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22 July 2008 : Column 226WH—continued

There is a code of conduct, which sets out the behaviour that solicitors should abide by and what is expected of them in their dealings with consumers. Rule 1 of the code states that solicitors must act in the best interests of the client. It might be of interest to the hon. Gentleman to know that under rule 2, there are provisions relating to client care and information about costs. Those rules are in place to ensure that the solicitor gives the client all necessary information so that they can make proper decisions about if and how the matter should proceed.
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A consumer might decide because of the cost that it would not be appropriate to take the action further. The rules are approved by the Secretary of State and any changes receive a high level of scrutiny. The impact on the consumer is considered before the rules are approved.

The SRA is responsible for taking action against any solicitor who breaches the code of conduct. Once an allegation of misconduct has been investigated, the SRA has the power to take disciplinary action if it considers that a solicitor has been in breach. In the 12 months before April this year, the conduct investigation unit of the SRA concluded investigations into 4,875 cases. That is a staggering number of individuals who felt that they had not been best served by their solicitors. As the hon. Gentleman said, we see people in our surgeries who do not think that their solicitor has served them well. Sometimes that is because it is hard for people to accept that the answer to their question is no, but on other occasions it is because they have not been well served. Of the 4,875 cases, 141 were referred to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal and 63 orders were made to strike solicitors off the register, which is the ultimate sanction.

If consumers are unhappy about how a complaint has been dealt with by the LCS or the SRA, they can refer the matter to the legal services ombudsman. The hon. Gentleman will know that the ombudsman takes her job seriously and keeps a strict eye on the Law Society and the SRA. Her latest annual report displayed concern about poor decision making in individual cases, although she recognised that the time taken to deal with complaints was decreasing. I am pleased to see that improvement, but there are still problems. There are cases in which the conduct of solicitors has been called into question and it often appears to the consumer that no action has been taken. However, it must be remembered that the SRA investigation process can involve a great deal of work, so it may be some time before the complaint is resolved.

I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s two questions and then return briefly to the future system under the Legal Services Act 2007. He mentioned Citizens Advice and Which? and I put on the record my thanks to both organisations for working extraordinarily closely with us when we were drafting the 2007 Act. I took seriously their advice about ensuring that the consumer was at the heart of the new system. As a result, the Act will allow the consumer to feel that their voice will be heard loud and clear.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a particular bankruptcy case. I shall obey your strictures, Mr. Bayley, and not
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refer to that case. I will take on board the hon. Gentleman’s question and speak to the Law Society about whether there is a more appropriate way for solicitors to deal with their clients. However, solicitors, like all businesses, must be able to receive their fees when appropriate. I will ask the Law Society to consider whether there are other ways to deal with that issue. In a bankruptcy court it would be for the court, rather than the solicitors, to decide whether the bankruptcy should go ahead. The court should take all issues into account, including whether the consumer felt that they had received the service they expected. Under the 2007 Act, a new office for legal complaints will be established, which will have a lay chair and a lay majority to ensure that the consumer’s voice is heard.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the SRA, its chief executive or the ombudsman have immunity. They do not enjoy any statutory legal immunity. They enjoy protection from civil liability and criminal prosecution to the extent that is determined by the usual principles of law.

It is important that the public know that they can trust solicitors, barristers and others in the legal profession, and they must know where to go if things go wrong. There have been justified criticisms of the current complaints system. One need only look at the matter of miners’ compensation to see some of the issues that have arisen. I hope that the framework we have put in place in the 2007 Act and the work that the SRA is doing on listening to consumers to inform its policies will provide the public with the high level of service that they deserve.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether issues raised by the SRA could be published. I will ask the body whether it has considered publicising any of the issues that have arisen in the course of dealing with the complaints of individuals, because it will be for the SRA to take that decision.

I appreciate the opportunity to highlight the changes that we are making through the 2007 Act. I will take on board the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and ask the Law Society and, if necessary, the SRA to look at them and come back to me. I will advise him as soon as possible of any other changes that may be made to put consumers at the heart of the legal system.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Following the intervention made earlier by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), I can tell him that we are now able to debate in this Chamber in a quieter environment. We now come to a near perfect subject for the final Westminster Hall debate before the summer recess: provision for allotments.

