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19 Feb 2008 : Column 64WH—continued

I ask the Minister to respond to the following questions. How can we defuse the “ticking time bomb”, as the National Consumer Council describes it, of the 27 million people who do not have a will, particularly given that those who are least likely to have one are those who need one the most? Consumer education will not be effective other than through major, high-profile and continuous promotion—that means Government promotion.

The will-writing profession is not in a position to fund such activity, given that it consists of only about 700 to 1,000 businesses, employing less than 2,000 practitioners. Indeed, we do not know how many will-writing companies there are, because there is no requirement for them to register. We need something like a CORGI register for will writers. CORGI is a trusted brand that delivers a guaranteed level of service, and someone, somewhere has promoted that brand so that everyone knows and trusts it. Do the Government have the political will to promote the needs of citizens and their loved ones after their death?

I also want to know how it is possible to bring the cowboys of the industry into line if there is no central register of firms that trade as will writers, and no requirement to adhere to a voluntary code of conduct? The majority of consumers who take the trouble to make wills believe that their wills are being written by someone who is legally qualified. Will writers do not need to be legally qualified as long as they are properly trained, but as things stand, customers are sitting ducks. The industry’s reputation is going down the drain, and ethical companies can do nothing but put themselves at a competitive disadvantage by swallowing the additional cost of doing the right thing: providing proper training and continuous professional development, and having full insurance cover and an overriding concern for clients and their interests. The ethical part of the industry needs a helping hand.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for this opportunity to discuss the will-writing sector. She has described her personal interest in the subject, and I know that she is, rightly, keen that consumers should be protected from unscrupulous will-writing organisations.

The crux of the matter is whether will writing should be a reserved legal activity. That question was debated at length during scrutiny of the Legal Services Bill last year. At that time, the Government’s position was that there was insufficient evidence to make a compelling case for regulating will-writing services, and I must disappoint the hon. Lady by telling her that we still do not see a compelling case. I reiterated that position in a recent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy).

Our position will disappoint some people in will-writing organisations, such as the IPW, as they recently wrote to MPs seeking support for regulation, but we do not rule out future regulation. We will regulate, if there is evidence that regulation is not only necessary, but the most effective way of increasing consumer protection. We are
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committed to reducing regulatory burdens as far as possible, and we will not introduce regulation unless there is evidence of significant problems.

Lorely Burt: Will the Minister give an example of the sort of incident that would persuade her of the need for regulation? Would a compulsory code of practice constitute regulation?

Bridget Prentice: I hope that I will answer the hon. Lady’s questions during the course of my remarks. If I do not, I am sure she will come back to me on those points.

There is always a possibility that mistakes will be made in will writing, but regulation would not necessarily rectify those problems, and there is no evidence that lack of regulation causes those mistakes. Solicitors, who are regulated, can often make mistakes in will writing, and we are concerned that the cost of regulation might restrict competition and impose unnecessary burdens on providers and costs on consumers. That was the view of the NCC in its report, “Finding the will”, which was published in September 2007. The report, to which the hon. Lady has alluded, examined will-writing behaviour among adults in England and Wales.

Not everyone wants to go to a solicitor or even to a professional will writer. Some choose a do-it-yourself pack because of cost or accessibility. What is most important from the consumer’s point of view is the need to know that, whatever option they choose, it is the right one for them. They need to be aware of the pros and cons of all the options available to them. For example, Which? provides advice. It makes it clear to consumers that while the do-it-yourself will is certainly cheaper, it is suitable only if a person’s circumstances are straightforward. Which? advises consumers against using such wills if their circumstances are in any way complicated or if there are detailed requirements for passing on their assets. They are advised instead to consult a solicitor or a qualified will writer who is a member of a recognised trade body.

Just before the NCC published its report last year, the Probate Service published an internet leaflet that provides factual, unbiased information about the benefits of making a will and the consequences of not doing so. The Government want to encourage people to make a will. If, as the NCC found, two out of three people have not made a will, we need to find ways of encouraging them to do so. The hon. Lady has alluded to the point that the people who do not make wills include those from ethnic minorities, those from lower income groups and those with dependent children—all groups that would be more vulnerable if someone were to die intestate. We have a real job of work to do in educating the public at large about the importance of making a will. The NCC report specifically recommended that we defuse what it termed the “looming wills time bomb” and find new ways to encourage people to make wills. We are looking closely at its recommendations and hope to come to a conclusion before too long about how to take them forward.

The hon. Lady has made important points about protecting consumers. The best way to do that is to ensure that improvements are made in the quality and standards of will writing. In 2006, as part of our work to encourage that, we met with several interested groups to discuss more effective options such as the Office of
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Fair Trading’s voluntary codes scheme. An OFT-approved code gives the consumer a high level of service and specifically addresses areas of concern and consumer detriment in a particular sector. The OFT’s consumer code approval indicates to consumers the quality of service that they should get, and it would deliver real benefits without unnecessarily restricting the range of providers, which is crucial for consumer choice.

If will writers sign up to an approved code, they will be able to provide the consumer with the benefits that are outlined in it, including everything from clear pre-sale information, fair contracts and access to independent redress—all the key issues identified by the hon. Lady for improving will-writing services. Although an approved code cannot guarantee that all transactions with a business that complies with it will be trouble-free, it certainly provides a straightforward procedure for resolving complaints. If members fail to comply with the code, the code sponsors—in this case, the will-writing organisations—will be expected to discipline them or even expel them, if necessary.

The hon. Lady and others have suggested that a voluntary code may not be sufficient to raise standards as it would not be enforceable, and, obviously, not everyone would become a member of the organisation.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being patient with me. I am trying hard to understand how the voluntary code will actually work. It is estimated that a good 25 per cent. of will writers are not members of either institution and can operate, as I have said, with no insurance, no code and no redress or complaints system. There is so much ignorance, and many people assume that the person who writes the will is a legally trained person. How will those people be covered by a voluntary code?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Lady has made an important point. We are looking at that matter specifically. We want to put much of our effort into raising consumer awareness. If consumers are aware that there are a couple of reputable organisations whose members are signed up to the OFT’s consumer code approval, they will have much more confidence in the individual will writer and that the overarching organisation that they represent will have some power in dealing with rogue members, if that becomes necessary. When the Government and consumer organisations launch the consumer awareness initiative, we must ensure that we give people detailed information about what to look for—the hon. Lady has mentioned the CORGI stamp of approval. They will want a brand in which they can have some confidence, just as they would if they were going to a solicitor for other forms of legal advice. We are keen to look at how we do that in following up the NCC’s report.

The starting point in developing a proper picture of what we can do would be to find out what information is currently available. We need evidence of widespread detriment. The hon. Lady mentioned rogues and gave examples of how things can go badly wrong. We need to ensure that such behaviour is not widespread. As I have said, we will keep the question of regulation under review.

The new independent oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board, which was established under the Legal Services Act 2007, will have the power to advise the
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Government on unregulated gaps in the legal services market. Through secondary legislation, we will be able to bring those unregulated legal activities within the regulatory net. The LSB may investigate, and if it finds that there is a compelling argument for statutory regulation of will writing or any services in that area, and if it believes that that would better consumer protection, it would recommend to the Secretary of State that will writing become a reserved activity. I would expect it to act on any evidence of widespread misuse of the system.

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By establishing the LSB, the Government have put in place arrangements that will allow us to act swiftly, if evidence of consumer detriment emerges in the future. Until then, I want to work with consumer organisations and others, including the will-writing associations, to ensure that consumers have sufficient information to make informed choices about the quality of service that they expect to receive. I am happy to keep the hon. Lady informed as we move forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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