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New Clause 11

Volume 79: debated on Friday 17 May 1985

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Conduct Of Police

  • '(1) A person shall not be convicted of any offence under sections 1, 2 and 3 solely on the evidence of a police constable or police constables.
  • (2) Any officer exercising a power of arrest in respect of sections, 1, 2 and 3 shall be in uniform.'.—[Ms. Richardson.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    With this motion it will be convenient to consider the following:

    New clause 9— Requirement of evidence—

    'It shall be a requirement that no case shall be proven under sections 1 to 3 of this Act on the basis of police evidence alone. '.

    New clause 10—Police officers to wear uniforms—

    'Any officer exercising a power of arrest in respect of sections 1, 2 and 3 shall be in uniform.'.

    Amendment No. 74, in clause 5, page 2, line 34, at end insert—

    '(3) For the purposes of sections 1, 2 and 3 of this Act "woman" shall not include a constable acting in the course of her duty.'.

    The new clause brings together the subject matter of new clauses 9 and 10.

    Again I find myself in the rather uncomfortable position of being at one with the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), whose views normally I find somewhat different from my own.

    By means of new clause 11, I am anxious to ensure that no one will be trapped. If there is the possibility of a conviction purely on the evidence of a police constable, without corroboration, difficulties may be caused to people who are quite innocent, who are not kerb crawlers and who simply stop to ask the way or to greet a friend, for example.

    I feel even more strongly that it is the public's right to be protected in the sense that anyone stopped by a police officer should recognise that person as being a police officer. Police officers not in uniform could be argued to be acting as agents provocateurs. They could be trawling round looking for someone to arrest. I am not suggesting that the police make a habit of doing that, but we have heard from time to time of a policeman thinking that he has not enough cases for the evening and that it would help his record if he stopped a few more people.

    Like other hon. Members, I was glad when a few minutes ago the Minister acknowledged that there were doubts in people's minds about the effect of certain provisions of the Bill on civil liberties and that he hoped that some of these matters would be debated in the other place. I do not intend to press my new clause, but I believe that it brings out some of these difficulties.

    During our consideration of a Criminal Justice Bill some years ago, I recall that I was successful in moving an amendment designed to ensure that police constables should be in uniform. I was pleased that that principle was seen to be correct. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about it. I accept that there are some occasions when— perhaps some jobs in which—it is necessary for police constables to be in plain clothes. However, I do not believe that such duties include police officers being on the look-out for kerb crawlers or for people harassing others in the street. My impression is that plain-clothes police officers tend to be used more in the criminal element of detective work, when there may be a case for them being out of uniform.

    We had a similar argument when discussing the old sus laws. There was even more danger there, because plain-clothes police officers could stop people under that law, which most of us regarded as reprehensible. A few organisations outside the House are worried by some of the aspects of the Bill, some of which we explored last Friday. For example, the National Association of Probation Officers has reservations about the Bill, and I think that the use of plain-clothes police officers may be one of them.

    I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

    11.30 am

    I thank the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) for what she said about my earlier speech. I should make it clear, when saying that we would monitor the use of the powers of arrest, that there is of course no power of arrest under the clause as it stands. It is exercised if the general arrest conditions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act are met; otherwise, proceedings are by summons. But we can monitor the issue of summonses, whether proceedings are taken and so on, so that does not reduce the effect of the undertaking that I gave but makes it clearer. What I said earlier might have led people to think that I was asserting that there was a power of arrest specifically in the clause, which there is not.

    The point about agents provocateurs has exercised the House several times during the past 12 to 18 months. It has been before the House in the context of the male importuning offence and now arises on this offence. I wish to restate the Government's position. We deprecate and deplore the use of agents provocateurs. Beyond that, we aim to ensure in our discussions with police forces throughout the country that their orders carry into effect the extent of public concern that would arise if agent provocateur tactics were employed. On previous occasions, I have read police force orders to the House, and the Metropolitan police force orders were changed recently to give effect to the will of the House and of others that entrapment techniques should not be employed.

    I have also made it clear that we attach importance to the necessity, when the Bill becomes law, for an extension of the Metropolitan police and other police force orders to include the need to obtain, whenever possible, an independent witness to give evidence before the courts.

    During our last debate I reminded the House of the existence of the rule that every effort should be made to get a complainant to give evidence. Where that was unsuccessful, the name and address of the complainant should be noted, as should the reason why that person was not prepared to co-operate. That would be a safeguard because those matters could be fully explored at the trial.

    On clauses 1 and 2, it is extremely unlikely that a prosecution could be brought successfully without the co-operation of the complainant. Clause 1 requires that there should be an act of solicitation, which means that in almost every case the actual words used would have to be given in evidence before the court. Someone who was merely asking for directions would not be liable to be convicted, because the words used could not possibly bear the interpretation of being an act of solicitation.

    If women who were not prostitutes were walking down the street on their way home and were accosted, for the most part they would come to court and give evidence. It would be difficult to imagine a prosecution succeeding if they did not. That is eminently right and proper. The only case where that might happen is where the person propositioned was a prostitute. The likelihood then is that the prostitute would be unwilling to go to court, for the obvious reason that she was not in the least offended by the approach. The case would depend on whether there was other evidence relating to the act of solicitation that made clear beyond peradventure that an act of solicitation had taken place.

    The Criminal Law Revision Committee considered that point and acknowledged that that evidence might come about if, for instance, a known prostitute, having been approached by someone in a car, got into the car and drove off with that person. That would constitute a prima facie case. Of course, more than one interpretation could be put on that and the matter would have to be explored in court. It would be an isolated case, and for the most part there would need to be an awareness of what was said. It is unlikely that an individual who was not the person propositioned would be close enough to hear the words. Therefore, safeguards are built in.

    If we are aware that in many cases the individual will not come to give evidence because the person accosted is a prostitute, other ways must be found to enable the law to take its course. It might be that plain-clothes officers keep observation. Otherwise, where known prostitutes congregate in a community, it is hard to envisage how else the law could be enforced.

    Obviously there would be times when the police felt that action must be taken because the problem was getting out of control. My hon. Friend suggested that there would be an element of surveillance. What would prevent someone who is known to a prostitute—perhaps a relative or a friend—from driving up to her, picking her up and taking her away? If that happening is under surveillance, is it not more than likely that that person — who was not soliciting her or picking her up for so-called immoral purposes—would be charged? How can my hon. Friend prevent that?

    I have sought to tell the House candidly of the grey area that always exists on the fringes of any offence. I am sure that it is unlikely that any prosecution could be mounted unless the actual words used were clearly heard by the complainant or by some other person prepared to give evidence.

    If someone drives up to a known prostitute and the prostitute gets in the car, that would be a basis for further police inquiries. Presumably the individual would not be arrested on the spot unless the general arrest conditions were met. Almost certainly the number of the car would be taken and further police inquiries would ensue. A decision whether to prosecute would be taken on the basis of the answers given by the person involved. If he gave an explanation consistent with innocence and a link was established, it is unlikely that a prosecution would be brought.

    As my hon. Friend will know from his vast experience in these matters—[Laughter.] I am sorry, my words did not have an edge to them. I was trying to be kind to my hon. Friend, but perhaps I should not as it always leads to difficulties in the long run. I meant that my hon. Friend has experience of criminal law matters. He knows that whenever a criminal sanction is attached to any particular act there are bound to be difficult grey areas. No one can absolutely guarantee that the law will not be used in a particular way. One has to strike a balance of convenience. Given the extent of the problem in many parts of Britain, the balance of convenience must mean that one has a clear anti-kerb crawling law and that one tries to take account as much as possible of the potential for difficulties, even though they can never be entirely solved.

    I do not think that it would be appropriate to send the message to Tooting, Leicester, south Hampshire, north Plymouth or parts of London that, because we are worried about the unusual events which were set out in the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), we shall not give any respite to communities which have become the haunt of prostitutes—places like Bedford hill—and where the gravest distress is caused to the public. A balance must be struck. It was a balance that led the Wolfenden committee in 1977, as I candidly admitted to the House, to say that there was not sufficient evidence to show that a kerb crawling offence should be created. This led the Criminal Law Revision Committee to say that, of all the people who had written to the committee and to its policy advisory committee, only one group sought to argue against a kerb crawling law. Our point is that the balance of convenience has shifted.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that a law is needed to minimise the risk of innocent people being not only prosecuted but found guilty. This is a particularly sensitive area. If innocent people are prosecuted, many other people will think that they are guilty, whether or not they are. A person's reputation can be severely damaged. It is even more important in this area than in many other parts of the criminal law to ensure that people who should not be charged are not so charged. My hon. Friend says that these circumstances may be rare — nevertheless, those circumstances might arise and individuals might be apprehended by the police and might protest that their role was one of those that I have described.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the Law Society have expressed their misgivings on the question of persistence. If a person is picking up his sister or relative, he will stop once. If a person is looking for a prostitute, he might stop twice. If there is persistence, it is probably fair to assume that he is soliciting a woman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State wants a deterrent. Surely, if a person speaks to two women in this way and is therefore liable to be arrested for persistence, that is a sufficient deterrent. What does my hon. Friend intend doing when the matter is considered in another place?

    I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West, whom I congratulated on the handsome way in which he has conducted himself in the House this morning—a congratulation which I am longing for the opportunity to extend to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North — that we shall arrange for a debate in the other place on persistency. I acknowledge that there is an issue, but I remain firmly of the view that, balancing one set of important issues against another, the Criminal Law Revision Committee was correct to assert that, if we really want to do something about kerb crawling, there must be a clear and unequivocal offence.

    I do not believe that the somewhat fanciful suggestions by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North in the context of the general way in which people look at these aspects — his reference to a prostitute's brother being arrested for soliciting her because he was taking her home after a hard evening's work—amounts to a reason why we should not introduce this law. I made it clear to my hon. Friend that, in normal circumstances, where the facts gave rise to a suggestion that an offence had been committed but the actual words could not be heard, arrest would not take place. There is no power of arrest attached to this. An arrest would take place only if the general arrest conditions stated in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 were involved.

    I imagine that, normally, the car number having been taken, the individual would be interviewed. If he were a relative of the prostitute, it is unlikely that any police officer in his right mind would want to summons him. If the explanation were inconsistent with the evidence, a prosecution might well be mounted.

    The Prosecution of Offences Bill, on which we have all worked so constructively, has received all-party support to a most gratifying degree. Under that legislation, a police officer might wish to bring a prosecution. Whether or not the prosecution came about and there was any publicity about the case—I appreciate the sensitivity of publicity —would depend on the objective decision of a lawyer who would have no interest in pursuing the case. He would not be someone whose amour propre was affected by whether or not there was a case.

    11.45 am

    My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North is talking about an isolated incident. The matter was fully covered in Committee. There was a division of view, as there always is on issues that lie near the borderline. I have acknowledged that it would be more than proper for the matter to be reopened in another place. I shall remain of the view, as the Criminal Law Revision Committee did after seven years' study of the matter, that the word "persistently" would gravely damage the legislation to the point of making clause 1 a dead letter.

    I shall obviously, since we must all abide by the views of others in a democratic Parliament, examine the decision. If the other place takes a different view, I shall look at it. My noble Friend who speaks for the Government in the other place will tender the same advice as I do. I shall use my best endeavours to ensure that there is good participation in that debate and that some of the distinguished lawyers there give us the benefit of their opinion. We shall then at least know—whether or not we are on the winning or losing side of the argument—that, in a matter which occupied five hours in Committee, had considerable debate on the Floor of the House and was considered in the other place, we had done the best we could against a background of recognising, as the Criminal Law Revision Committee did, and I think the public do, that the time has come for us to take the plunge and to have an offence of this type. Whenever we change the law we have to take a certain amount of downside risk. Usually there is a compelling reason for not changing the law, unless there are good reasons for doing so. My case is that there are clear reasons for doing so.

    A person may get out of his car and walk a short distance to ask someone a question. How far can such a person move from his car to avoid being charged with kerb crawling?

    This would be a matter of fact and common sense in each case. No period is delimited, but the person would have to be in fairly close proximity. To fall within the provisions of clause 1, the person would have to have just got out of the car. No doubt the parameters will be more tightly set by case law. It is unlikely that a person who had travelled a substantial distance would fall within the provisions of clause 1; he would be more likely to fall within the provisions of clause 2. This will, of course, be a matter for the judge to determine.

    There seem to be two circumstances. The first is where a man solicits a prostitute, or she solicits him. In that circumstance, the prostitute will not give evidence. If there is to be any prosecution at all, it will be on the uncorroborated evidence of a police officer. The second circumstance is where a person solicits an innocent woman. It seems to me, from my experience of south London—I have lived within a few miles of Bedford hill for most of my life and I know the problem there—that it is highly unlikely that an innocent woman will wish to give evidence in court. There is a very good reason. If the case is rejected, that may reflect badly on the woman. Once again, one is driven back to prosecutions made on the uncorroborated evidence of a police officer. That officer would have to be in plain clothes, because no one is his right mind would ever proposition a woman for prostitution when he is standing next to a uniformed police officer. In both cases, one is driven back to prosecuting on the uncorroborated evidence of a police officer. There are, of course, associated difficulties where the evidence on whether solicitation took place is pretty flimsy.

    I partly accept what the hon. Member says, but there are several points on which I differ from him. Although I have used the argument in this House in rejecting any suggestion that the Bill should require that there should always be a third party to give evidence, because I accept that some women will not want to give evidence—everybody who has considered this area of the law has always so concluded—for the most part I believe that women who are not prostitutes will want to play a part in cleaning up their area. I was left in no doubt that that is the feeling of many women in the Bedford hill area. It is unlikely, except in the clearest circumstances, that the evidence would be compelling unless the complainantt were prepared to give evidence in a case where the complainant is an ordinary member of the public.

    I am as sensitive as the hon. Gentleman to the issue that we are discussing, because I have had similar experiences in dealing with the criminal law and in the criminal courts. The safeguard is in the requirement in clause 1 that there must be an act of solicitation. Words have to be used that are not capable of any other construction than that they are words of solicitation.

    The merit of the Bill as drafted is that it sends out the clear message that kerb crawling is against the law. I do not approach the matter on the basis that there should be thousands of prosecutions throughout the country—no one has any wish for that—but there is at present a very grey area in the law, apart from the use of the rusty old blunderbuss of the Justices of the Peace Act 1361. People go kerb crawling because they do not clearly and unequivocally know that it is against the law. Some of them are then arrested and some are not; it is an arbitrary process.

