed, I was referring to that when I said that other programmes were funded by the Treasury. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which the Foreign Office funds, also undertakes such work.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

24. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to ensure that questions asked by hon. Members are properly answered by Ministers. [140287]

4 Jun 2007 : Column 22

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I have made clear to the House on many occasions the importance that I attach to the timeliness and quality of responses to parliamentary questions that are tabled in the House. I have raised the matter directly with ministerial colleagues on several occasions.

Philip Davies: Perhaps I could refer the Leader of the House to my exchange with the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in Work and Pensions questions earlier today, when the Minister failed to answer my question. What measures is the Leader of the House taking to get Ministers to give straight answers to straight questions? That is what the general public and hon. Members want. May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to do that before he moves on to bigger and better things, or is the culture of spin so embedded in new Labour that he cannot?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry that I missed the exchange in Work and Pensions questions. All my ministerial colleagues try hard to ensure that questions are answered accurately and in a timely fashion. I have been trying to deal with the significant increase in parliamentary questions. I made it clear in evidence—not least to the Procedure Committee—that none of us has an interest in a cap on written ministerial questions. However, that requires some self-restraint by some hon. Members of all parties. If we can achieve that, Ministers will be able to spend more time dealing with answers. I have made the point on several occasions that, although the number of officials who deal with parliamentary questions can vary to some extent according to the volume of questions, that is not the case with Ministers. If they get bogged down, that can lead to inaccurate and sometimes sloppy answers.

4 Jun 2007 : Column 23

Points of Order

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am pleased that the Leader of the House is still here to hear the point of order. Will you give a Back Bencher advice? If we ask a Minister a question and he answers a question that we did not ask, as happened in Work and Pensions questions earlier, it is a slight to our constituents who are waiting for answers from Ministers. We desperately need answers to questions and if Ministers do not answer them, are we not wasting our time?

Mr. Speaker: I can say to the hon. Gentleman that Ministers are responsible for their answers.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Reference was made earlier to the new visitors entrance. I do not know whether hon. Members realise that visitors will use the same entrance as Members. In the event of a vote and a surge of visitors at the same time, are we meant to use St. Stephen’s entrance to avoid the crush? Has any thought been given to Members’ access in the event of a vote?

Mr. Speaker: I think that the hon. Lady is mistaken.

Miss McIntosh indicated dissent.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady says no, but I think that she is mistaken. I do not use the Members entrance that I knew and loved so well so often now because of being in Speaker’s House. However, I understand that it will not interfere with the visitors’ centre. It would be best if the hon. Lady went to the Serjeant at Arms Department and looked at the drawings. If I am wrong, she can point that out and perhaps we can rejig the drawings—although the centre will open soon and we could be in difficulty.

4 Jun 2007 : Column 24

Orders of the Day

Legal Services Bill [Lords]

[Relevant document: The Third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: Second Progress Report, HC 287]

Order for Second Reading read.

3.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am absolutely delighted that, at last, after much debate in the other place, the Bill has finally reached this House. It is an especially important Bill because above all it puts consumer interests at the heart of legal services provision. The consumer focus, as the volume and nature of amendments in the other place show, was clearly forgotten during the Bill’s long and drawn-out six-month passage there, so I now look forward to this House reacquainting the Bill with its real purpose. This is our opportunity to give voice to the needs and aspirations of consumers as opposed to providers of legal services.

Before I deal with the Bill, let me pay tribute to Citizens Advice, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Consumer Council, the Office of Fair Trading and Which? and particularly to the members of those organisations who have worked tirelessly on the Government’s consumer advisory panel to inform and shape the Bill and to ensure that it properly reflects the consumer interest. I am, of course, also grateful to leaders and members of the legal profession who have welcomed our agenda for reform and who have engaged with the Government, sometimes very constructively, in the development of the Bill. I also want to acknowledge the hard work and foresight of Sir David Clementi, whose independent review and report in December 2004 set very solid foundation stones for our proposals.

