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22 July 2008 : Column 219WH—continued

Mr. Wright: I think that I have time to talk about overcrowding. However, let me first deal with lifetime
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home standards. My noble Friend Baroness Andrews has been a passionate champion of these standards and she has pushed this agenda through Whitehall to ensure that there is a Government commitment. I pay tribute to her for that.

As this debate has shown, we need to create a more adaptable housing stock to address changes to our population as we get older and with regard to the specific needs of people with young families or disabilities, or both. We are also committed to ensuring that all publicly funded housing will be built to lifetime home standards by 2011. Features that are suitable for elderly people will also benefit many other groups in society, including those with young families and disabled people. We are learning from experience that, if we design solely for the young, some people can be excluded, but if we design with the elderly in mind everybody benefits.

The Housing Corporation and the Homes and Communities Agency, which I mention yet again, is committed to increasing the number of homes built to lifetime homes standards. That commitment is included in its national affordable housing programme 2008-11. It is also committed to including this as a mandatory standard in future programmes.

Local authorities are not obliged to build to the lifetime homes standards. However, a number of draft regional spatial strategies have made reference specifically to considering the needs of disabled and elderly people in developing housing strategies. As a result, local authorities will need to consider carefully how they can meet the need for accessible housing in their area, through measures such as the provision of lifetime homes or wheelchair accessible housing.

I now move on to the third point that my hon. Friend raised regarding overcrowding. I know from the early-day motion on disabled children and housing and the campaign briefing that lack of space is a particular concern. That has been mentioned in today’s debate. I am all too aware of the problems that overcrowding can lead to, particularly for children: it can affect their health, their education and their wider well-being; it can leave small children with no room for toys; and it can leave older ones with no space to do homework or play with friends and make them more likely to underachieve at school. We need to do something about this. As hon. Members have mentioned, these issues may be particularly acute for households with disabled members. Therefore we need to ensure that local housing authorities have tangible means of helping overcrowded households to provide real solutions to this very real issue.

Of course, ensuring that new housing developments include larger properties is key to solving overcrowding. We are increasing the national percentage of social rented homes delivered through the affordable housing programme to 30 per cent. in 2008-09, rising to 33 per cent. in 2010-11—that is from a current provision of 25 per cent. That means more family-sized homes with three or more bedrooms, which will help overcrowded households, including those with disabled children, where space for equipment can be a real problem.

Last year, we supported pilot projects in London to demonstrate and test innovative new approaches to tackling overcrowding. To date we have invested more than £35 million in pilot schemes in London, which
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have successfully developed effective ways of tackling this problem in the capital, where the pressures are particularly acute.

We want to ensure that good practice on reducing overcrowding is disseminated. We used lessons from the pilots in developing our action plan, published last December, which sets out how both local authorities and registered social landlords can manage their existing stock in innovative and proactive ways to address overcrowding. We are investing a further £15 million over the next three years, starting with 38 pathfinder areas that account for over half of overcrowded social tenants. This year, each pathfinder has been allocated £110,000 to develop their own action plans for tackling overcrowding, based on good practice and the innovative approaches developed by the pilots.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the manner in which it has been conducted. Every hon. Member who contributed to this debate rightly mentioned constituency matters. We have all had to deal with this matter in relation to cases in our constituency mail boxes. For example, I have tried to help get a house for Mr. and Mrs. Wareing and their severely disabled daughter, Katie.

Building on the work that we have already done in the past 10 years, there are challenges with regard to the disabled facilities grant, in respect of moving forward to ensure that we have the accommodation that this whole country needs and, particularly, with regard to ensuring that we can address the needs, wishes and aspirations of families with disabled children. That is what a Labour Government should be doing.

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Solicitors (Conduct)

4 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): It is a privilege to introduce one of the last debates before the recess. It relates to an issue that has preoccupied me pretty much since I became an MP 11 years ago. At our weekly surgeries, we all see people with legal problems which those of us who are not legally qualified struggle with. Many involve unhappiness about the treatment provided by solicitors.