    To be fair to everyone, in the opinion of the Criminal Law Revision Committee—endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Drake and myself and, I believe, by a majority of the Members of this House — Parliament should send out a clear message that kerb crawling is illegal. That would have a deterrent effect.

    It is important to recognise the danger points of one's own case. I have always candidly recognised, throughout the passage of the Bill, that, where the person solicited is a prostitute, she will not be prepared to give evidence. I have given the example that was given by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and I have embellished it for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North. I have mentioned the circumstances in which actions falling short of clear evidence being given of the actual words used could lead to a prosecution. I have also pointed out how unlikely it would be that someone who had a good reason for driving off with a prostitute would be brought before the court. It must be a matter for judgment.

    I return to the interesting question of the use of the police, on which I was embarked when—

    I know that my hon. Friend wants to clarify a point. He can do it when I have clarified the point raised by the hon. Member for Norwood.

    Mr. Marlow rose—

    Order. The Minister has made it amply clear that he is not giving way at the moment.

    I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, when I have dealt with the intervention from the hon. Member for Norwood.

    The use of uniformed policemen and the existence of a clear law will in many areas be perfectly sufficient to stop the problem. I think that that will almost certainly be the way that most police forces will tackle the problem. It is the way that the Metropolitan police intend to tackle it. A clear assurance was given in a letter that I read in Committee. The Metropolitan police said that they would not use women in plain clothes as decoys in the circumstances that we are discussing.

    Where the problem of kerb crawling is so persistent that the presence of uniformed policemen is necessary, doing nothing else but that sort of duty, so that the whole balance of the force in distorted, there may well be a case for plain clothes observation. I have made it clear—and force orders have made it clear—that anything which amounts to the use of an agent provocateur would not be tolerated. A woman provocatively dressed would plainly be outside that rule. However, it is equally clear that if in certain circumstances a woman, dressed normally and behaving unprovocatively, exercises her right to walk down a street as a policewoman and is doing nothing different from what the residents of the streets around would be doing when walking home from work or for some social pursuit, that does not fall within the definition of agent provocateur and is not an incitement to anyone to commit the offence.

    As I have already made clear, there will be circumstances in which police officers alone will give evidence. If there is a complainant, the police will have to give evidence as to why the person accosted has not come to court to give evidence. That is already provided for in force orders relating to male importuning, and similar provision will also be made for the offence of kerb crawling.

    I should have thought that for the most part it would be difficult for prosecutions to proceed without the co-operation of the woman concerned. In those circumstances where prosecutions take place, I am not prepared to say that in any but the small minority of cases we cannot have faith in the police to do their work properly. I recognise that there is always a problem in relation to police powers.

    I am reluctant to advise Parliament to take a view that is based on the assumption that the uncorroborated evidence of police officers cannot be satisfactory. We have a well-motivated police force. As the hon. Member for Norwood knows from his work in Brixton, every effort is being made to ensure that there are in the police men of the greatest integrity. I think that they can be trusted to enforce the law on kerb crawling. The alternative of not having a law has become unthinkable, given the scale of the problem.

    This is the last point that I want to raise this morning. If my hon. Friend can satisfy me on it, I shall be grateful. Can my hon. Friend say that he will cause an amendment to be tabled in the other place? Obviously, he will listen to the arguments, but will the Government request their supporters, irrespective of the arguments, to support the clause as it stands, or is it possible that the Government's position will change, and that pressure will then not be applied to Government supporters?

    I remind my hon. Friend that this is a private Member's Bill and that there will be no Whip in the Lords, any more than there is here. I am not prepared to change my advice concerning the use of the word "persistently". There is a genuine argument about it. I have ventilated my side of it with as much vigour as I am able to bring to bear on the argument, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West has consistently —I would even say, persistently—put forward his view. I dare say that there will be advocates of both positions in the other place.

    I have said that my desire is for a genuine free discussion to take place in the other place. I feel confident that it will. My noble Friend who represents the Home Office in the other place—assuming that he agrees with me, as perhaps he will—will make a speech and will, I imagine, offer exactly the same advice as I have offered. It will then be for the other place to determine whether it accepts that advice.

    Is the Minister expecting a policeman or woman to decide on a person's intent? If so, it is getting very close to the old sus law, which has been a great aggravation in my area, where a police officer, seeing someone do something or say something, draws the inference that it is against the law. Frequently in such cases the police can be wrong. For example, I have often tried the handle of someone else's car, thinking that it was mine, only to find that it was not mine but one like it. Similarly, a person asking a passer-by a normal question may well look rather suspicious. A policeman or woman may draw the inference that a kerb crawling or soliciting offence is being committed. It would be placing a considerable responsibility on policemen or women if they had to decide on the intent of a person. It would be particularly difficult where the complainant was not prepared to give evidence, or did not feel sufficiently aggrieved to wish to give evidence.

    12 noon

    I come before the House with clean hands on the subject of the sus law. I disliked it when I was a member of the Bar, and when I was elected to the House I wanted it to be changed. I am proud of the fact that I was a member of the Committee that removed it from the laws of England. I spoke out in favour of doing so. I repeat what I said to the House last week, that I am not in the business of putting back into the law in my sixth year in this place something that I was pleased to take out in my first year here.

    However, a clear distinction can be drawn between this offence and the sus law. The reason why the sus law was so disliked by me and many others was that it dealt with a generalised suspicion falling short of anything that could be called an actual offence. Therefore, almost inevitably, while it purported to be objective, it lent itself to a subjective definition. As such, it became increasingly unpopular. I believe that it should have been removed from the laws of England a good long while before it was.

    This offence is different. It requires an established act —a solicitation—to take place. It is unlikely that a successful prosecution can be brought without evidence that is clear and acceptable to the courts being given of the actual words used, except in clear circumstances when a known prostitute has got into a car with somebody, and there is no explanation for that other than the purposes of prostitution.

    Therefore, there is little scope for mischief-making here. I have already referred to the force orders which require, in the case of importuning, and in this case if the Bill is passed, that a complainant must be asked whether she will co-operate. If she says no, her name and address must be taken so that they can be made available to the defence if a prosecution is brought. The reason for her not wanting to co-operate must be set forth in a way that can be cross-examined upon.

    If the woman says, "I was not in the least put out by this," and she is an ordinary constituent, not a prostitute, I cannot think that any police officer would want to make an issue out of it. Even if a police officer were over-zealous enough and minded to do so, I ask the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) to accept that one of the reasons why we are making a lot of parliamentary time and resources available for the independent prosecution system is that, under these new arrangements, which will be in place soon, such a case cannot be brought before a court unless an independent lawyer, accountable to the Director of Public Prosecutions, is prepared to look at the evidence and say that it is a proper basis on which the case can be brought before the courts.

    It will no longer be a matter for the police to determine whether a prosecution is brought; it will be a matter for the lawyer. I hope the hon. Gentleman will conclude that the margin for abuse in the circumstances that I have laid down is much narrower than under the old sus law, which he and I jointly are glad is no longer part of our criminal law.

    This has been a helpful debate. I am glad to have had the opportunity to make my position known, as clearly as possible, on important points about enforcement. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) for saying that she would be content to withdraw her new clause. I hope that what I have said will make her feel that that is appropriate.

    I do not wish to delay the House, as I support my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes). However, I should like to refer to the new clause.

    Until 18 months ago, I would have agreed with the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson). When the Nottinghamshire experiment began, I was concerned because police ladies were acting as decoys and being used to bring forward offences and charges for kerb crawling. Since then, Leicestershire constabulary has embarked on a similar campaign. As it is in my city of Leicester, I went to see the chief constable and expressed great concern. The WPCs in Leicestershire are attractive ladies, and I was particularly concerned that in some way innocent people might be tempted down the wrong road.

    I met the chief constable, Alan Goodson, and discussed the matter with the head of the CID. The operations carried out by Leicestershire constabulary reassured me to a great extent. I do not wish to give away too many of the operations, but suffice it to say that there was photographing of the ladies and continual supervision in the areas in Leicester known to have a red light district. Successful convictions have resulted. There was a purge against kerb crawling in the city of Leicester, because we had so many worries. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) confirmed in his speech last week, the people of Leicester were very worried.

    Many successful convictions were recorded. It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) mentioned the risk to innocent people. I understand that in the majority of cases those who were successfully charged and convicted had a history of having committed this offence. That should reassure the hon. Member for Barking. Of course, I share the concern about entrapment and the agents provocateurs, but one must ask oneself what those people were doing in the area in the first place. In both Argyll square and the Highfields area of the city of Leicester, one-way systems and the blocking of streets are being introduced to stop people from going into that area, except those who are visiting relations and so on. Therefore, I am confident that the police operations will not lead to concern. However, there will be cases when a WPC out of uniform will give evidence because the proposition was made direct to her.

    We want to end street prostitution. I support the Bill. I feel certain that the police rules, standing orders and force orders for supervision and surveillance of any street crimes and offences will be strictly adhered to. I have every confidence in the police. Therefore, I cannot support the new clause.

    As I said at the beginning of the debate, I shall not press the new clause to a Division. However, the remarks by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) caused me concern. He described precisely what I was trying to avoid. He said with some triumph that the operation that he has just described has been extremely successful in trapping kerb crawlers by the use of agents provocateurs. I have a great feeling of unease about that. It may have resulted in prosecutions of kerb crawlers who were up to no good, but that approach is nasty. I should not want to be associated, in withdrawing the new clause, with anything that went along those lines. I was reassured by what the Minister said, but I hope that the police force does not follow the experiment in Leicestershire. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

    I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

  • '(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—
  • (a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding 3 on the standard scale (as defined in section 75 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982); and
  • (b) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding the maximum applicable to summary conviction under this section.'.
  • No. 28, in page 1, line 13, leave out 'summary conviction' and insert 'conviction on indictment'.

    No. 29, in page 1, line 13, leave out '3', and insert '1'.

    No. 30, in page 1, line 13, leave out '3' and insert '2'.

    No. 31, in page 1, line 15, at end insert—

    '(3) No person shall be proceeded against under this section unless and until they have received three or more formal cautions for soliciting a women for the purposes of prostitution.'.

    No. 42, in clase 2, page 2, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

    '(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—

  • (a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale (as defined in section 75 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982); and
  • (b) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding the maximum applicable to summary conviction under this section.'.
  • No. 43, in clause 2, page 2, line 5, leave out 'summary conviction' and insert 'on conviction on indictment'.

    No. 44, in clause 2, page 2, line 5, leave out '3' and insert '1'.

    No. 45, in clause 2, page 2, line 5, leave out '3' and insert '2'.

    No. 46, in clause 2, page 2, line 7, at end add—

    '(3) No person shall be proceeded against under this section unless and until they have received three or more formal cautions for soliciting a woman for the purposes of prostitution.'.

    No. 61, in clause 3, page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

    '(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—

  • (a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale (as defined in section 75 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982); and
  • (b) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding the maximum applicable to summary conviction under this section.'.
  • No. 62, in clause 3, page 2, line 11, leave out 'summary conviction' and insert 'conviction on indictment'.

    No. 63, in clause 3, page 2, line 11, leave out '5' and insert '3'.

    No. 64, in clause 3, page 2, line 11, leave out '5' and insert '4'.

    I have not responded until now to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister earlier, but in the light of what he has said I am happy for the issue of persistence to be considered with an open mind in another place. I think that that is probably the right way to proceed.

    Amendment No. 61, which I do not intend to press to a Division, seeks to make trial by jury available to defendants who prefer it to a summary hearing in a magistrates court, although a magistrates court hearing will be available for those who prefer it.

    In considering street offences generally, the Criminal Law Revision Committee considered that, although the sentence for male importuning was light enough to bring the offence into the category normally triable by summary hearing only, the possible ruin of the defendant's career if convicted justified allowing recourse to trial by jury if the accused so wished. I believe that the same argument applies in this case.

    I believe that the penalties for all these offences are relatively light, not because the offences are not regarded as serious but because it is well understood on all sides that the simple fact of a conviction and the surrounding publicity is the real punishment. Because the true punishment—the wrecking of a person's reputation and career—is so severe, and because comments made from car windows to women on the street are so liable to misinterpretation that there is always the possibility of a mistake, it is important to bear in mind that there will be many prosecutions which ought not to result in conviction.

    For those reasons, I believe that defendants should be able to opt for trial by jury if they wish. I do not think that it is the mood of the House to press the matter to a Division and I do not know how my hon. Friend the Minister will respond, but I believe that the matter should be put on record and, I hope, reconsidered in another place.

    My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this genuinely important point, which has exercised my mind as well as that of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. One is pulled in two directions on this. First, one recognises the difficulties that a conviction for such an offence would pose for certain categories of people. Equally, however, one recognises that the aim of the Bill is not to provide draconian penalties but to set the penalties at a relatively modest financial level, on the basis that the aim of the legislation is more to deter and to provide the opportunity for convictions to be entered in proper cases rather than thinking in terms of imprisonment or the like.

    12.15 pm

    There are precedents for allowing trial by jury in cases which do not attract a sentence of imprisonment. Being interested in the matter, I asked for the precedents to be dug out, and they are very few and far between. I also have to bear in mind the not unworthy consideration-if I do not the Lord Chancellor will see to it that I do —of the enormous and increasing pressure on Crown court time. Relying on memory for the statistics, I believe that in the past 12 months alone Crown court business has increased by about 15 per cent., so careful thought must always be given before adding to that.

    The amendment raises a genuine issue which may well arise appropriately in another place. On balance, I believe that it is appropriate for these offences to remain as suggested in the Bill, especially now that new clause 3, which was perhaps the gravest problem in this regard, has disappeared. Nevertheless, I should certainly not be unhappy for the matter to be considered in another place. My hon. Friend has raised a genuine issue, which has been a matter of some consideration on my part. Although he has said that he is content not to pursue the matter, it was well worth raising and may properly be rescusitated if the other place is minded to do so.

    In the light of what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    The next amendment is No. 65, in page 2, line 15, leave out clause 4.

    Mr. John Fraser rose—

    My point relates to leaving out clause 4, Sir.

    I refer to the substituion of a number of life sentences and 10-year sentences for existing two-year sentences. First, the law relating to young boys and the law relating to young girls is inconsistent, in that the penalty for indecency with a young boy is 10 years but with a young girl only two years. Parliament clearly needs to remove that inconsistency, and I understand the reason for that.

    In discussing the substitution of life sentences, I should make it absolutely clear that I no way seek to diminish the importance of heavy sentencing for interference with another person's person. Nevertheless, one must be very careful about the introduction of life sentences, for two reasons.

