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I am not saying that we would never seek to extend legal aid into other sectors. My noble Friends in the other place have said, and I have said in this House, that when we have the current legal aid spend under control we will consider how best to use such freed resources. I hope that my explanations are sufficient to persuade hon. Members not to press the amendments to a vote. If they do, however, we will oppose them.
Simon Hughes: The Minister is being very helpful. If she clarifies one point, I will be happy to respond to her invitation in relation to new clause 3. As I understand it, the Government intend to achieve, through the proposal that she sets out, exactly what we propose in new clause 3that there should be legal aid for applicants for relief under section 15, which is the judicial review provision. If it is confirmed that all section 15 applicants will be covered, I shall respond positively to her suggestion.
Vera Baird: Those who are eligible for legal aid for a judicial review in the High Court will not be put at a disadvantage if the case is transferred to the upper tribunal. We will therefore extend the scope of legal aid so that they get legal aid. I hope that that answer is satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman. An amendment is not required.
On new clause 11, I congratulate and compliment the hon. Member for Newbury on taking the opportunity to draw public attention to such issues. I, too, think that to live in an affordable park home sounds like quite an agreeable lifestyle choice. The stories that we have heard about blackmail, bullying and people behaving badly and abusing their power are appalling. I am sorry that that goes on. I hope that I can bring forward a positive suggestion in relation to his constituents difficulties with the fact that the only place for the resolution of disputes is the county court.
The hon. Gentleman has 11 mobile home sites within his constituencyI think that I have twoand he is an active member of the all-party group on the welfare of park home owners. He probably also knows
that the Department for Communities and Local Government is working closely with representatives of both site providers and residents to try to develop proposals for alternative forms of resolution. If he did not know that, let me make clear that that is going on, and if wishes to get involved on behalf of the 11 mobile home sites in his constituency, I shall make sure that he has sufficient information.
Alternative ways of resolution other than the courts are being considered. Currently, disputes go to the county court under the mobile homes legislation. I understand that negotiations have thrown up some issues that both sides of the park home sector agree should remain in the county court. If that is so, those issues will no doubt stay in the county court. For the benefit of the hon. Gentlemans constituents, let me say that the county court has a small claims track, which is likely to be a route that can be taken by people in some of the predicaments that he has described. Its procedures are very much simplified, and the district judges who operate that track are proactive and immensely helpful to those who are unrepresented and not well versed in matters of law.
Many county courts also increasingly have mediation officers, to whom district judges can send cases that they think are appropriate for mediation. It sounds possible that some of the issues raised would be appropriate for mediation. Whether or not that is the case, if it is agreed at the end of negotiations that some issues should remain in the county court, that should not put off constituents who have a real cause for complaint, because the small claims track is not a fully bewigged, begowned, formal, my learned friend sort of experience. It is much more informal than that.
Once there is overall agreement on the best routes for dispute resolution, the Government can, and will be happy to, use the provisions in the Housing Act 2004 to transfer those disputes that it is agreed should be transferred to a tribunal setting. The tribunal will be the residential property tribunal service, which is an existing national tribunal service that already deals with issues such as rent and leasehold, so should be well versed in the kind of territory over which some of the disputes arise. Transfer can be achieved by an affirmative statutory instrument under the 2004 Act, making the amendment unnecessary. Of course, if that process is used there will be a debate allowing scrutiny of the proposed transfer.
The hon. Gentleman did not intend his amendment to be perfection incarnate, and it would be very expensive to set up individual tribunals for each of the 269 local authorities that have park homes, so the proposition I have described is much better. I hope that I have set the hon. Gentlemans mind at rest and that he will participate, on behalf of his constituents, in the discussions that are going on, so that in due course park home owners can have ready access to recourse when they are treated in the appalling way that he described.
I turn now to the general commissioners for income tax. I should make it clear that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), will have responsibility for tribunalsat least for another couple of hours
and that is why he has discussed the issue with the commissioners. Amendment No. 9, tabled by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, would remove the reference to the general commissioners, while amendment No. 72 would enable compensation to be paid for loss of office as a result of this Bill.
The primary concern of both amendments is the question of compensation to clerks following the abolition of their office. I was impressed by the impassioned plea for the retention of the status quo made by the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that he generally supports the streamlining process in this Bill. It is a thin case to suggest that the issue of compensation means that the tax commissioners should be left out entirely.
Mr. Bellingham: I assure the Minister that amendment No. 9 is not driven exclusively by the concerns about compensation for loss of office, but by real concerns about the new system for the general commissioners work. We are concerned about the structure.
Vera Baird: I accept that entirely and I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman made the point that costs of appeals would increase, but we do not accept that. There should be no increase in cost and the unified and, we would say, more expert system that will begin when the commissioners are put into the tribunal system will be more efficient and consequently, if anything, cheaper.