For too long, regulation of legal services has focused on the suppliers of those services at the expense of the consumer. It has been the consistent message from consumers, who have told us loud and clear—as, indeed, did Sir David Clementi—that their needs are simply not being met. In particular, they told us that they were not satisfied with the way that legal services were delivered, as the focus was on what suited the provider as opposed to the consumer; that they had lost confidence in self-regulation alone; and that their experiences of poor complaints handling had undermined their confidence in the system as a whole.

Let us look at some of the underlying problems. Bad experiences with poorly handled complaints, dealt with by the providers’ own bodies, have not only given consumers a raw deal, but undermined the confidence that we all should have in our legal profession. Problems with the quality and speed of the handling of complaints about solicitors are well documented: it is a headline story, but it is not just a problem with the Law Society. In fact, based on figures from the office of the legal services ombudsman, we can see that a higher proportion of the total number of consumer
4 Jun 2007 : Column 25
complaints against barristers over the last three years were found to have been handled unsatisfactorily than when compared with complaints about solicitors.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I will just acknowledge that I am a barrister, though not a practising one. Would not the Minister accept, however, that if we look at the legal services ombudsman’s annual reports of the Bar and how it deals with complaints, we find that it has been praised the whole way through, whereas when it comes to solicitors, the ombudsman actually fined the Law Society £250,000?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is right about the ombudsman’s report, but my point is that while there are many more complaints against solicitors in comparison with the Bar, the percentage of complaints going from the Bar to the ombudsman is marginally higher than the number of complaints about solicitors going to the ombudsman. In other words, I do not believe that either house—the Law Society or the Bar Council—can afford to be complacent about their responses to consumers.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the key thing that comes through from the deliberations of the other place about the Bar Council is clearly the self-interest of wanting to keep its independence? Does she further agree that, if we are to build confidence in the complaints procedure and also make it independent, the Bar Council must come within the remit of the legal complaints service?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes the vital point that the only body to argue for the Bar Council to retain the right to deal with complaints is the Bar Council itself. I suppose that that tells us something about its response to the consumer.

Mr. Heald: Does not the hon. Lady recognise, however, that when the Bar Council disciplines someone, the people who do that work are barristers, who are effective in finding out exactly what happened in court or the circumstances of complex cases? The way in which they do that has been praised to me by, for example, Which? It would not be good if we lost those skills to wheedle out exactly what had happened in particular cases and punish those who had not met the standards.

Bridget Prentice: Of course we should not lose those skills. I am sure that the office for legal complaints, to which I shall refer later, will be able to call in some of those skills should it feel it necessary to do so. Some 33 per cent. of complaints dealt with by the Bar Council go to the legal services ombudsman, compared with about 10 per cent. of those dealt with by the Law Society. The point of the Bill is to reduce the number of complaints made in either sector of the legal profession, so that the consumer gets a better deal.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend also agree that the relationship between solicitors and barristers needs to be examined? Recently, I referred to the Legal Complaints Service the case of a poor constituent of mine who had been given very bad advice in relation to
4 Jun 2007 : Column 26
her divorce. There was a big question mark over whether barristers needed to be employed in the first place. Dealing with them separately would mean that one body would deal with the complaint against the solicitor, while the other, the Bar Council, would deal with the barrister. In that case, for example, would not it be common sense for one body to deal with the single complaint?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He is right: the purpose of the office for legal complaints is to have a one-stop shop to make a judgment as to who, if anyone, is at fault. Time and again, consumers have raised with me the issue that it is difficult for them to tell whether the fault is the solicitor’s or the barrister’s.

To get beneath the skin of some of the less obvious issues, we have undertaken long, thorough research and wide-ranging consultation. Concerns about the competitiveness of the sector began with the OFT’s 2001 report, “Competition in Professions”. That identified a number of potentially unduly restrictive rules of the legal profession, which had the potential to drive up costs and prices, limit access and choice, reduce value for money, and inhibit innovation in the supply of services. To a Government committed to delivering a better deal for the consumer, that is simply unacceptable.

