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I volunteered to sit on the Joint Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny, but I was not successful in my application through the usual channels! The places were filled by those with far more knowledge of the workings of the law than myself. That is a fundamental weakness in terms of our debate and the debate in the other place, but not because it invalidates the points that others make. It is not a little point, however, to suggest that if this were a debate on building the resource base and legal parameters of co-operatives, and if the pre-legislative scrutiny committee were made up of 18 out of 20 members who were active co-operators earning a living previously, currently or— perhaps if the electorate no longer wants them—in the
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future in that profession, one might perceive that a vested interest was involved.

There have been two fascinating historic developments tonight—the first I welcome, the second I merely observe. The one I welcome is the rolling back of some of the misconceptions about Nolan. Under Nolan, the perception held among the trade unions was that if someone was a trade unionist, it was not possible to speak on issues that were directly related to trade unions. One could not advocate or move amendments and all the rest of it. Yet what we have seen here is the ability of members of the various legal trade unions or legal executives, solicitors and barristers to do precisely that, as they did in the House of Lords. Doubtless they wanted to move and support amendments either in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I welcome that, because under the Nolan principles the issue always was transparency, not putting restrictions on what people can do. I have not sought to challenge anyone’s right to advocate on that basis and I will not do so as the Bill progresses.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I apologise for not hearing the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but I have just returned from a funeral in my constituency. I also declare my interest as a member of the Bar, though not a practising one. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who referred to the Law Society, would accept that exactly the same point about transparency has been met by the Bar Council in separating its regulatory role, by setting up a Bar standards board, from the work of the rest of the Bar Council in its representational, lobbying or, to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, trade union role. The Bar Council and the Law Society have taken account of his point about transparency. Does it not also follow that, if we are talking about independence, things would be so much more robust if the Lord Chief Justice had to approve appointments to the legal services board? Is that not a double lock on independence?

John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who will be delighted to know that I am coming on to deal with barristers and the Bar Council later in my speech. To save him the trouble of having to read Hansard tomorrow, let me point out that his party’s Front Benchers were rather more circumspect about self-regulation by trade unions than he was.

Mr. Burrowes: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not make it to the Joint Committee, as I would have enjoyed being part of the same Committee and exchanging views with him. He talks a good game about being robust, but can he be more specific in explaining why the amendments from the other place are not robust? Does his direction of travel mean a greater role for the Government?

John Mann: I intend to go through the amendments, not least because there is a whisper that the Opposition are not particularly perturbed about how many days are allocated to the Public Bill Committee. There seems to be a consensus on getting the Bill through quickly and smoothly. I offer to the usual channels my services on the Public Bill Committee. I understand that, even if I am not selected as a member of that Committee, I have the right to attend in order to ensure that my
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constituents’ perspective is heard. My services are available in the next few weeks, should they be required.

My other observation is of an even more historic nature: the final decline of “Liberal” within the Liberal Democrats. I always disagreed with the Liberals’ overemphasis on the individual as opposed to society. That was always my perspective on the history of the trade union movement’s shift from the Liberals to the Labour party. Finally, the last vestiges of “Liberal” in the merged party have been put to rest. Given the extraordinary position of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on the question of the rights of the individual consumer, the only appropriate name change I can suggest for the party is to “Whigs”.

“Independent” cuts in different directions. As far as I am aware, there is currently an independent legal services ombudsman. I have here a report that appears to be written by the legal services ombudsman, “The special report by the legal services ombudsman for England and Wales on the miners’ cases”. I do not know whether the current post holder is a barrister or a solicitor, but that does not seem to me to be a relevant requirement for the supervisory role being fulfilled, despite the implicit suggestion that a legal professional is needed.

I shall have to study the Bill in greater detail, but a provision that the post should always be filled by a lay person who is not a legal professional might be a suitable way of ensuring the independence of the chair of the legal services board. Clearly, it is invidious for a legal professional to oversee his own profession without independent input. Many skills can be brought to bear, but having the view of a person from outside, who neither has, has had or intends in future to have a pecuniary interest in the profession being overseen, seems to be the essence of independence.