    First, a life sentence is extremely heavy and carries even worse penalties than a fixed sentence from the point of view of possible release, remission, parole and so on —all of which are far more in the hands of the Home Office than they are in the context of a big sentence. There is an element of discretion which is not present in relation to fixed penalties.

    Secondly, if one imposes a life sentence—the same sentence as for murder, the most serious crime of all—the effect may sometimes diminish the importance attaching to a life sentence if in practice it is not intended that a life sentence should actually be served.

    That being so, we should not pass a clause introducing life sentences without the most cogent reason for introducing the concept of life rather than imposing an extremely heavy fixed sentence of, say, 40 years. Personally, I should have gone for a very long fixed sentence rather than life imprisonment. I hope that the Minister will respond to that very point, as I believe that it is extremely important.

    I appreciate why the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has raised this issue. The Criminal Law Revision Committee has recommended that we should change the penalties and I believe that there is a cogent reason for doing so.

    The hon. Gentleman has not challenged the proposed penalties for indecent assault. It has been recognised for some time that the offence of indecent assault can reflect a serious sexual problem on the part of the offender. Representations have been made by High Court judges when the issue has arisen in tragic circumstances. The fact that the offender has not been able to carry the offence further is often due to the way in which circumstances developed and not to any lack of intent on his part. It is felt that the maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment does not enable the court to pass a sufficiently lengthy sentence in cases where it is plain that the offender is likely to return to offending when released.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), the promoter of the Bill, referred in necessarily veiled terms—none of us would want to refer to such matters too openly—to a tragic case in the west country in which an individual had exhibited a sexual problem and had been sentenced to two years' imprisonment—the maximum penalty—following a conviction for indecent assault. Within a few months of being released he committed the most horrific murder—I have read about 1,000 files in my time at the Home Office dealing with life sentence matters—of a respectable middle-aged woman who was taking a cliffside walk.

    The High Court judge who tried that case properly drew the facts to the attention of the Home Secretary and observed that the murder would not have taken place if the court that dealt with the indecent assault had had the power to impose a longer sentence. It follows that a person who is sentenced to a longer sentence will have longer in which to get out of that period of his life. Although we know that quite lengthy sentences for sex offences can lead to recidivism, there is a healthy body of opinion behind the proposition that two years' imprisonment is too short a sentence in some instances.

    I note that the hon. Gentleman is good enough to indicate assent.

    There are difficulties surrounding the offence of attempted rape. I deal with life sentence matters within the Home Office, and I am aware of all the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has advanced. The life sentence is the most severe penalty known to the criminal courts. It offers no inevitable prospect of release, but we know that in most cases of murder or non-murder offences the individual is released. He will be released on licence, which makes him subject to recall if certain circumstances arise. A life sentence is an extremely severe penalty.

    It has become widely recognised that a life sentence will often be appropriate for two sorts of non-homicide offences. The first such offence is arson where there is evidence of persistence and the second is rape. I have read the facts in multiple rape cases, and it is true that they are often committed by those who have served a determinate sentence and where it was clearly in the judge's mind that the only possibility of providing protection for the public was to sentence the offender to indeterminate life. That sentence is usually accompanied—rightly, in my view—by the indication that the offender will be released when it is safe for that to happen. That moment may well come, and, if and when it does, the offender should be released. We have a sophisticated system of internal and external assessment which enables the Parole Board regularly to consider cases and to make recommendations. Sophisticated analyses must be undertaken to assess risk when the case of a rape offender is under consideration. I look for come support to the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson).

    It is in accordance with the public mood against rape that the life sentence should be available for rapists. It should not be passed on the generality of rapists. but it should be reserved for especially serious rapes, including multiple rapes. I could list a number of cases committed over the past 10 years in which men have committed a series of horrifying rapes, or in which someone has served two or three separate sentences for rape or other sexual offences and has shown that that conduct has become a way of life and that only a life sentence will suffice. It is plain that a life sentence would not be appropriate in the generality of cases.

    If someone is convicted of attempted rape, the individual concerned has to have the intention to commit the full act. The fact that he does not succeed—again I look to the hon. Member for Barking for support — might be due not to any lack of intent but to circumstances beyond his control. For example, the man might be interrupted or the woman might be strong enough to beat him off. Women will react differently when attacked. Some women think, quite rightly, that the best way to ensure that no serious violence is occasioned is to submit. Others will fight back bravely, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

    It seems to the Criminal Law Revision Committee and to me that if a hardened sex offender, perhaps with previous convictions for rape, makes a serious attack on a woman which, through no intention of his, becomes only an attempt, it is an anomaly that the judge should not be able to pass a sentence of life imprisonment for the protection of the public. The hon. Member for Norwood is a criminal lawyer and he will know that the difference between the full offence of rape and an attempt may be only narrow.

    We have thought long and hard before advocating increased penalties, but we believe that it is an appropriate step to take. I hope that my explanation has been helpful and that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there is some force behind the argument.

    I thank the Minister for his explanation. Such a major change in the law should not be allowed to pass lightly. I accept the Minister's explanation and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, which was moved for the purpose of discussion.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    12.17 pm

    I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

    I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) will be delighted when she learns of what has taken place this morning.

    Indeed, my hon. Friend may be surprised. I know that, like many other supporters of the Bill, she was extremely disappointed last week when it became apparent that we would not be able on that occasion to complete all the Bill's stages.

    I have had to deal with kerb crawling as a representative of the Wandsworth authority and as a Southampton constituency Member. I can say with great confidence that when the Bill is enacted it will improve the quality of life for many people throughout the country. Those who will benefit especially are those in inner city areas, where improvements in the quality of life are all-important.

    Concerns 'have been expressed about the Bill, especially about civil liberties. The Criminal Law Revision Committee considered the issues and came to finely balanced conclusions on how to deal with what is clearly a nuisance in a way that would not mean that innocent people were brought before the courts. The committee strove to ensure that the innocent would not be harassed. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the committee for the way in which it produced its report.

    Shortly after the 1983 general election I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on this issue. He said that the Government did not feel able to legislate at that stage as they were awaiting the report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. I met him and expressed my concern that the committee's report should be expedited. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) raised the issue in an Adjournment debate. I have been pressing the Minister to expedite the report. He succeeded in persuading the members of the committee to bring forward their report rather sooner than they otherwise would have done. It is a great tribute to the committee that it has shown such flexibility. I am sure that it will be surprised when it learns that its proposals are being debated now during the course of considering whether the Bill should receive its Third Reading, when so often the proposals of those concerned with the criminal law take many years to reach the statute book.

    We are in the happy position of being about to give the Bill its Third Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Drake decided that of all the issues that she might have taken up on being lucky in the ballot, she would take up this one, and many of her constituents, like many of mine, are grateful to her for having done that.

    We should not have reached this stage but for the great support of the Minister, whose guidance and good counsel have helped enormously. Although I was not a member of the Standing Committee, I am aware of the careful way in which the various amendments were examined, and the way in which the Bill has been drafted has contributed to its success.

    The measure covers a relatively narrow issue, and my hon. Friend is to be congratulated on having restricted it in this way. Had she introduced a Bill, as a private Member's measure, more extensive in scope, it would have encountered considerable difficulties, because there are sharply differing views among hon. Members on both sides of the House about how to deal with the general question of prostitution.

    There has been much discussion during the passage of the Bill about whether the element of persistence should be incorporated in clause 1. I shall not add to what the Minister said on that, save to comment that that issue has been carefully considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and I am confident that whatever the final outcome when the subject is considered in another place the balance of legal opinion will prevail, and that that will result in the measure being in the best possible form.

    I appreciate that people are concerned about the need to incorporate a provision relating to persistence, but I believe that such a requirement would result in the law being less effective. One of the great benefits that will flow from this legislation is that we shall not need to use the law relating to breach of the peace to deal with this nuisance. That law has been used in some cities—it has not been used in Southampton, although there has been pressure on the police to use it—but it is wrong that old statutes and the common law should be used and extended in a way that nobody ever intended. It is better that such issues are dealt with specifically.

    I do not believe that if the element of persistence had been incorporated in clause 1 it would have dealt effectively with the nuisance caused by kerb crawlers. I am pleased, therefore, that the agruments on that issue, which I accept have been serious—I do not doubt the sincerity of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris)—have not prevented the Bill from reaching this stage.

    It would have been a great pity if, on that issue, the Bill had failed to reach the statute book, because it is clearly difficult for my hon. Friend the Minister, when so much legislation is being brought in by his Department, to guarantee that such issues will be taken up by the Government in Government time. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the Department and to my hon. Friend for providing the advice and back-up that have helped the Bill reach its present stage.

    Earlier this week, in proposing a new clause to another Bill, some might say that I was rather carried away. I spoke for over 40 minutes. I do not wish to speak for 40 minutes on this Third Reading, because the arguments have been deployed on previous occasions.

    I am very pleased, and a little surprised, to find myself associated with the Third Reading of the Bill after a relatively short time in the House. The Bill covers a subject about which I was specifically asked before the general election, and I was questioned about it in detail during the election campaign. I have received a large number of letters and representations on the subject since the general election. It is one of the few subjects on which there is unanimity on the Southampton city council. Both the Labour and Conservative groups on the city council support the proposals in the Bill. There was, consequently, great disappointment in Southampton last Friday when it seemed that the Bill might not proceed further. Having read a London local newspaper, I know that there was also great disappointment in Wandsworth, especially among those living in the vicinity of Bedford hill. I hope that as much publicity will be given to the Third Reading of the Bill today as to the disappointing failure of the Bill to reach its Third Reading last week.

    I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Drake is not here for the closing stages of the Bill. I am sure, however, that I speak for her when I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials and advisers in steering such a careful course. I pay tribute, too, to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West for the very fair way in which he has approached the issue today. He has a serious concern about the Bill and has ventilated it at length. His readiness now to allow the matter to he dealt with in another place reflects well upon his integrity. I am sure that other supporters of the Bill will appreciate that as much as I do.

    The Bill will improve the quality of life for a significant number of people in our inner cities, and I commend it to the House.

    12.38 pm

    I will not detain the House for more than a minute or two. At one point in his speech, I thought that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) was going to beat his own record.

    I still have considerable reservations about the Bill, but the debates of last week and today have provided some reassurance that the doubts expressed about the Bill may be dealt with elsewhere. I refer, for example, to the Minister's assurance concerning clause 3 and to his assurance that there would be opportunities to monitor how the legislation worked. Such assurances are better than nothing. Today, he has said that he will try to ensure —as we should all try to do—that there is an extended and exploratory debate in the other place on the question of persistence. Such a debate would be very helpful.

    I still believe that there are sufficient police powers to cope with the offence of kerb crawling as we want it coped with. I am still not sure that the Bill is necessary, and I hope only that it will not result in innocent men or women being caught up in a piece of obviously well-intentioned legislation—I have no doubt about the good intentions—that may give the police extra powers of which they could take advantage to disadvantage already disadvantaged groups in our society.

    12.40 pm

    Although the debate has at times been ill-tempered —not so much today as last week—it has achieved a great deal. It has persuaded hon. Members on both sides of the House to look hard at legislation that was in danger of being enacted without proper scrutiny. It has also resulted in the dropping of a quarter of the Bill—clause 3 — and has persuaded my hon. Friend the Minister to give some helpful undertakings about policing and review. The debate has also persuaded him to see that there is a proper and fair debate on the question of persistence in the other place.

    That debate on persistence will be important. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) put the argument more fairly than some have done for not requiring an element of persistence. He said that the argument for not requiring such an element was that it would make it more difficult for the police to do their job. Of course it would do that. Any requirement that evidence be produced makes it more difficult for them to do their job. The question is whether we would, by importing an element of persistence into clause 1, make it impossible for the police to do their job. Having looked at section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act and the prosecution of female prostitutes legislation, I am quite satisfied that, even with an element of persistence, it is perfectly possible for the police to do their job effectively. I hope that the other place will reach the same conclusion.

    The major problem with the law on sexual offences in this country is, perhaps, its piecemeal nature. Some of it is derived from common law and case law and some of it is statute law that has been enacted over the centuries. It is piecemeal, inconsistent and anomalous. It is also difficult, complicated and quite hard for the public to understand. In part, I believe our law on sexual offences is too permissive; an example of that is the case of men accosting women for sexual purposes. However, in other areas our law on sexual offences is not permissive enough. There is a great need to have a general review of the law on sexual offences.

    The law on prostitution generally needs to be tackled. We in this country are not quite prepared to go as far as to make prostitution illegal. Indeed, it would be impractical and wrong to do so. We are not quite prepared to acknowledge that prostitution has always existed and always will exist. At the same time, we are not quite prepared either to say how it should be carried on. On every occasion we are eager, sometimes in statute, to say how it should not be carried on. That causes great difficulties, inconsistencies and anomalies in the law on prostitution.

    The Bill adds to those inconsistencies and anomalies because it is one more prohibitive measure that is directed towards a trade that needs, if not regulating, reforming in a general review of the law on prostitution. We await the Criminal Law Revision Committee's recommendations.

    It is clear that the House is not minded to pursue such a general review. I do not expect Government legislation reforming the law of prostitution generally in this Parliament or the next. We must each decide whether it is right to hold the general public to hostage in areas where kerb crawling is a serious problem. We must decide whether it is right to tell people that we shall not give them a law on kerb crawling until the Government and the public are prepared for an overall review of prostitution. I do not think that it is right to hold communities to hostage in that way.

    It is imperfect, it is piecemeal,; but, with reluctance, I think that we should give the Bill a Third Reading.

    12.46 pm

    I am still opposed to the Bill because it does not deal specifically with kerb crawling. It deals with the offence of persistently soliciting women for prostitution and other sexual purposes. Such a Bill cannot possibly deal with the problem of prostitution, but it could have dealt specifically with kerb crawling if some amendments had been accepted.

    I oppose the Bill on four grounds. First, it restricts individual freedom. Secondly, it will lead to innocent men and women being prosecuted. Thirdly, many other serious offences and crimes need the attention of the police. Fourthly, the Bill gives special powers to the police which could easily be abused.

    12.47 pm

    I speak entirely in a personal capacity in this subject. I took the trouble to consult my local authority and women's groups in the Labour party about the Bill. The unanimous conclusion was that the Bill was unacceptable because it risks infringing civil liberties. I explained earlier how that might unintentionally happen.

    I remain sceptical about arrangements under which prosecutions might take place as a result of uncorroborated police evidence. My concern is to protect civil liberties and to try to ensure that the reputation of the police is protected. I do not wish their reputation to be sullied because of the way in which they prosecute and have to operate the law. The sus law not only caused injustices but it did a grave disservice to the police. I think that this legislation will have a similar effect.

