House of Commons
Monday 15 October 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are delivering a wide range of measures to enable officers to return to their beat after making arrests more quickly, from better working practices in custody suites to a new £50 million fund to give the police access to 21st-century crime fighting technologies. One such innovation is the 1,000 new mobile computers that we intend to roll out this year, followed by a further 10,000 more next year. Those units, which reduce unnecessary trips back to police stations, have been shown to increase the time officers spend on front-line duties by up to 54 minutes per officer per day.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I spent part of the summer working with the West Midlands police, and at every level, from superintendent to custody suite, the issue of form filling was raised time and again. Can she reassure me that once information has been put into those computers, there will not be a requirement to repeat and repeat the process? Overwhelmingly, the frustration expressed to me by officers was that they had to repeat the same information on form after form.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am glad that she has been able, through the parliamentary police scheme, to spend time with officers on the front line. One of the major benefits of the mobile and hand-held machines that we are making much more widely available to police forces and individual police officers is the ability not just to enter information, but to have it ready populated into forms, which can then be much more easily transferred into other forms or case file preparation. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks; that concern is one of the reasons for the extra £50 million capital investment in this area.
In congratulating Lancashire constabulary on coming top of the policing results last week, will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes for police officers to return to the beat after making arrests? That is a particular problem in my area.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the excellent progress being made by the Lancashire force, which, of course, came at the same time as we were able to publish the police assessments showing that progress is being made across the board in improving policing. She is also right to say that it is important for the increased numbers of police officers, supported by police community support officers and increasingly by civilian officers, to be able to focus their attention on the front line, and be visible and accountable, as local communities want them to be. That is why it is important that we are investing in the increased use of technology, and why we have asked Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary, to look specifically at bureaucracy and what we can do to free up police officers so that they can focus their attention on the front line. We welcome Sir Ronnie’s interim report; we will look closely at his recommendations and at how he develops them in his final report, which we are expecting early next year.
I can tell the Home Secretary that those of us who practise in the criminal courts know that many of the records made are never seen again, and are basically designed to protect the reputation of the police authority against complaints. Given that, I suggest that an awful lot of the records could simply be dictated by an officer on to a secure tape, and not subsequently transcribed unless there is some form of complaint or inquiry. That would save a great deal of time.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very interesting suggestion, and one of the areas that police officers have identified as time-consuming is case file preparation. That is why considerable progress is already being made in London through the implementation of new guidance on how that progress can be sped up—for example, by saving about an hour and a half in the preparation of each case file. Given that we have made a commitment to look further at how we can extend that process, and how we can make more progress in that area, I am sure that Sir Ronnie will want to consider carefully the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s proposal.
Some of us are sufficiently middle aged to have practised in the courts before the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Appropriate arrests are right, but so are appropriate convictions. Before the introduction of the Act, defence counsel could often secure acquittal simply because police officers had not had the time to write up their notebooks properly and ensure that they got everything in order. When cases came to trial, there were therefore various gaps. There has to be a balance. If we are to secure convictions, the paperwork has to be done correctly; otherwise we pay the penalty in the Crown court, down the other end.
The hon. Gentleman’s words are wise. Of course, as well as the improvements that we hope and believe that we can make to case file preparation, we are also currently considering a review of the provisions of the 1984 Act, precisely to get the balance right between ensuring that convictions, when appropriate, can be secured, and reducing any bureaucracy that is associated with that Act. We have been working on that since March, and have already had many positive suggestions, which we will consider how to introduce.
F division of South Wales police, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), has introduced a new scheme for prioritising calls to police headquarters so that priorities 1 and 2 go to response teams, priorities 4 and 5 go to community teams and community support officers, and priority 3 calls are picked up by whoever has spare capacity. That prioritisation has reduced the amount of paperwork and previously wasted response time to calls. Could that scheme be taken up by other police forces throughout the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which Sir Ronnie Flanagan also made. Sometimes, changes in business processes—for responding to the public and for carrying out policing—can be as effective in helping to free up time as a straightforward look at paperwork. My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal and describes an interesting experience; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would want to consider carefully how it can be shared more widely across the country. As my hon. Friend makes clear, it all depends on the increasing availability of police officers who are focused on our neighbourhoods. That is where neighbourhood policing, to which we are committed and which already covers three quarters of the country, has an important contribution to make.
After 10 years, five Labour Home Secretaries and five red tape reviews, the police still spend more time on paperwork than on patrol. To the amazement of beat officers, Ministers claim that they have abolished 9,000 forms. Given that the Government have got “previous” on dodgy data, will the Home Secretary today publish the list of those alleged 9,000 forms?
I thought that it would not be too long before the practical and sensible approach that hon. Members of all parties had taken to this issue was destroyed—and I did not have to wait long.
We want to ensure that our increased numbers of police officers spend the maximum amount of time on the beat, doing things that are important for communities. That is why we have not only made changes, including removing forms, but asked Sir Ronnie to examine the matter carefully and ensure that we make even more progress. I note that the police performance assessment framework results published last week show that the amount of time spent on front-line policing has increased for the third consecutive year. Not only we, but—more importantly—the communities that the police officers serve will welcome that.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary suggested, we have made good progress in reducing police bureaucracy, with improvements to, for example, working processes, work force modernisation and using new technology.
The hon. Gentleman knows that one of the key strands of Ronnie Flanagan’s review is local accountability. He has not waxed lyrical on it in the interim report, but he will by the end of the year, or January. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about accountability, he is welcome to submit them to the review; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would welcome his input.
Would not one of the best ways of securing such efficiencies be to give officers the incentive of a reasonable pay settlement this year? Will the Minister remind us of the state of play in the arbitration process, and does he not agree that it is only reasonable for the outcome of arbitration to be binding?
Can the Minister explain how police bureaucracy has reached such a point that a nine-year-old boy in my constituency fishing out of season in a royal park had to be subjected to the full process of caution, a stop-and-search procedure and the issue of statutory forms in order to be advised to fish at another time of year?
I always take Liberal Democrat renditions of particular stories with a pinch of salt—[Hon. Members: “Renditions?”] Yes, renditions, extraordinary or otherwise. However, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the case, I shall certainly look into it.
Does the Minister accept that one of the worst examples of police bureaucracy is the requirement for a senior officer to spend a great deal of time on an appraisal before a suspect can be closely monitored? Such a procedure was thought unnecessary before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998.
Again, I am not entirely sure that I understand the import of the question. I should have thought that full assessment of whether people should be duly monitored in custody was quite important. If I have missed the point, perhaps we can talk about it afterwards, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and the House receive a full response.
In the past week the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has said that it is absolutely ridiculous that it now takes two officers an entire tour of duty to process just one arrest, because of Government-imposed burdens. Yet rather than dealing with the bureaucracy, the Government’s solution is to give cautions to violent criminals and issue penalty notices like parking tickets. I do not know whether this is “Life on Mars”, but are not Ministers simply living on another planet?
Sadly, I thought that I could trust the hon. Gentleman far more than I could trust the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when it came to the rendition of particular speeches. That is an utterly unfair characterisation of what I thought was a very good speech by the commissioner, which followed the grain both of what Sir Ronnie has said and of what we have already done, and intend to do, about bureaucracy. I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who needs to decide what planet he is on.
Last year in Surrey, just over 8,000 burglaries were reported, and only 800—10 per cent.—were detected successfully, which means that a burglar had a 90 per cent. chance of getting away with it. Does the Minister agree that that is an appalling figure, and does he think that bureaucracy may have something to do with it?
I think that across a range of crimes, detection rates could and should be significantly higher than they are. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps in remiss fashion, forgot to mention that Surrey has an outstanding force, as was shown by the performance framework last week. None the less, collectively we—central Government, local government and all agencies—need to do more about the detection of all crime, not just burglary in Surrey.
As of 1 October, measures from the Government's Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 were introduced which emphasise the Government's determination to crack down on the problem of replica firearms. They include making it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms, increasing the maximum sentence for carrying any imitation firearm in public without reasonable excuse from six to 12 months, and ensuring that only persons aged 18 or over can purchase such replicas.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said so far. The Rhys Jones murder shocked Merseyside and other areas. Some replica firearms can be reconverted to live firearms. We do not know yet whether that process was involved in the Rhys Jones murder, but the murder certainly seems to have been related to rejuvenated firearms and gun culture. In Merseyside, the Liverpool Echo is running a campaign—rightly, in my view—on what more can be done about the link between firearms, replica or otherwise, and gang culture. What further observations can my right hon. Friend make about that issue?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the murder of Rhys Jones was tragic, and very serious for his community. We all hope that the case will be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. He is also right to say that the case identified something that I had already spoken to the House about in July—our need to focus on serious violence, particularly that which relates to guns and gangs. That is why I have made available £1 million and set up the tackling gangs action plan, and I am pleased that the deputy chief constable of Merseyside police, Jon Murphy, is now leading that work. We are increasing activity in the neighbourhoods in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and London where most gun and gang-related violence occurs. As a result of the way in which local police forces, local authorities and my Government colleagues have engaged in that work, I am optimistic that we will see important results very quickly.
I welcome the action being taken against replica guns, but will the Home Secretary say something about the number of real guns being smuggled into the country? Why are there nine times as many customs officers now dealing with cigarette smuggling as there are dealing with the illegal trade in real guns? Will she assure the House today that any new national border force will have real police powers and the necessary resources to deal with this awful trade in such dangerous weapons?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have asked the Serious Organised Crime Agency to prioritise investigating the illegal firearms trade, and I am content that that is happening. I am pleased that, as a result of the cross-Government work that is part of the tackling gangs action plan, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has agreed to prioritise intelligence gathering about, and catching, those who are importing firearms. Through the work of those organisations, and the Border and Immigration Agency, in tasking the new unified border force that we will be putting in place, we will be able to have a bigger impact than previously on the international trade in guns, which has achieved a new priority in the work of all those agencies.
The whole House appreciates the extra measures concerning replica guns, but might there be a real strengthening of border controls so that people know that if they purchase guns legally abroad, it will be illegal to bring them into this country?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, I hope that he is reassured that the agencies involved in the trade and border control of guns will be upping their game in this area. Secondly, he raises an important point about the availability of imitation and replica firearms in the rest of Europe. This country has the toughest firearms legislation, and it is right for us to lead the way, as we are in Europe, in trying to strengthen the European weapons directive to cover the production and sale of realistic imitation firearms in other European countries where they can be too easily bought and brought into this country. I pay particular tribute to Arlene McCarthy MEP for leading that work in the European Parliament.
After the tragic death of Rhys Jones, the Home Secretary made the extraordinary claim that
“statistics aren’t a help but gun crime is down”.
That is an extraordinary claim. This year’s Home Office report contains one set of figures that cannot be rigged: gunshot woundings. The figures disclose that gun-related killings and injuries have increased fourfold since 1998. Does the Home Secretary recognise that if she cannot even count gun crime, she certainly cannot cut it?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, what I actually said is that gun crime has decreased by 13 per cent. in the past year. That is correct, but what I also made very clear—and have made clear, too, in my subsequent actions—is that I believe that the use of guns is a serious problem, particularly in relation to gang-related violence and their use by young people. That is why my priorities have been not only extra investment, but extra action focused on the areas where it is most likely to make a difference, and why that action is now under way.
That does not get us past the fact that gun crime has quadrupled under the right hon. Lady’s party’s Government. She also claimed that Labour’s “tough”—to use her word—five-year minimum sentence for anyone over 18 possessing a gun is serving as a deterrent, so will she explain why the five-year sentence became law for 18 to 21-year-olds only this year, rather than four years ago when the original law came into force, and why the law is so riddled with loopholes that only one in five convictions of over-21-year-olds involves the enforcement of that five-year minimum sentence? Is that her idea of being tough on gun crime?
What I do know is that in 1995 the average sentence for the possession of guns was 12 months, and that, following the action that this Government have taken, the average sentence is now more than 47 months. That is because we have been willing not only to take the tough decisions, but to put them through the House by voting for them—often in the face of opposition from both main Opposition parties—and then to put them into operation.
All police use of firearms is subject to the usual law on the use of force. Under section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, the police may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to effect an arrest or to prevent crime.
With more and more guns in circulation and in the hands of criminals, and an increasing terrorism threat, our armed police are being asked almost every day to make the toughest decision of all: whether to open fire. Will the Minister consider looking at having rules of engagement guides across the United Kingdom, as was the case with our security forces in Northern Ireland, to ensure that clarity is given both to the public and to the police about exactly where they stand, and so that if there are any incidents no one gets hung out to dry and everyone gets protected?
I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about that split-second decision that our armed police have to make in such circumstances; it is a critical decision. The Association of Chief Police Officers already sets such guidelines and—with all due humility—I think that the House is happier that that is the case than it would be for me or any other Minister to set such guidelines.
Is it not now more common in Britain for police officers to carry guns—and, particularly following the Jean Charles de Menezes incident, is it not the case that people need to have confidence about the moment of decision when they are used? There might be benefit in having a wider public debate, and greater public awareness of how police come to such split-second decisions and in what circumstances they can decide to shoot.
I think that, overwhelmingly, the public do have that confidence. That is borne out, at least in part, by the figures. Although, as has been suggested, there has been a significant increase in the number of incidents in which armed police were deployed, the number of such authorised operations compared with the number of incidents involving the actual use of firearms was about 0.04 per cent. in 1996-97 and 0.048 per cent. in the last full year, 2005-06. There means a range of five to nine incidents when firearms were actually used. Therefore, notwithstanding events such as those at Stockwell, such confidence exists, and if there needs to be more awareness, we can look into that.
National DNA Database
Data obtained from the police national computer in June 2006 provides the latest available information on this issue, but I have asked officials to provide more up-to-date information as soon as that is available, and I have also asked that data both on those arrested but not subsequently convicted and on those who have been convicted be included in the DNA database annual report from early next year.
The Minister may be aware of the case of my constituent, 75-year-old Geoffrey Orchard, who was wrongfully arrested and received a written apology from the police, but who still cannot get his DNA information removed from the database. I know that the Minister will say that she cannot do anything about that case, but does she really understand the enormous extent to which good will and support for the police and for her Department are being undermined by a system in which DNA information is being recorded aggressively, but removed in a haphazard way and on a discretionary basis, dependent on police force area?
It is worth stressing that a person’s DNA being on the database does not suggest guilt; it is simply a registration of their DNA and basic biographical information. It is also worth asking which of the crimes solved thanks to the DNA database—the 452 homicides, the 644 rapes and the more than 8,000 domestic burglaries—the hon. Gentleman wishes had not been resolved as a result.
Does the Minister agree with Lord Sedley about the potential benefits of a DNA database of all citizens? If so, will she and the Home Secretary volunteer samples to boost the database and help in the elimination of cold-case suspects in drug and other offences?
There are no Government plans for a universal database such as Lord Justice Sedley has suggested. However, I and other Ministers would welcome a debate about the DNA database, which has grown. Unlike the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I studied it when it came into force—when I was doing A-levels—so we have different perspectives on the matter. Because it has grown to include more than 4 million people, it is important that we get the chance to debate how we proceed. I have already asked officials to look at the design of the forms on which people give their permission—if they have given it voluntarily—for that information to remain permanently on the database.