We can argue about the detail, and it is legitimate for hon. Members to put forward proposals, test the Government and go further in that regard. My requirement, however, is for an independence that is separate from the vested interests of the legal profession. I do not use the term “vested interests” in a derogatory way; I use it factually. It is perhaps no surprise that some of the improvements in the Law Society’s robustness in dealing with problems have been due to bringing in expertise from outside to take a fresh view. In saying that, I cast no aspersions on anyone in the legal profession, now or previously. It would be similarly absurd were we to appoint a Member of the House—or an ex-Member—to oversee our behaviour. Were that suggested, it would, I hope, be ridiculed in the House, and I would vote against it were it ever proposed. It would also rightly be ridiculed outside the House.

Mr. Burrowes: Does not the Bill provide that the first chairman of the legal services board will be a lay person? Does not that provide the robustness that the hon. Gentleman wants? The concern is that there should be a joint appointment process involving the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice.

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John Mann: If it is good to have an independent person at the beginning, it is also good in the continuum. Let me answer the question that I posed to the hon. Gentleman, which he forgot to answer, about current appointments by the Lord Chancellor. I have not heard criticism of those appointments. In relation to the other side of Nolan, the robustness is therefore all to be seen. I am totally against the vested interests of the legal profession influencing such decisions. That would be an absurdity, and would let down the legal profession overall.

I have some other concerns about the Bill. On the maintenance and development of standards for the legal profession, does the Bill assist—and what does “assist” mean—or does it lead the way? The report took a lead—it could have gone further, and other reports might be needed, not just relating to miners, on the way in which the profession has handled itself. I would like to see a leadership role in maintaining and developing standards, not merely an assisting role.

The question of the legal services board’s powers is fundamental—what it can and cannot do should perhaps be itemised. The auditing of regulatory services is also fundamental. Progress must be made on what lies underneath the problems.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend also agree that one of the problems with the current system is the closed shop operated by the Law Society, for example, in relation to Watson Burton solicitors in Newcastle? They were subject to disciplinary procedures, but the judgment was kept secret from the public. Does he agree that maximum transparency on disciplinary actions and criticism of law firms should be at the heart of the Bill?

John Mann: I agree totally with my hon. Friend. I would like the legal services board’s powers over the approved regulators laid down in statute, so that the general public are protected. On the question that he asks about confidentiality, and allowing misconduct cases to go forward and then hiding them away, the Watson Burton case came to light only by accident—a copy of the ruling came into my hands, and I felt it appropriate to give him a copy too, as he had far more such cases in his area. Through that, the issue got into the wider arena, so people could see what was happening.

How many more slaps on the wrist, or worse, have there been against solicitors? The public have a right to know, in order to make an informed choice about whom to go to, whom not to go to, and whether a potential claim exists in relation to mismanagement. The Accident Group case, for example, involved enormous mismanagement. The public and legislators have a right to know, and that needs to be built in to ensure full openness. If solicitors have behaved badly, and decisions are made against them through regulation by their profession, those decisions should be made available to the general public, not kept quiet.

In a similar vein, there should be the power to enforce decisions. There should be an instruction to pay back—perhaps to pay back a dying miner, and perhaps the three dying miners in my constituency who died during the course of their claim. There was also the case of the miner’s widow who wanted the money
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for her husband’s headstone and who died in the process of winning justice, after the ruling against the solicitor who had refused to give her the money to pay for her headstone and that of her husband.

What disrepute does that bring the profession into? Could a profession get any lower than that? When people say that there should not be robust regulation of the profession, I can provide case after case to show that there should be. I could spend the rest of the evening—although I will not, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to know—tomorrow and the day after illustrating the need for robust regulation with individual cases just of my constituents. I have astonishing cases of people fighting for basic justice, in which the wrong done to them is obvious to anyone looking in from outside. They have never dealt with the legal profession before and need the money, although not as a good-will gesture of winning a case and thereby winning justice.

I have in mind the miner who is dying from emphysema and who needs the money for breathing equipment; those miners who go to solicitors who give them all the pat about how they should not have it back and, when they challenge the senior partner directly, face to face, still do not get the money paid back; and those who have been waiting three years—three years!—for justice after adjudication because the cases have not gone in front of the solicitors disciplinary tribunal. I have scores of those cases to deal with and many more in the pipeline. They are what the Bill needs to be about.