    I do not deny the problem of the innocent person being accosted, annoyed and frightened by people who kerb-crawl with a view to making contact with a prostitute. The problem has afflicted south London for many years. The widespread view is that that activity must be stopped, but I fear that the way that we are going about tackling the problem will create as many problems as it cures.

    The Bill not only protects an innocent woman, but for the first time makes it an offence for a man to solicit a prostitute. That is not the harm to which the Bill addresses itself. Although the Minister said that solicitation would normally be by words, I can think of many cases where soliciting has been implied by conduct—for example, a woman sitting in a window.

    Prostitution is not illegal. What is illegal is conducting a brothel or disorderly house, or soliciting. It sometimes takes courage to say such things, but I echo the words of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) that the law of prostitution and the way in which it is conducted needs to be re-examined. The Bill will not put an end to kerb crawling and prostitutes being on the streets. Those prostitutes are often young, have often had an extremely unhappy childhood, are subject to gross exploitation and their lives ofen end early because of involvement in drugs, violence and other matters.

    I do not want to see that situation continue. Nevertheless, prostitution will continue and the Bill will not stop people soliciting on the streets. The Government, or somebody, must look again at the law of prostitution and the way in which prostitution is conducted. If there were a less offensive way of prostitutes making contact with their customers, removing exploitation and so on, that would remove prostitution from the streets, which is what the supporters of the Bill really want.

    Therefore, we would be making a mistake to think that the Bill will cure the problem. It may even create problems. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West said, we need a long-term look at the way in which prostitution is conducted in order to remove the evils of which people have complained in these debates. Prostitution must be conducted in a more civilised way, because it simply will not go away.

    12.51 pm

    I am glad of today's demonstration that there is life after death. Most hon. Members were deeply troubled that this important Bill appeared to have had its life terminated last week. It is an extremely happy situation that, because other business has not taken up a great deal of time today, it has had further time on the Floor of the House, and the intervening days have given time for reflection, thus enabling the Bill to make progress. I hope that it will be given its Third Reading and that it can say, as did Mark Twain when reading his own obituary:

    "The report of my death was an exaggeration."
    The Bill will do an enormous amount of good. I think that that will be the view of the overwhelming majority of hon. Members, despite the fact that those praising the Bill have been slightly under-represented in today's debate. It will certainly be the view of the overwhelming majority of people in Britain, particularly those who live in urban areas, increasingly troubled, as many urban areas have been in recent years, by the problem of kerb crawling.

    In my contributions to the debate, I have sought to hold firm to two matters — first, to ensure that the House, having made up its mind to do something about kerb crawling, did something effective about kerb crawling; secondly, that the House, when passing a law that creates a new criminal offence, should do so having regard to the problems that creating a new criminal offence inevitably brings in train and that appropriate safeguards should be offered to ensure that the innocent are not caught up. I believe that that has been done.

    The House owes an enormous debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes). My one sadness about what has otherwise been a joyous morning for many of us is that she is not here to enjoy this moment of triumph. She was unavoidably engaged in important matters elsewhere. Nevertheless, the decision to take up the matter was hers, she piloted the Bill through the House with great skill and I know that all hon. Members will join me in thanking her for her efforts.

    A clear message now goes out from the House that kerb crawling is unlawful. That is very important, because it will have a deterrent effect, which is what we want. Those living in parts of the inner urban areas that have been taken over at night by kerb crawlers will now know that any such activity is contrary to the law. I believe that the number of people involved in kerb crawling will fall dramatically as a consequence. A combination of this clear law with proper policing by uniformed police officers should act as a substantial deterrent.

    Where someone commits the offence — actually drives and solicits—the way in which the law is framed carries the clear safeguard that any reasonable person would want, because an act of solicitation is required.

    It was necessary to make male solicitation an offence whether the person solicited was an innocent woman or a prostitute. I say that because the nuisance of kerb crawling applies at a number of different levels. It is not just a nuisance but a humiliation for a woman walking home to be solicited in this way. It is perfectly proper that she should be protected. In the view of many, that protection is long overdue.

    But it goes further than that. Even if the woman concerned is a prostitute, it is quite incorrect to say that no nuisance or annoyance is caused and that no harm is done. The harm is done to an area which becomes known as a red light area in which women cannot safely go out at night unless they are to be accosted. The pleasure of living in an area and the amenities of an area are removed if it becomes a place of resort for prostitutes and their clients. That is why a message has to go out that kerb crawling is unlawful. It is because of the detriment not just to individuals but to whole areas.

    The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) made a number of comments demonstrating her scepticism about some parts of the Bill. However, I thank her and some of her hon. Friends who, although they are opposed to the Bill, do not intend to block its Third Reading. That is very fair, and I have endeavoured to meet fairness with fairness by making significant and important concessions.

    No one must allow the Bill to leave the House under the impression that it is in any sense ill thought out. If careful thought can lead to a careful, proper Bill, no Bill will have left the House more carefully thought out and with a better chance of making effective law than this one.

    The Criminal Law Revision Committee took seven years to conclude its deliberations on this issue. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said that we should clarify the law on prostitution. The Criminal Law Revision Committee is still looking at that, and we hope to have its report by the end of the year.

    We should not underestimate the skill and care which the Criminal Law Revision Committee brought to its task, nor the distinction of its members and the balance of its membership. It has a most distinguished team of judges serving on it, including Lord Justice Lawton, the doyen of criminal lawyers on the bench; another lord justice of appeal; two High court judges, one of them now a lord justice of appeal; four circuit judges, one of them a woman; a stipendary magistrate, herself a woman; the Director of Public Prosecutions, which must be of significance for those who are troubled about safeguards; Mr. Michael Hill, QC, the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and a distinguished defence lawyer; Sir David Napley, whose experience in the criminal law is extensive and who for the most part has been a defence lawyer, so any aspect of unfairness to the defence would not be lost there; and Professor Smith, perhaps our foremost academic criminal lawyer. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West, who said that he would have liked a better, Home Office Bill, that, honest to goodness, this is the best Bill that those considerable minds—the most distinguished team of criminal lawyers that we could assemble—could bring forward.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said today. I hope that he will take some comfort from the fact that really and truly there could be no better Bill to deal with the problem of kerb crawling.

    Recognising that the problems are not only legal but social, a policy advisory committee was established to advise the Criminal Law Revision Committee. It consisted of a much broader range of people than lawyers—such as assistant chief probation officers, a journalist, a consultant psychiatrist, a headmistress, a social worker, a lecturer in sociology and Lady Serota, the former local government Ombudsman. They advised the Criminal Law Revision Committee on the social aspects of what we know to be a complex problem.

    Therefore, we are left with a Bill that sends out a clear and unequivocal message that kerb crawling is contrary to law. That will act as a deterrent. I believe that those who have looked to this House for relief from kerb crawling will find it in this Bill. I welcome it and I very much hope that the House will give it a Third Reading.

    It is a triumph for my hon. Friend the Member for Drake that it has been possible to resuscitate the measure. I believe that it will be a triumph for the House to pass it into law. Assuredly, it is a reform that is much needed and much desired in many parts of the country.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

    Freedom Of Probate Bill

    Order for Second Reading read. 1.2 pm

    I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

    I am moving Second Reading of the Bill because the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) is unfortunately indisposed today. It is a modest little Bill, but it contains a great principle—that lawyers cannot be above the law and cannot be witness to restrictive practices. It enshrines the great principle that the Government have followed, that no interest group is above the law and that, to the greatest extent possible, all the people should be enabled to act for themselves in the speediest way possible without coming across restrictive practices.

    Can the hon. Gentleman explain why, if this is such a terrific Bill, he did not append his name to it when he had the opportunity?

    I cannot speak for the hon. Member for Ipswich. No doubt he had his reasons for asking certain people to append their names. I am deeply honoured to be given an opportunity to move this important, if small, amending Bill—[Interruption.] I did not catch what the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) said. As he is obviously taking a close interest in the Bill, he will no doubt wish to make a lengthy speech after I have sat down.

    Probate is a serious issue, which often comes into people's lives at a time of great distress. Clearly many ordinary people do not have to deal with probate if they are the subject of small estates. However, many middle-income families, perhaps with property still tied up with building societies, can find probate difficult to understand at a time of great distress. This simple Bill seeks to open up and make probate much simpler for ordinary people to see their way through the morass of law at a difficult time.

    Probate is concerned with the administration of wills or, in the absence of a will, obtaining letters of administration. Probate can either be contentious or non-contentious. Approximately one quarter of the applications made in 1977 for grants of probate or for letters of administration were made by applicants in person. As I said, many ordinary people do not come across probate.

    If a case is contentious, it is covered by section 20 of the Solicitors Act 1974. The overwhelming majority of probate matters are not contentious. In such cases, section 23 of the Act applies. This Bill seeks to amend that Act. Section 23 states:
    "If any person to whom this subsection applies, directly or as an agent of any other person, whether or not that other person is a person to whom this subsection applies—
  • (a) takes instructions for a grant of probate or of letters of administration, or
  • (b) draws or prepares any papers on which to found or oppose any such grant,
  • he shall, unless he proves that the act was not done for or in expectation of any fee"—
    this is the point that the Bill addresses, because if the act is done in person it is not being done for a fee—
    "gain or reward, and without prejudice to any other liability or disability to which he may be subject under this or any other Act, be guilty of an offence".
    The Bill seeks to amend the restriction on people other than solicitors acting in probate matters if they are doing so for a fee. Under that section, it is an offence if that person takes instructions for reward. The effect is that solicitors alone may, for reward, apply on behalf of others for a grant of probate or letters of administration and may take instructions for that purpose. The principle of the Bill —I believe that the Government accept the arguments for a similar principle in relation to house conveyancing — is that the market should be opened up to people other than solicitors. This is an important principle which I think most progressive lawyers would accept.

    It is common practice for a testator to nominate a trust corporation as the executor of his will. The Bill is primarily concerned with that position. The expression "trust corporation" includes the Public Trustee, a corporation appointed by the court to be a trustee and a corporation entitled under rules made under the Public Trustee Act 1906 to act as a custodian trustee. A corporation is so entitled if it is incorporated in the United Kingdom or any other member state of the EEC, is authorised by its constitution to undertake trust business in England and Wales, and has an issued capital of £250,000, of which not less than £100,000 has been paid up in cash. Examples of such trust corporations are the Public Trustee, part of the banking system and insurance companies. In effect, the Bill will allow such trust corporations to take part in probate.

    A trust corporation is like any other executor and is entitled to administer the estate in respect of which it has been appointed. However, as the trust corporation receives a fee for being an executor and is not a qualifed person for the purposes of section 23 of the Solicitors Act 1974, it cannot prepare the executor's affidavit, which is the document on which the grant of probate is founded. A trust corporation, being a body corporate, cannot, like an individual executor, apply for probate, as an application is a court proceeding. It must, therefore, act through a solicitor.

    As the present law is restrictive and, in effect, gives a kind of monopoly to solicitors, it is not surprising that the Law Society objected when the matter was being looked at by the Royal Commission. In the evidence to the Royal Commission on Legal Services by the Association of Corporate Trustees and the Committee of the London Clearing Banks, it was said that
    "trust corporations should be permitted to apply for grants of representation without the intervention of a solicitor."
    One would, of course, expect the London clearing banks to say that. The association said that
    "all necessary preparatory work is done by the trust corporation concerned and the solicitor's functions are, in this respect, largely formal."
    I am sure that the Government will welcome the principle of the Bill, and I am looking forward to hearing the Minister's comments. Where the solicitor's work is largely formal, he should not be allowed to preserve a monopoly. We want to open out all the legal services as widely as possible, whether in relation to house conveyancing, probate, or anything else.

    I have been listening to my hon. Friend with some interest. Would he take his argument a stage further and say that where the work of counsel appearing in the Crown court is largely formal—for example, undertaking cases in which there is a plea of guilty—that work should also be open to competition?

    My hon. Friend has made an interesting point. I believe that he is a solicitor. I, unfortunately, am a barrister. I detect in my hon. Friend's remark a slight tilt at my profession. I do not know whether he intended it. I have often appeared in court, having been given a very slender brief by the solicitor briefing me, so that I have had to do all the work, and I have wondered why the solicitor should be paid at all. If I may say so, I believe in a unified profession. I see no reason why a solicitor should not appear in the High Court. I believe in opening up the legal profession. It is a great principle, worthy of the Government and the principles on which the Conservative party was elected.

    I do not see why there should be restrictive practices in the legal profession any more than in the trade unions or anywhere else. I do not think that the Government can reasonably take a hard line against restrictive practices in the trade unions and still insist that if I want to become a barrister I must eat a certain number of dinners, as I had to do. The Bill is in line with what I believe in and what I hope the Government believe in.

    It is not surprising that, when the Law Commission was considering the issue, the Law Society opposed it. I do not blame it for that. The Law Society exists to protect the interests of solicitors. Solicitors have enjoyed a monopoly and it is not surprising that they should wish to oppose this progressive measure. They have opposed any relaxation of the present restrictions.

    The Law Society has said that difficult questions of law could arise in the administration of an estate. That sort of thing is always said. When a Royal Commission is looking at ways of opening out the legal profession, the Law Society always says that difficult questions of law arise. However, that did not seem to the Royal Commission to be a strong point. The Commission said that
    "in the interests of their clients and also to protect themselves from charges of breach of trust or negligence trust corporations are punctilious in seeking legal advice when the need arises."
    That is why I do not understand the objections to banks and building societies taking a greater part in the conveyancing process. I believe that they would be as punctilious as any solicitor in dealing with such matters.

    The Royal Commission said:
    "The Law Society also said that a trust corporation was not under the same duty as a solicitor to the client and to the court".
    That may be an interesting point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), who is a solicitor, may want to deal with it. It is true that the local solicitor has a particularly close relationship with his client, and that is perhaps a fair point for the Law Society to make.

    The Law Society also said that the fees charged by trust corporations
    "were not subject to any control and might, from the date of death, be quite different from those in force when the testator made his will. Trust corporations have for a long period been allowed to administer estates for reward."
    The Royal Commission did not find, in the evidence put before it, any grounds for a general change in that respect. However, it considered that some control should be exercised over charges. I hope that it could not be said by those who oppose the Bill that it will somehow open up the gates against trust corporations overcharging. That is not a valid objection. They are responsible bodies, such as banks, and so on. I do not see that happening.

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As everyone on the Government side of the House seems to be nodding agreement, and as no Opposition Member is moved to dissent, I wonder whether we might vote on the Bill now and get on with one of the more important Bills that come later.