To give an idea of the order of magnitude, last year Citizens Advice had 300,000 cases with a legal dimension referred to it, a quarter of which involved the conduct of the solicitors involved. That conduct was not necessarily wrong, but the figures show the magnitude of the problem. I acknowledge that not all the complaints that we hear about solicitors are valid, however strongly expressed. In many cases, people believe that they have been cheated by the legal system, and that may have been so on grounds of common sense or natural justice, but they may have lost on a point of law and find that difficult to accept, particularly as it is so difficult to obtain legal aid funding. We are coming increasingly close to do-it-yourself law with people pursuing their own cases in complex areas and feeling a sense of grievance about the process when they lose. Many people blame their solicitors when the problems lie with the HM Courts Service, judges or elsewhere, but in many cases there is a genuine complaint.

Another qualification that I want to make at the outset is that I recognise that, as with accountants, architects and Members of Parliament, I am sure that the vast majority of solicitors are entirely honest, competent and admirable professionals, but some are not and it is those with whom we are concerned. During the Government’s period of office attempts have been made to strengthen the profession’s self-regulating processes, particularly that covering solicitors. The Government have been active in that and I am not criticising their approach, but there are some loose ends that I shall refer to.

Citizens Advice sent me a brief for this debate, which is worth quoting. Its considered judgment—it probably hears about more such cases than anyone else—is:

I have just been at a meeting in Committee Room 6 with an organisation called Complaints Against Solicitors, action for Independent Adjudication—CASIA—which was established 13 years ago; I seem to remember that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was actively involved with it. It is a network of people who have had terrible experiences, not just with solicitors, but with the legal system. Many of the people I have just met had appalling stories to tell of ruin caused by negligence or, in some cases, worse treatment by their solicitors.

To provide a perspective on the matter, it may be helpful if I review the continuous process of change that has characterised the legal complaints process.
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I am not sure what happened before 1997, but I believe that there was something called the Solicitors Complaints Bureau within the Law Society which dealt with complaints. It evolved into the office for the supervision of solicitors, which most of us remember dealing with and which was notorious for delays, evasion and administrative failures. I believe that the Government shared that assessment and were critical of it.

The Minister’s predecessor, David Lock, talked about self-regulation of the legal profession as a privilege and not a right, and on the back of that the Government initiated various changes with the Law Society, including establishment of the legal complaints commission—the Office of the Legal Service Complaints Commissioner—and, in 2006, the splitting of the various regulatory processes within the legal profession, one branch leading to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and another leading to the legal complaints commission, which is interrelated with an ombudsman, who happens to be the same individual as the legal complaints commissioner. In 2010 and 2011, we shall move into a new environment in which there will be an overarching Legal Services Board split into two subsidiary roles—the SRA and the Office of Legal Complaints, which will have the OLSCC and the ombudsman folded into it. Merely reciting that list of organisations indicates a rapid and continuous process of organisational flux, which may have been necessary, but has been enormously confusing to people pursuing long and complex complaints.

To evaluate where the matter is heading, it is worth quoting Which? The Consumers Association acknowledges that in the past few years, the changes have

Clearly, there has been action, and there is statistical evidence that the SRA has been striking off or suspending more solicitors. The number rose from 32 to 45 between 2006 and 2007, but the OLSCC fined the Legal Complaints Service for an inadequate plan.

I have two questions for the Minister. Will the OLSCC, which has established itself as a genuinely independent and often outspoken voice for consumers, continue to have oversight of the arrangements until the new set of institutions comes into effect in two years? My second question concerns a point that the consumer bodies are anxious to pursue. What is the Government’s position on the proposal that complaints data should be published? It is obviously important that when someone approaches a new solicitor they have some indication of that solicitor’s past record and whether complaints have been upheld. Consumer groups are anxious that there should be full and transparent publication. I know that the Law Society is going out to consultation, but do the Government have a view, and are they actively promoting it?