Following the OFT's report, the Government consulted publicly throughout 2002, and in July 2003 concluded that the current regulatory framework was

It was clear that the existing regulatory framework was more like a “regulatory maze”, with a wide range of oversight regulators who had overlapping responsibilities and few clear objectives. The problems were not restricted to oversight regulators. The legal professional bodies contributed to the “maze” by failing to separate the exercise of their regulatory and representative functions. All of that drove the Government to the inescapable conclusion that reform was not only necessary but long overdue.

We therefore immediately appointed Sir David Clementi and charged him with the task of identifying a new framework that would be independent in representing the public and consumer interest, comprehensive, accountable, consistent, flexible, transparent and no more restrictive or burdensome than is clearly justified. He published his report in December 2004. I want to put on record that he lived up to that challenge and produced an excellent report.

The model that Sir David proposed was one of strong oversight regulation under which legal professional bodies would carry out day-to-day regulation provided they separated their regulatory and representative functions. He also proposed that there should be a clear set of statutory objectives and, importantly, that complaints handling should be taken away from the legal professions. The Government broadly accepted Sir David’s recommendations and in October 2005 published the White Paper “The Future of Legal Services: Putting Consumers First”. I leave it to hon. Members to work out from the title exactly where the Government stand on the issue.

4 Jun 2007 : Column 27

In May last year, a draft Legal Services Bill was subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses, and a very useful process that turned out to be. I am very grateful to the Committee for the hard work that it put into that.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I think that everyone in both Houses is grateful to the Committee that carried out the pre-legislative scrutiny— [Interruption.] No, they were not all lawyers. Having done that work, does the Minister accept that we should listen carefully to what it said, and that where its members supported Opposition amendments in the Lords, the Government should also accept that those amendments are the right ones to keep in the Bill?

Bridget Prentice: I cannot say in all honesty that I would accept the amendments on that basis. We have accepted 34 or 35 of the Joint Committee’s recommendations wholly and absolutely, plus another eight at least in part, and have not accepted 14. Given the amount of consideration that we have given to the recommendations, I think that we have been fairly balanced in our approach to the subject.

That was the background. No one could accuse us of rushing ahead without a well thought-out or well thought-through policy.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): As a lawyer and a member of the Joint Committee, I take issue with the point about not rushing the legislation through. Does the Minister accept the concern raised by the Joint Committee about the limited time given for it to consider what at that time were 159 clauses in the draft Bill, which has grown exponentially as the matter has been considered? Perhaps less time could have been given to the amendments if further time had been given to the Committee. Is there not a concern for Parliament that such a time limit has been extended to the Joint Committee on human embryo research? There is profound concern that we should give proper time for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Bridget Prentice: I have always been a great advocate of pre-legislative scrutiny. The timing was challenging, but the Committee clearly rose to that challenge and invited me to respond in an equally short period of time, which I managed to do.

On the Bill itself, regulators must have clear objectives to guide them in exercising their functions and to provide a basis on which consumers can hold them to account. Part 1 sets out those objectives and principles. They will apply to the board, the approved regulators and the office for legal complaints. It is important to be clear that the objectives are not ranked.

Part 2 makes provision for the new oversight regulator, the legal services board. The board will provide independent oversight of legal regulatory bodies. While the day-to-day regulation should, quite rightly, remain with the professions, the board will have a range of powers over them. The Lord Chancellor will appoint the chair and members of the board, and will
4 Jun 2007 : Column 28
do so subject to the oversight of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The Lord Chancellor can also remove members of the LSB subject to strict criteria set out in schedule 1.

An amendment in the other place now means that the Lord Chancellor must seek the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice in appointing and removing members of the board. I understand that that might give comfort to the legal professions, but it gives no comfort at all to consumers, and I intend to table amendments to reverse that change.

Mr. Heald: It is clearly important to reflect both the consumer interest and the public interest, but there is a feeling that the legal profession should be independent of Government and that claimants should be able to rely on that independence. How can independence be assured if the Minister removes the provision inserted by the House of Lords that the Lord Chief Justice should be happy with appointments to the board?

Bridget Prentice: Clause 1 sets out the regulatory objectives, one of which is

Next Section Index Home Page