We have provided practitioners with a toolkit to tackle antisocial behaviour, which they operate according to local priorities. In Wirral, a multidisciplinary antisocial behaviour team operates many initiatives, based on prevention and enforcement, that engage, educate and promote awareness among young people, engage with residents and tackle antisocial behaviour in families. Neighbourhood policing is also important in combating antisocial behaviour, as I witnessed on my visit to Bromborough police station in Wirral.
Does my hon. Friend recall from his visits to Wirral that what bothers my constituents in particular about local policing is that officers are constantly withdrawn—albeit to important duties elsewhere on Merseyside—and that that situation will be greatly exacerbated when Liverpool is European capital of culture in 2008, especially in the absence of more Home Office funding? Does he agree, however, that a key way of combating antisocial behaviour is not just bobbies on the beat and more laws, but considerably less tolerance?
One of the key reforms that the Government have introduced is neighbourhood policing, which, as my hon. Friend knows, has been introduced in every area from April 2007. However, from April 2008 there will be a dedicated neighbourhood policing team in every area, which means that his constituents in Wirral, as elsewhere, will know that officers who are supposed to be—and who one would expect to be—in their area, are there, policing. With him, I saw for myself the important and good work that police officers and police community support officers are doing in Wirral. He will be reassured to know that they told me that their approach is to ensure that they enforce the law, and to have zero tolerance of the so-called lesser offences that, as he knows, are often the very ones that drive our constituents mad.
Had my hon. Friend stopped two minutes before visiting my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), he could have visited a superb pubwatch scheme run by publicans in Neston and supported directly by the Neston police. One aspect of the scheme that has helped tremendously has been the roll-out, with the support of Cheshire police, of CCTV, thereby providing a fantastic network. Will the Minister help to promote such schemes and expand them to other parts? I am thinking especially of the sharing of information across the border with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South.
Neston sounds like a place where I should have stopped. Pubwatch schemes up and down the country provide a huge benefit not only to licensed premises but to local communities in which they operate. The schemes operate in many different ways in different areas, and it is for local areas to decide the best way for their schemes to operate. The most successful schemes share information not only with pubs and licensed premises in their own area, but across borders. I am sure that people from the pubwatch scheme in Neston will have heard what my hon. Friend has to say.
In the year to mid-2006, net migration into the UK was 176,000, which was about 82,000 lower than the year before and in line with the year before that. Projections are a matter for the Office for National Statistics.
I thank the Minister for that response. With all due respect, the Government said that 13,000 people would come and yet well in excess of 600,000 have done so, putting intolerable pressure on local authorities, schools, houses, jobs and the national health service. The Government made this problem. What are they going to do to resolve it?
The report to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers was one by the university of London, not by the Government. He is saying that in making immigration decisions we need to take into account not only the economic benefits to Britain, but the wider consequences. That is why, when we begin introducing the points-based system in 140 days’ time, we will be listening not only to the voice of the business community when we take those decisions, but to the voice of public servants.
During the Labour party conference, a member of the Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), made comments that were widely reported in the press. He said that as far as immigration is concerned, people
“have no real confidence in official figures”.
Given that no Minister rebutted that statement at the time, will the Minister confirm that he agrees with his colleague? After a decade in power, when precisely will the Government sort their act out on this crucial issue?
My own position on Home Office figures is well documented. The most important figures, which sit at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question, are how many people are coming into this country and how many are going out of it. As he will know, that became a difficult number to quantify when the Conservative party phased out exit controls in 1994. That policy was wrong, which is why we are reintroducing exit controls, along with systems to count people in and out of the country. I hope that the Conservative party will support that approach.
In recent years, Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland have had a large influx of people from the new EU states, particularly Poland. Does the Minister accept that such migration can often be a force for good? Many of those people are settling in some of our council estates and taking houses that previously could not be let to the indigenous population, and as a result the estates are now seeing some regeneration.
My hon. Friend is right. The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, was a pioneer of measures to attract new foreign students to Scotland. That policy is enormously important because international education brings about £12.5 billion a year into our economy. Along with the economic contribution that migrants make, which was worth about £6 billion in 2006, in parts of our economy migration is incredibly important.
Does the Minister accept that although inward migration in small doses might well be beneficial to the economy, the scale of inward migration that areas such as my own have experienced undermines our ambitions to make my constituency a zero-unemployment zone, because jobs that are made available as a result of Government activity are overwhelmingly then filled by inward migrants, who are often better skilled than those whom we are trying, with considerable effort, to get into jobs? Will he take that into account when determining how many people should be allowed to enter in future?
Absolutely. That is why I said, in response to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), that when we decide how many points new migrants will need to come into this country—when we introduce the points system next year—we must not only listen to the voices of the business community and of higher and further education, but consider the wider impact of migration. It is only by balancing those two things that we can reach a position where we can seek a level of migration that “maximises the benefits”. Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green).
Does the Minister agree that while we have seen significant migration from eastern Europe since the accession of the seven states in 2004—migration that the Government certainly did not foresee—we have also seen significant increases in the number of work permits issued to workers from outside the EU, which has now increased to more than double the figure in 1997? That number is entirely within the control of the Government, so when will they take hold of this issue and draw the link between migration and the sort of issues raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) and housing demand, which the Government have revised upwards and now stands at one third of housing demand? When will the Government stop talking and making a pretence of acting, and do something? Finally, will the Minister say whether he wants to see the figures limited or reduced?
The hon. Gentleman is once again rehearsing the arguments for a cap on migration, which we have heard for a couple of years now from Conservative Members. It started as a cap on refugees in 2005, but that policy was put in the bin by the hon. Member for Ashford in December. Then we heard about a cap on overall immigration, but we then heard in August that that would be only on economic migrants from outside the European economic area.; in other words, it would not include EEA nationals, dependants or students. In fact, it would not touch 80 per cent. of the inflow last year. The hon. Gentleman will therefore forgive me if I am unclear about precisely what he and his party are proposing.
Does the Minister accept that many of those who raise such concerns about migration, especially those on the Opposition Benches, are actually hiding very negative attitudes towards ethnic diversity in our society? Does he also agree that much of the economic success of London and the efficiency of its public services is due to people who have made their homes here and made it the prosperous city that it is? We should pay tribute to them for the hard work that they do and the commitment that they make to the wider community.
My hon. Friend has been in the House for far longer than I have, so he will have greater insight into the answer to his first question. On his second question, he is right when we consider the number of work permits for people to come and serve in our national health service, which we have expanded at record pace over the past 10 years. Around a third of work permits are issued to people to work in health and medical science and their contribution has been instrumental in improving the health service to its position today.
Will the Minister accept that immigration is one of the major concerns in the eyes of the electorate? It has been in position 1, 2 or 3 for the past two years. It affects housing, education, law and order and the health service. Will he try to make the balance between those leaving the country and those coming in more equal, so that we do not dramatically increase the responsibilities of this country? I believe that the Minister shares my concern, so will he put it into practice?
I am now completely lost. When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is not in his place, had to drag his Front Benchers to Westminster Hall before the summer to interrogate them on how the Conservative party would set a cap, he proposed a cap that would mean zero net migration. The hon. Member for Ashford said that he could see no magic in that and that there
“I must part company with him”.
So the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will forgive me if I am now slightly confused about the policy that the Opposition propose. Indeed, I am not alone in that. When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was asked 14 days ago whether a Conservative Government would reduce migration, he said no. Thirteen days ago, presumably after an encounter with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), he said that the
“one word answer was an inaccurate way of explaining what immigration policy was…it wasn’t the perfect answer, I absolutely grant you that, yes.”
May I draw the Minister’s attention to a business in my constituency that relies on work permits to get specialised staff? It is experiencing real problems with the Border and Immigration Agency over repeated checks on the existence and size of the business, which are getting in the way of running an economically viable business.
If my hon. Friend has specific concerns into which I can look I shall be happy to do so. As part of the introduction of the points system next year, businesses that want to sponsor migrants to this country will need a licence and I hope that will make the system both tougher and more efficient.
When looking at net migration the Minister will obviously take into consideration those coming in from Romania and Bulgaria—people for whom special arrangements were put in place. Can he tell us now, or will he report in the future, about the lessons learned from the procedures put in place for Romania and Bulgaria and tell us whether they might inform immigration policy in future?
The decision on whether restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria should remain in future is of course a matter for the Cabinet. That decision will come up in the next month or two in line with our commitment to review restrictions within 12 months of their introduction. I think the restrictions have been successful, but when a decision is made we will of course publish the evidence on which it has been made—evidence about the benefits of migration as well as evidence about the wider impacts—to the House and the public.
I am not surprised that the Minister is confused, because he seems to spend so much time reading the details of our policy that he has not had time to develop his own. He knows that he is not convincing anyone with his policy, because his private Home Office research, which has fallen into my hands, tells him so. It says:
“Net satisfaction for the way that the Government is dealing with immigration is -54.”
Can he confirm his response to the crisis? The first point that the Government make in response, in their private document, is that regional press officers are
“now in place in all regions”.
Not immigration officers, not police officers, but press officers. Does the Minister recognise that such a response is precisely why the immigration system is in crisis and precisely why the Government’s reputation is shot to pieces?
That was a hopeless attack on the Government’s immigration policy. It is not to the hon. Gentleman’s credit to make such arguments. He should look at the introduction of the points system, advised independently for the first time, at the sweeping changes to our border security over the next 12 months and at the introduction of ID cards on a compulsory basis for foreign nationals. Those are the measures that will render our immigration system fit for the future. Those are the dimensions of our policy that he should be debating.
The Government have delivered a wide range of effective measures to reduce levels of drug trafficking since 1997. They include tough new legislation, an increase in convictions for those caught drug trafficking, investment in global anti-narcotics initiatives, the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and a dramatic improvement in our performance on recovery of the proceeds of crime. The Government recently published a consultation paper, “Drugs: Our Community, Your Say”, the responses to which will inform our new drugs strategy to be implemented from April 2008 onwards.
I have seen the front page of the Evening Standard, which refers to the increasing strength of cannabis and the prevalence of skunk. As my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at the reclassification of cannabis and we await what it has to say.
It is not just drug trafficking that should worry the House; it is human trafficking. Why do the Government not ratify the Council of Europe convention? If they did so, it would become effective legislation. Nine have already done so; one more, and it would become an effective instrument. Why have the Government not done so?
When it comes to trafficking of any sort—drug trafficking or child trafficking, which is an issue of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman—he will know that we must have everything in place to ensure that the ratification of the Council of Europe convention means something. We have measures still to take with respect to law enforcement and victim support. All those services need to be put in place. When they are put in place—we are working towards doing that, as the hon. Gentleman will know—we will be in a position to ratify that Council of Europe convention.
Although I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about people trafficking, to return to drug trafficking, may I say that the figures given by my hon. Friend the Minister are replicated by those from Brighton and Hove? Is he aware that, as a direct result of Operation Reduction—a combination of policing and drugs treatment—226 drug users have been referred for drug treatment within the past two years? Can he guarantee that that excellent programme’s funding will be extended for a further year?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in Brighton, and all the people involved in the work that has gone on there. The 226 people whom she refers to in Brighton and Hove form part of the record increase in the number of people going into drug treatment. That is, of course, the result of record investment by the Government in tackling the harm that drugs cause. What has happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency should be replicated across the country. A successful drugs strategy needs tough law enforcement and the education of our young people, and we need to ensure that we get more people into treatment, so that those people who have problems with drugs receive the help that they need.
Does the Minister agree that, in combating drug trafficking, the police and the other agencies should rigorously enforce the existing legislation? Does he also agree with the Association of Chief Police Officers when it described calls by the chief constable of North Wales for the decriminalisation of all drugs as a counsel of despair?
We agree with the ACPO statement, and we disagree with the chief constable of North Wales. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, which gives me the opportunity to put that on the record. Of course, dealing with the problem of drugs in this country requires tough law enforcement nationally and internationally. He will be interested to hear that, only last week, I visited a new initiative undertaken by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, where a maritime analysis operations centre has been set up, working with other European countries and involving the military, to tackle ships that are bringing drugs, generally cocaine, across the Atlantic ocean, to interdict that movement of those drugs. So the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: tough law enforcement must be a part of any successful drug strategy.
I welcome the reduction in the misuse of any drug, whether legal or illegal, but does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that enforcement action can have unintended consequences, as evidenced by the shift from the smuggling of low-tetrahydrocannabinol-content cannabis from places such as Morocco to the large-scale farming in rented properties of high-THC-content cannabis all across Britain? I can report that, in the past three or four months, Bolton police alone have captured 20 houses where farming is conducted by Thai and Vietnamese criminal gangs.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point that, at times, when the law is enforced in one area, the crime is displaced to another, but the important issue is surely that we enforce the law. If, as he quite rightly points out, we have seen an increase in home-grown cannabis from so-called cannabis farms in domestic properties, the police need to enforce the law rigorously with respect to that. Indeed, they are doing so. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) will be interested in the important fact that, when the police have taken tough law enforcement action against cannabis farms, they have often in some circumstances found trafficked children, whom they have then referred on to the appropriate agencies.
I met the police authority chairs and the chief constables from the east midlands most recently on 6 September, and I shall continue to listen to their views. My hon. Friend will know that no final decisions have been made on police funding settlement for the comprehensive spending review years. Full details of the provisional settlement will be announced in late November or early December.
The five police forces of the east midlands cover a rapidly expanding population of well over 4 million people with a police spend per capita of £157 or about 76 per cent. of the English average of £206 per capita. That makes it very difficult to deliver on policing priorities such as improving protective services. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the five authorities—Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire—again to discuss the financial position and to plot out a way ahead for all concerned?
I am happy to do that, and I shall return to that point shortly. It is an error to use a per capita figure for police spending, given the distinct nature of all forces, urban-rural splits and other factors. However, despite that erroneous use of data, I shall of course meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. I have an extant request for a cross-party meeting from one of our colleagues in Nottingham and a Conservative colleague, but I am more than happy to meet as many east midlands MPs, of whatever hue, as it takes.
Although the announcement that the Minister is prepared to meet MPs is welcome—I am sure that Conservative Members will wish to join in—does he accept that the five regional forces have worked hard to increase their capability and improve their interaction on protective services? Does he acknowledge that the last thing that my constituents in Daventry want is a reduction in the number of police officers, whether it is induced by a shortage of funding or by a conscious decision by the police authority?
I am happy to accept the latter point. The hon. Gentleman will know that across the five forces officer numbers have increased—by the most in Leicestershire, where they have increased by 14-plus per cent. In addition, the numbers of support staff have increased by between 32 and 70 per cent., crime is down in each of the areas, and over the past 10 years Government grant has increased by between 10 and 22 per cent. I am happy to meet MPs from the area and representatives of the five forces to discuss these matters, but that is the context within which those discussions should take place.
The Forensic Science Service has been engaged in drawing up the detailed specification essential for such a device. The specification will be issued shortly; it will then be for manufacturers to prepare devices in line with that specification and to submit them to the type approval process.
Given the estimates that fully 18 per cent. of drivers killed in road accidents are under the influence of drugs or have traces of drugs in their system, will the Minister explain the inordinate delay in introducing roadside tests, given the fact that permission was given four years ago, in the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003? Why are the Government dragging their heels so much on giving the police the assistance they need to deal effectively with the problem?