    I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. What is being said is perfectly in order.

    I am horrified that the spokesman for the Liberal party should have said that. Here is a worthy measure trying to give people in distress an opportunity to circumvent the delays engendered by the law, and the only member of the Liberal party who has bothered to turn up on a Friday is objecting to it. That is absolutely disgraceful.

    The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to his own speech, but he did not even listen to my intervention. I am totally in favour of him having his way. Why does he not agree and sit down so that we can vote in favour of the Bill?

    It would be an insult to the House if an important Bill were not debated properly. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that if my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, unfortunately he intends to oppose the Bill. I am sorry about that, but my hon. Friend is an honourable Member of the House. I know that he is deeply concerned about these issues, has studied them closely and wishes to give a detailed speech to explain why he opposes the Bill. That is a matter of great regret to me. I feel bound to explain why this worthy measure should go through. I may not win, but I retain the hope that my hon. Friend will be convinced by my argument. I know that he is listening closely to my speech.

    Surely it is reasonable that a trust corporation, approved for the purpose by the Bank of England, should be permitted, in non-contentious cases, to apply for probate of a will, in which it is named as executor, without the intervention of a solicitor. That is all that this modest measure seeks to do. It is attempting to open up the probate business.

    The implementation of that recommendation requires amendment to section 23 of the Solicitors Act 1974, which I have already quoted, and the granting of a right of audience to the proper officer of a corporation sufficient to enable it to perform that function. The Royal Commission emphasised that its recommendations were confined to non-contentious cases. I emphasise that, too. It is a different situation when large estates and contentious probate matters are involved. However, the vast majority of cases in probate are non-contentious. The Royal Commission also said that there should be a requirement that if a probate case becomes contentious the trust corporation must cease to have the right of audience and be required to appear in front of a solicitor.

    Let me outline what this short measure seeks to do. Clause 1 proposes that
    "section 23 of the Solicitors Act 1974 (unqualified persons not to act in preparation of papers for probate etc.)"
    should be amended. Clause 1 (a) provides that
    "for the words 'Subsection (1) applies to' in subsection (2) there shall be substituted the words 'Subject to subsection (3) subsection (1) applies to'."
    I know that some hon. Members here today are not lawyers, and the Bill may seem difficult to understand. However, it is clear. All that it is seeking to do is to introduce a new subsection (3) into the Solicitors Act 1974 so that, whereas the law will stay as it is in contentious cases, in uncontentious cases the new subsection will be slotted in. The new subsection (3) states:
    "Subsection (1) does not apply in any non-contentious or common form probate business in which an approved trust corporation acting by and through any officer of that trust corporation authorised for the purpose by that trust corporation or its directors or governing body is the applicant or, as the case may be, one of the applicants for a grant of probate or administration."
    Wrapped in legal language, as it must be, that provision simply gives effect to the very simple principle that I have enunciated.

    This is a small, slim Bill, but I believe that it enshrines a great principle. I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading today.

    12.20 pm

    I rise to seek clarification because I am not a lawyer and, although my accent may suggest otherwise, I am affected by the Bill because I live in England, although that was not always the case.

    I wonder whether the Bill will assist people in the circumstances in which I found myself some years ago when my father chose to die in England and leave an estate here while I lived in Scotland. Telephone engineers do not tend to accumulate vast estates, and at the end of the day the difficulties of trying to get probate in England were just not worth it and I left things as they were. There is probably still about £200 lying in a bank somewhere in Kent because even in those days the legal fees involved would have been a great deal more than that. I was the only son of a father who died without any surviving relatives. His brother and sisters had died, so I was the only person who could have claimed the estate. Will the Bill help a person in that situation?

    Will the Bill help a properly qualified Scots solicitor seeking to apply for probate in England? When my father died my Edinburgh solicitors were unable to act for me. They would have had to instruct an English solicitor on my behalf, but as they were good Edinburgh solicitors, and as Scots are canny people, they advised me not to proceed with the matter because the entire estate would have been eaten up by the legal costs and I would have been left with considerable residual costs.

    The Bill appears to limit the category of people who can apply for the easier procedure to officers of trust corporations. I am. concerned about the many small cases in which the surviving relative, often in a shocked state and fairly horrifying circumstances, merely wishes to tidy up the estate. My case arose in the middle of the famous miners' strike and even the lift at the crematorium was out of service because of the power cuts. Many people find themselves in similarly difficult situations. I hope that if the promoter is able to speak again in the debate he will comment on that aspect.

    I should also like to know why the provisions are limited to approved trust corporations as defined in clause 1(4). When the words "non-contentious or common form" appear in the same sentence one wonders whether the Bill is quite the liberalising measure that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am concerned about closed shops. My union does not have one, but the Law Society has a very effective one. I wonder whether officers of approved trust corporations are not just solicitors in another form, or people who probably are solicitors but are being paid from a different source rather than by the client direct. That is the suspicion at the back of my mind.

    I should be interested to hear why the hon. Gentleman thinks the Law Society operates a closed shop. I should have thought that that term was more applicable to a rule or regulation preventing people from being employed unless they belonged to a union. The rules of the Law Society require that a person may practise as a solicitor only if he has passed certain examinations. There is a distinction, is there not?

    I am an engineer, and some engineers are allowed to practise at certain levels of engineering only after passing examinations. The Institution of Electrical Engineers does not then take decisions about the fees that we may charge, act as a court over us, negotiate our conditions of service or do many of the other things that the Law Society does. It is not, therefore, the same as the other professional institutions with which I am involved and am describing.

    I am open to correction by hon. Members who are more qualified in such matters, but I understand that, while the Law Society sometimes operates rather like a trade union, at other times it assumes a quasi-judical function. It cannot be equated with, say, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and various other bodies with which I am associated. To that extent the Law Society operates a closed shop. It certainly operates to protect the monopoly of solicitors in dealing with certain types of work. Hon. Members are aware of the lobbying that occurred on behalf of the Law Society when my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) introduced his House Buyers Bill.

    I am sure that the Law Society will continue vigorously to protect the interests of its members in matters affecting lawyers, and I make no complaint about that. That is its function. Our job, however, is to consider how reasonable that representation is in the context of the way in which people must deal with members of the legal profession.

    I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that there are some Conservative Members who believe that the Law Society should be in the same position as the Institution of Electrical Engineers, for example, that there is an anomalous situation and that the legal profession should be opened up. The hon. Gentleman has made some strong points against the closed shop in the legal profession. May we assume from his remarks that he is against the closed shop generally?

    I was not implying that Conservative Members were not equally concerned about the issue. That is clearly not the case. My union, the National Communications Union—I declare my interest, but only to the extent of our attitude to the closed shop—does not operate a closed shop. We have 95 per cent. membership without one. An advantage of that is that we need not have people in the union whom we do not like, people who might cause us other difficulties.

    I do not want to stray into the whole issue of why some unions need a closed shop. My union is an industrial body and is basically a one-industry union. We have one employer, and it is easy to make arrangements, so that the level of organisation is high. In other areas, such as retail distribution, that is not the case, and the level of organisation is lower.

    The closed shop principle for trade unions is different because non-unionists often accept the advantages which trade union members enjoy without paying for them, in the same way as some people accept taxation benefits and try not to pay their tax. That is why the closed shop principle is considered to be important, although I, too, would like to see it interpreted more liberally. That does not apply to the professions, which cheerfully have a tightly rigged closed shop; so tightly rigged that they not only do not have any voting, but also in many instances restrict entry. They can ruin a person's career by the activities of what are little short of kangaroo courts.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that I did not imply that I was unaware of the need for the closed shop and the arguments in its favour. I do not like people riding on my back. I pay my union subs, the union negotiates a pay rise and all its members receive it. When I was a branch secretary, some of my colleagues were Jehovah's Witnesses. They did not wish to be members of the union, for good religious reasons. The three in my branch paid the equivalent of their union subs to a charity. They gave me the opportunity to nominate a charity, but I told them to choose the charity to which they wanted to donate. They all chose a different charity. One selected the Cancer Research Campaign, the second decided to support the British Heart Foundation and the third decided to support a missionary charity. These three people did not ride on anyone's back, and I respected them for that.

    I support the Bill, but I recognise that it has shortcomings. I share the view that it does not go far enough. A few years ago I had the task of trying to wind up a small estate. It was impossible for the matter to be contentious as there was no legal heir other than myself. There are many similar cases. I was unable to wind up the estate as I could not meet the costs involved.

    Unfortunately, I did not qualify for legal aid. I was not quite that poor. I would have qualified for legal aid if I had been trying to do something rather more substantial than wind up a small estate. I do not think that legal aid provision is sufficiently wide, pervasive or generous to enable the public in all cases to obtain the legal advice that they need. We have a National Health Service and I am convinced that we need a national legal service.

    My hon. Friend will appreciate that law centres are being threatened, in addition to the restrictions that are placed on legal aid. Law centres should be funded nationally, but the Lord Chancellor is refusing to do so. The Government are refusing to fund the centres and 55 will be closed in the next year or two unless local authorities pick up the bill. They are unable to do so because they are being rate capped.

    The law centre at Gateshead is in exactly that position. The Tyne and Wear metropolitan county council provides the major funding of the centre, but the council will cease to exist in April 1986. The local authorities cannot afford to fund the centre. As my hon. Friend rightly says, they are being rate capped and they are short of money. I am an ex-city treasurer and I know that the funding of the Gateshead law centre does not amount to the product of a 1p rate in the borough. However, it seems that that does not matter. There are many other things that we would like to support, but we are unable to do so. The law centre is one of the services that will have to go unless the Government or others pick up the tab.

    If law centres were properly funded, they would be able to assist in overcoming the problem that I have been trying to explain. Unfortunately, they will rapidly cease to exist, except those that are run on a voluntary basis by solicitors who are prepared to give up their own time. I know that this happens, and that it will continue to happen. but the service is bound to be patchy. If someone is able to have access to that help and advice, it will be a matter of luck., depending on where he lives.

    I appreciate the free legal advice scheme which the Law Society operates. It is true that that helps very many people. However, it is only a matter of one interview and one letter, and that is not sufficient to gain probate even in a simple case. Substantial costs remain.

    The banks must do well out of the situation. There is about £200 lying in an account in Strood in Kent which I will not and cannot touch. The money has been there for nearly 14 years. There must be money in bank accounts all over the country on which banks receive interest and which no one else can touch because it is too expensive to get probate. The bank might consider operating a national scheme. They could easily fund it from the interest that they receive from unclaimed moneys lying in accounts.

    I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to take the Bill too far. Does he hold that anyone should be allowed to handle anyone else's probate? That would be dangerous. I see why the hon. Gentleman wishes to extend the Bill, but there must be some restriction, and at least one can trust a trust corporation.

    The hon. Gentleman spoilt an otherwise helpful intervention by his last sentence. Unfortunately, in a number of cases, that has been proved objectively not to be true. I am not trying to take the Bill too far, but it is very important that people in tragic circumstances who have an uncontentious claim to probate and administration should be able to establish it.

    I am not an expert on this, but if the hon. Gentleman were to accept some free advice from me and apply for probate himself he might be able to look forward to a nice summer holiday. The sum of £200, plus the interest accrued over a number of years, should give the hon. Gentleman a lovely holiday.

    I have been told that free legal advice is worth exactly what one pays for it. However, in this case, I am prepared to disregard that saying. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. It is probably through laziness that I have not done so, but many years have passed and I do not wish to stir up some old memories. Individuals may apply for probate, and I am quite capable of doing so. However, many people are not. There is a problem. To take up the point made by the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), I was not arguing that I should be allowed to set myself up in a corner shop in Blaydon shopping precinct under the sign "Get your probate here". I do not suggest that anyone should be permitted to do that. We must make certain that people get the best professional advice when they need it. My argument is that, somehow or other, the system seems to become very expensive very quickly. We have quick and cheap divorces these days. Perhaps we should also have quick and cheap probates in uncontested cases. Some arrangements could and should be made to make that possible. I did not mean to imply that anyone should be able to deal with matters of probate. That would be very dangerous. I do not wish to lead people down that path.

    Perhaps, however, the Bill does not go far enough. I hope to hear something helpful from the right hon. and learned Gentleman about this, and about some of the other matters to which I have addressed myself.

    The Bill is a modest measure, but it is welcome. I do not denounce it for being modest. There is an old Scottish saying to the effect that one should make haste slowly. Perhaps more progress may be made by a series of modest measures than by a single blockbuster which would upset the Attorney-General's and the Lord Chancellor's Departments. I hope that the Government will accept this welcome measure. I hope also that the Government will give us some assurances about the other matters I have raised.

    1.39 pm

    The House should ask what the purpose of the Bill is. I know that for many months my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has felt passionately about this subject. I also know that he has done a lot of research on it and that he is delighted to have had the opportunity to introduce the Bill today.

    The first question is: what can be done to reduce costs? The first thing that people can do is to make a will. When an estate needs to be wound up, problems often arise because the deceased failed to make a will. However, it does not just end there. The will needs to be made in a proper manner.

    I well remember a case some years ago of a bank manager—who one would have thought would have known better—who went, I believe, to Woolworths and bought a will form which then cost 6d. He made out the will form himself. I think that he had been separated from his wife for about 15 years, and in his will he said something like, "My wife and I have lived apart for many years, and I wish to bequeath to her in this will only that amount that the law indicates she should have, had I not made this document." He then died, and the interpretation placed on the will was that if he had not made it his estate was such that the wife would have got everything, and so she did get everything. A man of intelligence and position who should have known better thus made a will whose effect was quite contrary to his intentions.

    If we wish to ensure that the public obtain value for money and that costs are not run up unnecessarily on an estate, we should try to ensure that wills are properly drawn up, and properly attested. Ultimately, it is a question not only of trying to cut costs but of ensuring that the public are protected.

    I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle to say that if a trust corporation is allowed to carry out the work in winding up an estate without having to employ a solicitor, it will be cheaper. My experience is that that is not so. If people say in their will that they would like a bank to act for them, the costs charged are often far higher, even discounting the cost of the solicitor employed by the bank. Thus, I suspect that my hon. Friend's measure may not cut costs at all.

    I think that my hon. Friend has missed the point. If someone goes straight to a solicitor, the solicitor may well be able to act more cheaply than a bank. But the Bill is saying that if, for some reason, someone wants to start with a bank, and the bank does all the work, it should not be incumbent on it to go to a solicitor at the last moment just to conform to the Solicitors Act 1974.

