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I was asked how the figures in the fees-and-charges approach will be dealt with. As I understand it, these figures are based on actual income and expenditure with shared and overhead costs allocated between services on the basis of the new model. The allocation would be through civil, family and probate. The recent fee increases were based on forecast income and expenditure using the old model. These figures showed a substantial over-recovery using full cost for civil and probate but lower recovery rates than intended on the other services. Civil fee income in the higher courts exceeded full cost by 15 per cent of an excess net income worth around £34 million. The probate recovery was 30 per centan excess of almost £4 million. The equivalent surpluses in 2006-07 are likely to be rather larger because of the full-year effect of the recent fee increases and the impact on civil and probate costs of the expenditure cuts. The recent increases are not the principal reason for the over-recovery; they were set to raise about £4 million in 2005-06about 11 per cent of the process.
We have developed a package of fee measures for implementation in August 2007, which, among other things, addresses the recovery issue. In other words, reductions in civil and probate should be offset by increases elsewhere so that we avoid over-recovery and have a neutral or better impact on the net departmental expenditure limit. We envisage that the August 2007 package will also include changes arising from the exemption and remission and fee structure reviews mentioned above. The former is likely to increase the loss of income that will have to be recovered through the departmental budget.
I should say something in this context regarding access to justice via exemption and the remission process. Approximately 5 million people are in receipt of specified means-tested benefits or tax credits who are eligible for automatic exemption from court fees. Thus anyone not qualifying for exemption but who would suffer financial hardship if required to pay fees whether in full or in part may be granted remission in full or in part. The current test for remission is based on both income and expenditure and takes full account of all a persons commitments and liabilities, not just how much money they have or receive. Setting fees generally at levels lower than a full-cost price would
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The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, raised the question of the practical impact of the charging policy. The department has no evidence to suggest that charging court fees is affecting the number of cases coming to court. One should bear in mind that court fees represent a much smaller proportion of the cost of civil litigation than legal fees. One must note that legal aid, together with a system of concessions, exists to protect access to justice for the less well-off.
Current statistics show that the number of specified debt claims has steadily increased by 28 per cent since 2002, which suggests that there is no chilling effect on litigation proceeding in this area. However, as part of the long-term fee strategy, the department has commissioned a detailed piece of research to identify the consequences of fee charging. This may provide an answer to the questionI believe that it was his fourthasked by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. The research hopes to identify what the impact of fee changes might be on users and to identify any users who may be prevented from accessing the courts due to increases. The outcome of the research will be formally published in July 2007.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am listening with great care. Is the noble and learned Lord or his department aware of any other country in the Commonwealth, Europe or elsewhere which seeks to recover the full cost of the Courts Service, or anything like it, in the way that we do in this country?
Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, with that last rider, the question becomes rather more difficult. There are a number of jurisdictions that seek to recover fees one way or another, possibly through the income tax system, and there are various other processes by which they seek to make that recovery.
Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, I cannot give an answer specifically running through these jurisdictions. I know that there are other jurisdictions, and I will endeavour to have that researched for the noble Lord, if he will accept that.
In relation to the third question, we do not believe that there is an adverse impact on vulnerable groups. The system of concessions that is available across all civil and family jurisdictions protects access to justice
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The longer term is important to Her Majestys Courts Service, and we will continue to review and reform that service. The consultation process, which has already been alluded to, seeks to identify, after the two major reviews during 2006-07, a set of proposals set out in the recently published civil fee consultation paper. That consultation will end on 25 June, and it is an opportunity for those who consider this matter strongly to make their views clear. In conclusion, I confirm that the departments plans, as set out in the fee strategy and more recently in the fee consultation paper, are concerned, as we all are, with the fairness of the issue, while considering the financial obligation of the Government.
