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Guess why, Mr. Speaker? During the last 12 months, Watson Burton has seen a slow-down in work generated from the Government’s coal compensation scheme, which previously employed 60 dedicated lawyers. The company was paid £32 million. It is trying to portray itself as a big, national player from Newcastle, but—not content with the £32 million that it has legitimately received in fees—it is being kept afloat by, and its profits have been boosted over the last
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few years on the back of, money that it has raided from the compensation of individual miners.

One scandal annoys me. In his very good report, Lord Lofthouse highlighted the fact that a staggering 70 per cent. of claimants received less in compensation than the lawyers received in administration fees for their individual cases. The Law Society keeps trying to tell me that such cases constitute the minority, but they do not. These companies are still not paying up, and are not going to.

I look forward to the role of the Legal Complaints Service, which, to its credit, is doing a very good job in pursuing some of these rogues. It has recently written to every individual claimant in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who has been inundated with people coming forward with complaints. I look forward to that happening in the north-east—to people coming forward to complain about the likes of Watson Burton.

I am pleased that the Government accepted my amendment No. 75, which means that the chairman of the legal services board will be a layperson. That is important, in order to ensure that regulation is seen to be independent from the legal profession. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I want to thank Which? for its campaigning in respect of this Bill. It has been very instrumental in championing the consumer’s cause. I should also like to thank not the many lawyers with whom we have been inundated on this Bill, but, from the other place, one non-lawyer and, admittedly, one lawyer: the Lords Bach and Whitty, both of whom spoke very well. They were lone voices in championing the consumer in a sea of vested interests in the other place, in the form of lawyers and former barristers.

The Bill will ensure that the consumer is at the heart of such legislation, which was the Minister’s aim at the outset. However, we, and the system, now need to educate people about lawyers. People think that when they go to a lawyer, they will get straight advice and that every lawyer is the same. It is important to ensure that they know that when they go to a lawyer, they will get specialist treatment and not second-best treatment, because that is not acceptable. Splitting regulation from the advocacy role of the legal profession was long overdue. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford described it as the last closed shop. Let us be honest—this Bill is the death knell of the last of the closed shops and vested interests, which is very welcome.

I finish by congratulating the Minister, who, as has been said, has been very approachable regarding representations from me and other Back Benchers. She has also taken on board the legitimate concerns that have been expressed. Fundamentally, her not being a lawyer has been a great asset. She has been able to see through the crocodile tears of the Bar Council and other vested interests protecting their own positions. She said that she wanted the consumer to be at the heart of this Bill, and I congratulate her on achieving that. I want also to thank her officials, who were helpful to members of the Committee—from all parts of the House—in offering advice.

It has not been easy for the Minister at times, but she has done something that is perhaps unique among some Ministers these days: when people were trying to
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put forward strong arguments on behalf of vested interests, she stuck to the core principle that the consumer is at the heart of this Bill. That is a credit to her. We may yet have another outing, possibly on the coroners Bill that is coming forward in the next Session. I know that she will be going home, but if she is in the Strangers Bar later, I shall buy her a large Jameson’s, if it helps.

9.45 pm

John Mann: Is another Bill coming up? I am always available to serve the House, as required.

When I entered my office this morning, a constituent was waiting for me, and luckily, I had enough time to talk to him. He gave me papers from a company called Midland Claims Specialist Ltd. I had not heard of it before, but it has dealt with industrial deafness. That is a straightforward matter for the coal board, because I believe that more than 100,000 claims have been settled and the process has been going on for a long time. A system is in place, whereby there is a form of a schedule, the sets of costs have been agreed with various solicitors and the procedures have been well established for about 15 years. The situation is relatively easy to address: one gets a hearing test and then, given the work history, it is determined whether there is a liability. Any liability is then settled and the solicitor gets some money. Because we are not talking about a claims handling agreement, the individual may pay some money to the solicitor, and that is all well and good.

My constituent did not have a letter from a solicitor, but instead had a credit agreement, on which the clock was running. We shall see whether things have been done right or wrong in his case, but there is a principle at the heart of why there needs to be robust regulation. I rang up the claims handling company and the solicitors involved. The solicitors, Branton Bridge, said that all the paperwork was in order, as I am sure it must be. What Midland Claims Specialist Ltd said to me was interesting, so I took detailed notes.

I was told, “You should not expect to get copies of legal documents, as an individual taking an industrial deafness case. You should not expect to get anything yet from a solicitor; indeed, you should not have a letter from a solicitor. You should have only a credit agreement at this stage. It does not matter that the solicitors have not been in touch with him.” The company thought that I was a friend and had not realised that I was representing my constituent. I was then asked, “What is a Member of Parliament?”