The other place has watered the Bill down, but the other place has vested interests—declared vested interests, according to Hansard—and it should not have watered it down, but beefed it up. Cases from my area are not reaching the Bar Council because I have a day job to do as well, but I can assure the House that plenty are in the pipeline. Perhaps I will push some of them slightly higher up the order following this debate. I have tonnes and tonnes more cases.

Let me illustrate those cases with an example that shows some of the weaknesses, and I hope that the Government will be wary of expanding the market too quickly—making it too open—without giving thought to the consequences. The example is the conditional fee agreements and the hearing loss cases, involving miners, textile workers, steel workers and engineering workers, and if it is happening in my area, it is happening across the country. There are two forms of funding for that, which is why we have a case against them. Often, a claims handler grabs hold of the case and sells it on to a solicitor, who sells it on to another solicitor, who gives it to a legal executive, who commissions a private health company to get in a GP, from which the solicitors’ firm gets a bit of commission. They take a loan out and get commission from the loan for insurance. The claim goes to a barrister, who writes up the facts, which I could have written up in five minutes—I do not exaggerate—and then charges for writing an opinion, which becomes the case taken forward.

There is something very badly wrong if my constituent wins a case for industrial deafness but finds that the amount of money going to that plethora of vested interests is four, five, six, seven or eight—sometimes even 10—times what he is getting. That may
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well be something for the Bar Council to consider, but I want one body where I can take the whole job lot and say, “You sort it out,” because I’ve had to fight each case individually. I spend more money on filing cabinets—that is true—than any other piece of office equipment to stick all the files in. There are hundreds of pages in each one, because legal defences arrive, written by counsel on behalf of a solicitor, trying to stop my constituents gaining access to justice—in other words, prolonging the misery when the solicitors know that they are wrong.

Those are the simple cases, not the complex ones that will take even longer. Where is the justice in that? I allege that tens of thousands of industrial deafness cases and tens of thousands of cases that have already been compensated for industrial deafness—in other words, people who are partially or largely deaf—have solely been handled over the telephone. Where is the justice in accessing justice for those people? There has been no face-to-face meeting, and key decisions have been made. That is a scandal that all the regulatory bodies, from the Bar Council through to the Law Society, should be dealing with. The whole profession has operated on the basis that that is perfectly acceptable because the people live in rural mining areas and are not always nearby. Therefore they can grab the case and deal with them over the telephone.

Strangely, a 91-year-old with a claim for industrial deafness might not always be able to hear. If I can manage to see my constituents face to face, why cannot the solicitor, who is being paid to represent them, do so? If they do not—this is endemic in the profession—who is going to do something about it? That needs to be part of the regulatory role. The LSB should be about ensuring that we have best practice. It comes as a shock to solicitors in other parts of the country who are used to dealing with more matter-of-course matters—although not more mundane matters—to learn about such scams and scandals, and it is a shock when they see the profit involved. Who are the highest paid solicitors? The legal profession, through its own journals, now advertises the fact that phenomenal amounts of money are being made out of those practices. Their powers are not a small side issue.

I have come across solicitors’ firms that refuse to release the files of dying miners who want me to go through the files to see whether the full claim was put in. The legal service makes the claim, including additional things such as not being able to wash up or having to have someone come in to clean or cook. I find that the claims are often not done in full. Why? Incompetence. The solicitor has ticked a few boxes and sent the claim in but has not done the full job. The only way we know that is by looking at the file, and yet despite the fact that we have won more than £20,000 for several people by challenging those claims—although perhaps that is why—firms still refuse to hand over the files. That is another role for the legal services board: to get the profession’s house in order.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Has my hon. Friend also come across another problem whereby constituents legally transfer their cases from unscrupulous firms to others so that they can be dealt with properly or reviewed, only to find that the original solicitors either refuse or delay the transfer for many months, or possibly years?
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The Law Society has little control over forcing those solicitors to hand them over.

