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Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill (First sitting)

Debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr David Hanson

† Adams, Nigel (Selby and Ainsty) (Con)

† Burgon, Richard (Leeds East) (Lab)

† Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)

† Frazer, Lucy (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

† Gray, Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

† Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

Johnson, Diana (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)

† Lee, Dr Phillip (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)

† Matheson, Christian (City of Chester) (Lab)

Pow, Rebecca (Taunton Deane) (Con)

Rees, Christina (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)

† Solloway, Amanda (Derby North) (Con)

† Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con)

† Sunak, Rishi (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con)

† Warburton, David (Somerton and Frome) (Con)

Whitford, Dr Philippa (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)

Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 21 February 2017

[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill

I begin with the usual announcement that electronic devices must be switched off or kept silent and that tea and coffee are not allowed in the Committee Room.

No amendments have been tabled, so we have only to consider whether the clauses should stand part of the Bill. For the Committee’s convenience, I suggest that we do so in two debates. The first will be on clauses 1 to 7, which focus on the definition of missing persons and the making of a guardianship order. After we reach a decision on clause 1, I will then put the Question that clauses 2 to 7 stand part of the Bill. The second debate will be on clauses 8 to 25 and the schedule to the Bill, and we can then take a vote or a decision on them. I hope that hon. Members are content with that.

Clause 1

Missing persons

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.

Quite simply, the Bill will fill a gap in the law that few people even know exists. Around 4,000 people go missing every single year, yet there is currently no mechanism under the law for anyone else to manage their property and financial affairs. Data protection and contract law prevent dialogue between banks, landlords, insurance companies or utility companies, for example, and any party other than the account holder—I note at this point that the Bill has the full support of the Council of Mortgage Lenders—and the missing person, their estate and their dependants are often worse off as a result. The new status of guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person will fill that gap and help families and others after a disappearance. Many of us have benefited from similar powers in other difficult circumstances, such as when someone close to us passes away or is no longer able to manage their own affairs because of dementia or other mental capacity issues.

The core provision of the Bill is that the court will have the power, on the application of a person with a sufficient interest in the property and affairs of the missing person, to appoint a guardian. The Bill draws on systems used abroad—in certain states of Australia, for instance—and on the system for appointing deputies under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. It provides that the guardian will take control of some or all of the property and financial affairs of the missing person, who must generally have been missing for at least 90 days; will have authority to act on the missing person’s behalf; will be able to use the missing person’s property to help those left behind; will be accountable for his or her actions and supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian; will be appointed for a renewable period of up to four years; and, crucially, will be required to act in the missing person’s best interests. The small fee involved will be payable by the missing person’s estate, so there will be little or no cost to the taxpayer.

Clauses 1 to 7 cover who is defined as a missing person, who can be appointed as a guardian, when, how and for how long a guardian can be appointed, and the extent of the guardian’s role and powers. I commend them to the Committee.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. With your permission, I will make all my remarks to the Committee in this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton on all the work that he has done to introduce the Bill. As he says, it fills a gap that many people are lucky enough not to be aware of. He knows better than most here that such a Bill has been a long time coming and is very welcome indeed.

I can confirm, as expected and as hon. Members will be aware, that we will not oppose the Bill. We support it, and there is strong cross-party support for filling this gap in the law. I understand that the Missing People charity, one of the main promoters of this change in the law, endorses the Bill as drafted. As has been discussed, and as hon. Members know, there is no mechanism in England and Wales to protect the property and affairs of a missing person. As we have heard, the Bill seeks to change that. The absence of such a provision has led to profound hardship for many people.

Hon. Members will recall the Westminster Hall debate in March 2016 in which hon. Members spoke passionately of the experiences of themselves and their constituents, which are relevant to the Bill. As many will remember, the hon. Member for York Outer spoke of his constituent Peter Lawrence, whose daughter Claudia Lawrence has been missing since 2009. It is a well-known case, and I understand that it was announced last month that a review of the case is to be scaled down. I know that Peter Lawrence has campaigned vigorously alongside Missing People for a change in the law for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath also spoke of her personal experience of her uncle vanishing abruptly.

The anguish that those circumstances must cause to families is truly unimaginable to those who have not known the uncertainty and trauma of such a loss. The inability to manage a missing person’s property and finances can only add to that distress, anxiety and anguish. Of course, there may be dependants who require financial support, outstanding bills and obligations or mortgage payments on which families rely—it is very welcome that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has mentioned the support for the Bill from the Council of Mortgage Lenders. As I have mentioned, the importance of trying to maintain some measure of order while a loved one is being traced is perhaps overlooked by the rest of society, who cannot imagine such a situation. Plainly, that needs to be corrected, which is why we welcome the Bill.

There have been faltering attempts at legislation before, so I am glad that we are now seeing real, practical progress. Hon. Members will recall that the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation in 2014, and on 23 March 2015 confirmed that the coalition Government would legislate to create the legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person. The Ministry recognised the strong support for such an advance in the law. The Justice Minister at the time, Lord Faulks, released a written statement in which he expressed a wish that legislation would follow quickly in the following Parliament.

While the expected legislation did not materialise as swiftly as people would have liked, we are pleased to see practical progress being made today. On 6 June 2016, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport tabled an early-day motion noting the delay in progress and requesting that the Government urgently set out a timetable. However, it is the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that has brought us to this position, and we seem to be well on the way to introducing a piece of practical, useful and necessary legislation.