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4.30 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate, Mr. Bayley, and I am privileged to serve under your chairmanship.

This is the second debate that I have held on the subject, the first being in 2004. I spoke then of the virtues of allotments and lamented the decline in their number. Although allotments can be owned privately by individuals or charities, or let by companies such as Railtrack or Network Rail, most are owned and let by local authorities. The vast majority of allotments fall into that category, so for the most part I shall dwell on the legislation and administration that governs that sort of allotment.

In the brief time available, I want to take stock of developments since the 2004 debate and note the unfortunate lack of progress since then. In my opinion, the benefits that allotments bring to individuals and communities cannot be overstated. I have spoken to many allotment holders in Wirral, and they all point to the physical benefits, and, interestingly, the mental benefits, of working on an allotment. Growing one’s own vegetables and fruit is relatively cheap, and it is a distinct advantage for those who are feeling the pinch of economic pressures. It is also good for those who want to contribute to biodiversity.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab) rose—

Ben Chapman: I give way to my hon. Friend and neighbour.

Stephen Hesford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is a doughty fighter on this subject, and I commend him for the work that he has done. He is indeed my neighbour on the west of Wirral.

Is it not the case that in the western world there is a lack of allotment provision? That is a great frustration for our constituents. Will it be part of my hon. Friend’s submission that councils should be urged to do more to even out the provision of allotments across boroughs such as ours?

Ben Chapman: It is a pleasure to have my hon. Friend’s support, particularly in this context. I endorse all that he says. I shall cover those points, but it is true that in our part of the world—in west Wirral—there are no allotments, and there are waiting lists throughout the borough.

Allotments are a good place to source organic products. They are minus the food miles and the carbon footprint, and they have recently become more fashionable and vital. They are set to become ever more popular, and more of an imperative among a broader range of people in the light of rising food prices. Many plot holders have told me that increasingly diverse groups now use or hope to use allotments. It is not simply a hobby for retired men, as the stereotype used to be.

The September 2006 publication “Growing in the Community”, commissioned by the Local Government Association, stated that

In practice, that seems increasingly to be the case.

Gardening in one’s own space brings feelings of satisfaction and tranquillity, with the opportunity to chat to fellow plot holders. Indeed, the more indirect advantages of working on an allotment have been exploited by some local mental health charities. They run various allotment schemes, including one run by the Restore charity in Oxford. I am told that it cultivates an allotment site of two acres outside the city centre in Cowley, where people grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and willow.

Children who have the opportunity to work on an allotment gain a wealth of outdoor experience and knowledge about growing fresh produce, and about nutrition. Their work on allotments contributes to solving the problems of childhood obesity. One might presume that such children are more incentivised to eat their greens if they grow the greens themselves.

There is much evidence to suggest that allotments are rising in popularity. More than 30 books on allotments have been published since 2001, and waiting lists for allotments grow ever longer. According to statistics provided by the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, 51 of Bolton’s 61 allotment sites have reached full capacity, and all the others are close to full. If that information is indicative of what is happening in other areas of the country, it suggests that allotments are hugely popular, and in demand.

In Wirral, it is thought that about 400 people are on waiting lists. I repeat that in the west of Wirral there are no allotments. In Blyth Valley, there are approximately 900 plots, but in 2007 there were 850 people on the waiting list. In Yorkshire, six towns have a combined waiting list of more than 3,500 people. In many areas, including York—although you might know better, Mr. Bayley—Medway, Peterborough, Solihull and Worcester, to name but a few, waiting lists have increased considerably over the past few years. In some places, people have been waiting for more than seven years.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): In Croydon, only 200 people are on the waiting list, but the list is closed. In some cases, the numbers greatly underestimate the demand for allotment provision.

Ben Chapman: Absolutely. That situation will apply in many other parts of the country. We may be looking at an even bigger problem than I have outlined.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I should declare an interest: I am the holder of an allotment plot in east Finchley, near my constituency.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, especially in London, there is huge pressure from developers and local authorities falsely to reduce the demand for allotments, selling them off to ensure that they become building land, whereas in truth they should be doing their best to ensure that every new development includes some allotment space, particularly in densely built-up urban areas? That would increase the number of allotment spaces, not reduce them. It seems that the number is reducing at a time when demand is rising fast.