The Government are not dragging their heels. The scientists are putting together a specification; when they have done so, it will be made available to manufacturers to enable them to produce a device allowing roadside screening for the presence of certain drugs. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that the offence is not necessarily the presence of illegal drugs in someone’s body, but the impairment that they cause, and the field impairment test is currently available to police officers to use at the roadside.
My hon. Friend will know from replies to earlier questions that we are using a range of ways to ensure that police officers, including those in Blackpool, spend more time on duty outside their stations. They range from wider implementation of mobile data units to—crucially—the implementation of neighbourhood policing and the additional front-line support provided by police community support officers and other police staff.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he take the opportunity to congratulate Lancashire police force on coming top in this year’s performance assessment? One of the reasons why it came top is the introduction of modern technology; the new personal digital assistants and mobile data terminals allow them to link directly to the main computer to report crime, and give them access to information. That has freed them up for an extra hour every day in which they can be out on the beat.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, except for on whether there are things called league tables when it comes to police performance. As a West Ham United fan, I do not recognise league tables of any description; I find that it helps to get me through the football year much more easily. She is right, and I saw much of what she describes when I was in Fleetwood. We had a nice cheese sandwich in the Fleetwood Arms and discussed, among other things, how neighbourhood policing is developing in Lancashire, and the application of personal digital assistants and a range of other IT equipment. Those developments are taking place in police forces across the country, but it is to Lancashire’s great credit that it has led the way in the application of such devices, and in the implementation and roll-out of neighbourhood policing.
The Home Office has never produced future projections of migration numbers. That is a matter for the Office for National Statistics.
The Minister will be aware that net migration to the UK has included a rising number of foreign criminals. Despite repeated inquiries, I have been unable to obtain answers to the following questions: how many foreign nationals have been detained in UK prisons in the past five years, what was the nature of their offence, and what happened to each prisoner on release from prison? If the Government have nothing to hide, will the Minister today commit to answering those important questions?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the police do not collect crime data by the nationality of the perpetrator, but that is yet another reason why the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals, which his party supported during proceedings on the UK Borders Bill, is so important. So what a shame it was to see, in the small print of the announcement made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in conference week, that he will shut the system down.
To ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about clostridium difficile.
The Healthcare Commission’s report on the outbreaks of clostridium difficile at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust is a truly shocking document. On behalf of the Government and the national health service, I would like to apologise to all those who have been personally and directly affected, and to offer my condolences to the families of those who have died. Clostridium difficile is the major cause of serious bacterial infectious diarrhoea. It can colonise the gut, causing inflammation of the colon and in the worst cases it can prove fatal. It is normally controlled by the presence of other bacteria, but when those are killed—for example, by antibiotic treatment—it can grow and cause disease.
Tackling health care-associated infections is a priority in the NHS operating framework. In October 2006, the code of practice on the prevention and control of health care-associated infections became a statutory procedure. We have made it clear that tackling HCAIs should be a priority for all local NHS organisations, and the aim is to reduce the number of C. difficile infections by 30 per cent. by March 2011. Mandatory surveillance of C. difficile infections was extended to people aged two and over from April this year—previously it applied only to patients aged 65 and over—to help with local monitoring.
We have doubled the number of improvement teams that are helping trusts to reduce hospital-acquired infections. We have announced deep cleans within all trusts, and we have published new guidance on uniforms so that staff are bare below the elbow. That assists with hand washing, which is crucial in countering such infections. We are also creating a new regulator with stronger enforcement powers, who will be expected to inspect, investigate and intervene on health care-acquired infections.
In July, we made an additional £50 million available to reduce HCAIs. The MRSA cleaner hospitals action plan has been expanded to cover clostridium difficile. It has already had an impact on efforts to tackle MRSA, and it is expected to have a similar effect on C. difficile. While all those measures are crucial, the report from the Healthcare Commission on Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust shows that we need far more vigilance and determination in our drive to eradicate hospital-acquired infections. The NHS chief executive has written to every NHS trust today, appending the Healthcare Commission’s report seeking reassurances from every NHS chief executive that infection control is regarded as a major priority in every NHS organisation.
We established the Healthcare Commission in 2003 to ensure continuous improvement in health services and to undertake specific investigations into trusts when allegations of serious failings are raised. Because Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust had consistently been among the 25 per cent. of trusts with the highest rates of C. difficile since mandatory surveillance began in January 2004, the strategic health authority proactively asked the commission to undertake that investigation in July 2006. The commission interviewed more than 200 past or present staff, and it also reviewed in detail the case notes for 50 people who contracted C. difficile on admission to the trust and then died.
The Healthcare Commission report reveals significant failings in efforts to stop the spread of C. difficile. If the 50 cases reviewed were representative of the 345 people who died, and if one extrapolated from the reviewer’s assessments, C. difficile was probably or definitely the main cause of death in approximately 90 of the 345 cases, and definitely the cause in 21 cases. The Healthcare Commission found that the trust board was unaware of the high infection rates, and did not spend enough time considering issues relating to infection control. The commission’s report made it clear that the individual appointed director of infection prevention and control did not have any real understanding of their role from the outset. Management of the infection control team was considered inadequate, and there was confusion about who actually managed the team. Overall, the governance system that was intended to bring clinical risk to the board’s attention did not function effectively, and the board appeared to be insulated from the realities and problems occurring on the wards.
The Healthcare Commission makes recommendations for action by the trust, including reviewing its board leadership; the priority of infection control at board level; risk management; clinical guidelines; and staffing levels and training. Those actions will be performance-managed by the strategic health authority. Following the recommendation of the Healthcare Commission report, the South East Coast strategic health authority has commissioned an independent review of the leadership of the trust during the period of the outbreaks. An interim report will be made available to the strategic health authority by November.
Although employment is a matter for the local NHS trust board, I have instructed the trust in this exceptional case to withhold any severance payment from the former chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust pending legal advice. I can tell the House that James Lee, the chair of the trust, has today offered the Department his resignation, which I have accepted. I have asked the chief executive of the NHS to ensure that a suitable replacement is found so that the trust can move quickly to act on the recommendations of the report and restore public and patient confidence in NHS services locally.
In addition to the independent review of leadership at the trust, I have asked the Department of Health to carry out a separate review of the role of the chair of the trust and the decision-making process that led to the terms and conditions of the chief executive’s departure. That will conclude urgently, and it will be shared with the Appointments Commission.
I am particularly concerned by the Healthcare Commission’s assessment that
“The Trust delayed announcing the outbreak and then produced figures that almost certainly underestimated the number of deaths.”
I have asked that our independent report on the trust’s leadership at the time of the outbreak examine this specific point.
The report identified five national recommendations. It may be helpful to the House if I set these out, together with the actions being taken in response. First, the diagnosis of clostridium difficile needs to be regarded as a diagnosis in its own right, with proper continuity of management. National guidance has been available since 1994, and a revised version taking into account this recommendation will be published shortly. Secondly, the Healthcare Commission said that further consideration needs to be given to the education and supervision of trainee doctors, with a view to improving the recording of clostridium difficile on death certificates. The need for good reporting of health care-associated infections on death certificates has just been reinforced by a chief medical officer professional letter published on 4 October. Further measures will be considered in response to the report.
The third recommendation that has national ramifications was that antibiotics should be targeted, at the narrowest spectrum possible, and used for the shortest possible time. We recently published “A summary of best practice” on this issue, making that very point.
The Healthcare Commission recommended that the national health service and the Health Protection Agency should agree clear and consistent arrangements for the monitoring of rates of C. difficile infection. In April 2007, we improved the mandatory reporting of C. difficile by introducing a web-based reporting system and requiring data on two-year-olds and above to be reported. The final recommendation was that the board of every NHS trust must understand the roles and responsibilities of the director of infection prevention and control, and regularly receive information about incidents and trends. The report acknowledged that duty 2 of the hygiene code addresses this issue.
The situation uncovered by the Healthcare Commission at the three hospitals is truly scandalous. We must all shoulder our share of the blame, but I hope that the House will recognise that the awful failures in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells are entirely unrepresentative of the standards of care that patients and the public rightly expect, and which are delivered in hospitals across the country day after day.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for responding to my urgent question. I am sorry that he did not consider it right to volunteer a statement, given the scandalous events to which he refers, and I am surprised that, in the course of responding, he made no mention at all of the report from the Healthcare Commission in July 2006 relating to the outbreaks of clostridium difficile at Stoke Mandeville, and the clear relationship between the findings at Stoke Mandeville then and the findings at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.
At the end of the executive summary in the report on the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust, there was a long discussion about how both trusts had let down patients in exactly the same way. The report went on to say:
“Governance arrangements were weak or overridden by other imperatives”
in both cases,
“including targets relating to finance and access.”
The report continued:
“While it should be noted that improvements have subsequently been made at Stoke Mandeville, it seems unlikely that these similarities are coincidental. We are concerned that, if organisations are struggling, they should not compromise patient safety by making decisions and taking actions that put some patients at risk.”
So when the Secretary of State says that the events at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells are wholly exceptional, I hope that indeed they are, but they are not an isolated case. We have had other cases, and the common link between them is that managers in the national health service have been more focused on the Government’s targets and the Government’s imperatives than on patients’ safety. I find it utterly astonishing that we should be here time and again, including in debates in Opposition time, most recently in January, pressing the Government to take the necessary action to deal with the incidence of infection.
The Secretary of State referred to the virulence of C. difficile, but he did not give us the figures. In 2001, 1,214 death certificates included a mention of clostridium difficile. By 2005, the figure was 3,807—comparable to that for deaths from road traffic accidents in this country. Between 2005 and 2006, there was a further 7 per cent. increase in the number of cases of C. difficile reported in national health service hospitals.
What was happening last year? Yesterday, we discovered from The Sunday Telegraph that last October the Government received internally from the head of the infection unit at the Department of Health a report saying that they should put in place a programme costing £270 million, including £200 million specifically for isolation facilities. What did the Government do last October in response to that report?
When we pressed Ministers about the impact of targets, as we have done repeatedly, did the Secretary of State and his predecessors not understand that, back in the middle of 2004, NHS staff in the clean your hands campaign were continuously being told to use alcohol rubs to reduce the incidence of MRSA? Staff should do that; however, as the Maidstone report makes clear, too many staff did not understand that at the same time they had to continue to use soap and water and a proper routine for hand washing to combat clostridium difficile. As we have seen MRSA figures peak and come down, we have also seen clostridium difficile figures rising dramatically, so that deaths from that are at least double those associated with MRSA.
Where are the other measures that could and should have been taken to tackle clostridium difficile? We know that there are cleaning technologies that will be increasingly effective, including dry hydrogen peroxide vapour cleaning systems. We know, for example, that nurses across the NHS have been looking for support in accessing Flexiseal, a faecal management system—but they are not getting it. We know why, as they report back to us, the Royal College of Nursing and others—it is due to cost concerns on the part of management.
Ministers constantly tell us that the health service is receiving unprecedented increases in resources; surely now is when resources should be devoted to infection control, isolation facilities and the relevant technologies. In his response to my question, the Secretary of State has said nothing about the target announced last Wednesday—I say “announced” advisedly; it was issued by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), to the BBC, but not to anybody else, in a press release. The chief executive’s report to the NHS last week did not mention it at all. What is the target? Suddenly, the Government now say that the response to the problems is to have a new target to reduce clostridium difficile by 30 per cent. by 2011 on a 2008 baseline. We do not even know what the baseline is.
Frankly, we cannot carry on as we are. There is no tolerable level of clostridium difficile at 70 per cent. of the current level. If a hospital thought that, it would think entirely the wrong thing, and it is wrong for the Government to point hospitals in that direction. I have been in hospitals—good hospitals—whose attitude is one of zero tolerance. That is the attitude for which we have been arguing for four years, and what the chief medical officer mentioned in the “Winning Ways” report of December 2003. However, the Government are not promoting it.
Last Thursday, all those who were deeply shocked by what was reported at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust will have heard the Secretary of State blame the trust board and management and no one else. However, when did he receive the draft report? Why did he not act on it then? Why is he acting on it only now, when the public are shocked and outraged at what has happened and he has to recover his position? When he blamed the trust board, why did he not acknowledge that faults have continued at Stoke Mandeville hospital, at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust and at other trusts? All that means that the Government’s policy is also implicated. Those who were shocked by what happened at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells will want to know that it will never happen again. The Secretary of State will be able to reassure them only if he changes the Government’s policy and ensures that patient safety, instead of the Government’s misplaced targets, becomes the imperative.
Let me point out that I laid a written statement this morning, although I accept that the hon. Gentleman wanted a verbal statement made in Parliament, and I am very happy to come here and do that. The report was published last Thursday and there has of course been publicity about it.
The essential point to tackle is the allegation that targets are somehow responsible for what happened at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. Having read the report and the recommendations to us as a Government, I think that it is completely irresponsible to suggest that hospitals cannot meet what are very important targets. We can have a debate about targets. I said during my very first appearance at this Dispatch Box that the era of top-down targets was over and we needed to move to a new level. However, I do not accept the idea that there is a choice whereby one can either have a target to reduce time waiting in accident and emergency to four hours or have people forced to wait in accident and emergency for 10 to 12 hours, as they did in the past, as the price to pay for safer hospitals.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about Stoke Mandeville, where the local trust and management said that their problem was in dealing with targets. That is little more than a weak excuse. Hospitals all over the country are tackling targets day in, day out. They want to get waiting times down; they want an eight-minute target for a blue light to turn up; they do not want people to wait more than four hours in accident and emergency; and they want to ensure that the level of hospital-acquired infections is reduced. It should not be suggested that this was the problem at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, given the selected findings in the report highlighting the two biggest reasons for C. difficile growing. The first is hand washing. The report says:
“Compliance with hand washing was … variable among staff, particularly consultants.”
The second biggest cause of C. difficile, as opposed to MRSA, is a certain complacency about antibiotics. The report says that in a sample of 50 patients reviewed by the Healthcare Commission, 42 per cent. had been given inappropriate antibiotics and in a significant minority of cases aspects of antibiotic treatment were poor. It goes on to list a whole series of the most appalling errors that took place at the hospital but do not happen at other hospitals around the country. That should not be put to one side as if there is an excuse for this hospital because it was also dealing with national targets. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, although it is of course typical of the Opposition at the moment. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is. A report such as this, which points out appalling failures, is being turned into an argument about national targets.
I fully accept the specific points that the Healthcare Commission’s recommendations directed to Government— they were all mentioned in my statement and they will all be acted on.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the hospitals that he has attended, as have I, where there is zero tolerance of hospital-acquired infections. It is an absolute priority everywhere; there is nobody in the NHS who does not understand that zero tolerance is the policy that should be adopted throughout the NHS.
The hon. Gentleman asked when I received the draft report. I received it on 9 October. He asked why I did not act on it then. I did. The position as regards the board, which I mentioned in my statement, is part of those actions. A residual power rests with the Secretary of State about the position of the trust board, but in exercising that I want to be absolutely sure, in relation to all its members—not just the chief executive or the chair—that the action that we take will not result in any action against the NHS, and we are absolutely sure of our ground. It is absolutely right to do that, given the seriousness of the situation.
