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For the purposes of the Bill, a lay person is defined as someone who has never acted as a legal professional. The amendment is important in ensuring that the legal services board is seen to be independent, because having someone in place who is not a legal professional in any shape or form is vital, given that we have seen vested interests demonstrated in Committee and again here tonight.

The legal services ombudsman, to whom I referred earlier, is appointed by the Lord Chancellor in accordance with section 21 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which stipulates that the ombudsman shall not be a qualified lawyer and shall be independent of the legal profession. It is important that the chair of the new legal services board is not only independent but seen to be so. That cannot be achieved if he or she has connections with the legal profession. The Bill provides that the first chairman should be a lay person—I am happy that the Conservatives support that—so why not continue that? The amendment, which I am pleased that the Government now accept, will reinforce the importance of that lay position; many of my constituents need its protection.

During the passage of this Bill, both in this Chamber and in the other place, we have seen a rearguard action fought by the vested interests of the legal profession to protect anything and to fillet the Bill. I am pleased that the Minister has not given in to that pressure and has ensured that the Bill has the consumer at heart, as she has always stated. This proposal is an important part of that. I am also pleased that Which? has been campaigning for this amendment and supporting the call for the chair to be a lay person.

We have heard from vested interests during discussion of the Bill. It is a badge of honour that the Conservatives are to divide the House on my amendment. I am pleased because it shows, as has been demonstrated during progress of the Bill, that no matter what is said by the sleek packaging of the new Conservative party, when it comes to legislation the old Tory party of vested interests and conservative nature emerges. The way in which the Conservatives have conducted themselves on this Bill is a great example of that. I am pleased that the amendment will be supported —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asks whether all lawyers are Tories. No, they are not, but he and his colleagues are doing a damned good job of protecting the vested interests of the legal profession. I would have thought that were he into this new cuddly, friendly, consumer-orientated Conservative party—

John Mann: That was last week.

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Mr. Jones: Sorry, as my hon. Friend says, that was last week. Were the hon. Gentleman into that approach, he would embrace something that gives the little people in this society some rights and powers and that puts the consumer, rather than vested interests, at its heart. I am pleased that the amendment will be put to a vote. I hope that it will be agreed and that we ensure that we get a legal services board that is not only independent from the legal profession but is seen to be so. People will gain confidence from that. I am sad that that will ensure that Members such as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will not be able, following his retirement, to sit on the board, but I am sure that he will find a quango to add to his already long list.

John Hemming: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s arguments for the independence of the chair of the legal services board from the legal profession are strong. However, does he accept that the legal profession should be independent of Government and not be in a situation in which a Government appointee can sack people from practising?

Mr. Jones: I am sad that the Liberals have fallen for that nonsense. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was good in Committee at championing the consumer interest, as was the hon. Gentleman, but he does himself no favours by falling for the old turkey that somehow the amendment would mean Government interfering directly in the legal profession. I know of no other organisation that would insist on having a direct say in how it is regulated or on the board that regulates it. I mentioned in Committee the example of the certification officer. The Conservatives would certainly frown on the idea that a full-time trade unionist, or someone with a trade union background, should be the certification officer, but if we do not accept the amendment, that is what will happen in the legal profession.

I am pleased that the Government have listened and the Bill’s passage has been conducted in a good spirit. To give the Minister credit, she has taken on board points that have been made about the consumer interest, which is after all the core of the Bill.

Mr. Heath: This is an important group of amendments, dealing as it does with the constitution, the consumer panel and the legal services board. I recognise the moves made by the Minister in the direction of other members of the Committee in recognising some of the problems with the Bill. I especially welcome the change in the provision for the appointment of the consumer panel, which now requires the approval of the Lord Chief Justice.

I hear what the Minister says about information, and I shall look carefully at the Official Report when it comes to the information provided to the panel. It is essential that the panel has all the information that it requires to do its work effectively. There have been instances of consumer panels in other areas of government and industry that have not had all the information that they need. It is crucial that there should be no suggestion that the panel is kept in the dark about key issues relating to the legal profession
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and its relationship with its consumers. I will look closely at what the Minister says to see whether it allays the fears of consumer groups that think that the provision of such information should be a statutory requirement.

I entirely agree with amendment No. 75, tabled by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). There is a strong argument that the chair of the legal services board should be not only independent but seen to be independent of the profession that is being regulated. Even if a person who has qualified but has been out of practice for 25 years is appointed as chairman of the LSB, he or she will not be seen as an entirely independent arbiter. It is therefore very much in the interests of the system that the Government are promoting and of the professions themselves that the person appointed is seen to be beyond reproach. Having a lay chairman would strengthen the whole principle of the LSB, in the same way as arrangements for disciplinary matters in Parliament are strengthened by an Opposition Member—who is seen to be independent of the majority in the House—chairing the Committee in question. Such independence is important and, if we are to have a Division, I shall recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they support the amendment.