    I accept that there is some weight to that argument, but my hon. Friend would be wise to take into account several points. For example, what happens if a difficult question of law arises when administering the estate? It may be that a solicitor should be called in then. My hon. Friend touched too briefly in his opening remarks on the charges that a bank can make. There is no control over the charges that trust corporations can impose, but there is control over solicitors' charges. The Bill would be more acceptable if it contained a mechanism to ensure that somebody could supervise the charges that such trust corporations may make.

    I am also concerned about the provision granting a right of audience to some person in a trust corporation.

    In answer to an intervention of mine earlier my hon. Friend said that he was in favour of widening all professions. He went on to say that he was even in favour, if I understood him correctly, of breaking the banisters' monopoly. I fear that he may have been carried away by his own rhetoric on that point. If a private Member's Bill seeks to break the barristers' monopoly, it will be interesting to see whether he is one of its sponsors.

    Be that as it may.

    The hon. Member from the Opposition Whips' Office made a number of valuable points.

    Much as I would like it, the Opposition Whips' Office is not represented in the House by a Member. I am the hon. Member for Blaydon.

    I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I could have said that he was the Member for the Kremlin bar, but that might misrepresent the valuable work that he does in the House.

    I am not being facetious when I say that I have some sympathy with the case which the hon. Gentleman put forward. I am sorry to hear that he has a sum of money locked away in a bank account. Let me say in all seriousness that I would gladly undertake the legal work for him for nothing if he were prepared to donate half the sum to the Conservative party.

    I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has just worked out how much that £200 has turned into, and the hon. Gentleman's proposal does not have a chance.

    I suspected that at the end of the day that might be the case.

    Insufficient attention has been paid to the Benson report. It dealt with the problem in page 226 under a paragraph headed "Litigation". I do not want to read out all the report; I am sure that interest in the subject is such that every hon. Member present has read it from beginning to end. In essence, its conclusion was that we should do something along the lines of the Bill.

    With the greatest respect, I must say that the Benson report is wrong and perhaps underestimates the objections of the Law Society. Paragraph 19.24 said:
    "The Law Society opposed any relaxation of the present restrictions. It said that difficult questions of law could arise during the administration of an estate."
    That is so, but it went on to say:
    "This does not seem to us a strong point, because in the interests of their clients and also to protect themselves from charges of breach of trust or negligence trust corporations are punctilious in seeking legal advice when the need arises."
    I wish that I had the Benson committee's confidence in how trust corporations carry out their business. I fear that I do not have that confidence and that the objections have been understated.

    The report goes on to say:
    "The Law Society also said that a trust corporation was not under the same duty as a solicitor to the client and to the court and that the fees charged by the trust corporations were not subject to any control—"
    there it is; they are not subject to any control
    "and might, at the date of death, be quite different from those in force when the testator made his will."
    We all on some occasions have had cause to take out a bank loan or even a mortgage loan. At some stage during the period when that money is outstanding we have seen fluctuations in interest rates and often people, who have taken out what they considered to be a modest loan which they were able to repay easily, have suddenly found that it has become an oppressive burden because of shifting interest rates. I accept that that burden is not too prevalent under a Conservative Administration, but it can happen.

    The Benson report went on to conclude that control should come through the taxation of costs. If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope to refer to that, but if my hon. Friend will comment on that, I can respond to him as well.

    That is a fair point, but where one is seeking to amend the law, and where there is a problem of charging — I think that all hon. Members would accept that the fees that the trust corporations can charge are a problem — surely the correct way to go about matters is to bring in legislation which covers both points at the same time. I should be happier about supporting the measure if it were amended to bring that about. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle made no reference to doing that. Apparently he is not prepared to widen the Bill in that way. If the Bill goes through before the House has the opportunity to examine ways of controlling trust corporation charges, innocent beneficiaries of small estates might be fleeced by unscrupulous or inefficient trust corporations which charge high fees.

    I agree with what my hon. Friend says about trust corporations. Does he accept that, subject to articles of association, any company constituted in the United Kingdom or an EEC state with issued capital of £250,000, of which only £100,000 needs to be paid up in cash, comes within the present definition of a trust corporation?

    I hesitate to offer advice in the presence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, but I understand that that is so. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Moynihan) is in a much happier position than me. With the funds that he has, he might be considering starting a business along those lines. That is way beyond the means of the average Back Bencher, even in his wildest dreams.

    The Benson report stated:
    "we consider that some control should be exercised over charges."
    Those who support the Bill and who pray in aid the Benson report should examine that sentence carefully. Unless an assurance is given that some control is to be exercised, I shall have reservations about supporting the measure. The dangers should not be underestimated.

    The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) made a number of interesting comments. I was interested in what he said about setting up a national legal service. He speaks from the Opposition Benches with the voice of authority. Is it Labour party policy to nationalise the legal profession? If it is, Labour Members will lose a rot of votes.

    The idea is tempting, but Labour party policy does not cover nationalising the legal profession. Perhaps the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) should not put such ideas into our heads.

    I am delighted with that assurance. I am sure that we shall attempt to hold the Labour party to it.

    The danger is that those who merely consider the question of the costs charged for administering an estate will regard the problem as comparable to that of the housewife who goes shopping. A beneficiary should not have to shop around to see who will administer the estate most cheaply. That would lead to lower standards and lower safeguards, which would put the public at risk.

    Throughout the world, the courts are littered with cases involving people who have abused the trust placed in them either by making off with money or bungling their job. As a result, people lose out on their entitlement.

    That is a telling argument. The problem exists in other than the legal profession. Voluntary liquidations are sometimes bungled and people lose everything because someone has not acted professionally.

    I accept that. However, it is important to remember that when dealing with a large estate worth several hundreds of thousands of pounds, if the mistake or the incompetence leads to the loss of £1,000 or £2,000 the effect is relatively minimal, regrettable though it may be. But what about the average estate, that of the working man who has put away a bit in the bank and perhaps has a house on mortgage? If errors are made in administering his estate and a loss accrues or costs are run up unnecessarily to the tune of £1,000 or £1,500, that may be virtually the whole estate. It is not all that uncommon to find that, because of the way money was invested and the complexities of the case, a good deal of legal work was required and at the end of the day the fees have eaten up most of the estate. It is bad enough already in cases where that happens, but if we have no control over the charges of trust corporations, how many more cases shall we see? In my view, the House should tread warily.

    Last night, the House dealt with another matter affecting solicitors—the attempt by the hon. Members for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) to enable non-solicitors to undertake conveyancing work. Today we are discussing another measure which seeks to alter the Solicitors Act 1974. I supported last night's measure because I believe that we should proceed with it and see how it goes, but today's Bill is far more serious, because we have been given no guarantees about the costs that trust corporations can charge and about all the other matters that I have laid before the House. Unless my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle makes it clear that he is prepared to amend the Bill radically and to give the protection that I seek, I regret to inform him that I shall oppose this measure.

    1.57 pm

    I wish to refer to a number of my fears about the Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), I look forward to hearing the reply of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to discover whether he can allay those fears.

    I am pleased that the House has made good progress with its earlier business and has come on to a discussion of this Bill. At an earlier stage I was afraid that the House would not be able to debate the Freedom of Probate Bill. It is an important measure, which should be discussed at some length.

    Some of the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle caused me a degree of concern. He seemed to speak with a lack of personal experience in these matters. Over the past 12 months I have been responsible for winding up the estate of a member of my family in which a trust corporation was not involved. With my wife, I have also just completed the revision of my will, where a trust corporation is involved. Therefore, I bring a modest amount of experience to the debate, having gone through the granting of probate and the administration of the estate of a relative where a solicitor was involved, but need not necessarily have been involved, and the preparations for my own estate through a trust corporation, where members of my family would not be responsible for the application for or the granting of letters of probate.

    I am not a lawyer, as are some of those present, but I am a chartered accountant. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle made some of his remarks in the spirit of levity, but if he did not, I take offence at some of them because he appeared to be implying that some of the great professions, including mine, operate a closed shop which is in some way against the public interest. He did not have an opportunity to develop that theme, and no doubt he will return to it later in the debate. My profession has no monopoly on auditing the accounts of public companies. Under the Companies Act 1948, other professional bodies are permitted to do so. It is important to note that many solicitors, including those in my constituency, welcome the broadening of one area to allow non-solicitors to enter the world of conveyancing. But there is a big difference between conveyancing — which is an economic act, which, although complex, is the transfer of property from one person to another—and probate. Although important points of law are involved, we are satisfied that non-solicitors, provided that they are properly licensed, can carry out that service.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle is confused about the granting of probate. I wish to cite four points of difference between the granting of probate and other, perhaps more mundane, activities, such as the transfer of property or the auditing of public accounts.

    The first is the application of the principle of free market forces — of which my hon. Friend is a well known and eloquent advocate — to the granting of probate. The explanatory and financial memorandum says that one of the benefits of the Bill will be that of
    "saving time and expense to the beneficiaries of the estates concerned."
    That is very much in keeping with the principles of competition and free market forces which my hon. Friend argues would cheapen the cost of services provided by both professional and non-professional people.

    There is a difference. We are dealing not with the reorganisation of the British Steel Corporation or the Potato Marketing Board, but with the estates of people —money and assets that have been built up over a great number of years. There is a great difference between market principles being applied to the better management of a company, business or enterprise—which I would strongly endorse — and their being applied to people's rights.

    We are dealing with the estates of people who have died, not with people who are alive. They have no votes. They are not participating in this vigorous, competitive world in which my hon. Friend so keenly wishes us to partake. We are dealing with the estates of dead people. Therefore, we must be very careful before we apply the principle of free market forces in the granting of probate to those who are not members of the legal profession.

    With respect, my hon. Friend is making a travesty of the way in which I opened the debate. The Bill makes it clear that it deals with non-contentious cases. I hope that my hon. Friend, who takes a deep interest in these matters, has had a chance to read the report of the Royal Commission on legal services. I hope that he is not arguing that those distinguished lawyers on the commission did not understand that probate concerns are matters of deep distress and of great importance to families. I repeat that the Bill deals with non-contentious cases.

    I am grateful for that intervention, because it displays a misunderstanding of the point that I was trying to make. Of course I am aware that clause 1 defines non-contentious matters by reference to the Supreme Court Act 1981. The distinction between a grant of probate which is contentious and one which is non-contentious is not relevant to my argument. I am saying that in dealing with the estates of deceased people we must be careful about the application of market principles.

    Time is pressing on. Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to deal with his point under the last three of my four points of concern.

    I apologise for the fact that I did not hear the beginning of the speech of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman). Does he agree that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) missed the essential point of probate matters—that they arise at an intensely personal and difficult time for widows and other relatives of the deceased'? It is a time when regrettably on a vast number of occasions old family scores rear their heads. Lawyers must he extremely careful in their dealings. One step out of place can lead to enormous complications and can speedily turn the non-contentious into the contentious.

    The hon. Gentleman has made the point far more eloquently than I could or did. I very much agree with him.

    My second point relates to clause 1, which refers to those who are unqualified. Section 23 of the Solicitors Act 1974, which the Bill seeks to amend, prohibits unqualified persons--those who are not solicitors—from acting in probate matters, except if members of the family or close friends are acting for no fee; in other words, when they are making a personal application.

    How are we to define the approved trust corporations which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle wishes to enable to make direct applications in contentious cases of probate? The Bill defines an "approved trust corporation" as
    "a trust corporation approved for the purpose thereof by the Lord Chancellor".
    That concerns me because it involves an extra element of delay and bureacracy. It is not fair to say in the explanatory and financial memorandum that the Bill will
    "have no financial effects or effects on public service manpower".
    We know very well that the operations of the Lord Chancellor's Department are run on a tight purse string. This measure imposes an additional test at a time of distress for relatives. An additional delay is caused when a trust corporation, not necessarily approved already by the Lord Chancellor, seeks to act.

    I come to my third and fourth areas of concern. The Bill will enable any officer of a trust corporation, any director of an approved trust corporation or the governing body of that trust corporation to act. What is the sanction, other than through the courts of law, against an authorised officer of a trust corporation of, say, one of the big banks who acted hastily or incorrectly or misinterpreted what was meant by a non-contentious or contentious matter?

    If a solicitor is part of that process—I am convinced that that is the correct procedure as envisaged in 1974, when the original legislation was passed—there is a point of sanction, because the Law Society is responsible for the discipline of the legal profession. There is some form of redress against a solicitor who has been dilatory or inaccurate in the performance of his work. One hopes that there will not have been malfeasance or gross acts of negligence on the part of the solicitor. The important thing is that a sanction exists.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, in his opening speech, did not suggest any form of sanction that might apply to bank trust officers. I hope that he will deal with that point in his reply to the debate.

    I do not think that my hon. Friend has any notion of the fees that the trust corporation of one of the larger banks would charge for the winding up of a modest estate of £10,000 or £20,000; nor do I believe that he knows what additional charges would be incurred if no solicitor were involved and the bank itself had to make the application. I shall tell my hon. Friend what would happen in those circumstances. The bank would still seek the ad' ice of its own internal legal department, and the total charges to the estate might not be any less; indeed, they might well be higher.

    How can the fee that the bank charges be relevant to the argument? The bank already has power to undertake the work and it is usual for it to consult its legal department.

    My hon. Friend, with great respect, has not answered my point. I hope that he will do so in his reply. I shall repeat it for his benefit. Can he tell the House the scale of fees normally charged and what protection there would be to the estate if no solicitor were involved and the bank had direct access in an application for probate?

    Is not another danger that the bank will do what it always does—deduct its charges and send the balance to the beneficiary? those circumstances, the only redress for the beneficiary is to take the bank to court. That is the last thing that a beneficiary upset by the death of a close relative wishes to do.

    My hon. Friend is correct. As I said at the beginning, I have had direct experience in recent months of the application for probate through a solicitor on behalf of a family. I have also explored in great detail what the fees, charges and procedures are where a trust corporation is involved. I have had the opportunity of comparing the two and looking at the protection and safeguards—that is the most important point--for the beneficiaries of the estate.

    For the reasons that I have given, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle will provide some clear answers to the questions which have been raised. I think that that is necessary before we can carry the Bill further.

    2.8 pm

    Friday has often seen this House engaged in substantive, erudite and intelligent debate, and today has been no exception—so far.

    I hope that the points which have been made will be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) in his reply to the debate, to counter the many concerns. It is a great pity, given the substantial interest in the debate, that so little time is left. I know that many hon. Members would like to debate the Bill well into the afternoon.

    It is to be deeply regretted that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) is unable to be with us this morning. We all understand his circumstances. It was clearly his intention, as he expressed it on 5 February 1985. that the Bill should be a simple and limited measure, with important and beneficial implications for opening up the legal profession. That principle has considerable merit and a number of hon. Members have supported it, but the concern of many hon. Members relates to the detailed implications of the Bill in trying to achieve that objective.