The Secretary of State was right to take urgent action against the members who had responsibility for the trust, but will he explain where the clinical voices were that were not raised during the period in which the infection was allowed to take hold? Why is it that the general public have not heard an outcry concerning those who were directly responsible for infection control? Is he now prepared to instigate a ruthless programme to limit some of the actions of the general public inside hospitals to ensure that we return to a state where hospitals accept that they must restrict public access, or anything that will complicate the opportunities of patients to recover?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the clinicians, such as the medical director and the nursing director. They are all part of the review that is going on about the leadership, and they are all subject to the action, which we are reviewing at the moment, that we take about that. It is not just a matter for the chief executive and the chair.
My hon. Friend was also absolutely right to ask where the patients’ voice was in all of this. I understand that 26 members of the public—relatives of patients—complained early on. Why were those complaints suppressed? The very comprehensive Healthcare Commission report—a commission set up for this purpose—identifies a whole series of issues. Therefore, the publication of the report is the start of the process, not the end, and we have to get deeper into the matter to ensure that lessons are learned and that the same thing does not happen at any other hospital.
I add my deepest sympathy to the families affected by this awful business. It is a traumatic and distressing infection to suffer from, and for anyone involved it is a horrifying process to go through. There are far too many people dying of this condition throughout the country.
It is right to stress the sense in which the individual hospital trust is primarily responsible for an outbreak of this sort, and the negligence that appears to have taken place. However, the report refers to occupancy rates in particular, and across the country hospitals are full to capacity, in breach of the national guideline of 85 per cent. Will the Secretary of State initiate a study that determines to what extent hospitals are over-full and considers the relationship between that situation and the outbreak of this infection?
With regard to the accountability of the chief executive and other senior staff, does the Secretary of State agree that failing to maintain the highest possible standards of infection control should amount to gross misconduct, and that it is entirely inappropriate for people to leave on substantial financial packages in the aftermath of such an event? He told the House, when he saw the report, that he could have intervened before the package was announced in order to discharge the whole of that board. Why did he not do so? Will he tell the House when he got to know of the financial package that had been put together? When exactly did that information come through to the Department?
Will there be compensation for the families who have suffered the tragic loss of a loved one as a result of apparent recklessness? The Secretary of State says that the chief executive is writing to all hospital trusts to give this matter priority, but will that override the myriad other priorities that are imposed centrally by the Government? Finally, it has taken more than a year for the Healthcare Commission to reach its conclusions, but the evidence that must have emerged during its study should surely have told it that urgent action needed to be taken. More than a year is far too long a wait for any decisive action to be taken by the trust, when the evidence must have appeared much earlier.
I will consider the occupancy rate throughout the country to see whether it is causing problems, but the top priority is always safety. One minute the NHS is being criticised for not being productive enough, and the next it is being criticised for being over-productive. Obviously, there must be a balance, but it must never compromise patient safety. [Hon. Members: “It has.”] Opposition Members say, “It has”, as if what happened at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells were typical of the rest of the country—it is not. And it is an indictment of, and an insult to, NHS staff throughout the country to suggest that it is.
The hon. Gentleman asked about gross misconduct. I believe that gross misconduct has taken place. He asked when I knew about the financial package. The answer is 11 October. When I knew about the situation and saw the report, I immediately sought advice about what I could legally do. It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, believing that there are residual powers, only to find that the NHS has been opened up to damages. The hon. Gentleman is a former employment rights lawyer and therefore knows that one has to ensure that one has the correct advice before taking action. I have ensured that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned writing to trusts. The NHS chief executive is not only writing to trusts but doing so with a copy of the report. The hon. Gentleman will have seen a copy, including the photographs. It is horror story, which needs to be brought to trusts’ attention, not simply through a bland letter from the NHS chief executive saying that there was a problem, but by showing photographs and examining the chronological order. The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about why action was not taken earlier. I shall discuss that with the chair and the chief executive of the Healthcare Commission tomorrow.
Blaming targets is an unacceptable argument for incompetence and worse, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has rejected it. Will he confirm whether the police are making investigations to ascertain whether appropriate charges can be brought against those in senior management at the time?
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the debate in the House on 23 January 2007? After listing a catalogue of neglect and disaster at Maidstone hospital, I said:
“One of my constituents telephoned his brother to say that he was in Maidstone hospital with C. difficile, sitting in his own diarrhoea, and that he wished he was dead.”
I asked the then Secretary of State:
“Can anyone believe that when that is the standard of nursing, it has nothing to do with the spread of infection?”—[Official Report, 23 January 2007; Vol. 455, c.1321-2.]
That was 10 months ago.
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to something that I identified at the time, but that has not been mentioned in his responses so far? It is the crucial role of ward sister. Ward sister, unlike management, matron or the director of nursing, is there all day. She used to fulfil the role of boss: “Nurse, why is that drip empty?”; “Nurse, why is this man in his own diarrhoea?” If she still fulfilled that role—[Interruption.]
Order. I hear the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) saying from a sedentary position, “It is a speech.” We are considering a serious matter, which is why I have allowed an urgent question. Let the right hon. Lady speak, because I understand that she has lost constituents.
I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for the length of the question, but we are considering my local trust and I am concerned about what is going on.
Does the Secretary of State accept that, if ward sister fulfilled her former role, many of the difficulties might have been avoided? Does he agree that there are three main reasons for her not fulfilling that role? First, short-staffing means that she is nursing when she should be bossing and supervising. Secondly, she has become too much a commissioner of bandages and blankets rather than active on the wards. Thirdly, she spends too much time filling in forms—whether that is related to targets or anything else is not the point; she spends too much time on officialdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I was right to say 10 months ago that if we get the role of ward sister right we will make a huge impact on the situation?
I do agree with that. If the role of the ward sister or matron is got right, we will go a long way towards tackling the problems. The right hon. Lady made important points, and I have no argument with the amount of time that she took to make them. She should be congratulated on raising the issue in January. Of course, as she will accept, the Healthcare Commission was in the midst of its investigation then.
I also agree with the right hon. Lady that the standard of nursing had everything to do with the problem, as the Royal College of Nursing and others have pointed out. We made an announcement a couple of weeks ago. I do not say this with the benefit of hindsight in relation to what happened at Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone. The right hon. Lady made the point that the matron and ward sister should have direct control not only over the cleaning arrangements and the contracts agreed for the hospital, but over the making of a report, at least quarterly, to the NHS trust board. The views of the ward sister and matron could not be filtered through various layers of management because the report, on these and other specific issues, would go directly to the trust board. That was the gist of our announcement.
I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with another point made by the right hon. Lady, because I think it detracts from her point about the standard of nursing at the particular hospital and her graphic account of patients being told, “Go in the bed.” That is the term that was used. The right hon. Lady and others will surely accept that that is not the standard of nursing that we find in our hospitals across the country; it is absolutely exceptional.
The excuse cannot be given that the management of the trust did not receive the right support. The right hon. Lady spoke of a staff shortage, but there are now about 85,000 more nurses in our hospitals than there were 10 years ago, and 280,000 more care assistants and the like. As she will accept, there is no excuse for the dreadful things that happened in that hospital.
I accept that there are issues that we need to tackle in relation to ward sisters and matrons. We should give them more power and make them much more assertive, and remove any bureaucracy that they feel is a hindrance to their role. As I said in my statement, I am perfectly willing to shoulder that responsibility. My point is that nothing must detract from the failure that occurred in those three hospitals, and nothing must excuse the appalling standard of nursing that was in operation.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is a scandal, and that we all have responsibilities. When I worked in the national health service a domestic came on duty at half-past 7 and worked until 2 o’clock, and another came on duty at 4 and worked until 8. As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, that domestic was directly accountable to the sister or the charge nurse. Sadly, as a result of the compulsory competitive tendering introduced by the Conservative party, whether contracts were in-house or went to the private sector the number of cleaning hours fell substantially—by as much as two thirds in some cases. Surely it is time to bring those services back into the national health service, remove private contractors, and make such people directly accountable to ward sisters and charge nurses.
Unfortunately, I must take issue with my hon. Friend. There is no correlation between this problem and whether cleaning contracts were in-house or in the private sector. At Maidstone the contract was in-house.
The solution lies in what was said by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). What is needed is the right degree of management on the front line which can be pushed through to senior management. That is why it is crucial for the matron to have a say in how the cleaning contract is organised. She might believe that in-house cleaning was insufficient and should be put out to tender, or it might be the other way around. It is not an ideological argument; it is a question of how the wards can be kept clean. It is about consultants and medics washing their hands, and about the prescription of antibiotics, which is crucial to the problem of clostridium difficile.
The report makes clear that the physical condition of Kent and Sussex hospital has contributed to the problem of infection control. Ministers have announced that a new 100 per cent. single-bedded hospital is to open in Pembury, with financial close expected to take place in March next year. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that the costs of any extra investment in infection control, any compensation payments that may be made, and the change in leadership of the trust, will have no impact on that financial close?
If there is one thing that my constituents would never forgive, it is a failure to learn the lessons of this episode, causing what has been a nightmare over the last three years to become a continuing nightmare for the next 30 years.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance and I know that he and his colleagues are coming to see me soon to talk about this issue. Given the age of the hospital and the buildings involved, it is more imperative that we go ahead with those new hospital facilities than it was before this report. Nothing that happens here—no change in the management or fines levied on the trust—will in any way damage or inhibit the need for that new hospital to be built for his constituency.
The chairman has now resigned, but is the Secretary of State aware that the chief executive was allowed to leave by mutual consent, that the then director of nursing has been re-employed by the trust as a PFI adviser and that all the other non-executive directors remain in place? Why is no one at the top of these trusts ever dismissed?
As I said, a strategic health authority review of the leadership is taking place and I have asked for a separate review to be carried out urgently of what happened with the chief executive’s package. That review will also take into account all the leaders, including the medical director and nursing director who were on the board, and the non-executives. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We decided—there was agreement on both sides of the House—that Whitehall should not be making appointments, and that that should be pushed down to local level, but if the Appointments Commission is responsible for appointments, somebody has to be responsible for the un-appointment, as it were. That is an important point; who takes the blame?
I accept the Secretary of State’s assertion that there are more nurses employed in the NHS. Has anybody looked to see whether there is a correlation between nurse-patient ratios in the hospitals that have more C. diff than others?
I do not know whether such an assessment has been made, but I undertake to ensure that one is made. The Healthcare Commission pointed out that there were fewer nurses employed at the hospital in question than at hospitals of a similar size, and that the level of training on hospital-acquired infections was very patchy. Between 40 and 50 per cent. of nurses received training, so between 50 and 60 per cent. of nurses did not, which just added to the catalogue of failures.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that the different nursing regimes that apply in different hospitals have the most important effect on the outcomes that we are discussing today. How can we spread the best practice that is exhibited in hospitals such as mine, the West Cumberland hospital, throughout the country?
My hon. Friend is right; the good practice that is going on day in, day out is essential, which is why we gave the code of practice a statutory basis by including it in the Health Act 2006. That cannot be ignored and should be driving the way hospitals work day in, day out. We also need to make safety the absolute priority in the operating framework, all of which means that what happened in those three hospitals should not have happened. We hope to ensure that it does not happen again. Best practice is one of the most crucial ways that we can ensure that this is tackled.
May I remind the Secretary of State that it was as long ago as 19 July 2005 that the then Health Minister told me in a written answer that learning and best practice arising out of the Stoke Mandeville investigation
“will be shared across the national health service”?—[Official Report, 19 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 1666W.]
What has gone so wrong with the delivery of that promise that we are having to debate yet another tragedy today?
I do not think that anything has gone wrong with the promise, in the sense that the vast majority of NHS trusts and hospitals are placing the correct emphasis on this matter and understand completely that washing hands, with soap and water in the case of C. diff, is absolutely crucial. The “bare below the elbow” policy was a piece of best practice that operated at the Royal Marsden for years, and which we have now made best practice and standard procedure across the country.
On Stoke Mandeville, I forgot to mention that the Healthcare Commission set out four reasons for the high rates of C. diff: poor environment, poor practice, lack of isolation facilities and insufficient priority given to infection control. Next week, we will have a Healthcare Commission report on Stoke Mandeville one year on, and it is important to see how the hospital has tackled clostridium difficile. That report will be of benefit to MPs in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells area, whose main concern is to ensure that such infection is turned around there as well. We need to keep track; we must have not only Healthcare Commission reports, but regular updates on how its recommendations are being implemented.
In my constituency, there is a sheltered scheme for everyone who has returned from hospital in the past year who has been infected with some infection that they did not have when they went into hospital. The fact is that central management through targets is not the way to beat infection in hospitals; it needs to be managed locally on the wards. Bed occupancy of over 70 per cent. is a problem, as is managing the cleaners. Health staff travelling in medical uniforms on the buses is also a problem in respect of infection. There are many good cleaners, but bad cleaners are followed by infection. Will the Secretary of State give ward sisters the power to sack a bad cleaner?
I agree with all the hon. Gentleman’s points about the key issues in respect of cleanliness, but I would add one more: public information. The public need to be aware of what goes on in hospitals.
I have mentioned the powers given to the ward sister. Within the realms of proper employment practices and the proper way to treat staff, we want the front-line staff—ward sisters and matrons—to have the power to determine how the wards are cleaned. That would include pointing out in their quarterly reports to the NHS board where there are failures, including among cleaners. However, merely a cursory reading of the Healthcare Commission report reveals that hand washing was patchy among not only cleaners but medics, including consultants, and nursing staff. The blame was spread among all participants, not only cleaners.
Eight years ago, the Government took the decision to put the cancer ward at the Kent and Canterbury hospital under the control of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, even though a joint cancer centre had happily operated for years without such administrative nonsense, and patient outcomes were consistently better at Canterbury. In view of the considerable hospital trust changes that will take place, may I urge the Secretary of State to consider transferring responsibility for that cancer centre back to the East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust where it belongs, and where all staff at all levels would like it to be?
I accept that the hon. Gentleman is taking this opportunity to ask us to look again at that matter. The important point is for this to be driven locally—by the local clinicians and strategic health authority—to ensure that we reach the right decisions, rather than for me to hand down tablets of stone from Whitehall.
The accusation that targets played some part in all this was not dreamt up by the Opposition; it is clearly there in the Healthcare Commission report. Another factor it identifies is that management spent too much time dealing with hospital trust reconfiguration and too little on patient care. On behalf of all my constituents in the mid-Kent part of my constituency who use Maidstone hospital, I ask the Secretary of State to give an assurance today that there will be no further work on that reconfiguration and no services will be taken away from Maidstone hospital until this matter is brought under control and, preferably, the reconfiguration is abandoned altogether.
That is just a variation on the Opposition policy of a moratorium on reconfigurations. In respect of the reconfiguration of maternity services in Greater Manchester, all the clinicians and other health care professionals were telling me that they had been trying for 40 years to make the changes, which would save between 30 and 40 babies’ lives per year, and that that had been rejected by politicians defending bricks and mortar. That is a general point about moratoriums.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about what is happening in Maidstone, my response is that I will not intervene. That is a matter for local physicians to decide, provided that it is clinically led—that clinicians are making the argument. If it is referred to me, I will refer it to the independent reconfiguration panel, which is clinician-led, so that there is a clinical argument for any change.
