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Probate Registry Service

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Probate Registry Service.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; I think it is the first time I have done so. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the effectiveness of the Probate Registry. I put on record my declaration of interest, in that I am a practising solicitor and I am familiar with this area of practice.

This debate may appear rather niche—a minority interest in many respects—but probate and the administration of estates affect thousands of individuals and families up and down the country every year. This is not just something that is of interest to people such as myself, lawyers and accountants; as I say, it is of interest to families. We should also remember that there are around 500,000 deaths every year. I accept that not all estates will go to probate, but many of those 500,000 do, and therefore an awful lot of individuals and families get involved in the probate process and the administration of estates, whether directly themselves or through professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

There has been, I think, a degree of frustration and anger over the process in the last couple of years, and I am fortunate that I am in a position to bring this issue to a debate. I have been a solicitor for 30 years. For 28 of those years, I found the Probate Registry to be an excellent service. That is why today, in many respects, is such a great disappointment to me and why this is a debate that I would prefer not to be having.

Over those 28 years, the Probate Registry was always an efficient service. Probates were returned in a timely manner, consistent with the application timescale, and often within two to three weeks. Just as importantly, as practising lawyers, we had confidence that that would be the case—that the probates would be delivered in that timescale and therefore that we would be in a position to advise clients accordingly. If there was a problem, we always knew that it would be dealt with in a suitable timescale. If people had queries, the responses to those queries would always be dealt with constructively and efficiently by very helpful staff. Phone calls were answered and always in a reasonable timescale.

I would like today to give great praise to the Newcastle upon Tyne district probate registry, which has provided an excellent service to my firm and many others in the north of England over many years. I suspect that if other professionals were standing here today, they would cite similar experiences with other district probate registries up and down the country.

I have had contacts from solicitors in my constituency and I think it is important to illustrate how the current situation affects families. One family I heard of made an application in June, but probate was not received until late September—a wait of almost four months. During that time, they were required to spend £30,000 on repairs in relation to the deceased’s estate, and of course that was at a time when they did not have the funds to be able to afford that. That is not an isolated case. What I have been told by solicitors in my constituency is that when they made applications directly to Cardiff probate registry, they found that far more effective; they were very satisfied with that service. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that an unsatisfactory service is not good enough and needs to be addressed.

I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s intervention. I agree with what she said and will come to the point that she was making about the sale of properties and how it is very important to get probate. It is interesting that she has heard from her local professionals and constituents about this very issue, which does affect a lot of families up and down the country and certainly in her constituency.

To go back to my point about the experience that I had in those 28 years, I would have rated the probate service overall as first class—something that a public service organisation should be proud of. Sadly, that is not the case now. I say to the Minister that unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, you are the fourth Minister with responsibility for this service whom I have been dealing with in a little over two years. I am sure Members would agree that we could have a debate just about the movement, the appointment, of Ministers and the timescales for which they are in office. That does not allow them always to get control or get on top of the issues that there are.

I have therefore experienced frustration on this matter over the last two years. I do appreciate that this Minister has inherited these issues, but at the end of the day it is still his responsibility to try to resolve them and improve the service. Sadly, two of his predecessors, in my view, did not really want to know, had not really grasped the issue and in many respects may not have been that interested. One at least had the honesty to confirm that there were problems and that he and the Department were trying to resolve them—I emphasise that that was pre-covid. At that time, I was aware that pressure was being applied by the Minister to try to improve the service and remove the backlog of applications. Sadly, that has not been achieved, and I emphasise that covid is not and should not be in any way an excuse, as the problems predate covid-19.

I can give real examples of what I am talking about. A member of staff can spend 40 to 50 minutes on the telephone waiting for a response to a query—I emphasise “40 to 50 minutes”. Even when an issue is raised, it is quite often not dealt with as quickly as it should be. As for updates, I will read directly from the response that we get on the website from the Probate Registry:

“Due to COVID-19, we are currently experiencing an increased demand on our service.”

I emphasise that actually it was pre-covid-19 that this was happening. The response continues:

“We will take longer to answer your call and to respond to your e-mail. Unfortunately, we cannot provide updates on case progression over the phone, e-mail and webchat.”

That is such a transformation from what used to happen, when people could do such things. For any service, one would expect to have the ability to get an update on the progression of one’s case.

Another example concerns an actual application for probate, which was submitted on 22 June. Probate was finally issued only on 10 September. That is 12 weeks later. In relation to another two applications, one submitted on 16 June and one on 29 June, probate was received only at the end of October. That is 17 weeks later. I repeat that it was 17 weeks—over four months—before probate was granted.

As for the quality of probate, errors are now creeping in in a way that would have been unimaginable previously. For example, a probate came back with the solicitor as the executor, rather than the person who should have been named on the probate. I accept that mistakes happen, but traditionally, people always received a perfect probate from the probate registry. That can cause serious problems, because people then have to go back and get the probate changed, which takes forever. Overall, we are experiencing a poor level of service compared with previously. If there was an alternative service, I am sure everyone would be using it by now. Sadly, we are not in that position; we have a monopoly service.

Such experiences are real. I am aware that other law firms are having similar experiences, as indeed are individuals. The obvious question is why there has been such a deterioration. The Government must take some responsibility for it. In their wisdom, they wanted to put up the charges for probate applications by a significant margin without giving it serious and sensible thought. In many respects, it was seen by many people as a tax rather than a payment for a service, because it was aligned to the size of the estate rather than the service that was being provided. Not surprisingly, that created a surge in applications, and not unexpectedly, the service was unable to respond adequately. Of course, the Government then realised that the increase in charges was inappropriate and did not proceed with it. They created a problem unnecessarily; they could easily have continued with the service as it was.