The hon. Gentleman has previously estimated that some 2,500 people could benefit from a law of this kind. As we have heard, it will give the courts the power to appoint a guardian to manage the property and affairs, and act on behalf, of a missing person. The Bill also proposes safeguards to ensure that that guardian is accountable and acts in the best interests of the missing person. Moreover, the Bill takes inspiration from an existing precedent in Australia, which has a legal system that shares some similarities with our own.

To reiterate, it is welcome that the House is legislating to fill the gap in the law. There has been long-standing and consistent cross-party support for legislation to address the issues. Moreover, campaigners and other interested parties, including the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the charity Missing People, support the Bill in its current form. There is therefore welcome agreement across the board on the issue. We must not drag our heels. I am glad that we have the opportunity to see the Bill progress today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. and long-standing Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton on introducing a Bill to create the new legal status of guardian of the property and financial affairs of missing people and on presenting the case for clauses 1 to 7 to stand part of the Bill.

The Government have indicated on several occasions in recent months—not least in reply to questions from my hon. Friend and other Members from all parts of the House—that we intend to bring forward legislation on the subject as soon as parliamentary time allows. It will therefore come as no great surprise that the Government welcome the Bill and intend to support it. I also very much welcome the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Nothing can cure the emotional and psychological pain caused by the sudden, unexplained disappearance of a loved one, but changes to the law can help to provide solutions to some of the practical problems faced by those left behind. Clauses 1 to 7 provide the core of a legal framework within which the best interests—in a wide sense—of the missing person can be protected and those left behind can be sustained in a way that it is reasonable to think the missing person would have approved, had he or she been present.

The clauses define when a guardian may be appointed, the terms on which he or she may be appointed and the duration of the appointment, where a person is “missing” as defined in clause 1. My hon. Friend has provided a clear explanation of the purpose of the Bill’s provisions, and I do not intend to repeat his observations. I urge the Committee to agree that clauses 1 to 7 should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Guardians and effect of guardianship order

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 9 to 25 and the schedule to the Bill.

Quite simply, clauses 8 to 25 cover the guardian’s obligations, the role of the Office of the Public Guardian, the relevant courts that would supervise the proceedings, and the code of practice. On that basis, I commend the clauses to the Committee.

I thank my hon. Friend for his explanation of clauses 8 to 25. The clauses build on the foundation laid by clauses 1 to 7 and lay out the remainder of the legal framework to which secondary legislation and codes of practice are to be added. The clauses are unified by the theme of the guardianship, but are fairly disparate in their detail.

First, the clauses deal with the obligations of the guardian and the effect of his or her dealings with third parties. In that respect, the guardian is obliged to act in what he or she reasonably believes to be the best interests of the missing person and is to be treated as the agent of the missing person. Third parties dealing with the guardian need to know where they stand, just as they do with any agent.

Clauses 8 and 11 build on the law of agency and the provisions relating to deputies in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Clause 10 allows guardians and others to seek instructions from the court on how to act. Personal representatives and trustees have similar options. Once appointed, a guardian will be entrusted by the court with authority to act on behalf of the missing person, but circumstances may change. Clauses 12 to 15 create a system within which orders can be changed by court order or revoked, whether by court order or automatically, in the light of changing circumstances.

Guardians will be held to account by third parties under clause 11, where the guardian acts outside their authority. They will also be subject to the supervision of the Public Guardian, by virtue of clause 17. Here, too, the Bill draws on the existing legislation relating to deputies, as it does in clause 22, in relation to the issues of codes of practice, to provide guidance to guardians and others.

I welcome the inclusion of the definition of the best interests of the missing person in clause 18, particularly the provision allowing for further definition of that concept through regulations subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. None of the secondary legislation that may be created under the Bill has yet been drafted, but a memorandum on the powers has been sent to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. I certainly envisage that the draft legislation will be subject to consultation with stakeholders and experts.

I do not think that I need to comment on any other aspects of the Bill, save to say that I hope that all the necessary secondary legislation can be made within a year of Royal Assent, so that if the Bill is enacted, it can be brought into force in 2018. I commend clauses 8 to 25 of the Bill to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 9 to 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

On a point of order, Mr Hanson. I would just like to thank a number of people. I thank our wonderful doorkeepers and Hansard reporters, all colleagues across all parties who have given up their time today and on many other occasions, the Clerks for their essential guidance, the officials from the Ministry of Justice, particularly the excellent Mr Hughes, who has been tremendous, and of course our superb Ministers, who have been so supportive. Of course, I also thank everyone connected to the Missing People organisation, which has campaigned so hard and for so long for the introduction of this legislation.

I am grateful to Members from all parts of the House and to Members of the other place who have pledged their support. I give particular thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for York Outer and for Selby and Ainsty and to the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Stockport and for City of Chester, who have been so supportive and worked so hard on this issue. I was simply in the right place at the right time and have hopefully carried the baton over the last few yards. I am also very grateful to the Select Committee on Justice and the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults for their work.

I offer my final and most important thanks to my constituents, Mr and Mrs Lawrence—Peter Lawrence is here today—who have championed the cause of guardianship, even though it can no longer help with their situation. They are, of course, the parents of Claudia Lawrence, a missing person since 18 March 2009, nearly eight years ago, her fate still unknown. As a testimony and tribute to their endeavour, their eternal hope, their endless fight for answers and justice, and their selfless commitment to help others faced with similar tragic circumstances, I very much hope that this legislation, if effected, will always be known as Claudia’s law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.