Before coming to my two key issues, I must digress a little into a case that has established my interest in the matter. I do not want to go too far into the details of a complex case that goes back over a number of years, but I shall give the background. It relates to one of my constituents, Dr. Oraki, who is Iranian by origin, with whom I first became involved when she was fighting a compensation claim over a post office that was closing in Whitton in my constituency. We eventually secured compensation, largely due to the intervention of the
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National Federation of SubPostmasters and me, but during the course of the battle, she sought legal advice from a firm called Dean and Dean. Its senior partner was Mr. Tehrani, and Mr. Mireskandari was a trainee solicitor. They provided her with legal services on a subsidiary issue relating to the tenancy of the property and the landlord, which was described as a fairly simple matter. Dr. Oraki entered a fixed-fee arrangement for £1,000, but something went wrong in court. I was not there, but the solicitor probably did not secure the result that Dr. Oraki wanted and there was a good deal of frustration.

Some time later, the solicitor presented a bill for more than £19,000, which has become a cause cél├Ębre within the legal complaints process. My constituent alleged two serious failings, one of which was breach of professional care or client care, and was subsequently admitted in court—I cannot comment on whether that was correct, but that was the allegation. The second, more seriously, was that one of the gentlemen involved, Mr. Mireskandari, had charged a full fee as a fully qualified solicitor when he was an assistant trainee. My constituent went to considerable lengths to demonstrate that he was not fully qualified at the time.

On the basis of her allegations, my constituent refused to pay the bill. The matter was referred to the legal complaints process, and she sought action in respect of professional negligence. However, in the course of that prolonged dispute, the solicitor threatened her with bankruptcy and the initiation of bankruptcy proceedings. She was advised—including by me—that bankruptcy is not a good place to be, even if one happens to be in the right. She therefore offered to pay the outstanding bill, but that was refused. She offered a second time with witnesses present and the solicitor refused to accept it again, and insisted on taking her to the bankruptcy court. She was a solvent—indeed highly solvent—bankrupt, but nevertheless she was made bankrupt and has been so now for three years while the legal complaints processes have rattled through the system. She has gone backwards and forwards between the Legal Complaints Service—

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I obviously do not know the outcome of the story that the hon. Gentleman is telling, but if it is a matter that is still before the courts, I should remind him that the sub judicerule prevents it being discussed on the Floor of Westminster Hall.

Dr. Cable: I do not think it is before the courts any longer, Mr. Bayley, but I accept your ruling. In any event, I do not wish to proceed with providing more details of the case; I simply want to extract two generic public policy issues from the matter and to do that I felt that I needed to provide the background to the case.

The first public policy issue is whether it is right and proper that solicitors should be able to use bankruptcy as a means of pursuing a financial claim with their clients. I have written on that subject to the Solicitor-General, who has sent me a thorough and helpful reply. I do not fully agree with it, but at least she has set out the Government’s case. Her argument is that solicitors should be able to pursue a bankruptcy case just like anyone else. However, there is an obvious problem in that there is an asymmetry of knowledge. A solicitor clearly has access to much more sophisticated legal information and knows the court procedures and staff, which means it is clearly a highly one-sided encounter.

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The Solicitor-General also said that my constituent could get another lawyer to defend her in the process. The problem with that is that when someone has become bankrupt and their assets are in a trusteeship, no solicitor will take on the case. Indeed, there is a great deal of reluctance to do so—not just by her, but by others. I have come across several other cases of this kind where it has become virtually impossible for people to defend themselves effectively when a solicitor—especially a powerful solicitor—takes bankruptcy proceedings against them.