Is there any correlation between trusts mired in debt and those performing badly on C. diff rates? My own trust, the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, is No. 17 in the rankings—above the 21st-place ranking of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Well NHS Trust, in Kent. There, but for the grace of God, goes my own trust perhaps having deaths on its hands. Will the Government look into whether there is a correlation between such debts, the cuts that were made and the outbreaks of C. diff?
Look, there is no correlation here. The simple fact is that trusts must live within the extremely generous funding that they are getting from the centre. Trusts have to be in surplus, not in deficit—that is a simple fact of life. A similar point applies to reconfigurations. I reject the notion that those who are reconfiguring or those who are moving back from being in deficit to being in surplus cannot have patient safety. That is a ludicrous proposition. It does not cost a fortune to have patient safety. It is about washing hands and ensuring that people do not get complacent about prescribing antibiotics. It is about the simplest of procedures, which, as was mentioned in an earlier contribution, the ward sister and the matron would know everything about. This is not lots of money. I reject the argument that we should give up on saying to PCTs, “You should not be in deficit—you should spend your money on taxpayers’ behalf wisely,” in order to promote patient safety. It is possible to do both.
Having opposed the Salmon report those many decades ago, which changed the role of matron, may I say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has knocked the nail on the head? Will the Secretary of State give a total commitment to this House that he will act immediately on the roles of matron and ward sister, so that they include dealing with cleaning and with the question of whether nurses can come to work in their uniforms rather than changing into them at the hospital, and so that matrons and ward sisters can take the decisions rather than the remote and generally rather inept board of a trust?
The hon. Gentleman’s experience allows him to talk with authority about the Salmon report and the history of this issue. There is a sense of déjà vu regarding the importance of the figurehead of matron. We announced recently another 5,000 matrons. It is about not just the name and the title, but giving that person the authority to override junior managers and to report straight to the top about what is happening on the ward. That is why we made the recent announcements about extra matrons and about enhancing their role.
We must not be sidetracked in this debate by the question of whether cleaning is done in-house or out of house. This is a failure in leadership of monstrous proportions. This chief executive was either a monster or an incompetent—probably an incompetent. A number of chief executives in this country are not performing, and when they do not perform people die. I urge the Secretary of State to intervene where chief executives are failing, before more people needlessly die from preventable illnesses.
That is an important point that we need to look at. As the hon. Gentleman may remember, the document on the constitutional changes that the Prime Minister announced shortly after taking over had a clause on how we make such appointments. We should not take them back to the centre, but we need to ensure proper accountability throughout the system. In particular and as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we should be spotting these issues much earlier and getting rid of incompetent chief executives or chairpersons who, fortunately, are in the minority, rather than waiting for a report such as this, by which time, frankly, most of the damage has been done.
Legal Services Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6)(Programming of bills),
That the Order of 4th June 2007 (Legal Services Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the following order: new Clauses relating to Parts 1 to 4; amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 70; amendments relating to Schedules 1 to 9; new Clauses relating to Part 5; amendments relating to Clauses 71 to 111; amendments relating to Schedules 10 to 14; new Clauses relating to Part 6; amendments relating to Clauses 112 to 161; amendments relating to Schedule 15; remaining new Clauses; amendments relating to Clauses 162 to 214; new Schedules; amendments to Schedules 16 to 24; remaining proceedings on consideration.
3. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 9 p.m. at this day’s sitting.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10 p.m. at this day’s sitting.—[Alison Seabeck.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Legal Services Bill [Lords]
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 2
Appeal against public censure
‘(1) An approved regulator in respect of whom the Board decides to publish a statement under section 35 may appeal to the court on one or more of the appeal grounds.
(2) The appeal grounds are —
(a) that the decision was not within the power of the Board under section 35;
(b) that any of the requirements of section 36 have not been complied with in relation to the imposition of the penalty and the interests of the approved regulator have been substantially prejudiced by the non-compliance;
(c) that in all circumstances, the publication of a statement under section 35 is, or the terms of the statement published or to be published are (or would be), manifestly unreasonable or inappropriate;
(d) that the decision is unlawful on any ground that would give rise to a claim for judicial review.
(3) An appeal under subsection (1) must be made within the period of 42 days beginning with the day on which the notice was given to the approved regulator.
(4) Where an appeal is made before the expiry of the 7-day period the Board must not (unless the court otherwise orders) publish the statement until the appeal has been withdrawn or dismissed.
(5) On an appeal under subsection (1), where the court considers it appropriate to do so in all the circumstances of the case and is satisfied of one or more of the appeal grounds, the court may—
(a) quash the decision to publish a statement, or
(b) vary the terms of the statement (and, where the statement has been published, direct the Board to publish to the same extent the statement as varied).
(6) In this section “the court” means the High Court.’.—[Mr. Bellingham.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 1, in clause 1, page 2, line 9 at end insert—
‘(ca) that authorised persons should not act where there is a conflict between the interests of two or more of their clients, or between the authorised person and their client,’.
Amendment No. 2, in clause 3, page 2, line 27, leave out
‘, so far as is reasonably practicable,’.
Amendment No. 144, page 2, line 28, after ‘objectives’, insert—
‘(aa) complies with the regulatory principles as set out in section 2 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, and’.
Amendment No. 64, in clause 28, page 14, line 20, clause 28, leave out
‘, so far as is reasonably practicable,’.
Government amendment No. 83.
Amendment No. 10, in clause 36, page 18, line 32, at end add—
‘(4A) As soon as practicable after deciding to publish a statement, the Board must give notice to the approved regulator stating that it has reached that decision and setting out the terms in which the statement is to be published; and the Board must not publish the statement until after the expiry of seven days beginning with the day on which notice is given under this subsection.’.
Amendment No. 11, in clause 39, page 20, line 21, at end insert—
‘(e) that the imposition of the penalty on any ground would give rise to a claim for judicial review.’.
Amendment No. 12, page 20, line 45, leave out subsection (7).
Amendment No. 66, in clause 49, page 27, line 20, at end insert
‘and that the Board should exercise its powers only where approved regulators are clearly failing’.
Government amendment No. 84.
First, I should like to declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as a qualified, but non-practising, barrister.
We are going to be pushed to get through this programme, because there are some 125 amendments and new clauses to get through. I worked out that if there are a few Divisions, we will devote about one and a half minutes to each amendment or new clause. That does not leave us much time, so we must make as much progress as possible, although that will not be easy, because the Government have come up with a lot of extremely complicated amendments.
The essence of new clause 2 relates to clause 35, which covers public censure and states that
“if the Board is satisfied—
(a) that an act or omission of an approved regulator…has had, or is likely to have, an adverse impact on one or more of the regulatory objectives, and
(b) that, in all the circumstances of the case, it is appropriate to act under this section.
(2) The Board may publish a statement censuring the approved regulator for the act or omission”.
Any publication of a censure against an approved regulator could have wide-ranging and far-reaching consequences for it. Let us consider the example of the Bar Standards Board, which was set up fairly recently to act as an arms-length regulator within the Bar, has done a first-class job of dealing with complaints and has built up a good reputation in a short time. If that approved regulator were censured, its reputation could be demolished overnight. Surely it needs and deserves some form of appeal, and that is what new clause 2 proposes; it would give an appeal against the public censure.
Clause 37 and the part of the Bill that gives the legal services board the scope for imposing a financial penalty contain a clear mechanism for appeal. There is no logic in not having a proper right of appeal when it comes to public censure. It may well be that such censure is well deserved and correct, but given the damage that it can do, surely there should be some right of appeal. Our new clause would provide that, and I recommend it to the House. I hope that the Minister will tell us that she supports the principle of having this right of appeal.
Amendment No. 1 might state the obvious, but it was suggested by the Law Society. Our existing regulatory system has withstood the passage of time over a substantial period, and I should point out one of its great strengths. It engenders a strong ethos of professionalism, which is respected by the vast majority of lawyers. Clause 1(1) does not mention avoiding a conflict of interest, and that is an odd omission.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the regulation of solicitors and the legal profession has been without problems, I would ask where he has been for the past few years. Many of my constituents, who have been ripped off by solicitors, have been failed by the Law Society.
In some ways I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I know that he feels that some of his constituents have been let down very badly. Amendment No. 1 is all about removing the conflict of interest, so I would have thought that he would support it.
The charter of core principles for the European legal profession, which has been adopted by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe—an umbrella organisation for all European legal professional bodies—specifically includes avoidance of conflicts of interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) will speak in a moment about the need for concurrence between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, and that is related to the need to maintain the independence of the professions, and amendment No. 1 would send a clear statement that the Bill prohibits any conflict of interests.
Various conflicts of interest will arise from time to time, and I note that the Law Society has introduced a tight and tough code to deal with them. It does happen that one part of a large City firm acts for one organisation while another part acts for another. That can happen in shipping cases or in complex commercial law areas. The firm will probably have Chinese walls or barriers between the two different departments, and so the conflict of interest is avoided. However, the amendment simply states something that we feel should be obvious: the need to avoid conflicts of interest should be written into the Bill.
In Committee, the Minister said that she would look carefully at the amendment and come back to us on Report. I am sure that she has looked at it carefully, as she has been assiduous and approachable, and we welcome that. This has been a classic example of how Bills should be considered, with the Front Benchers all getting on well together, meeting regularly and trying to make progress. That is why there are so few areas of disagreement in the Bill. I wonder whether the Minister has been able to look at the amendment carefully.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 64 would delete the words
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
Those words appear in clause 3(2)(a) and (b) and clause 28(2)(a) and (b). We had a debate on the point in Committee, because those words qualify the essence of clause 1(1), which sets out the regulatory objectives. Why qualify them in that way? Clause 1(1) states clearly what the objectives should be and we do not see why an escape provision should be built into the Bill. It is like saying, “Here are the objectives that we want you to follow, but if you can’t because it is not practicable to do so, it doesn’t really matter.” We should not say that.
In Committee, the Minister again said that she was quite sympathetic to our line of argument and that she felt I had argued the case well. I shall not make such a lengthy argument this afternoon as we are under time constraints, but the Minister said that she might make a sympathetic response to the amendment on Report. I hope that she will be able to do so now, or that our proposal can be looked at when the Bill goes back to the other place. We are keen to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and we support Sir David Clementi’s flexible and risk-based approach, but we feel that an amendment striking out the words we suggest makes a great deal of sense.
Our amendment No. 10 beefs up clause 36 and provides extra protection to an approved regulator who has been censured. It continues the theme discussed in new clause 2. The amendment makes it clear that the board should give notice to the approved regulator that it has reached a decision and should set out how the statement will be published. Obviously, the approved regulator needs time to consider its response. As I said earlier, reputations take a long time to build up but they can be destroyed overnight. The Minister said in Committee that she would look sympathetically at our proposals and that she might table an amendment on Report. There are Government amendments in the group, so perhaps she will comment on them in more detail and answer some of my questions.
Amendment No. 11 allows for judicial review and amendment No. 12 is consequential. There was a lengthy and learned debate in the other place about judicial review and I do not want to wear the House down with detailed, highly arcane arguments about it, but we believe that there is a clear and unequivocal case for having the right to judicial review written into the Bill. I know the Minister thinks that that is not strictly necessary, but if she thinks there is already sufficient protection for parties who could be fined and censured and lose their career and reputation, she should make it clear that there is no need for judicial review.
I have to tell the Minister that many learned Lords take a contrary view. Many of them have practised law and sat on the bench—many are retired Law Lords—so there is a huge body of expertise that feels strongly that the Bill should include provisions for judicial review. Will the Minister comment on that point in detail?
Amendment No. 66 refers to clause 49 and inserts the words
“and the Board should exercise its powers only where approved regulators are clearly failing”.
The whole intention is to curtail bureaucracy and the scope for unnecessary intervention.
In Committee, we agreed that we would not say “light touch”, as it is a hackneyed expression that has had its day. I want to concentrate on the need for common sense and a delicate, pragmatic and sensitive approach. Of course, we need a Bill that gives the board the power to take necessary decisions, but the approved regulators must be allowed to get on with the job in hand. There must be scope for them to carry out many of the delegated functions. Amendment No. 66 would simply reinforce that point, and when Sir David Clementi produced his excellent report, he certainly anticipated such a delicate, sensitive approach.
Again, the Minister said in Committee that she was sympathetic to amendment No. 66 and that she would return to the issue on Report. So she said that she accepted what we had to say on four amendments and one new clause. She said that she was sympathetic to many of the arguments put forward. I hope that she has listened carefully to what I have said this afternoon and that she can give Opposition Members some comfort in accepting what we say, given that our views are widely endorsed by the professions. Indeed, I hope that, if she cannot accept our amendments and make the changes now, she will at least tell us why she cannot, and perhaps tell us that some further changes may be introduced in other place, although two of the points that I have made might be covered by the Government amendments in this group.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is as eloquent and courteous as ever, but he manages yet again to fall into the trap of vested self-interest, despite very honourably declaring his self-interest. We return to a fundamental point that has run throughout the debates on the Bill and well before them: why should the legal profession be allowed special status in society, whereby it can look after itself, by regulating itself and appealing to itself in this case? In which other section of society would we allow that? Would we allow it with the police?
Probably, the only other section of society that tries to befit itself to such self-regulation is politicians, often much to the disgust of the general public. But there is no basis whatsoever for moving to a system whereby the legal profession can appeal to the legal profession. That is precisely what we are talking about. Barristers, whether practising, non-practising, or in the other House or the High Court, or wherever they end up, need to understand that that internalised attempt to set themselves apart from the principles that we expect of the rest of society simply is not acceptable. The reason why it is not acceptable is that it does not work, and the reason why it does not work—doubtless there may be an opportunity for hon. Members to explore this on Third Reading—is the way in which the legal profession uses its privileged position of being able to use the law and take action in an attempt to silence any criticism.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and we have run over some of it in the past. I will declare my interest as a non-practising member of the Bar and as someone who is very proud of it, because it is a decent and honest profession. Is not the implication of what he is saying that we cannot trust lawyers to appeal by judicial review because we cannot trust the judges? That is what he is almost saying in effect. Does he honestly think that the justices of Her Majesty’s High Court will behave differently if an applicant for judicial review or another form of appeal happens to be a lawyer as opposed to anything else? If he does, I suggest that that is a scandalous thing to say.
It might be scandalous thing to say, but the police have an honourable profession and we do not allow them to sit in judgment on themselves. Doctors and others involved in medicine have an honourable profession, but we do not allow them to sit in judgment on such key decisions. Indeed, we listened earlier today to comments about the roles of trusts and Secretaries of State in the governance of the health service. There are many honourable professions, but there are only two professions that attempt to set themselves above all others. One such group is Members of Parliament, who deem that we are in some way above all others. Some, such as Plaid Cymru Members, would like to put us in the position whereby we are judged by the judiciary rather than through the self-regulatory systems that we have in place. That is an interesting idea, but none of them are in their seats to participate in this debate.
The principle that certain professions should be allowed to sit in judgment on themselves is not one that we would accept in many great and honourable professions in this country. To allow the self-regulators to appeal to their peers in the High Court is total nonsense if we are to have a robust system of regulation that is seen by the rest of the world to be above board.
First, I declare a non-interest: I am not a lawyer or in any way a member of the legal profession. I therefore think that I can safely say that I speak without the vested interest to which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) referred.