    Substantive and important among those concerns is the fact that this Freedom of Probate Bill does not ask the simple question of who applies for the grant of probate. That involves a step in a court action. The Bill would set a precedent in giving direct lay access to a court of justice. That point needs to be addressed carefully, as does the important point about trusts and who controls trusts, particularly outside the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) went only halfway on the specific point when he quoted paragraph 19.24 of the widely read Benson report. I regret that he did not consider the answer to the questions that he was posing.

    I note with interest the hon. Gentleman's point about access to a court of law. Does he agree that the law says that any man can be an advocate in his own cause, but if one is an advocate in another's cause, at least one should be experienced and trained to be so?

    But is it not also the case that he who is an advocate in his own cause has a fool for a client?

    I am grateful for that exceptionally important, key point. Hon. Members know that that is true. However, that said, let me go a little broader and address the point raised by my hon. Friend, when he rightly said that we need to look at the scope of the Bill and the qualifications that trust corporations have to satisfy.

    This matter came up in an important part of the debate, but I believe that it needs to be emphasised. As I understand it, the definition of a trust corporation is not limited to the principal clearing banks. Anybody who constitutes a company in the United Kingdom with the right articles of association or, indeed, in a member state of the European Community, having issued capital of £250,000, of which only £100,000 needs to be paid out, constitutes a trust corporation within that definition. It does not require any expertise for an individual or a group of individuals to set up such a corporation. That is an exceptionally important, key point to the Bill. Despite the good intentions of the Bill overall, I hope that the Government will consider it closely, as well as hon. Members participating in the Committee stage. If it cannot be satisfied, regrettably I shall continue to oppose the Bill.

    Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the ways of easing the burden is to allow law centres to carry out the practice, which they can do? Will he join me in pressurising the Government to provide funds to ensure that law centres stay open?

    I am fully confident of the ability of local boroughs to fund. I noticed the point that was made, that local boroughs would not be able to fund because they were "all rate-capped". As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not so. A small minority are rate-capped. I contend that priority that should be placed on law centres will be recognised even by those boroughs in financing law centres in future.

    I now come to the point about charges. I believe that it is important to put the Bill into the context of how it came before the House and how it was originally conceived. It is well known that the bank trust corporations have, for some years, sought to extend their executorship and trustee business. Indeed, in evidence to the Benson committee, the Association of Corporate Trustees made it clear that its members favoured the removal of the legal constraints against the preparation of papers leading to an application for a grant of representation and the making of the application itself.

    The Benson report accepted that that claim should be allowed to succeed, provided that the remuneration of trust corporations was brought under public scrutiny and controlled through the taxation of costs. The report states:
    "At present a trust corporation or any other person or organisation may draft a will in which it is nominated as executor with power to charge for its services. Except when a solicitor is so authorised, there is no check on the reasonableness of the charges made".
    I hope that that, too, will be dealt with in full if my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle has the opportunity to sum up.

    I believe that the intention of the Bill is first class, but I am very worried about the implications of its implementation. I hope, therefore, that it will not be given a Second Reading or, if it receives a Second Reading, that it will be scrutinised very closely in Committee. I trust that the Government and other hon. Members concur with that view.

    2.20 pm

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) on his initiative in producing the Bill and sympathise with his indisposition. He made a powerful contribution to our debate yesterday, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on his initiative in stepping into the breach and taking over the Bill, which otherwise would have been lost. The hon. Member for Ipswich is a considerable and tenacious legal reformer. I hope that he will forgive me when he reads my comment that his popularity in the legal profession does not always match his popularity outside, but I suspect he knows that already.

    The Government's competition policy applies to the professions just as it applies to the supply of other goods and services, and we share the hon. Gentleman's concern that the process of applying for grants of representation to the estates of deceased persons should be as economical and straightforward as possible. Application for probate will inevitably affect us all at some time, whether directly or indirectly.

    The House will be aware that the Government favour removing all unnecessary restrictive practices, but it is vital to ensure adequate protection for the consumer. The Government consider all such issues on their merits, the test being whether the existing restrictions remain desirable in the public interest. A balance must always be struck between encouraging competition and ensuring that the consumer will not suffer as a result of conflicts of interest or anti-competitive practices. That is where the public interest lies. In today's interesting and well-argued debate, there has been much comment on the recommendations of the Benson report. I wish to lay before the House one or two details of what happened after the report was published. The Government received further submissions from the Law Society and from the Committee of London Clearing Bankers, the latter in support of its case for implementing the recommendations. The Committee of London Clearing Bankers stated that there would be two specific benefits for the public in the removal of what it described as the
    "unnecessary involvement of a solicitor".
    First, the delays inherent in the present system could be significantly reduced by cutting the number of steps involved in obtaining a grant of probate. Secondly, there would be savings for the beneficiaries because they would no longer be charged the independent solicitor's fees.

    On the other side of the coin, the Law Society emphasised that application for a grant of probate was an application to the court and expressed the view that a trust corporation had no more right to apply for such a grant than to make application to or appear before any other court. The Law Society reiterated its view that the present restrictions were drawn up
    "to protect the public and to ensure the proper administration of the law".
    Nevertheless, the Royal Commission on legal services had recommended a change in the law in that area, which the Law Society countered by arguing that the recommendation should not be implemented "out of context".

    Two other considerations were relevant. First, as the Bill recognises, any change should be confined to non-contentious cases, and, in the event of a probate matter becoming contentious, the trust corporation must put the matter in the hands of a solicitor. I do not think that anyone has argued against that today. That view was fully accepted by the Committee of London Clearing Bankers, and it seems that the wisdom of such a safeguard is widely recognised.

    Secondly, the charges made by executors who are not solicitors should be subject to the same control as are solicitors' charges. Interested parties should have the right to require that fees and charges for probate be taxed by the court. Under this head should come any charges and financial advantages arising in the course of the administration. The Law Society also raised the question of conflict of interest and anti-competitive practices by which, it suggested, consumer protection would be endangered. It said:
    "Trust corporations are commercial institutions which use their considerable resources to advertise for probate and trust work and are not restricted by any professional code of conduct from persuading the public to use their services."
    We know of the impact of advertising on the reduction of conveyancing fees. That was made clear during our consideration of the Administration of Justice Bill yesterday evening. The society added:
    "The occasions on which the expense of employing a trust corporation as executor are justified are few but the occasions on which a local manager can persuade a customer to appoint a corporation are many. On some of these occasions when the estate is small the corporation subsequently renounces the executorship, thereby causing delay and difficulties in administering the estate: on other occasions trust corporations may continue to act and unnecessary expense is incurred by the beneficiaries. A bank may therefore be able to persuade a customer to appoint the bank as executor and trustee when the appointment is not in the best interests of the customer. The bank is also entitled to draw a will for a customer and to include in it a charging clause which is not subject to independent review and which enables quite high charges to be made."
    That matter was referred to quite often in the course of yesterday's debate on the Administration of Justice Bill. The Law Society continued:
    "If, in addition, the banks are able to extract the grant of probate without the details of the will being considered by an independent solicitor they would be in the position of having total control over all aspects of a deceased's estate from the preparation of the will, by way of the application for the grant of probate, to the administration of the estate and finally to the fixing and appropriation of charges. That in the council's view is entirely out of step with the continuing and increasing trend towards the protection of the public."
    I hope that the Law Society will forgive me if I describe those observations as totally predictable.

    Does the Attorney-General agree that there has been considerable disquiet for some time about the major banks' level of charges for probate? Does he further agree that perhaps the subject should be examined by the Office of Fair Trading? There are no statutoty regulations, and very often the small estates suffer the most.

    I would rather not get involved in the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. There is very little time left before the debate must come to an end. I shall confine my remarks to the Bill I share the hon. Gentleman's disquiet that there is really no control over charges made in such circumstances That is a sad omission from the Bill and is one reason why the Government are unable to support it. We are also rather unhappy about the Lord Chancellor being the person responsible for approval. It was suggested originally that the Bank of England should have that responsibility. In a way, the bank would be much more knowledgeable than my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.

    The Committee of London Clearing Bankers denied that there would be any conflict of interest. The two arguments that I am summarising for the House are entirely predictable. In the committee's submission, such an amendment would not impair either the proper administraton of justice or the protection of the public. It said at the time:
    "The corporations are not subject to judicial control in the same way as the legal profession, but far more so than the latter, they are subject to the restraints of the boards of their parent bodies, to public opinion and the media and to the Office of Fair Trading. The banks are quite properly very conscious of their standing with the public at large."
    Further, it agreed in principle to legislation which would subject the charges made by corporations to a reasonable form of control It considered, rightly or wrongly, that
    "the banks have nothing to fear in this respect."
    However, the Lord Chancellor, after much consultation, decided that it would not be right at that time to approve the relaxation of the existing controls. When the Government published their response to the report of the Royal Commission on legal services in November 1983, that position was maintained. The response stated:
    "The Government considers that application by a solicitor for probate provides a valuable safeguard for the public, and does not accept that, at present, a change in current procedure is justified."
    That is the background to this issue. Those, in brief. are some of the arguments that have been raised and will no doubt be raised again whenever this subject is considered. No doubt, too, the House can see why undertaking legislation on an issue such as this will require widespread consultation and thorough consideration, both of which are lacking at the moment.

    I have not mentioned yet, for example, the idea of the approved trust corporation. Would an approval by the Lord Chancellor be a viable and acceptable mechanism? What would the resource implications be and what would be the appeal and disciplinary arrangements, if any? All the legal and administrative aspects of the—

    It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

    Private Members' Bills

    Local Government (Choice Of Electoral Systems) Bill Lords

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 July.

    Road Races (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 (Amendment) Bill Lords

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 July.

    Licensing Acts (Amendment) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 July.

    Minimum Wages Etc Bill

    Order for Second Reading read

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 July.

    Working Conditions Of Government Trainees Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 July.

    Protection Of The Rights Of The Elderly In Home Ownership Bill

    Order for Second Reading read

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 June.

    Rent (Amendment) Bill

    Read a Second time.

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.— /Mr. Mates.]

    I draw the attention of the House to the fact that it is unusual to take the Committee stage without notice. Is there any objection?

    Question put and agreed to.

    Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

    Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

    Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

    New Towns (North-East)

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any provision by which we may ensure that a Bill which has been objected to, which has been put back into the list —it is due to appear next on 5 July—and which has gone through its stages and been passed by another place, can be dealt with? I refer to the measure in the name of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the Local Government (Choice of Electoral Systems) Bill, which has been passed by the other place. Is there any way in which that can be given time for debate in this House, irrespective of its present position in the list?

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you give a ruling on the point that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has raised, will you also consider the fact that among the Bills which are to be taken on 5 July is the Minimum Wages Etc. Bill, a measure which affects eight million people in this country. The subject of the low wages of those people should receive equal attention by you, Sir.

    It is difficult for me to answer those points off the cuff. Both hon. Gentlemen must use their ingenuity within the rules of the House, and consider what opportunities may be available to them.

    2.35 pm

    I was fortunate enough to be successful in the draw for the Adjournment debate, and it was well worth waiting until the end of the week's business to discuss a subject that is of importance to so many people in the north-east. Incidentally, I have had the privilege of both starting and ending the business of the House today.

    I have a personal interest in the subject. I have lived in one new town—Peterlee—for more than 22 years, and I have represented Washington new town in the European Parliament and, since 1983, in this House.

    I shall concentrate on Washington, but much of what I say also affects Peterlee and Aycliffe. It is regrettable that, because of urgent constituency business, my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) cannot be here. They are both as anxious as I am to hear the Minister's answers to my questions.

    It is impossible to separate the three new towns because the Secretary of State for the Environment linked them together when, in 1984, he issued a consultative document about their future. I shall have something to say about the outcome of the consultations of 1984 and especially about how long it took the Government to reach a decision and the consequent effect upon the morale of the diligent and hardworking staffs.

    The three new towns are in the northern region, where there is 19 per cent. unemployment. This is not a recent phenomenon. The unemployment rate has been well above the national average for decades. However, the north has suffered particularly badly as a consequence of the present Government's monetarist policies, and the unemployment level is now greater than that of any other region. That is one record of which we are not proud.

    In common with many of my colleagues, I believe that our only real hope lies in the introduction of a system of decentralisation giving power to a regional authority. That would give us more control over our own destiny.

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State look part in a conference at Aycliffe last Friday on the relationship between regional policies and new towns. He recognised the magnitude of the problem. He said:
    "here in the North East, I am sure that the overwhelming interest in regional policy is the creation of jobs to help with the problems which this region faces."
    However, the hon. Gentleman also said:
    "The government's philosophy is of course based on the view that a properly regulated market is the best way of dealing with questions about the allocation of resources."
    That topic cannot be fully debated in a short time. However, the concept of a centrally regulated market has not solved any of our problems in the north-east. The opposite is the case.

    Washington is within the borough of Sunderland and is consequently part of the county of Tyne and Wear. The unemployment level in the borough is 21 per cent., and in Tyne and Wear 20 per cent. Each area is surrounded by others with similar or higher levels of unemployment. The level in Newcastle is 20 per cent., on South Tyneside 21 per cent., and in Cleveland county 22 per cent., according to the Government's massaged figures. A massive problem clearly faces the unemployed living in the new towns, and it is also clear that the problem of the individual and his family cannot be solved by moving to an adjacent area.

    There are even more dramatic data which illustrate a problem which should be of great concern to the Government, given the mass of literature available on the health and social consequences of unemployment. Social breakdowns, especially among the young, are something which we do not wish to experience in the north-east, but the risk is high. When one studies the data, it would be foolish not to recognise that, in the borough of Sunderland, nearly 7,000 people have been out of work for over two years. Many of them are young people. The latest figures from the careers office show that 4,500 young people are chasing 64 jobs. There are 1,947 unemployed, and 2,562 are on special schemes. In addition, 3,000 more youngsters will leave school in May and July of this year.

    Regrettably, the jobs that have been lost over the years have been in industries which will be unable to respond when better times materialise. Pits that have been closed will not and cannot be reopened. Many jobs that have been lost in steelworks, shipyards and heavy engineering are lost for ever, yet they were once the basic industries of the north-east. Jobs have also been lost because of modern technology, which has reduced the demand for labour. In addition, markets have been lost to competitors in other countries. Those jobs should have been protected by the Government.

    We desperately need new jobs to replace those that have been lost. They are likely to be in new types and forms of production. In both the short and long term we need job hunting agencies which can attract jobs to the northern region. In a highly competitive situation, the development corporations have had some success in attracting new companies to the north-east and over the past decade we have also been fortunate in having dynamic and progressive local authorities.