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Ben Chapman: I agree. Indeed, I was the sponsor of a ten-minute Bill that addressed that very point.

I hope that I have established today, as I did in my speech in 2004, that allotments are a good thing. They are increasingly popular, more so than in 2004. In principle, we should encourage people to rent and use them and benefit from them. Why are there still not enough?

The 1998 report on allotments by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee concluded that

That has not been done. The Committee also said:

That was 10 years ago. Sadly, there is much evidence to suggest that almost no progress has been made.

In 2004, I asked for specific, simple improvements that would not require legislation. I asked for greater protection for allotments from development, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). In the absence of Government-led initiatives, I sponsored a ten-minute Bill that attempted to address that question. It received considerable support from Back Benchers. I also asked for better security measures, yet allotment holders in my constituency tell me of their struggle against persistent and ongoing attacks of vandalism on their sites.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. In securing this debate, he has inspired my constituents. Christopher Martin of Thornaby asked me specifically and purposefully to attend. He is pleased that we are debating the matter.

It is fortuitous that I am speaking, because Stockton borough council seems to be an exception to the rule. It has invested more than £100,000, which means that allotments are secure and their pathways are infinitely improved. We have only 200 plots, and 60 people are on the waiting list. There is great demand, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend is making such a powerful case. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response, because if the Government were to be slightly more generous in their grant-related expenditure or their standard assessments, local authorities could be much more positive. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that.

Ben Chapman: Indeed. I hope and pray that all councils will follow Stockton’s example, no doubt encouraged by the efforts of my hon. Friend.

As I said, vandalism continues, and allotment holders perceive a lack of response—that councils are not introducing measures against it. In 2004, I asked for a big push on the promotion of allotments. The fact that the issue was discussed at length in “Growing in the Community” suggests that it has not yet been fully addressed. I asked for more investment in plots to provide facilities such as a regular water supply and toilets in order to broaden the range of people, especially women, able to spend time at allotment plots. However, Wirral’s allotment societies have not been offered a
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significant regular increase in what I regard as the pitiful amount of funding that the councils give for the purpose.

I suspect that the situation is the same elsewhere. I asked for more plots, but we have ever-longer waiting lists. Any increase in plots has not been synchronised with demand. Four years after my original debate, I find myself asking for the same provision, which is not good enough.

Let me give another example from my constituency, which I imagine applies equally to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), to illustrate what allotment holders and societies are up against. The council has published an allotment strategy, complete with plans to prevent vandalism and provide toilet facilities where possible, but there is little evidence that it is being implemented, or that it will be. The council’s view is that it cannot allocate resources until it knows the full picture, but that will happen only when the necessary research is conducted, and nothing much is happening in the interim. My constituents tell me that the council is not fulfilling its responsibilities to market and provide allotment usage in any form, and that there is little knowledge about allotment provision.

It has been suggested that the council’s long-term strategy is to encourage self-management of sites, including funding, through allotment societies, which should apply to the lottery and other sources. Only allotment sites that have formed societies can avail themselves of grant funding, and a committee has to be formed and a bank account opened before funds can be applied for and released. At least 16 sites in Wirral have not formed allotment societies. It seems to me that the council, like others, is trying to shift the burden of responsibility to the allotment societies, by giving them the burdens of management and funding. Frankly, allotments seem to be near the bottom of the council’s list of priorities. In essence, the process of amelioration, if it happens at all, is slow, and slower than it should be. I believe that my area is not an exception, but a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the country.

What are the causes of this disappointing lack of progress? Principally, there is a lack of reliable national data on unmet demand for allotments. If we do not have a clear picture of national demand, how can we take appropriate action? The last review of the issue was carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004-05, but the returns have not yet been analysed, so we are none the wiser. The most reliable statistics we have are from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee report of 1998. The data show that in 1943 there were 1.4 million allotments and only 300,000 in 1996. Worryingly, we have no evidence to suggest that numbers of allotments have not plummeted further. There is certainly no evidence from my own constituency or from research that I have conducted that there has been a widespread, consistent attempt by local authorities to provide new allotments to keep up with demand.

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