I part company with the Government on the requirement in respect of the Lord Chief Justice. It would be wrong to fail to recognise that the Government have added a provision requiring consultation, and that is a move in the right direction. However, I have tabled amendment No. 147, which would require the approval of the Lord Chief Justice. I had a brief discussion with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) the other day about whether the word “approval” had any different connotations to the word “concurrence”. On reflection, I am not sure that it does, except for the fact that the Government clearly prefer the word “approval”, as they used it in their amendments on the consumer panel. Therefore, if there is any nuance in that word that will secure the agreement of the Government it is worth exploiting. The honest truth, however, is that I tabled the amendment having temporarily mislaid amendment No. 24, which the hon. Gentleman had tabled. They come to the same thing, and that is why I have now added my name to amendment No. 24.

Why is it important that we have the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice? It is not because he is someone who will impose the will of the legal profession on the appointment. That is not the role that the Lord Chief Justice would exercise in that respect. Is there a difference between the approval and the consultation that the Minister is proposing? There is a difference in precise terms, but I am less confident in claiming that there is a difference in practice. I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which a Lord Chancellor would proceed as chair of the LSB with the appointment of someone whom the Lord Chief Justice had considered, rejected and told the world why he had rejected them. The Lord Chancellor would be in a very difficult position.

The intervention by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was interesting. Would the Lord Chief Justice have the statutory right to report that disagreement to the House? I think that he
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would. In that case, the Lord Chancellor would be proceeding with the appointment of someone in whom the Lord Chief Justice had no confidence and could report that fact in open session to this House and the other place. Would the Lord Chancellor proceed with the appointment in such circumstances? If that is the case, the Government’s resistance to the amendment becomes even more difficult to sustain, because the practical consequence would be the same.

I have dealt with the practicalities, and I shall now deal with the theory. The intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) was right: the appointment must be independent of the legal profession, but it must also be independent of the Government. We know what happens in those jurisdictions where lawyers are appointed—or their appointment is in any way constrained—by the Government. That is the way to tyranny, which is why we have always maintained the independence of the legal profession and why we have written into statute the independence of the judiciary and the particular role of the Lord Chief Justice, not as head of the profession but as head of the law in terms of the judiciary. Removing any suspicion that the Government may want to manipulate the membership of the legal services board by ensuring that the Lord Chief Justice has not only been consulted but is actually prepared to support the appointment of a given person is an important safeguard for that body.

6 pm

John Hemming: In the business context one talks about hiring and firing, so does my hon. Friend agree that the power to fire is a much stronger control over the board than the power to hire?

Mr. Heath: I would agree, except that I do not believe that power under the Bill would be exercised in any real sense unless there was a case of gross misconduct. There may be such cases and one hopes that they do not arise, but one must at least make provision. My point is that the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice is the imprimatur that ensures that the Lord Chancellor is acting properly in making appointments to the legal services board.

My last point is to rebut what the Minister said about accountability. I do not understand how the concurrence, approval or agreement of the Lord Chief Justice in any way removes the accountability of the Lord Chancellor—happily to this place rather than to an unelected place down the Corridor—in the exercise of the political judgment that that Minister makes. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to initiate the appointment process. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to determine the criteria for appointment. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to arrive at the name that is submitted, and it will still be for the Lord Chancellor, having secured or otherwise the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, to propose it to the House. Of course, if the Lord Chief Justice says that a person is grossly unsuitable, the appointment procedure will come to a halt, but the person who is appointed with the approval of the Lord Chief Justice is subject to the accountability of the House on the part of the Lord Chancellor. That seems entirely right and proper and I do not believe the Minister’s assertion that the
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provision undermines the accountability of Ministers or the role of the House in securing proper consideration of such appointments.

For all those reasons amendment No. 24 is well founded. Whatever view the Minister and her right hon. and hon. Friends take tonight is almost irrelevant because the proposal will return from another place. I am sure that people there feel strongly that the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the matter needs to be secured and buttressed, not for narrow sectional or vested interests but because it will ensure that the independence of the legal services board is maintained with a double lock—a political one, independent of the professions, and a judicial one, independent of the Government. Both of those working together will ensure that we have a legal services board that does the job the House wants it to do. If the amendment is moved later, I shall recommend that my hon. Friends support it.

We shall support amendment No. 75. We are nearing a satisfactory conclusion to this part of the Bill, but we are not quite there yet.

John Mann: Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is no longer in the Chamber. He described some Members on the Labour Benches as obsessed. He chose his terminology injudiciously; a better description would be “diligent”. The people who are obsessed in this debate, as they have been throughout the two years of the Bill’s proceedings, are those who want to maintain the privileged position of the legal profession and everything to do with it. We have heard the same thing again today.

The suggestion that the prospect of the board’s having a permanent lay chairperson could lead to a Division called by Her Majesty’s Opposition casts some doubt over the wisdom of the Conservative party and about its contact with the real world. However, in the real politics, I shall be generous to the Opposition. The obsession seems to be with preserving the status quo and the privileges of the legal profession, and in my brief remarks I shall speak in support of the amendment that I have signed. I shall cite as closely as I can the words of the late James Sheppard, who was one of my constituents, because I always like to ensure that the House comes into the real world when we are discussing the problems of regulating the legal profession.