John Mann: Those solicitors think that some of the claims will not be worth a great deal and can be pushed to the back of the queue. I have cases, as I am sure my hon. Friend has, in which people have been waiting six or seven years for progress to be made. They ask to be transferred to a solicitor who might do something about it and are refused. Again, it is extraordinary, but we cannot think that it is a unique Bassetlaw, north Nottinghamshire experience, because the firms are dotted around the country, from Brighton up to the north-east. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who represents an entirely different part of the country, has found exactly the same. What a surprise; what a coincidence. This is a national issue.

I am talking about people who are not used to dealing with the legal profession—about vulnerable clients. Access to justice, and the expansion of justice, should be aimed at such people, whether it involves large firms of solicitors or small local firms. I have no strong view in either direction, but if we are to expand the market, I want access to justice to mean access for those people and many more. I want access to justice for people who have been done over in a range of ways, not just through industrial injuries: people who feel that they cannot proceed further because solicitors and the legal profession are not for them—that they cannot afford such advocacy, and that it is for the middle class rather than the working class.

Those people should not have to come to me to challenge insurance companies that refuse to pay out, or house builders when houses fall down, or conveyancers when enormous subsidence holes suddenly appear in the middle of the garden and under the foundations. They should feel confident about going to solicitors to obtain legal remedy, but they do not feel comfortable about it. This debate is about expanding the market, and there is a market full of people with grievances who ought to be making a sensible, coherent, rational decision to use a solicitor, be it a large multinational, a one-man band or a small family company in a town.

As for the location of the Office for Legal Complaints, there has been argument about whether it should be so near to Leamington Spa. I have no strong objection, but I do think it would be unwise to limit a body to one base by statute. If the miners’ scam were repeated, a base in Sheffield or Newcastle would make sense, pragmatically and in terms of cost. Hands should not be tied for the sake of ensuring that the organisation is up and running as soon as possible.

I hope that the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman will not suddenly disappear in the next few weeks or months, because its supervisory role has proved extremely valuable in the miners’ cases. Both its remit and its role need to be maintained: it should be both an overseeing body and what some might term a court of appeal. It should be a further resort if regulation and the complaints procedure have not worked, but it should also ensure that there is forward looking as well as retrospectivity when it comes to the regulatory regime.

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Enhanced powers are essential. Of the top three powers that are needed, the most important is a power to deal with the inability to keep confidential misconduct action taken against solicitors. Next on the list are explicit powers to enforce decisions, including those relating to the payment of compensation awards. Finally, the £20,000 compensation level is much too low. We also need to ensure that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is made to work, so that solicitors cannot play games of cat and mouse with people who are literally dying while they wait for justice.

7.14 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I begin by declaring an interest. I am a non-practising solicitor.

The principles behind the Bill should be applauded. There is widespread recognition, both in the legal profession and among consumer groups, that the provision of legal services is in need of reform and modernisation. Sir David Clementi’s report highlighted several areas that are in urgent need of reform, and it is right for the Bill to take its suggestions on board.

Few would argue that increasing choice and trying to ensure more value for money for consumers of legal services are not desirable aims, or that when bad service is received the complaints process should not be more accountable, transparent and independent than it is now. The move away from allowing the same bodies to carry out both representation and regulation in the industry is also long overdue. The changes in the Bill will help to strengthen the reputation of an already excellent legal system. However, although there is room for improvement, let us not forget that the British legal system is believed by many to be the finest in the world. As we introduce these changes, it is vital that we do not, by accident or design, put that world-renowned reputation at risk.

The Bill is, on the whole, in a good state, having been improved considerably in the other place. The amendments made in the House of Lords are not wrecking amendments. They do not seek to change the Bill beyond recognition, and they do not seek to undermine its underlying principles. On the contrary, they seek to improve and clarify specific points, to elucidate where there is uncertainty, and in particular to ensure that the regulation of legal services not only remains but is seen to be independent from political interference. It is clear that the Government seek to overturn at least some of those amendments. That is a short-sighted approach, and I urge the Minister and other Labour Members to think again.

The Government are wrong to insist that the Lord Chancellor alone should appoint all members of the legal services board—that is, all members except the chief executive, who will be appointed by the board in any event. I am afraid I did not find the Minister very convincing when she argued that it was right for the Lord Chancellor to consult other bodies. If that is right, what is wrong with including it in the Bill?

Bridget Prentice: What has been included in the Bill is concurrence, not consultation.

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