The noble Baroness said: The amendment is a probing amendment. Under Clause 20, the board can provide various statistical services to anyone, anywhere. I am not sure that this should be in any way a priority for the new board, but we have no objection to it. Amendment No. 106 would add a new subsection to Clause 20 and require the board to charge for services provided on a full-cost basis.
The Explanatory Notes state that the ONS provides statistical services to developing countries. I am sure that that is laudable, but I hope that any such service would be funded out of the budget of the Department for International Development and not that of the Statistics Board. As far as I can see, the board has no function that would authorise it to absorb such expenditure.
By tabling the amendment, I am seeking to find out how the charging arrangements are intended to work. I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that the board will not use its resources for purposes other than the functions set out in the Bill or that, if it does, it will recover its full costs. I beg to move.
Lord Davies of Oldham: The services that the ONS currently providesthat is, providing information and advice and undertaking surveysare those that we envisage the board undertaking. The services will be discretionary; there is no obligation to provide them. Any charging is permitted by Clause 24 as expedient in connection with the exercise of the boards functions.
There is no need for an express charging power or a duty to charge for any services being provided. As with any government department, the board will be subject to cross-government rules and guidelines on what it may charge for services. These rules are designed to ensure that government departments and public bodies charge appropriately. For example, as with any government department, the board will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, competition law and the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations so far as selling information for commercial re-use is concerned. The board will be subject also to a range of cross-governmental administrative rules that set out when it would be able to charge.
The problem with the amendment is that the board would lose this flexibility. The amendment is unnecessary, as the board will be covered by the wider detailed framework on charging for services that applies to all government departments.
The noble Baroness may be right that services may be provided to third-world countries on the basis of funding from the Department for International Development, but it is not for us to specify such arrangements in the Bill. The board will fit into the pattern of all public bodies and be subject to the same rules governing the basis on which it may charge. It has the right to do so; none of its functions is obligatory. I hope that the noble Baroness will therefore recognise that we have taken into account the concerns that she expressed and have addressed them in the Bill.
Lord Davies of Oldham: Only within the framework of the government rules and regulations that cover departments. It is the same as for any public body in those terms. Departments have different relationships with the client groups and bodies with which they are concerned. The board is no different from any other in that respect.
Baroness Noakes: I am grateful for the Ministers response. He said that the board was no different from any other body, but did not tell me what the current rules for government departments are. I seek clarification.
Lord Davies of Oldham: The rules set out certain areas where charges are obligatory for what the Government provide. However, there are elements of discretion within the framework. The noble Baroness will recognise that there might be a body to which the board relates where it was deemed part of public policy that no charging be effected. That would be against a general background of charging in the same way as other public bodies, however.
Baroness Noakes: I regard the Ministers response as somewhat unsatisfactory. We are told that the board is to be independent, yet I cannot get a clear answer as to whether it is to follow government policy elsewhere on providing services at full cost or otherwise. The Minister has not really answered the question of whether it should be charging for all services. The issue is not that it is not right sometimes for government to subsidise services, but whether the Statistics Board should be using its clear financial envelopeset out in this five-year settlement that we keep being told aboutfor the statistical functions in the Bill. I seek to ascertain to what extent the board may, should or could divert its resources elsewhere. Can the Minister clarify that further?
Lord Davies of Oldham: The noble Baroness is quite right that the board has a five-year settlement. She will also recognise that there may be opportunities for additional receipts from its charging for services commissioned from it, and that those are additional resources.
I confess to the noble Baroness that I stumbled a little on her question about pro bono, which is a particular concept. I will write to her on that point, but I am glad that she has drawn attention to the boards five-year settlement on its own resources. She will also recognise that, like the ONS, the board will have the capacity to charge and increase its resources where appropriate.
Baroness Noakes: I thank the Minister for offering to write, and welcome that. He will be aware that I was not so much worried about the Statistics Board increasing the resources that might otherwise be available for its proper purposes as about those resources being diminished. I hope that he will take that into account when he writes to me. I look forward to that letter, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The National Statistician shall have right of direct access to the Prime Minister on any matter involving the integrity of official statistics or a dispute with a government department regarding official statistics.