I echo a remark made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham): having come to the Bill very late, as a result of a change in responsibilities, I am encouraged by the degree of constructive engagement that I have observed in Members on both sides of the House. He did not include the hon. Members for Bassetlaw and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in his plaudits in that respect, but I am happy to do so, having read the report of the Committee proceedings, which were characterised by a willingness to engage with the issues and to try to arrive at a sensible consensus. I applaud all those who have attempted to do so.
To start with judicial review, I do not entirely buy the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. Although I am absolutely clear that the regulatory structure for the legal profession must be seen to be independent and robust, only the judiciary can decide whether there has been an error in law. There is no other mechanism to determine an error in law in regulation. Whether or not that undermines the regulatory process in the hon. Gentleman’s eyes, the fact remains that only the judiciary acting in an independent fashion, which is now guaranteed by statute, can make that judgment.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about judicial review on a point of law, but that is not what the new clause is saying. Essentially, it provides that if the regulatory body does not agree with criticism levelled at it, it can appeal to a higher body. That is very different from the point that he is outlining.
With all due respect, I am not sure that that is the case. A judicial review can take place only on the basis of a body having misdirected itself—that would be the basis in administrative law. In any case, the Minister can probably deal with the matter by stating what she believes the position to be on the admissibility or otherwise of an application for judicial review of a decision. It certainly should not be seen as a court of appeal on a decision of the regulator. That would be entirely inappropriate—on that, I agree with the hon. Members for Bassetlaw and for North Durham.
On leaving out
“so far as is reasonably practicable”,
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. It seems to be an entirely unnecessary qualification. If we have good principles of regulation, which the Government have stressed in relation to the regulatory objectives, it is entirely perverse to qualify that by saying that the objectives do not have to be met if circumstances do not allow. The regulatory objectives must be consistent and paramount. I believe that the words should be removed, which is why I have put my name to amendment No. 2. Far from reducing the effectiveness of this part of the Bill, I believe that the amendment would strengthen it.
On conflict of interest, I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on whether the provisions represent a significant change from her understanding of the position. I am not prepared to countenance a conflict of interest arising, but if she is confident that the Bill’s structure and wording is sufficient to deal with the issue, without us adding an explicit statement on conflict of interest, I shall be satisfied. I find it hard to believe that that is the case, however, so I have sympathy with what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has to say.
My last point is on proportionality. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk tabled new clause 2, but I have taken a slightly different approach to the issue in my amendment No. 144. I mention it briefly in the forlorn hope of ensuring a degree of joined-up government as regards statute, and in the hope that one statute that we pass might have some relevance to another. Some hon. Members will recall the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which had a chequered parliamentary career. Many of its provisions were hard-fought-for. It ended up being absolutely filleted in another place, and replaced with something a good deal better. Section 2 of that Act explicitly spelled out the regulatory principles—not the regulatory objectives, which are set out in the Bill before us—that were expected to apply to any regulatory body. It states:
“Those principles are that—
(a) regulatory activities should be carried out in a way which is transparent, accountable, proportionate and consistent;
(b) regulatory activities should be targeted only at cases in which action is needed.”
Those two regulatory principles, which the Government have accepted, and which they wrote in to the 2006 Act, are exactly what is required to qualify the regulatory objectives in the Bill so as to ensure proportionality and transparency, and to ensure that action is taken only when it is needed. The Minister should consider amendment No. 144, or perhaps a variation of it in which the cross-reference to the 2006 Act is removed, and those same regulatory principles inserted instead. That would underline what I believe to be the Government’s objective—to have a consistent principle underlying regulatory activities that applies as much to lawyers as to other professions, and to all other regulatory activities. Members’ objective should be to ensure a consistency of legislation that crosses those professional and interest boundaries. That is exactly the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, who argues that lawyers should not be a special case. I agree; in both positive and negative terms, the same principles should apply to regulatory activities across the board.
First, may I welcome the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to his responsibilities? I think that we breathed a collective sigh of relief on seeing that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is not here tonight, and that we might get the entire Bill dealt with this evening.
The Minister has made it clear, as have my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I, that putting the consumer at the heart of the Bill is key. Hon. Members might not be surprised to hear that I agree with my hon. Friend when he says that we are talking about an attempt to treat the legal profession differently from any other bodies. The measures that we put in place under the Bill should not amount to less than those that were in place in the old system, in which there was a legal services ombudsman who had tough powers of regulation and who could impose fines. Under that system, there was no right of appeal. The legal services ombudsman conducted a tough investigation on miners’ compensation, and I believe that lawyers would certainly have appealed the report. It was not the fact that it was inaccurate—it was the fact that it was tough and critical of the way in which the legal profession preyed on many of my constituents and other people in receipt of miners’ compensation.
I must disagree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the grounds for appeal. New clause 2 says that one such reason is the fact that publication would be “manifestly unreasonable or inappropriate”. When the legal services ombudsman produced her report, many lawyers could have argued that its contents were unreasonable or inappropriate. That would be the case for someone on the receiving end of a hard, tough report.
I agree, but that is not what the new clause says. If a legal point is at stake, one can always have recourse to a review. Proposed section (2)(c), however, states that the provision would apply if
“the publication of a statement under section 35 is, or the terms of the statement published or to be published are (or would be), manifestly unreasonable or inappropriate.”
Who is to decide what, in those circumstances, is unreasonable or inappropriate? The consumer would argue, quite rightly, that the legal services ombudsman’s report was far from unreasonable and inappropriate. From their point of view, it was spot on and she was right to stand up for their rights. The breadth of the provision provides the legal profession with a get-out clause, enabling it to escape reasonable criticism. I am reluctant for the ombudsman’s powers under the Bill to be any less than what they were before, so I hope that the Government resist the attempt, which was made numerous times in Committee, to safeguard the vested interests of the legal profession and enable it to protect its own.
I shall be brief, and shall begin with the point with which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) concluded—the obsession with vested interests among certain Government Members. No one, including all the lawyers I know, wants anything other than effective, robust and strong regulation, which is in the profession’s interests just as much as the consumer’s. It is genuinely sad that some hon. Members cannot get that into their head, although I think that the Minister accepts it. It is sad that our debates are often coloured, dare I say, by an obsession among certain Government Members.
As one of those accused of being an obsessive, may I ask the hon. Gentleman what proportion of solicitors dealing with the enormous £3 billion-plus miners’ compensation scheme have been found guilty of double-charging their clients, whether directly or indirectly? What percentage of the money that they have been paid by the Government have they taken? To give him an opportunity to think, is it under 10 per cent., 50 per cent. or 90 per cent.?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the grace to congratulate the Solicitors Regulation Authority on initiating proceedings and recovering considerable amounts of money. To suggest that nothing has been done is unfair. The arrangements are not perfect, I concede and accept—we all want to improve things—but I am sorry that we have to go through this rigmarole.
I should like to make progress, and I hope to conclude shortly.
The Law Society’s president made it quite clear that the society supports the Bill’s basic principles. All the key issues, including the separation of regulation from the representational role, have been accepted by the Bar Council. It is sensible to operate a system in which the regulator works in partnership with the profession. Nobody takes issue with that. I think the Minister has understood that, which is why I echo the comments of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who say that we hope she will be able to flesh out to us how that can be dealt with constructively.
The second point that I wanted to make relates to judicial review. With all due respect, nobody should be above the law. The system of judicial review ensures that. That applies to a body such as the legal services board as much as to anyone else. It is only common sense that judicial review should remain. The reference in the amendment to a statement being “manifestly unreasonable” is very close to the well-known Wednesbury test of reasonableness. Many of us think it is not unreasonable to give an opportunity of redress, should there ever be—maybe there never will be—a manifestly perverse decision on the part of any regulatory body.
I hope that that will be borne in mind, just as I hope that when Labour Members question the willingness of the legal profession to tackle issues for itself, they will bear in mind the report from the Bar Standards Board for this year, which was published after our Committee discussions. The board pointed out that not only had there been a significant increase in the number of cases referred to disciplinary tribunals, which have a greater independent element than the summary procedure, but interestingly, although the numbers always remain very small, the proportionate increase in the number of cases where complaints were upheld by the Bar Standards Board, acting independently on behalf of the profession, increased to over 82 per cent. That is better than any prosecuting authority usually achieves. Before people criticise the professions for not being prepared to set their own house in order, they ought to bear that in mind. That indicates that what is sensible is a light touch rather than a heavy-handed one, and an approach that does not seek to second-guess the outcome.
I hope the Minister can deal with my final point. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made sensible points about the risk of conflict of interests. Given that we will later consider alternative business structures, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, we are likely to see more and more instances where there may properly be mixtures of competences in firms, and various Chinese walls. I do not have a problem with a greater number of alternative business structures, but that makes it all the more necessary that the conflict of interest point should be dealt with and spelled out as clearly as possible in the Bill.
I am pleased to hear the opening remarks from across the House about how we have reached this stage in the Bill as a result of a great deal of healthy discussion and consensus. I said in Committee that before Report I would consider a number of the issues that have been raised again this evening. As I said then with reference to new clause 2, I do not object in principle to the fact that approved regulators should be able to challenge the decisions of the board. It is of huge importance to the accountability of the board that the approved regulators have recourse to some form of challenge when they feel that the board is being unreasonable. However, I thought that we had established in Committee that the ground for challenge that that creates—that of judicial review—is available automatically under the Bill as it was then. I do not see that new clause 2 adds anything.
On amendment No. 1, there is a real possibility that that would run counter to the best interests of clients and might even cast doubt on the validity of many of the existing rules. Given the role of those broad professional principles, singling out conflict of interest but not being able to define it clearly might risk jeopardising the flexibility of regulators in this area.
Clause 176 already places all authorised persons under a statutory duty to comply with professional rules, which will of course include rules on conflicts of interest, which are clearly stated in the professional bodies’ rules. All those rules will, of course, also be subject to approval by the board; in a sense, there is already a double lock to ensure that rules on conflict of interest are complied with. I am pretty confident that those existing rules provide adequate cover and that the extra provision is not necessary; in fact, it has the potential to be undesirable.
On amendments Nos. 2 and 64, since our discussion of the issue in Committee, I have considered carefully whether
“so far as is reasonably practicable”
should be removed from the duties under clauses 3 and 28. I understand the reasons that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) set out in favour of removal, but I am still not convinced that taking away the phrase is the best way to ensure that the consumer is, as has been mentioned, at the heart of the system. The amendments are neither appropriate nor practical, as under the new framework all regulators will need flexibility to weigh up how each of the objectives will operate in any given situation. The regulators will have to be able to take into account practical considerations—including, for example, the resources available to them. Such issues are key to the principles of proportionate and targeted regulation; I hope that Members on both sides agree that such regulation must be central to the success of the new regime. Retaining
“so far as is reasonably practicable”
makes it clear that regulatory decisions are made with reference to practical constraints, such as the expenditure incurred in meeting the objectives.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who will be pleased that, for once, I have managed to get his constituency right—
I shall keep practising; if I work hard enough, I might even end up with a west country accent.
I understand the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment No. 144. It is important that the board should have regard to the principle of best regulatory practice in all that it does; I cannot see why anyone would resile from that. That is why we have clearly set out in clause 3(3) that the board, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out,
“must have regard to…the principles under which regulatory activities should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases in which action is needed, and any other principle appearing to it to represent the best regulatory practice.”
However, as the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, those same principles are already set out in section 2 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, so I consider it unnecessary to duplicate the provision in the Bill.
I turn to amendment No. 83, a minor amendment to ensure that the board is not prevented from exercising its functions for the purpose of ensuring that the exercise of an approved regulator’s regulatory functions is not prejudiced by its representative functions or that the decision relating to the exercise of an approved regulator’s regulatory functions is taken independently from the representative ones. I do not know whether anyone can understand that gobbledegook; I hope that Hansard will be able to translate it into normal English. In the past, both things had to apply; amendment No. 83 would effect a minor change so that the board would not be prevented from exercising its functions in that way.
Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 ask for the seven-day requirement. The Bill already provides for a 28-day period before which the board can take action, and I do not believe that an additional seven days would achieve anything. It is also important that the board and approved regulators should remain in close contact throughout the period; the board, of course, is under a duty to be transparent. The approved regulator will be able to challenge the board, but obviously the board must be able to act swiftly and appropriately. When considering amendments Nos. 11 and 12, it is important that we remember that an appeal is available.
Amendment No. 11 would simply duplicate the appeals process, which could ultimately waste valuable time and resources to arrive at what would inevitably be the same conclusion. The current provisions do not prevent the case from proceeding to the Court of Appeal, in the event that that is appropriate.
Amendment No. 12 would remove an important provision and could produce the unwelcome effect of allowing for the possibility of two separate challenges being brought by the same applicant against the same decision on essentially the same grounds.
On amendment No. 66, it is clearly right that the board should act only where an approved regulator is “clearly failing”. However, that is a very imprecise term that does not translate well into legislation. There is the potential for creating confusion and contradicting the thresholds that already apply to the exercise of the board’s regulatory powers. Instead, I believe that the combination of the existing thresholds, the clause 3 duties and the amended clause 49 provisions should ensure that the board exercises its powers only where it is right to do so. I continue to believe that the Bill as currently drafted properly addresses all the concerns that hon. Members have raised.
Government amendment No. 84 will put it beyond doubt, in the Bill, that the legal services board may, if acting as an approved regulator and if set out in an order modifying the board’s functions, provide the people whom it regulates with an appeal to the High Court against any decision that it makes. The effect of the amendment is that those bodies whose functions are modified under section 69 or paragraph 2 of schedule 22 can also receive a similar power.
For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendments and ask the House to approve amendments Nos. 83 and 84.
I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of Government amendments Nos. 83 and 84. She has made a strong case. Having listened to what she said, I can tell her that we support the Government on both those amendments.
I am also grateful to the Minister for explaining and clarifying some of the points that I made in proposing new clause 2 and the other amendments in my name and those of my hon. Friends. She made it clear that there is already sufficient protection for approved regulators who are censured or heavily fined.
I am glad that we had a debate on the very important matter of judicial review. That is a fairly specialised and arcane procedure but, on the other hand, it is a very important ultimate protection for people who feel that they have a grievance that needs to be righted in the courts. I am grateful to the Minister for clearly spelling out exactly what its scope is and how far it can go. That will be considered carefully in another place.
On conflicts of interest, I am glad that the Minister confirmed that there is a double lock. She is clearly confident that the existing rules remove any need for amendment No. 1. People who are taking a close interest in the Bill will look at the debate underlying some of the clauses. In my experience as a lawyer, there are occasions when people look carefully at the intent of Parliament in terms of how matters are handled in future, and I think that that will apply to what the Minister has said.
We had a debate in Committee, and there was a debate in the other place, on the wording,
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
We have given that sufficient attention again this afternoon. I am glad that the Minister has had the opportunity to put her view on the record. She is keen to ensure maximum flexibility and to honour the principles behind Clementi. On that basis, I can understand exactly where she is coming from. I should tell her, however, that this particular issue will probably be returned to in another place. I hope that the Government have not given up completely on what we have said. It is the view of both main Opposition parties that there is a problem which, although minor, could and should be corrected.
