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The Law Society, in its briefing to meand, no doubt, to other noble Lordshas admitted that its own schemes have been deficient. It does not pretend that its history is as good as the Bars in handling complaints. This amendmentor something like it, if I may put it that way to the noble Lord, Lord Kingslandis surely desirable to modify the Governments approach, to allow some flexibility which the history of complaints against the legal profession surely justifies.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the speech we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, came as music to my ears; his arguments were extremely compelling. Uniformity does not necessarily mean that we will have a more efficient or effective scheme. The underlying concern about the basic thrust of the Governments proposals is that they risk creating a rather bureaucratic monster which is not apt to deal any better with complaints that would previously have been handled by the Bar Council.
The issue of cost remains extremely important. It is clear that the Bar Councils existing arrangements for handling complaints have been of great benefit to the consumer. We have not heard anything in the discussion of costs that has led us to believe that this problem will go away under the Governments new legislation. It is time to draw a line and say firmly to the representatives of the consumer lobby, who have expressed a preference for uniformity of treatment, that this does not necessarily work to the advantage of those whom they represent.
I have found it increasingly distasteful in the course of these debates to hear opinions which almost suggest that lawyers are the enemy of consumers. That is a complete travesty of the truth. Lawyers are very often necessary to ensure that remedies are obtained. Their skills as advocates, and in some cases their selfless preparedness to investigate allegations, are worthy of commendation.
That is simply a misrepresentation of the position of the Bar Council. Significantly, its conduct committee has 10 lay members whose decisions are subject to a lay veto, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, stated. If that is the best argument that can be produced in favour of this inflexibility, it is a bad argument which ought to be roundly rejected by the Government.
Lord Lyell of Markyate: My Lords, I shall speak briefly because the points have been strongly put by
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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord is very gracious in the way in which he puts forward his comments. Noble Lords have made strong arguments about the role of the Bar and I hope that they will agree that at no point in our deliberations have I indicated anything other than the highest regard for the way in which the Bar handles complaints. On the work going on with the Law Society and its regulatory body, I read out its latest report on its quality and success in handling complaints. Although I do not have the figures with me, I think that noble Lords will agree that it is being done in a better way than previously. I do not begin for one second to suggest that we are bringing it together to suggest in any way the wrapping-up of all the regulators or that they are failing, or that taking complaints away is a form of punishment. That is absolutely not the objective.
We have approached this issue from a different perspective. We know that there is an issue of public confidence. It may be more perception than reality in the context of the Bar. I did not know how the Bar handled its complaints procedure until I was involved in this job. It is not really surprising if the public do not know about the way in which the Bar handles complaints. None the less, whether it is right or wrong, there is an issue about perception in public confidence and the way in which complaints generally are handled.
Inevitably, there is an inconsistency in the way that the various complaint-handling arrangements work. Among some people who wish to bring forward complaints, there is some confusion about where to take them. That is probably particularly important where, for example, a solicitor may have instructed a barrister and the consumer has to try to determine where the fault lies and to whom to complain. Noble Lords may not like it, but there is an issue about independencereal or perceivedof complaints about lawyers being handled by their own professional bodies.
The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, read out part of a letter, which I think that noble Lords have received. The letter is addressed to me, dated 4 May, from the National Consumer Council, Citizens Advice and Which?. The noble Lord may argue that they do not necessarily represent appropriately the people whom they seek to, but they are the most prestigious bodies we have for consumer affairs. Therefore, noble Lords would expect me to take note of what they said. As the noble Lord said, the letter states:
Independence is the single most critical principle in any redress system. Separating the regulatory and representative functions of the professional bodies will be insufficient to command consumer confidence in this respect, especially given the relevant governance and complaint committees will continue to have professional majorities.
The Bar can be reassured that the Office of Legal Complaints will be, and must be, an entirely new body. The emergence of alternative business structures will further blur the boundaries between the legal professions. In this new world, consumers should not be left to navigate a regulatory maze to resolve their disputes.
As I have said, because we are also introducing alternative business structures, there will be opportunities for solicitors and barristers to work together in other ways. As the letter points out, this will add to the potential confusion for those who seek to complain. We believe it is more sensible in creating a new system to have one body that handles complaints about all legal professionals. That is clearer and more consistent; the system is straightforward, people know where to go and it can be dealt with properly. The most clear and consistent message since Sir David Clementis report, and before that, is to make sure that we deal with any perceived or real loss of confidence in the way that legal professional bodies have dealt with consumer complaints about their members.