    I must make special mention of the Tyne and Wear county council, because the Government's chief executioner has his axe raised above his head, ready to chop off the heads of the job hunters of Tyne and Wear and the development corporations. The Secretary of State for the Environment is busy digging graves in which to bury the bodies. Anyone can do that, but it does not mean that there will be greater order when successful job hunters have been destroyed. As we well know, it can mean greater disorder.

    I have said many times in the Chamber—but it bears repeating — that three agencies were involved in attracting the Nissan project: Tyne and Wear county council, Sunderland borough council and Washington development corporation. When the project reaches phase II, it will create almost 3,000 jobs direct, and an equal number of jobs may be created in companies producing parts and in other companies providing services as a consequence of that development. Those jobs will prove vital to the area and we hope that other companies will be attracted to the north-east, thus creating even more jobs. Yet within a very short time of this success, the Government are destroying two of the three organisations. The logic behind these decisions has never been explained —certainly not to my satisfaction—and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will reflect and comment on that contradiction.

    Washington must not simply be seen as the town that attracted Nissan. The job hunters of the Washington development corporation have generated in excess of 20,000 new jobs since it came into operation. There are more than 300 companies in Washington, and over half of them originated outside the immediate locality. Indeed, 10 per cent. of the companies have been attracted from overseas—from, among others, Holland, Denmark, the United States, Canada and Norway. Other companies from other countries are already in the pipeline. There are many live inquiries from overseas companies, in addition to about 150 from the United Kingdom. I hope that those inquiries will be turned into jobs. However, the Secretary of State's decision certainly does not help the situation.

    During the passage of the Local Government Bill the proposal to abolish the Tyne and Wear council was debated, and I asked the Minister several times to consider the unsatisfactory position with regard to the 2p rate. I refer to the power contained in clause 137, which enables local councils to protect existing jobs and to create an environment in which new jobs can be attracted. If the Tyne and Wear council is abolished, that 2p rate will disappear, together with some millions of pounds. That is an example of political vindictiveness, because the Conservative-controlled county councils will still have a 2p rate. After all, I do not think that the Conservative party's manifesto seeks to abolish the shire counties.

    The Department of the Environment issued a consultative document on 8 May 1984 containing three major proposals: that the three development corporations should be wound up at the end of December 1985; that Washington's housing stock should be transferred to Sunderland borough council; and that the job promotion aspect should be transferred to English Industrial Estates. Today I shall concentrate on the last point.

    The English Industrial Estates option was unanimously rejected, and that was emphasised at a meeting with the Secretary of State in London in July 1984. At the meeting, the chairmen of the boards, neither of them Labour supporters unless they have had recent conversions, members and officers of the appropriate district councils and three Members of Parliament were united in their opinion that, because of their proven record in job hunting, the development corporations must be allowed to continue with that aspect of their work for up to five years and then the situation reviewed.

    I think the Under-Secretary of State will agree that only if the case were cast-iron could so many people from different areas and of different political persuasions be so united in purpose. It underlines the strength of opposition to the Department of the Environment's proposals. However, we cannot understand why it took nine months for the Secretary of State to make a decision following that meeting. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say a few words about that today.

    I cannot speak for everyone who was at the meeting in London because they have not met together recently, but I can say that many are disturbed that, despite the evidence, the Secretary of State granted the development corporations an extension of only two and a quarter years. During the consultation period staff morale reached an extremely low level, and the short extension granted has not helped much. In fact, one senior official told me this week that the Government had come up with the worst possible option.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Easington has already said in the Chamber that circumstances have changed for the worse. The threat to collieries in his and my constituency makes the case for the retention of the development corporations even stronger. The proposed closure of Horden colliery in my hon. Friend's constituency has recently been announced, and my hon. Friend believes that the matter should be reviewed urgently as a consequence of the threatened closures in the Durham coalfield.

    In the same conference that I referred to earlier the Under-Secretary of State also said:
    "They have all been provided with the means to achieve growth. In some cases it makes sense to retain, perhaps on a reduced basis, the teams which have been built up in order to stimulate growth."
    He also said:
    "we must make sure that we obtain all the benefits that we can from the investment of resources and skills which has gone with them so far."
    Exactly. The Under-Secretary of State clearly recognises that there is a problem in the north-east, that the staffs of the development corporations have, over time, developed the resources and skills to do something about the problem and that it also makes sense to retain the teams.

    Why, then, are those teams being so easily broken up? Why has the Department of the Environment set staffing limits for each corporation? Why has the Secretary of State not allowed them at best to determine their own staffing needs, or allowed them a budget enabling them to determine the number of staff that they think most appropriate?

    Why has the Secretary of State stopped the building of advance factories? Does that not put the development corporations at a disadvantage vis-a-vis English Industrial Estates because it can continue to do so? Does the Secretary of State not agree that in an area of high unemployment it is essential to have the factories ready and available for the market, otherwise there is a strong possibility that entrepreneurs will look elsewhere?

    Being cynical, has not the Secretary of State simply allowed time for public assets to be sold to the private sector? Staff are simply being employed to assist in the privatisation process.

    On 24 December 1984 that belief was echoed in an editorial in The Times, which is certainly not a Labour-supporting newspaper. It said:
    "The English New Towns deserve a better fate than the precipitate asset-stripping that now seems in prospect for them."
    Many of us suspect that because of the speed with which the assets are to be sold there is a danger that they will go too cheaply. With no set price, they will go for any reasonable offer.

    I stress that I speak for my hon. Friends the Members for Easington and for Bishop Auckland as well as myself when I say that the development corporations have not yet finished their job, that proper plans should have been made for them to continue their programmes, that assets that belong to the public sector should have been left with it and that the Government are hell-bent on a policy of privatisation and selling off the development corporation is simply part and parcel of it. In view of the short period of extension, why has the Secretary of State not come up with an alternative? May I assume that he will leave the decision to the local authorities and the Labour movement—in the north-east?

    Once again I have support for my case in the editorial to which I referred earlier. It said:
    "The corporations of the New Towns of the North-East form a component of regional aid, seeking employment for and promoting Aycliffe, Washington and Peterlee: this is work that could be missed".
    Now that the Secretary of State has announced his decision, I am sure that the editorial writer on The Times will change that to "will be missed".

    Why did the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry come to a different conclusion about Scottish new towns, when in a press release he said:
    "It remains the Government's view that the new towns should continue to maintain their important contribution to industrial growth and increased employment opportunities and that none of the development corporations should be wound up before the end of the 1980s."
    The unemployment levels in Scotland and the north-east are similar. Social deprivation and economic problems are similar. I hope that the Under-Secretary agrees that there is a logic in coming to exactly the same conclusions about the north-east new towns. I hope that this afternoon he will provide some information which I can take back to the north-east to give the people there more hope.

    2.51 pm

    The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has spoken with feeling about the north-east, and particularly about unemployment. As he said, I attended with him the new towns conference last week when we debated regional unemployment and the role of the new towns. I am pleased that he had time to write down some of the perceptive comments so that he could quote them this afternoon.

    The hon. Gentleman talked about Scottish new towns and drew a parallel. He said that because they had a longer life span, so should English new towns. Scottish new towns were established some time after the English new towns. For that reason alone, one would expect Scottish new town corporations to be wound up later. It does not follow that if one decides that the Scottish new town corporations should remain until the end of the century, the same conclusion should be applied to English new town corporations. The English corporations have made more progress in achieving their objectives, because they have been established longer.

    The hon. Gentleman said that he was looking forward to the new jobs that will have to be created in the north-east. Some of his colleagues look backwards instead of forwards and want the declining industries in the north-east to be exhumed. The idea that we can restore those industries that traditionally have provided jobs is misguided. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about trying to attract jobs in the new and expanding industries such as the service industry to try to tackle the unemployment problem in the north-east.

    My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced on 21 March that the lives of the development corporations for Aycliffe, Peterlee and Washington were to be extended to 31 March 1988. Before we reached this point, the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) had raised the matter twice on the Adjournment. My Department had issued a consultation paper asking for comment on whether the purposes for which the development corporations has been set up had been substantially achieved, as required under the relevant legislation. The response to these consultations showed clearly the high opinion held locally of the work done by these bodies. We therefore concluded that there should be some extension. The question was: how much and for what purpose?

    One could embark upon a semantic and fruitless discussion about exactly what is meant by the words "substantially achieved" which appear in the Act. However, Washington and the other new towns in the north-east could be said to have "substantially achieved" their objectives. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited Washington and opened the last major stretch of highway to be constructed by the development corporation. My noble Friend Lord Bellwin, when he was Minister for Local Government, visited the area at the end of the consultation period, and I went there some time ago to open a new village centre.

    All the Ministers who visited were impressed by what the development corporation had achieved in the last 20 years. By any standards, Washington is a modern, well-served community with all the facilities that one would expect for a young and active population. It has a balance between modern housing and an enviable commercial centre, shopping facilities and a wide range of industrial employment. Its record in attracting new jobs is a proven one, which has not just benefited the residents of the town, but attracted a marked degree of commuting from the adjacent conurbations.

    There was thus no doubt that the development corporations had done much of what was needed. 'The question was: was it enough? Whilst I very much regret the time it took to reach a decision, the Government's deliberations had to balance these factors that I have mentioned against the support and justification for an extension of the lives of the corporations, the public expenditure implications, our regional policy aims and the claims of other regions. These are not easy questions.

    Nevertheless, despite the widespread suspicion of our motives in the region, we decided that it would not be right to wind up the corporations now. We were impressed by the degree of support which they command in the region as job creation agencies. The role of Washington, in particular, as part of the team which successfully negotiated with Nissan was worthy of praise. I should perhaps in fairness add that these arguments applied with equal force to the development corporations of Aycliffe and Peterlee. The support for their continuation for the industrial promotion purpose was no less strong, nor their record any less impressive.

    It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that his right hon. Friend the then Secretry of State for the Environment in 1978 decided that the Washington development corporation should be wound up on 31 December 1982. The hon. Gentleman's rather emotive remarks about my right hon. Friend preparing the grave and becoming the executioner are a little out of place. Had the Labour party had its way, the grass would have been growing extremely long on the grave of the development corporation, whereas its existence is now guaranteed until 1988.

    The hon. Gentleman referred to the all-party deputation which we met in London last year. The point was put forcibly that now was not the right time to wind up the corporations. We have therfore fully conceded that point. That seemed to be the prime concern of the delegation. Now the hon. Member is debating how long this extension should be. The Government's motivation in granting an extension was not only to ensure the continuation of the corporations' job creation role for a time, but to ensure a smooth transition to successor arrangements so as to maintain that momentum. If all parties work to that end, as I am sure they will, whether the extension should be two and a half years or five years is of less significance. If we get the successor arrangements right, I trust the hon. Member will feel more relaxed about the length of the extension.

    The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions which I shall try to deal with in the time available. The first was about the level of expenditure which will be available to the corporation to perform the task that is needed. I hope that the level of expenditure will be commensurate with the specific task that we have identified—the industrial job creation role. We believe these levels to be reasonable, but, if they are likely to be exceeded, we have already undertaken—and I repeat the commitment—to consider on their merits any further proposals put to us.

    The hon. Gentleman is specifically concerned about advance factory provision. I cannot say today what provision will be agreed. That has to be a matter for discussion with my Department in the light of any special case put to us by the corporations. We also have to ensure that existing empty stock is utilised first. That must be sensible housekeeping. But, having said that, any special case will be considered on its merits by my right hon. Friend, and we shall be in touch with the development corporations or hon. Members if they feel that a special case needs to be made.

    The hon. Gentleman described as "asset stripping" the disposal of the assets by the development corporations for the best consideration reasonably obtainable. We have repeatedly said that there will be no forced sales and no sales contrary to the best professional advice. There is no question of selling off the assets cheaply or prematurely. In any event, the sales programme is not just about raising money, valuable to the nation though that is. It is to try to normalise the position in new towns generally, to phase out the very dominant public sector landlord position existing in the new towns, which does not exist in our other towns, and also to try to encourage a thriving private sector.

    Finally, there is the question of successor arrangements. My right hon. Friend's announcement asked the corporations to prepare satisfactory arrangements for the period after March 1988. I am sure that their efforts in that regard will be no less conscientious than those that they have put so visibly into the development of their towns. It would be premature at this stage to speculate what will emerge. The Government are viewing, with great interest, the initiative by Sir Ralph Carr-Ellison to set up a regional industrial executive in the north-east, and we wish him every success.

    Whatever successor arrangements emerge, one thing is crucial, and there should be no doubt about it. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that the recent uncertainty over the lives of the development corporations must not be repeated. We must put to positive use the three years that we have in which to make arrangements.

    The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the staffing implications of the extension. I have heard from the National and Local Government Officers Association, which has asked for a meeting. I have agreed in principle and asked for details of its concerns before the meeting. The points made by the hon. Gentleman are a valuable contribution.

    Anyone who works for a new town development corporation will know that the object of the corporation is, in a sense, to work itself out of a job. Under both parties the corporation has always had a finite life. There is no job security in working for a new town, and the staff are aware of that. However, it is not easy to reach decisions when considering staff redundancies. We must avoid prolonged uncertainty. The key staff must know whether they have a job in the extension period if they are not to be lost. I understand the anxieties expressed by NALGO and I shall explore them in more detail when its representatives come to see me.

    The number of staff remaining at the corporation after 1986 must be related to the work load. The hon. Gentleman accused us of having imposed ceilings on staff numbers. There is nothing new in the Department indicating the staffing levels that it thinks appropriate. We have made it clear that, within the limits of the finance available, we will be happy to discuss with the corporation the staffing levels that it would want. We have asked the corporation to concentrate on the development of industry and commerce and the creation of jobs. That represents a significant reduction from the present task and we expect commensurate staff reductions. I do not underestimate the difficulties facing management and unions, but I am sure that, with good will on both sides, they can be overcome.

    There are, I think, slightly fewer difficulties at Aycliffe and Peterlee. They have the advantage of having transferred their housing some time ago. They have successfully pursued a course of privatisation of their functions.

    We have had a useful debate, although I am conscious that I may not have wholly satisfied the rather high bid from the hon. Gentleman. He criticised my right hon. Friends for not extending the north-east new towns for long enough. Conservative Members have criticised us for not winding up the development corporations soon enough. So perhaps at the end of the day the Government have got it right. I shall bear in mind his comments in our further negotiations both with the corporation and with the trade unions.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Three o'clock.