I take on board the Minister’s point that she feels that amendment No. 66 would not translate very well into legislation. I accept that, and perhaps in another place a new attempt could be made to improve the drafting. For the time being, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
The Consumer Panel
I beg to move amendment No. 78, in page 3, line 33, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘( ) The Consumer Panel is to consist of such consumers, or persons representing the interests of consumers, as the Board may appoint with the approval of the Lord Chancellor.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 36, at end insert—
‘( ) The approval of the Lord Chancellor is required for the appointment of a person to be the chairman or to be another member of the Panel.’.
Amendment No. 7, in page 4, line 25, after ‘appointed’, insert
‘by the Board following public advertisement and selection by the prevailing standards for selection of members of public bodies and’.
Government amendments Nos. 79 and 80.
Amendment No. 8, in page 5, line 19, clause 11, at end insert—
‘(4) It shall be the duty of the Board (subject to subsection (5))—
(a) to provide the Consumer Panel with all such information as, having regard, in particular, to the need to preserve commercial confidentiality, the Board considers appropriate to disclose to the Panel for the purpose of enabling the Panel to carry out their functions; and
(b) to provide the Panel with all such further information as the Panel may require.
(5) The Board is not required to provide information by virtue of subsection (4)(b) if, having regard to—
(a) the need to preserve commercial confidentiality, and
(b) any other matters that appear to the Board to be relevant,
it is reasonable for the Board to refuse to disclose it to the Panel.’.
Amendment No. 24, in page 120, line 6, schedule 1, at end insert
‘with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 147, in page 120, line 9, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert
‘with the approval of the Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 25, in page 120, line 9, schedule 1, at end insert
‘with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice’.
Government amendment No. 102.
Amendment No. 26, in page 120, line 15, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert ‘and Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 75, in page 120, line 17, schedule 1, leave out ‘first’.
Government amendments Nos. 103 and 104.
Amendment No. 27, in page 121, line 17, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert ‘and Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 28, in page 122, line 6, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert
‘with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 29, in page 122, line 7, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert ‘and Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 30, in page 122, line 9, schedule 1, leave out ‘is’ and insert ‘and Lord Chief Justice are’.
Amendment No. 31, in page 122, line 18, schedule 1, at end insert—
‘(4A) Before removing the chairman under sub-paragraph (1)(b), the Lord Chancellor must seek the approval of the Lord Chief Justice.’.
Amendment No. 32, in page 122, line 19, schedule 1, leave out ‘removing’ and insert
‘the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice remove’.
Government amendment No. 106.
Amendment No. 33, in page 122, line 20, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert ‘and the Lord Chief Justice’.
Amendment No. 34, in page 122, line 21, schedule 1, after ‘Chancellor’, insert ‘and Lord Chief Justice’.
As you were reading out that list of amendments. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you reminded me of what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said earlier about the debate and the number of amendments to be considered. I hope that hon. Members in all parties realise that the Government amendments are included because we have been listening to what Members have been saying in Committee and elsewhere. Hopefully, that should help us to speed through the debate, but I will not hold my breath.
A number of the points relating to the Government amendments and those tabled by others have been discussed at some length in Committee and in the other place, and the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) made some valid points in Committee about the consumer panel and its appointments. Those should be independent and objective, and should be seen to be so. I said at the time that there was very little between us on that question of independence, and it is appropriate that the Lord Chancellor’s approval of appointments to the consumer panel should be obtained. That is why I have tabled Government amendments Nos. 78, 79 and 80. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can see that those amendments will achieve what is sought by amendment No. 6. Together the amendments not only ensure independence, but they add a level of parliamentary scrutiny and set out further detail on the terms and conditions under which appointments will be made, so that the process is absolutely transparent.
On amendment No. 7, hon. Members might be encouraged to know that as a consequence of the move to involve the Lord Chancellor in appointments to the consumer panel, there will be some degree of parliamentary accountability. Amendment No. 7 would set out requirements for the procedure for making appointments to the consumer panel, and I was concerned that setting out specific requirements in the Bill, such as a public advertisement, might reduce the flexibility of the appointments process, should it have to adapt to changing best practice. For example, the majority of the panel might already have been appointed and they may be looking for someone with particular skills or experience. In such a case, it might be unnecessary to have a widespread public advertisement when advertising in specialist publications or using some other techniques might enable them to get to more appropriate people, more quickly and at lower cost.
I absolutely reassure the hon. Gentleman that under no circumstances would that be the case. I am talking purely about the practicalities of where the best place might be to look for someone with specialist knowledge.
I know that consumer groups have been very supportive of amendment No. 8, and they are keen that the consumer panel should be properly equipped to fulfil its role effectively. However, I am not convinced that there should be an explicit duty on the board obliging it to provide the panel with any information that the panel regards as appropriate. Under clause 168, the board can already give the panel any information that will assist the board in exercising its statutory functions. We could get into a burdensome situation if it also had a duty to provide any information for which the panel might ask. There is a possibility of creating a knock-on effect, with the board having to defend itself with judicial review if it judged that it would be inappropriate to provide certain information, even if sound reasons underpinned that decision.
Let me deal with amendments Nos. 24 to 34 and 147, and Government amendments Nos. 102 and 106. I know that hon. Members appreciate the importance of independent appointment of members of the board—that has been debated at almost every stage in the Bill’s passage. We must all ensure that we achieve that. However, I explained at length in Committee why I cannot accept concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice in appointing the chair of the board.
The Bill is drafted to make it compatible with best practice, which, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, means being compatible with the code of practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The first principle of that code requires ultimate ministerial responsibility for appointments. That is essential to ensure that those who make appointments are properly accountable to Parliament.
Concurrence with the Lord Chief Justice would undermine that process because it gives someone other than a Minister a veto on appointments to the board. That runs contrary to the principle of ultimate ministerial responsibility. It removes the formal role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in the oversight and regulation of public appointments and undermines parliamentary scrutiny and accountability in the process. I have therefore suggested that the Lord Chancellor should consult the Lord Chief Justice on appointments to and removals from the board. I have listened carefully to views in the House and I want to ensure that the board is not only independent but seen to be independent, without conflicting with the commissioner’s code at the same time as maintaining channels for proper parliamentary accountability.
I experienced the same difficulty during pre-legislative scrutiny and in Committee in understanding how, if the Minister appoints and removes the legal services board chair, the body is independent of Government. The Under-Secretary essentially proposes a system whereby the Government are in control of the legal services board.
If the hon. Gentleman looks back at our debate in Committee, he will read that I said—I repeat the point here—that it is odd that Liberal Democrats object to proper parliamentary scrutiny by, in this case, the Lord Chancellor, and of the appointment of the legal services board. The fact that it must be done under the rules of the Commissioner for Public Appointments makes it clear that the person has to be independent of Government and Ministers. I am determined that that should be the case.
As the Under-Secretary may know, I have had some involvement in the private sector, where shares are owned, directors can be appointed and so on. If one appoints directors to a body, it is deemed to be a subsidiary, not independent. It may have some legal independence as an entity, but it is a subsidiary and controlled in that way. Does the Under-Secretary not accept that there is some merit in separating the estates of the constitution so that the judiciary and its associated links are independent of the Government?
We all accept that the judiciary, solicitors and barristers are independent of Government. If I may put it gently to the hon. Gentleman, he is perhaps living in the past. The Liberal Democrats, if not the hon. Gentleman, supported the Lord Chancellor having some oversight of appointments to the consumer panel, yet he suggests that there should not be oversight of the chair of the legal services board.
Although I have conceded that it is important for the Lord Chancellor to consult the Lord Chief Justice, some may feel that if the Lord Chief Justice’s view of the appointment were very different from that of the Lord Chancellor, it should not be suppressed. Let me make it absolutely clear that if in consultation the Lord Chief Justice took a view contrary to that of the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice would be perfectly entitled, and able, to make his view public. I do not think for a moment that Ministers would be able to apply pressure to him—or her, if we ever have a female Lord Chief Justice.
I welcome the last part of what the Minister said, but, with respect, I fail to understand the argument that because the Lord Chancellor—who is accountable to Parliament—must obtain someone else’s agreement to an appointment that he himself ultimately makes anyway, that somehow undermines his accountability. That does not strike me as logical. If consultation takes place, ultimately it is the Lord Chancellor’s decision; it is just that he has to get someone else to agree with it.
I am glad the Minister has said that if the Lord Chief Justice really thought there was to be an inappropriate appointment, he would have the right to go public. Will she consider entrenching the process by at some point giving the Lord Chief Justice the same right to make a statement to Parliament as he has in relation to other matters under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005?
Let me deal with the second point first. Discussions about constitutional reform are not relevant to this Bill. Perhaps what the hon. Gentleman has said should be referred to those who are dealing with such issues; he may have an opportunity to raise them in another forum.
I am pretty sure that if I looked up “concurrence” in a dictionary, I would learn that it meant that if two people were involved, they would have to agree.
If both must agree, it is not concurrence when only one can make the decision. I am not sure what the right phrase is in this context, but while I am aware that lawyers like to dance on the heads of pins when it comes to definitions, I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the meaning of “concurrence” and my reason for rejecting it in this instance. As I said in Committee, the decision should be made in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, and no doubt with others—that will be in the Bill—and the Lord Chief Justice will be able to make his views known.
Members will recall that I wanted to re-examine the question of the lay chair following our robust debate in Committee about what should happen if for some reason the first chair—who, under the Bill as it stands, must be a lay chair—vacates office prematurely. The possibility was mooted that a lawyer might be able to become chair of the board earlier than had been intended. I therefore tabled amendments Nos. 103 and 104 to ensure that all chairs appointed in the first five years must be lay. Now my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) have tabled an amendment providing for the chair always to be lay, and for that reason I shall not pursue amendment No. 103. I think that the arguments my hon. Friends advanced in Committee—which I hope they will reinforce this evening—are excellent.
Those arguments will give the consumer confidence that the regulatory system is designed to protect them, which is why we already require a majority of the board to be lay. That does not prevent people who have qualified as lawyers from sitting on the board; after all, they will be able to provide an essential insight into the profession. However, I have been persuaded by the arguments. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham tabled another amendment that has not been selected, but he will find that amendment No. 104 achieves the same end. For that reason, I hope that the Government amendments that I have set out will be accepted.
First, I declare an interest as member of the Law Society and of the corporate finance faculty of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
The group covers two distinct areas: first, the consumer panel, which will represent the interests of consumers of legal services—we are now almost in agreement with the Government’s position—and secondly, the legal services board, on which there are important outstanding issues. We appreciate the Government’ acceptance of our position regarding the need for appointments to the consumer panel to be made objectively and to be seen to be made objectively. Such a need is fulfilled by the Lord Chancellor’s approval of such appointments.
The Government’s concession on the issue, through amendment. No. 78, is on the same terms as those suggested by my hon. Friends and me in Committee, and thus removes the need for our amendment No. 6. This is a welcome development.
Government amendments Nos. 78 and 79 provide for members of the consumer panel to be appointed for a fixed period and on other terms and conditions as determined by the board. They also provide for the removal of a member of the consumer panel in accordance with those terms and conditions that would require the approval of the Lord Chancellor. Again we are pleased to see the Government’s movement, but I should like some minor clarification. The terms and conditions of appointment will be fixed and known to the Lord Chancellor before removal. Surely we only need to cater for the situation where a removal is carried out other than in accordance with what has been previously approved. If this is the intention, I suggest that the wording in clause 8 should be that a person may be removed from office otherwise than in accordance with those terms and conditions and only with the approval of the Lord Chancellor. In effect, I believe that these new provisions, while moving in the right direction, may require some further thought; perhaps the Minister might clarify the existing wording.
Our amendment No. 7 would mean that the chairman and other members of the consumer panel would not be appointed simply on terms and conditions determined by the board, but following public advertisement and selection by the pervading standards for selection of members of public bodies. This wording is to be added so that appointments to the consumer panel are made and seen to be made objectively. This will give all applicants a fair opportunity to apply for the panel. As a consumer panel, it needs to represent the public and therefore a public advertisement would be the best means of ensuring that that is the case.
Additionally, it is important that the current criterion for selecting members of a public body is employed so that all applicants are given and are seen to be given an equal opportunity to be selected. We see this as important, as the consumer panel is the voice of the public and ensures that consumers are given adequate representation. Also, it is necessary explicitly to set out in the Bill that the pervading standards for selection of members of public bodies must be followed. Given that the appointments are to be made by the board and not by Ministers, strictly speaking, there will be no compulsion to follow the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code of practice. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a valid intervention on that issue. Our amendment follows that line of thought and would plug the gap.
Our amendment No. 8 to clause 11 would ensure that the consumer panel has access to the information held by the board which it needs to carry out its functions, subject to appropriate restrictions. In the same way that a person needs the appropriate resources in order to do their work, the consumer panel will require access to certain information in order to carry out its work to the highest possible level.
However, amendment No. 8 also recognises that there might be some instances when it is inappropriate for the consumer panel to receive such information. Therefore, its proposed new subsection (5) gives the legal services board the discretion to decide whether that is the case. The Minister was previously unwilling to move on this issue, fearing, I believe, that it could lead to empire building by the consumer panel rather than consumer interests being represented, and we share that concern. However, she agreed that she would consider an amendment ensuring that the board provides the consumer panel with the necessary information for it to discharge its functions. This amendment does that; it would improve clause 11 as it would enable the consumer panel better to represent the consumers’ interests. The Minister has considered this issue again, and we are sorry that there has not been a little movement in that direction.
Amendment No. 75 was tabled by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), whose contribution to our deliberations on the Bill deserves recognition—even if it has not always won our agreement. It would result in the chairman of the legal services board always having to be a lay person. We remain unconvinced of the necessity for such an amendment. It is not sensible for lawyers to be unable to take on the chairmanship of the board and for the prohibition period to be extended indefinitely. Would people qualified as lawyers but who work in business and have not practised as a lawyer for a number of years be among those discriminated against? Such prejudice is unjust and nonsensical.
That argument can certainly be made, but I am saying that it will not apply to all lawyers in all cases. It might apply to certain lawyers; in some circumstances, a lawyer’s practice might negate their suitability for the position. That will not, however, be the case in all instances. The problem with this proposal is that it would create a non-adaptable set of circumstances. That would not be suitable. We have recently had a Prime Minister who was a lawyer, and lawyers can be chairmen of various sorts of organisations, from banks to voluntary agencies. There is no justification for excluding an entire profession from the role of chairman of the legal services board. It is in the public interest that the best person for the job is appointed as chairman, and I see no reason why the best person might not be, for instance, a qualified non-practising lawyer. We shall therefore seek to divide the House on amendment No. 75 at the appropriate time, which will be when we debate a later group of amendments.
Government amendment No. 103 would ensure that the chairman of the legal services board must be a lay person for the first five years. Again, we see no justification for that requirement and believe that the chairman should simply be the best person for the job. I note that the Government have withdrawn the amendment, so this point has in effect become irrelevant.
Government amendment No. 104 clarifies the fact that the chairman, and not simply “any subsequent” chairman, must not carry out reserved legal activities during the appointment. That simply follows on from other points.