When I first called meetings of miners—usually those who had retired—and their widows, they had no understanding of what the Law Society was and had never heard of the Bar Standards Board or the Bar Council. I had never taken cases to court and had no knowledge whatever but I realised that something was going wrong. I received backing at every one of my initial meetings from Mr. James Sheppard, a retired miner who was very ill. He was probably also very aged, but it was hard to tell because he was so ill that one could not be certain of his age. One could be certain, however, that he would ensure that all my meetings were wheelchair-accessible, because his emphysema meant that he was permanently wheelchair-bound. Despite that, at every meeting he insisted on getting out of his wheelchair—initially, much to my fear—to deliver a speech. I watched him teeter to his feet and wondered how long he could stand before falling down, but on
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every occasion—from first to last—he raised himself to his feet with the aid of his sticks and delivered the most eloquent of speeches.

Mr. Sheppard spoke on behalf of retired miners everywhere. He explained his life and work, and told us how during the war coal was dug by people such as him to ensure that we could produce armaments and keep the power going to sustain the war effort. Their service was belatedly recognised by the Ministry of Defence through the Bevin boys medal. Throughout the post-war period, miners in constituencies such as mine worked in collieries where health and safety was an afterthought. That is why miners won a court battle on emphysema. Such stories are mere words when they are bandied around in this place, but they are not mere words when someone such as Mr. Sheppard is struggling for breath and demanding to know why a solicitor took part of his industrial disease compensation with no right to do so.

When I first heard Mr. Sheppard, neither he nor I had a clue about the regulations or how he could take his case forward. It took me 18 months to devise a mechanism so that one of the cases would hold up before the Law Society and my miners could get their money back. That was eventually too late for Mr. James Sheppard, because he did not see justice; his wife had to get justice for the late Mr. Sheppard. That is the kind of problem that we are dealing with, and it is why when we make a proposal suggesting that a lay person should chair the board that oversees the regulation of the profession, it seems to me and to all my constituents that we are being rather modest in doing so.

If one wants to take the other extreme, I note how, when the Bill was first proposed, all parties in the House ensured that every member of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill came from the legal profession. Some of us are not obsessed; we are diligent on behalf of our constituents in ensuring that those who do not earn a good living from the legal profession have a system in place that allows them access to justice. That access to justice did not exist for my constituents because they could not see it. Only when the scale of the solicitors’ greed came to the fore did we begin to win some changes. If that had not happened, such things would still be going on.

I remind the House that, even today, the vast majority of cases that have been settled come from three constituencies. If I get the opportunity later in the proceedings, I will name three new solicitors today. One of them has been in my sights for some time; the other two have come to light just this weekend. They are new solicitors, and I have not had the opportunity to deal with them, unlike the 45 from whom I have got money back before.

I hope that some Opposition Members will be courageous enough to think things through. A person in my constituency or others who has an average knowledge of the law—Mr. Sheppard was far from average—wants a legal profession that is confident enough in itself and in its own decency confidently to welcome someone who is independent of that profession overseeing and regulating the board. I have received a large number of letters from legal professionals
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shocked by the minority who have abused the honour of their profession, and none of them are worrying about the independence of a lay chair. So I hope that the Opposition will rethink their disgraceful call to push the issue to a vote.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I was a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, and I declare an interest as a non-practising solicitor. I have been non-practising for 10 years now, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) will not be too hard on me as one of the lawyers whom he is attacking.

I give great credit to my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) for being so persistent about a lay chair for the legal services board. I congratulate them on what appears to have been their successful conversion of the Government to their cause. I also want to congratulate the Minister. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) mentioned that she has taken care to listen to all points of view and has carefully considered all the arguments. She has been very deliberate in her decision to propose her amendment on the consultation between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I will support her final judgment, because I appreciate the care that she has taken in coming to that decision.

I want to say briefly why I support both proposals. First, on the lay chair of the legal services board, clearly the board will comprise a number of lawyers and non-lawyers. It is important that it should have a lay chair, because the crunch decision will come one day when the legal services board explains why it has not decided to intervene in a crisis that involves legal services. The person whom the whole country will see on television screens, hear reported on the radio and see reported in the newspapers will be the chair of the legal services board. Public confidence will be maintained if no one says that the board decided not to intervene because that person was a lawyer and that, “They’re all the same, these lawyers; they stick together.” That is a matter of public interest, which is also a regulatory objective in the Bill.

As for consulting the Lord Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham mocked the official Opposition for being behind the rest of us and stuck with the vested interests of lawyers in opposing the consultation provision and in seeking the concurrence provision. The official Opposition are in a worse position than he suggests. In fact, they have been left behind by everyone else. The solicitors’ representative body, the Law Society, now supports the Government amendment. The representative body of the Bar, the Bar Council, and the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys now support the provision. Clearly, Which? supports it.

6.15 pm

Mr. Djanogly: At least half of the organisations that the hon. Gentleman mentions as having accepted the Government’s position have done so reluctantly on the basis that the Government have made a concession from the position that they actually want, which is concurrence. Recent missives from the Bar Council say that quite clearly.

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