When the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who is not in his place this evening, was our statistician, he valued his direct access to the Prime Minister; he has spoken about that several times in your Lordships House, including on our first day in Committee. It enabled him to sort out difficult issues with government departments without any publicity or undue fuss.
The Cabinet Office has now been accepted by the Committee as the lead department for the Statistics Board, but that does not of itself guarantee access for the National Statistician to the Prime Minister. In another place, Mr John Healey, the Financial Secretary, said that the National Statistician would have access to the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Secretary; that is, she would have to negotiate a gatekeeper first. We do not think that that gives sufficient prominence to the independent role of the National Statistician, which is why we have tabled this amendment.
The amendment is tabled as a new clause before Clause 24. I was not particularly keen to table a new clause that sat under the heading before Clauses 28 and 29 of Organisation and administration, although that would be the other natural home for this clause. The other amendment in this group, tabled in the names of other noble Lords, is to Clause 28, which is entitled advisory functions. I do not think that we are talking about an advisory function. The National Statistician is not in this instance advising the Prime Minister, though that may also be involved; rather, she is seeking the support of the Prime Minister in her endeavours in relation to statistics.
I am sure that the Minister will seek to reassure the Committee that the National Statistician need have no fear about his or her access to the Prime Minister where necessary. But we fear for the access of the National Statistician. I beg to move.
Lord Newby: It does not matter to us whereabouts the sentiments behind the amendments in this group might find their place in the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, the Government envisage that the chief statistician will, in order to meet the Prime Minister, have to negotiate with a Cabinet Secretary who might just say, No, Im terribly sorry, but hes going to be busy for the next few weeks or months. That is not adequate. It does not reflect the situation that obtained when the noble Lord, Lord Moser, was chief statistician and it does not reflect the importance of the chief statistician, particularly in the circumstances set out by these amendments.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I, too, regret that the noble Lord, Lord Moser, is not here to argue this case with even greater force than the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, have just done. The National Statistician has a right of access
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We have already argued these points during the Bills progress in this House and the other place. The role and status of the National Statistician is strong in this Bill. The nearest comparators are the Governments Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser. While neither of those is a statutory appointment, and while both are leaders of their respective professions in government, they have no statutory right of access to the Prime Minister, nor are there requirements on the Government to follow their advice or to give reasons if they do not do so.
The bedrock of this system is transparency and accountability to Parliament. The board and the National Statistician are required to act openly, which includes publishing the results of assessments against the code. They publish any advice or concerns about statistics across government. Open discourse is the best assurance of the role of the National Statistician, but we intend that she shall continue to enjoy the right of access to the Prime Minister if so required.
Baroness Noakes: The Minister is contradicting what his honourable friend the Financial Secretary said in another place. Can he confirm that the National Statistician does not have to negotiate access via the Cabinet Secretary and that this is a direct right? Can he clarify that for the record?
Lord Davies of Oldham: I do not have a note on that point, but I am indicating that the current National Statistician does not go through the Cabinet Office. For obvious reasons, I understand the importance of the amendment that was carried in Committee the other day, but I do not think that that affects the right of the National Statistician and the significance of his role. If an issue exercises him to the extent that he feels that the Prime Minister has to be approached directly, that right exists.
Baroness Noakes: I do not want there to be any lack of clarity. The amendment has nothing to do with the amendments that we moved successfully last week, which replaced Treasury with Cabinet Office on the residual functions that reside with the Government. This is a question of whether the National Statistician gains access to the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Secretary or goes directly to the Prime Minister. It is a matter of extreme importance because, had Mr Healey not said that he had to go through the Cabinet Secretary, I suspect that there would not have been such concern about the arrangements intended to operate for the National Statistician under the Bill. I should be grateful for the Ministers clarification.
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