Let me now turn to what in constitutional terms is the core of the proposed legislation: the appointment and removal of members of the legal services board. We appreciate the Minister accepting that her position in Committee—the simple reliance on Nolan principles to ensure that appointments to the board are made independently of Government—was insufficient. Appointments to the board being made by the Lord Chancellor alone could have had serious implications. It would have meant that a senior member of the Executive would have had the ultimate responsibility for governing how the legal profession was regulated. Such a structure could have dramatically undermined the crucial principle of the independence of the legal services board from Government.
I am glad that the Minister has changed the Government’s stance, adopted in Committee, of simply tabling amendments to wreck what we felt was the good work carried out in the other place, and that she has instead come back with the constructive suggestion, contained in Government amendments Nos. 102 and 106, that appointments and removals from the legal services board be made following consultation with the Lord Chief Justice.
I spoke at some length in Committee about the serious concerns of many groups about the potential effect on the legal profession’s independence if the Lord Chancellor could make appointments to the LSB alone. The Government appear finally to have listened to the views of the legal profession, the Law Society, the Bar Council, other regulators—both national and, I have to say, international—Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Cross-Bench peers, who amended the Bill in the House of Lords to ensure that a check exists on the Lord Chancellor’s power to make appointments to the LSB. However, I still question whether the Government’s amendments go far enough to protect the legal profession’s independence. I still believe that ideally, the Lord Chief Justice’s concurrence would be the most appropriate check on the Lord Chancellor’s powers. It is for that reason that my hon. Friends and I tabled amendments Nos. 24 to 34.
The Law Society has expressed concerns about the position under the Government amendments, which provide only for “consultation” with the Lord Chief Justice. In a letter to Lord Kingsland of 10 September, the Law Society stated:
“We think it is important that the Government should make it clear that ‘consultation’ will amount to much more than merely inviting the Lord Chief Justice to comment on a list of names of those the Lord Chancellor proposes to appoint. Consultation should cover all aspects of the appointment process. In particular, the Lord Chancellor should consult the Lord Chief Justice about the specification of the skills and experience required of the Chair and other members of the Legal Services Board, and also about the composition of the panel which will interview candidates.”
I very much hope that the Minister can provide such assurances to address the Law Society’s concerns, which we share. However, requiring appointments to be made with the Lord Chief Justice’s concurrence would ensure that his or her opinion was given sufficient sway, and that appointments were wholly independent of Government influence.
Indeed, we say that this requirement for concurrence is the best protection to bolster the independence of the legal profession from the Government. Simple consultation, with no clarification of what it will involve, does not go far enough on such an important issue. An independent legal profession provides the ultimate safeguard of the rights of the individual against abuse of power by the state. Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, has wisely pointed out that
“the independence of our judiciary is dependent on the independence of our legal profession.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 April 2007; Vol. 691, c. 52.]
Simply requiring consultation with the Lord Chief Justice may, in some circumstances, not be sufficient to ensure that any doubt about the independence of the legal profession is removed.
In discussions with the Minister, which were certainly helpful, the question was raised of using a parliamentary confirmation hearing for appointments to the LSB, along the lines announced by the Prime Minister in relation to senior appointments. The Minister stated that she would look into the possibility of using such hearings, and I should be pleased to hear her views on that in relation to all board appointments, or just chairman appointments. I point out, however, that even if such hearings were put in place, they might not go far enough to protect the legal profession’s independence. The Lord Chancellor would not need to listen to any recommendations, and could be seen to be following unchecked some form of political agenda in relation to the appointment of the board. It does not matter how much consultation with the Lord Chief Justice or a parliamentary Committee takes place if it is simply ignored. For this reason, we still see the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice as the ideal.
The position under the Government’s amendments is that simple “consultation” would suffice. This issue must be addressed again if consultation is ever to be sufficient. At the very least, written guidelines on what that consultation will involve must be provided. For instance, is it agreed that the Lord Chief Justice’s views on appointments to the legal services board should be publishable? We are not yet there on these vital provisions. The concurrence position was that agreed by all Opposition Members and passed in the other place. That is where it will go again, as would be the case in any event, because it is essentially the amendment from the other place that this House has turned down. The Government will have difficulties unless much more flesh is placed on the bones of their concession. On that basis, I shall ask for a Division at the appropriate time in these proceedings to allow hon. Members to vote for concurrence, on amendment No. 24.
I shall speak to amendment No. 75, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). This simple amendment is of great importance to this Bill, because it reinforces what the Minister has said throughout its passage about putting the consumer at its heart.
The amendment proposes to remove the word “first” from paragraph 2(2) to schedule 1, which states:
“The first chairman must be a lay person.”
For the purposes of the Bill, a lay person is defined as someone who has never acted as a legal professional. The amendment is important in ensuring that the legal services board is seen to be independent, because having someone in place who is not a legal professional in any shape or form is vital, given that we have seen vested interests demonstrated in Committee and again here tonight.
The legal services ombudsman, to whom I referred earlier, is appointed by the Lord Chancellor in accordance with section 21 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which stipulates that the ombudsman shall not be a qualified lawyer and shall be independent of the legal profession. It is important that the chair of the new legal services board is not only independent but seen to be so. That cannot be achieved if he or she has connections with the legal profession. The Bill provides that the first chairman should be a lay person—I am happy that the Conservatives support that—so why not continue that? The amendment, which I am pleased that the Government now accept, will reinforce the importance of that lay position; many of my constituents need its protection.
During the passage of this Bill, both in this Chamber and in the other place, we have seen a rearguard action fought by the vested interests of the legal profession to protect anything and to fillet the Bill. I am pleased that the Minister has not given in to that pressure and has ensured that the Bill has the consumer at heart, as she has always stated. This proposal is an important part of that. I am also pleased that Which? has been campaigning for this amendment and supporting the call for the chair to be a lay person.
We have heard from vested interests during discussion of the Bill. It is a badge of honour that the Conservatives are to divide the House on my amendment. I am pleased because it shows, as has been demonstrated during progress of the Bill, that no matter what is said by the sleek packaging of the new Conservative party, when it comes to legislation the old Tory party of vested interests and conservative nature emerges. The way in which the Conservatives have conducted themselves on this Bill is a great example of that. I am pleased that the amendment will be supported—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asks whether all lawyers are Tories. No, they are not, but he and his colleagues are doing a damned good job of protecting the vested interests of the legal profession. I would have thought that were he into this new cuddly, friendly, consumer-orientated Conservative party—
Sorry, as my hon. Friend says, that was last week. Were the hon. Gentleman into that approach, he would embrace something that gives the little people in this society some rights and powers and that puts the consumer, rather than vested interests, at its heart. I am pleased that the amendment will be put to a vote. I hope that it will be agreed and that we ensure that we get a legal services board that is not only independent from the legal profession but is seen to be so. People will gain confidence from that. I am sad that that will ensure that Members such as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will not be able, following his retirement, to sit on the board, but I am sure that he will find a quango to add to his already long list.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s arguments for the independence of the chair of the legal services board from the legal profession are strong. However, does he accept that the legal profession should be independent of Government and not be in a situation in which a Government appointee can sack people from practising?
I am sad that the Liberals have fallen for that nonsense. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was good in Committee at championing the consumer interest, as was the hon. Gentleman, but he does himself no favours by falling for the old turkey that somehow the amendment would mean Government interfering directly in the legal profession. I know of no other organisation that would insist on having a direct say in how it is regulated or on the board that regulates it. I mentioned in Committee the example of the certification officer. The Conservatives would certainly frown on the idea that a full-time trade unionist, or someone with a trade union background, should be the certification officer, but if we do not accept the amendment, that is what will happen in the legal profession.
I am pleased that the Government have listened and the Bill’s passage has been conducted in a good spirit. To give the Minister credit, she has taken on board points that have been made about the consumer interest, which is after all the core of the Bill.
This is an important group of amendments, dealing as it does with the constitution, the consumer panel and the legal services board. I recognise the moves made by the Minister in the direction of other members of the Committee in recognising some of the problems with the Bill. I especially welcome the change in the provision for the appointment of the consumer panel, which now requires the approval of the Lord Chief Justice.
I hear what the Minister says about information, and I shall look carefully at the Official Report when it comes to the information provided to the panel. It is essential that the panel has all the information that it requires to do its work effectively. There have been instances of consumer panels in other areas of government and industry that have not had all the information that they need. It is crucial that there should be no suggestion that the panel is kept in the dark about key issues relating to the legal profession and its relationship with its consumers. I will look closely at what the Minister says to see whether it allays the fears of consumer groups that think that the provision of such information should be a statutory requirement.
I entirely agree with amendment No. 75, tabled by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). There is a strong argument that the chair of the legal services board should be not only independent but seen to be independent of the profession that is being regulated. Even if a person who has qualified but has been out of practice for 25 years is appointed as chairman of the LSB, he or she will not be seen as an entirely independent arbiter. It is therefore very much in the interests of the system that the Government are promoting and of the professions themselves that the person appointed is seen to be beyond reproach. Having a lay chairman would strengthen the whole principle of the LSB, in the same way as arrangements for disciplinary matters in Parliament are strengthened by an Opposition Member—who is seen to be independent of the majority in the House—chairing the Committee in question. Such independence is important and, if we are to have a Division, I shall recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they support the amendment.
I part company with the Government on the requirement in respect of the Lord Chief Justice. It would be wrong to fail to recognise that the Government have added a provision requiring consultation, and that is a move in the right direction. However, I have tabled amendment No. 147, which would require the approval of the Lord Chief Justice. I had a brief discussion with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) the other day about whether the word “approval” had any different connotations to the word “concurrence”. On reflection, I am not sure that it does, except for the fact that the Government clearly prefer the word “approval”, as they used it in their amendments on the consumer panel. Therefore, if there is any nuance in that word that will secure the agreement of the Government it is worth exploiting. The honest truth, however, is that I tabled the amendment having temporarily mislaid amendment No. 24, which the hon. Gentleman had tabled. They come to the same thing, and that is why I have now added my name to amendment No. 24.
Why is it important that we have the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice? It is not because he is someone who will impose the will of the legal profession on the appointment. That is not the role that the Lord Chief Justice would exercise in that respect. Is there a difference between the approval and the consultation that the Minister is proposing? There is a difference in precise terms, but I am less confident in claiming that there is a difference in practice. I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which a Lord Chancellor would proceed as chair of the LSB with the appointment of someone whom the Lord Chief Justice had considered, rejected and told the world why he had rejected them. The Lord Chancellor would be in a very difficult position.
The intervention by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was interesting. Would the Lord Chief Justice have the statutory right to report that disagreement to the House? I think that he would. In that case, the Lord Chancellor would be proceeding with the appointment of someone in whom the Lord Chief Justice had no confidence and could report that fact in open session to this House and the other place. Would the Lord Chancellor proceed with the appointment in such circumstances? If that is the case, the Government’s resistance to the amendment becomes even more difficult to sustain, because the practical consequence would be the same.
I have dealt with the practicalities, and I shall now deal with the theory. The intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) was right: the appointment must be independent of the legal profession, but it must also be independent of the Government. We know what happens in those jurisdictions where lawyers are appointed—or their appointment is in any way constrained—by the Government. That is the way to tyranny, which is why we have always maintained the independence of the legal profession and why we have written into statute the independence of the judiciary and the particular role of the Lord Chief Justice, not as head of the profession but as head of the law in terms of the judiciary. Removing any suspicion that the Government may want to manipulate the membership of the legal services board by ensuring that the Lord Chief Justice has not only been consulted but is actually prepared to support the appointment of a given person is an important safeguard for that body.
I would agree, except that I do not believe that power under the Bill would be exercised in any real sense unless there was a case of gross misconduct. There may be such cases and one hopes that they do not arise, but one must at least make provision. My point is that the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice is the imprimatur that ensures that the Lord Chancellor is acting properly in making appointments to the legal services board.
My last point is to rebut what the Minister said about accountability. I do not understand how the concurrence, approval or agreement of the Lord Chief Justice in any way removes the accountability of the Lord Chancellor—happily to this place rather than to an unelected place down the Corridor—in the exercise of the political judgment that that Minister makes. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to initiate the appointment process. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to determine the criteria for appointment. It will still be for the Lord Chancellor to arrive at the name that is submitted, and it will still be for the Lord Chancellor, having secured or otherwise the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, to propose it to the House. Of course, if the Lord Chief Justice says that a person is grossly unsuitable, the appointment procedure will come to a halt, but the person who is appointed with the approval of the Lord Chief Justice is subject to the accountability of the House on the part of the Lord Chancellor. That seems entirely right and proper and I do not believe the Minister’s assertion that the provision undermines the accountability of Ministers or the role of the House in securing proper consideration of such appointments.
For all those reasons amendment No. 24 is well founded. Whatever view the Minister and her right hon. and hon. Friends take tonight is almost irrelevant because the proposal will return from another place. I am sure that people there feel strongly that the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the matter needs to be secured and buttressed, not for narrow sectional or vested interests but because it will ensure that the independence of the legal services board is maintained with a double lock—a political one, independent of the professions, and a judicial one, independent of the Government. Both of those working together will ensure that we have a legal services board that does the job the House wants it to do. If the amendment is moved later, I shall recommend that my hon. Friends support it.
We shall support amendment No. 75. We are nearing a satisfactory conclusion to this part of the Bill, but we are not quite there yet.
Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is no longer in the Chamber. He described some Members on the Labour Benches as obsessed. He chose his terminology injudiciously; a better description would be “diligent”. The people who are obsessed in this debate, as they have been throughout the two years of the Bill’s proceedings, are those who want to maintain the privileged position of the legal profession and everything to do with it. We have heard the same thing again today.
The suggestion that the prospect of the board’s having a permanent lay chairperson could lead to a Division called by Her Majesty’s Opposition casts some doubt over the wisdom of the Conservative party and about its contact with the real world. However, in the real politics, I shall be generous to the Opposition. The obsession seems to be with preserving the status quo and the privileges of the legal profession, and in my brief remarks I shall speak in support of the amendment that I have signed. I shall cite as closely as I can the words of the late James Sheppard, who was one of my constituents, because I always like to ensure that the House comes into the real world when we are discussing the problems of regulating the legal profession.
When I first called meetings of miners—usually those who had retired—and their widows, they had no understanding of what the Law Society was and had never heard of the Bar Standards Board or the Bar Council. I had never taken cases to court and had no knowledge whatever but I realised that something was going wrong. I received backing at every one of my initial meetings from Mr. James Sheppard, a retired miner who was very ill. He was probably also very aged, but it was hard to tell because he was so ill that one could not be certain of his age. One could be certain, however, that he would ensure that all my meetings were wheelchair-accessible, because his emphysema meant that he was permanently wheelchair-bound. Despite that, at every meeting he insisted on getting out of his wheelchair—initially, much to my fear—to deliver a speech. I watched him teeter to his feet and wondered how long he could stand before falling down, but on every occasion—from first to last—he raised himself to his feet with the aid of his sticks and delivered the most eloquent of speeches.
Mr. Sheppard spoke on behalf of retired miners everywhere. He explained his life and work, and told us how during the war coal was dug by people such as him to ensure that we could produce armaments and keep the power going to sustain the war effort. Their service was belatedly recognised by the Ministry of Defence through the Bevin boys medal. Throughout the post-war period, miners in constituencies such as mine worked in collieries where health and safety was an afterthought. That is why miners won a court battle on emphysema. Such stories are mere words when they are ban