I wish to ask a fairly open-ended question: is it possible to explore with the Law Society a mechanism whereby solicitors can pursue legitimate financial claims? Of course, like any other business, they must be able to do so—I am not suggesting otherwise—but it should be done in a way that prevents possible conflicts of interest and unfairness. Let me make an analogy. The situation is a bit like a dispute at a private school in which a pupil has not paid their fees because their parents will not pay them. The parents might be right or they might be wrong, but instead of simply resorting to expulsion the head teacher of the school decides to administer corporal punishment to the pupil. There is an element of that situation in this sort of treatment, so I ask the Government to think about that.

Finally, the second very important issue that I wish to raise—the other issues are important to the individuals concerned, but this is an important matter of public policy—is whether the legal authorities have sovereign immunity. In the past few days, it has been announced in the newspapers that the solicitor to whom I referred—Mr. Mireskandari—is issuing a £10 million defamation claim against the head of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. That was announced in the newspapers. Although I am not familiar with the individual case and cannot comment on it, I wish to ask the Minister whether the head of that organisation enjoys legal immunity from that or any other source.

That is a public policy issue for the following reason. If the head of that body does not enjoy legal immunity, how can we be fully confident that he can do his job in the way he is required to? Imagine what would happen if the head of Ofgem could be sued by a gas company that was angry because an inquiry was being pursued. That would be an analogous problem. Are the head of the legal regulatory body and his staff protected by legal immunity?

The same question extends to the legal services ombudsman; does it enjoy legal immunity? I am sure that the Minister understands the problem. If a powerful solicitor feels threatened by an inquiry and they feel that they have the right to issue legal proceedings against the head of the regulatory body, it is difficult to see how the integrity of the system and public confidence in it can be maintained. I am not a lawyer, but I am essentially asking the Minister about a matter of fact: are the organisations that she has quite properly established to protect the public themselves protected from legal claims?

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): It is normal to congratulate the Member who has secured the debate, although I am not sure whether the congratulations will be particularly
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enthusiastic at the end of this part of the parliamentary Session. However, I am grateful that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) has initiated a debate on the conduct of solicitors because it is something that is very dear to my heart, particularly as I recently took the Legal Services Act 2007 through the House. I will come back to the Act in a moment.

It is important to recognise that almost everyone at some point in their life will have to use legal services of one sort of another. It could be a relatively straightforward thing, such as taking an oath, or something more complicated, such as buying a house, getting divorced or dealing with matters after the death of a family member. Often, when an individual—the consumer or customer—has to take legal advice from solicitors, they are at a vulnerable stage in their life. It is, therefore, paramount that solicitors give individuals confidence in the standing of their firm and the services they provide.

It is equally important that if things go wrong—as inevitably they sometimes do— the complaint is taken seriously. Consumers need to know exactly where to take their complaint about poor service or the conduct of their solicitor, both now and in the future. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, the legal profession is independent and self-regulating. The process for dealing with complaints is provided by and for solicitors—by the legal profession.

The hon. Gentleman gave a brief and succinct outline of the stages through which we have come in dealing with complaints against the legal profession. The fact is that 10 years or so ago, a complaint against the legal profession was almost a waste of time—the profession did not take complaints seriously, and often ignored them and brushed them under the carpet. The profession certainly did not respond sensitively to consumers.

Since then, we have come a long way. It has been an arduous process, and I put it on record that I am grateful to the Law Society and to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. They have come to recognise that the type of behaviour that was prevalent in the past is no longer acceptable, and that the consumer must have confidence both in the behaviour of the solicitor initially and in the complaints system if a solicitor falls down during the process. In fact, the Legal Complaints Service handles a fairly large number of complaints. The most recent statistics show that it received 1,159 new complaints about poor service and closed, or dealt with, another 1,200 or so—indeed, it dealt with them within three months of receiving the complaint. It has improved its services in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the SRA, which is the regulatory arm of the Law Society. It is now split from the policy arm of the Law Society. It was appropriate that the Law Society was not seen to be acting as trade union and regulator, as it had been. That has made a big difference to the way that complaints are handled.

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