I have had the privilege of talking to the Bar Council and to Geoffrey Vos, who has passionately and straightforwardly put the concerns of the Bar. One issue has been to make sure that the expertise and experience that could be available to the Office for Legal Complaints is not lost. I have indicated to Geoffrey Vos that we have looked carefully at Schedule 15(15), because that allows the OLC to enter into arrangements with regulators to provide it with assistance as it sees fit. There is no question that the ultimate decision-making must rest with the ombudsmanit must be an independent process. Yet I would expect the OLC to be in discussion with the regulators, and to think about what expertise might be available that it could usefully use while retaining the independent system. The Bar and other regulators may well assist under the new arrangements.
The key difference between this and what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, proposed is that, in line with Sir Davids philosophy, the OLC can make the best of existing arrangements by drawing on the Bars or any other bodies expertise, rather than completely delegating the responsibility it has to the public to ensure quick and fair redress. Within that context, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, it really pains me to stand up at the Opposition Dispatch Box and once again take issue with what the noble Baroness says, especially as she has spoken in such measured and conciliatory tones. Yet she must know by now, having
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I find it difficult to understand how the noble Baroness can in one breath say that she absolutely accepts everything that has been said about the high quality of the Bar Standards Board and the way the Bar deals with complaints, and yet, in another breath, say that, even if in reality these standards are high, the public have doubtsthat there is a public perception that somehow these standards, which she knows are met, are not being met. Where does this perception come from? What evidence does the noble Baroness have that there is a public perception that, despite all the evidence, the Bar Standards Board falls below requirements that have been tested over a long period? There is no such perception.
Then the noble Baroness says that there is concern that it is lawyers judging lawyers. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, had the complete answer to that: there are 10 lay members on the Bar Standards Board. The ultimate say on whether a Bar Standards Board decision stands is made by a lay person.
Why does the noble Baroness think that the Legal Services Board has nothing to do with the law? There will be lawyers on the board. Further, why is she so convinced that the Legal Services Board is independent, whereas the Bar Standards Board is not? Did not your Lordships pass an amendment requiring the Lord Chancellor to have concurrent advice from the Lord Chief Justice precisely because the House does not believe that, as presently structured under this Bill, the Legal Services Board is independent?
I know how hard the noble Baroness has striven to resolve this particular problem in the Bill; but I have to say to her, most disappointingly, that I cannot accept her arguments as a satisfactory substitute for these amendments, and therefore again I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement given by my right honourable friend Douglas Alexander in the other place. The Statement is as follows:A great deal of wholly legitimate public concern has been expressed over certain aspects of last Thursdays election. I entirely share these concerns. They focus mainly on three areas: the arrangements for the administration of postal ballots; the operation of e-counting machines; and the significant number of spoilt ballot papers.Mr Speaker, when it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that difficulties were emerging, I contacted Professor Sir Neil McIntosh, the Scottish Electoral Commissioner. I expressed to him my concern that these issues be addressed as part of the statutory review of the Scottish elections that the commission is obliged to undertake, as a matter of urgency. Sir Neil was able to offer me this reassurance and this investigation is indeed now under way.The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the Scottish parliamentary elections. At the request of the Scottish Executive it will also be reporting on the local government elections. The commission is an independent body and is committed to ensuring a full and independent review of the Scottish elections. In those areas where the commission itself has an operational involvementfor example, in its statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systemsthe commission will ensure independent evaluation of its own work, as it has in previous statutory reports. The commission is currently finalising the scope and timescale of the review, but intends to publish a report in the summer.A focus of public concern has been the adoption of a single ballot paper for the Scottish elections and the holding of those elections on the same day as the local government election. The poll for the Scottish Parliament elections is set in the Scotland Act. It has a predetermined cycle that Parliament at the time supported fully. I am not aware of any calls to change that. The decision to hold the local government elections on the same day was entirely a decision for Scottish Executive Ministers. It was enshrined in legislation which was fully debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2001.Without wishing to prejudice the findings of this inquiry I should like to set out to the House the sequence of recommendations, consultations and decisions that led to the adoption of a single ballot paper for both elements of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are matters for which the Government have legislative responsibility.On 25 May 2004, my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right honourable friend the Member for Edinburgh Central, announced the creation of
The Scottish Liberal Democrats warmly welcome and fully endorse the proposal to have one ballot paper only for the next diet of Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007. This is one recommendation of Arbuthnott that we fully agree with.
The Scottish National Party is in support of the proposed move to a single ballot paper for both votes in the Scottish Parliament elections. We believe that this will aid understanding of both elements of the voting system and, in particular, remove any misunderstanding that the regional vote is somehow a second preference vote.
The Scottish Labour Party strongly supports a single ballot paper, as this will simplify voting, counting, voter awareness and understanding. A single ballot paper will reduce the potential for voter confusion and be easier for people to use.
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