Rob Marris: The Minister has touched on a point that struck me when the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was talking. He mentioned the £5 million cost of the general commissioners, but he did not includethe figures may not have been availablethe potential cost of the appeals from lay general commissioners who through no fault of their own make the wrong decision. Did it also strike the Minister that the hon. Gentleman made a contradictory argument when he claimed that the new system would be more expensive because of the staff involved, but then suggested that there would be loss of office? Is it not possible that some of those 200 or so general commissioners clerks could be transferred into the new system with no loss of office?
I acknowledge the statement by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that his amendment is concerned with the structure. We are confident that tax appeal modernisation is an important part of the tribunal reforms. We intend such appeals to fall within the new tribunal system.
The Liberal Democrat amendment is about compensation. My hon. Friend the Under Secretary met with the clerks yesterday to listen to their arguments. It has been the view of the Government that no compensation is appropriate, and nothing was put forward in those discussions that changed the Governments mind on the matter. The clerks are not salaried, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey suggested: they are fee-paid office
holders [ Interruption. ] I must have misheard the hon. Gentleman. There is no expectation attached to that status of compensation if the office is abolished.
Clerks handle their work load in their own way: they are not directed by the Department. Some clerks do a lot of work and either manage that work alongside being a practicing solicitor or as their sole activity. But most clerks earn very little. The average remuneration is under £5,000. Only 10 out of 356 divisions generate more than £20,000 in fees for the clerk. The exact breakdown of that fee will vary from clerk to clerk, but a fee of £20,000 equates to approximately 60 hours of hearing time a year. For the vast majority, our reforms represent not a loss of their livelihood, but merely the loss of one source of income for their firm.
Reform of the tax appeals system has been on the agenda for many years. The clerks have known for two years that the present system was likely to be abolished. It will not be abolished until April 2009 and they have had, and continue to have, ample time to look for alternative sources of income. Firms have to do this all the time, of course.
Furthermore and importantly, appeal numbers have been declining since self-assessment for income tax was introduced. It is unreasonable to suggest that there can be a legitimate expectation that the present level of income from that work would have continued had the system not been abolished. The existing compensation scheme is in the context of a continuing general commissioner system and not its abolition. If the system were continuing and there were to be a merger of divisions and a choice had to be made as to which of a number of clerks would be clerk of the merged division, it would be reasonable to compensate those who lost the opportunity to carry on. But where the whole system is to be abolished it would be an inappropriate use of public money to compensate all those individuals who happen to be earning fees from the scheme at the time. We have looked carefully at the examples of compensation schemes cited by the clerks in support of their case, but we are advised that none of them constitutes a legal precedent. Nor is there any breach of the Human Rights Act, although no one has today suggested that that is the case.
The Government have already agreed to top up fees if the work load in the final year is higher than the preceding year. It now looks likely that the nature of the work in the last year will require some additional duties of the clerks, to assist in transition from old to new system. My officials are considering the details of a final-year scheme that will take full account of those additional duties and ensure that clerks are fully and properly remunerated for all that they do up to the end of the scheme.
The Government cannot accept an amendment that would set back our plans for tax appeal modernisation, which is what the Conservatives amendment would do. We also remain unconvinced by the arguments put in favour of compensation.
I hope my few words about looking at the final year will have cheered the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey a little. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice has said that he hopes to recover the good will of the clerks, but we remain unconvinced about the amendments and cannot accept them.
Simon Hughes: If you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall start my response by saying that we began the debate under one regime, and will finish under a new Prime Minister. On behalf of all those in the House when he was elected, and of everyone else, I extend our congratulations and best wishes to him and his family. I am sure that we will support everything that he does in the national interest. The Minister and I are of the same generation as the new Prime Minister, and so have a particular cause for rejoicing.
With his new clause 11, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) rightfully put on record an important and significant matter of concern. The Minister was not able to accede to his request, but I hope that the fact that his argument was heard will mean that the people who live in park homes around the country get a better response to their concerns in future.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and I then sought to persuade the Minister about the general commissioners of taxes and their clerks. I meant to say that they were fee earners and not salaried, but stand corrected if I did not. I incorrectly said that Lisvane, where our taxes are processed, was in Cardiff rather than Llanishen, but the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk rightly said that general commissioners and their clerks meet and serve locally. Unlike the Revenue as a whole, therefore, they offer very much a local face and presence. The hon. Gentleman said that he had never appeared before the commissioners: I have, at a hearing in London, and found them very courteous and helpful.
I met the Under-Secretary yesterday. He is currently responsible for these matters, but I have not yet had the full feedback from the meeting. I hear what the Minister has said today and, although we still want to support the commissioners and clerks, we will defer to the Conservative amendment that I understand will be moved later.
I am grateful to the Minister for accepting exactly our proposals on legal aid in new clause 3. Amendment No. 4 also deals with legal aid, and we still believe that having a more express permission for the granting of legal aid in the Bill would be of benefit. When the time comes, we will put that amendment to the will of the House. I shall ask to withdraw new clause 3, then move new clause 4 formally. I know that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) wants to press new clause 6 to a Division, and then we shall do the same for amendment No. 4.
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