Well, a Member of Parliament is a person who brings cases such as this one in front of the House to demonstrate that something is not quite right. The solicitor’s letter has not yet reached my constituent, yet a credit agreement has, money is ticking—I believe that the interest rate on this is 14.6 per cent.—but there is no need for him to take out a loan, because there is no risk of adverse cost in taking a case against the Government using the liabilities of the coal board. That has not been done before—there are more than 100,000 cases to demonstrate that. Many solicitors will take the case, so someone would not need to take out a loan.

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For some reason, my constituent was persuaded on the same day that he met someone for the first time that he needed to sign various documents. As with many of my constituents, I am not sure that he is exactly clear about what he signed. He has been told that this will not cost him. If he loses the case, it will not cost him, but if he wins, like many others, he will get X but Y will be deducted and Y will be pretty much the same as X. If he is unlucky, Y will be more than X, as has happened to some of my constituents—in other words, it has cost them to win their case. That is why appropriate regulation is so in order.

It is not just these small claims handlers working as solicitors who are a problem. May I tell hon. Members about another case that I have been dealing with in the past week, involving a big firm of solicitors called Brooke North? They are the solicitors for the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. In my Brooke North files, I found an injunction that it said that it would take out against me two years and four months ago, with seven counts. It demanded that within 36 hours I should agree to do seven things that it wanted me to do. I wrote back—I kept a copy, of course—and said, explicitly, no to each item. No injunction followed. The firm would not have won if it had gone to court with that injunction—it also tried to injunct a firm of solicitors, which gave it a similarly robust response—but why was a firm of solicitors threatening an injunction and then not carrying it out? It is too late now, because the action has taken place and it cannot injunct me.

That example gets to the heart of where the regulation now needs to go. Solicitors often threaten me, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has had similar threats. Sometimes that is done behind the scenes and sometimes up front. The same happens to my constituents. The same firm of solicitors, Brooke North, recently wrote to one of my constituents and threatened him with court costs relating to proceedings for a debt. However, my constituent did not have a debt. He was one of those who went through UDM/Vendside—Brooke North is its solicitors—and he had paid the money it had asked for, so there was no debt. However, on the advice of Brooke North, Vendside had set up an escrow account and put my constituent’s money in it. Now the same solicitors who had advised that the escrow account be set up threatened my constituent with court costs if he did not agree to the release of the money. He had never heard of Brooke North, but it was the same firm.

Many of my constituents would panic in that situation, just as they would if other legal threats were made against them. That issue is not spoken about much, but some solicitors abuse their access to the justice system to intimidate the little person, the individual. That is why the Bill and its robustness are so important.

It may come as a surprise, but I think that the Law Society deserves more praise than anyone over the past two and half years. In the early stages, I was very critical of the Law Society, some of the systems that it had in place and its slowness in acting. However, compared with every other regulator that I deal with, the Law Society is leap years ahead in its ability to learn and listen, and in the integrity of the individuals
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who work at every level, from the top down to the newest caseworker. They showed that integrity in their work with my constituents.

Those working in the Law Society were shocked when they dealt with people, sometimes with limited or no literacy, or who were dying—some of my constituents died during the course of this Bill—and who were misled, deliberately in most cases, into paying out money that they should never have paid out. The Law Society emerges with tremendous credit from the process, because it represents the decent solicitors. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was wrong in his analysis that we are obsessed with solicitors being bad and evil people. The fact is that a tiny minority of solicitors has brought the profession into disrepute through their greed. The vast majority of solicitors deplore that, and many—from the smallest one-man bands to some of the biggest City firms—have been prepared to assist me in some of the cases that I have fought. When the Law Society has been robust in its approach, it has represented its profession well.

What the Law Society and other regulators throughout the legal profession must do from now on is to think from the point of view of the consumer. I hope that one of the things that will emerge when the Bill becomes law in the near future is that the profession’s ability to use its privileged access to the justice system to issue threats against those who challenge it in any way will be subject to significant investigation. That is what the board, under its independent chairperson, should be doing; it should look at how the legal profession is acting. It is not acceptable for a body to threaten people to consolidate its position. That is not decency, justice or democracy; it is bullying and, like everyone in the House, I abhor bullying of any kind.

I add my congratulations to those given to the Minister and all those involved in creating the Bill, but we should not overlook the fundamental role of the Law Society and the change that has taken place. If other regulators copied the model of the Law Society and its responsiveness to the consumer, all our
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postbags would be lighter and all our constituents would be better served. I commend the society for its work.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.




Traffic Volume

9.56 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I present this petition on behalf of the residents of Old Basing and Lychpit, who are deeply concerned about the mounting volume of traffic using their residential area as a short cut, or rat-run. Investment in our local services has not gone hand in hand with the dramatic increase in house building in my part of north Hampshire, which is creating ever more congestion for areas such as Old Basing and Lychpit.

The petition has been signed by 493 residents from Old Basing and Lychpit. It states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Juvenile Detention

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.58 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a number of issues about the conditions in which children are held in prison. Before I do so I want to make two observations about Government policy on prisons in general—one good and one bad.

It is one of the great shames under the Labour Government that they have been unable to tackle the growing crisis in our prison system. The general prison population has risen to one of the highest in the world, which has led to two issues: prisoner self-harm and increased reoffending rates. Those are two real failures of the Labour Government.

On a more positive note, however, the Government have had success in tackling the whole question of youth justice. Four or five years ago, I saw good schemes resulting from the excellent investment in youth justice; they were geared either to getting young children to avoid criminal activity or to steering them away from it at an early age.

I want to focus on how children are held in prison and how we are failing them. In so many ways the Government have done a great deal to improve children’s quality of life. The treatment of children in our schools, hospitals and health service and in the family context has been one of the issues that the Government have put at the heart of many of their policies to try to improve the quality of children’s lives. However, it is a failure that that has not been matched by the way we look after children who have been put into custody.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Claire Ward.]

Mr. Oaten: I am not quite sure what that meant, Mr. Speaker, but I am happy to have a go again, without a sense of déj vu—but it has been an odd kind of day anyway, what with one thing and another.

Lord Carlile’s public inquiry into the treatment of children found examples of treatment that would be considered as abusive in every other setting and would probably have triggered some child protection investigation, but because it takes place in prison, of course, that does not happen. The rule of law and general basic human rights for children should apply equally wherever they are, and that includes living in custody. The Government are putting an awful lot of money into Every Child Matters, but the children do not seem to matter if they are held in custody.

There is an international context. Quite rightly, this country is very proud of often arguing that we need to abide by UN conventions. We are constantly lecturing in many ways the rest of the international community to try to reach those high standards. But in respect of our standards for children in custody, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly expressed its concern about the UK’s lack of
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compliance, both in policy and in practice. Despite that UN criticism, the Government have done very little to address those concerns. Worse still, many of the non-governmental bodies that we speak to say that, instead of things remaining neutral, they have got worse in recent years.

I want to put to the Minister a number of concerns, the first of which is the age of criminal responsibility. I do not expect for a minute that the Government will shift their view on that, but it is a concern that we in this country regard children as culpable for offences at the age 10. The UN convention on the issue is very clear, and there is a growing consensus that to categorise children of that early age in that way is wrong. In the rest of international practice, the age at which criminal responsibility is triggered is a lot higher. So the UK has already pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable to the UN.

The second issue is the number of children who are in detention. Not only do we choose to imprison at a very early age, but the numbers are increasing, many for minor offences. Article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child states clearly that the

but the UK Government have made little attempt to meet the spirit of that and incorporate the last resort concept into our domestic law.

In fact, it is clear that we stray a long way from the principle of last resort. Our per capita prison population is high, and we have the highest number of children in custody. For every 100,000 children in England and Wales, about 23 are in custody—a figure higher than that in France, Spain or Finland, for example, where the figures are six, two and 0.2 respectively.

It is not just the age at which we imprison but the increasing number of children whom we imprison that is of concern. The number of 15 to 17-year-olds in prison in this country has increased by 98.6 per cent. in 10 years. That is a huge increase. None of those figures suggests that the Government regard such imprisonment as a last resort—quite the opposite; they regard it as a priority to send a tough message to youngsters. If it were seen as a last resort under a Labour Government, surely we would have seen some of those figures declining in some way.

I want to consider the current conditions in which some of our youngsters are held in custody. Overcrowding is one of the big problems. Ellie Roy, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, has spoken of the claustrophobic conditions in which young offenders live. Anyone with children knows just how important it is to let them run around to let off steam, but the conditions in which we keep some children mean that it is very difficult for them to exercise and get rid of their energy. It is no surprise that that creates tension in the institutions, where there is pent-up anger. That leads to aggression, which leads to difficulties in those institutions.

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