There was then rationalisation, which was an attempt to streamline the service by centralising it. It could be argued that that was a sensible use of resources, but clearly it has not worked out. As I have already mentioned, the performance of the district probate registries has been very effective in the past. We are now centralising the service, but it is not necessarily bringing about an improvement.

Finally, we have digitalisation. Again, there is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but does it actually improve the service? The Minister has written to me suggesting that there has been an improvement, which is true to a certain extent: it has improved the service from a poor position to a better one, but it is still not as good as it once was. From 2 November, the Government made it compulsory for professionals to use the digital service. The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners suggested that the roll-out of digital aspects should be delayed, but that advice was ignored. Yesterday, my law firm found that the portal did not work—I could not make that evidence up. The Government should have taken the advice of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.

There are consequences to all this, such as family distress, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned. The administration of an estate can be a stressful and difficult time for families, especially when they have just lost loved ones. Gaining access to funds quickly is important, as not all families have money readily available, and they may need the probate to gain access to those funds. Then of course there is the sale of property and other assets, which can be lost or delayed. The sale or purchase of a property, as everybody knows, is already a very stressful experience. It may not be front-page news, but we must remember that this affects thousands of people and their families up and down the country in a real and meaningful way.

As I said, I have raised the matter with the Minister’s predecessors, and I wrote to the Minister on 23 September. I received a letter from his Department dated 27 October, which came by email on 5 November—nine days later. I suggest that he has a word with his Department about how to communicate with a Member of Parliament in a timely fashion. What is happening in the probate registry may be happening in the Minister’s Department as well.

In the letter, the Minister acknowledges that the service has a problem. He mentions that the timescale for digital cases has improved to between two and five weeks on average, which I accept is an improvement. I point out, however, that in the past paper applications were dealt more quickly. I am encouraged by his indication that additional resources are being allocated to reduce the backlog, but why was that not done a year and a half or two years ago? We were aware that there was an issue at that time. The Minister mentions the centralisation of the system, but to a certain extent I question the wisdom of that. I have also asked written questions.

The evidence is this: in 2018, it took an average of three weeks for a probate to be granted; it is now seven to eight weeks. In 2018, the probate registry had 156 staff; it now has 215. In 2018, the cost of the service was £5.7 million; it is now £7.5 million. Will the Minister explain how a service that now employs more people and costs more is delivering a poorer service? Will he explain how introducing new technology, which is meant to improve the service, has resulted in probates being issued in seven-plus weeks, rather than about three weeks under the old system? Does the Minister agree that that poor level of service is having an adverse effect on many individuals and families up and down the country, and that that is unacceptable?

Does the Minister accept that this is not a political issue—far from it—but an administrative issue, and that it is therefore incumbent on the Government to ensure that the service is provided properly for the people of this country? Will he confirm that he will seek the opinion of service users, either individuals or professionals, to get their views on the service and what improvements and changes can be made? Will he let the House know how he and his Department intend to improve the performance of the probate registry, and will he let Members know what he has done and what the expected improvements and the timescale are?

I was going to ask the Minister to take the Rory Stewart route—when he was Prisons Minister he made a commitment that if the service had not improved in the next 12 months, he would resign his office—but I think that would be grossly unfair to the Minister, because I appreciate that he has not been in office long. However, I ask him to make a commitment to the House that he will seek to improve the service significantly and quickly, because it affects an far more people up and down the country than we may think.

It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for securing this debate on a topic that is extremely important for all the reasons that he has eloquently laid out. When families suffer bereavement, they expect the state to support them and act quickly as a matter of compassion. It is also a matter of practicality: as my hon. Friend said, there are often property matters that need to be dealt with quickly, and delays with probate make them more difficult.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend because, as he says, he has three decades’ experience of working in this area. Parliament is at its best when Members who have relevant direct experience—particularly current experience, as in his case—bring it to the House for the benefit of other Members and the whole country. I am grateful to him for bringing his experience to the House.

It is fair to say, as my hon. Friend laid out, that over the past two years there has been a significant change in the probate service, and there have been significant challenges and problems. This goes back to 2019, when two things happened that somewhat upset the probate applecart. The first was the very substantial fee increase, which was proposed and subsequently withdrawn. It caused a very substantial increase in the number of probate applications—I think they went up by 50%—as people tried to get them in quickly ahead of what they feared would be a very large fee increase. A year ago, the Government made it clear that that very large increase was not going to happen. None the less, it had a destabilising effect on the system when it was initially announced. Secondly, a new computer system was introduced a year and a half ago, and as is often the case, there were teething problems with it that led, particularly in 2019, to some very significant delays, which my hon. Friend referred to.

By the beginning of 2020, before the onset of the coronavirus, we had begun to recover and were offering better service. For example, in January and February this year, 44,113 grants were made, which was back to the 2018 level, before the various problems that I just described. Come January and February this year, we had got the probate system back to where it was before. Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic then struck and that disrupted operations, particularly in March, April and May. By July and August, we had got the output of the probate service back up—for example, in July, the average number of grants made each week, which is the key number we look at, was 5,400, which was around 9% above the five-year average. In August, we got it up to 5,700 a week, so we had gone up a little again to about 16% above the long-term five-year average. By the summer, therefore, the number of probate grants being issued had gone back up above the long-term average, which is an important milestone to reach. Consequently, waiting times have been getting better—not as good as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle or I would like, but they have got better.

For digital cases, the average waiting time was generally between two and five weeks and for paper applications it was between five and seven weeks. Paper applications take longer because they are harder to handle with social distancing. Solicitors must now make applications online, but I strongly urge individuals making their own probate applications to use the online service because it is much faster—a two-to-five-week turnaround time—and it is less error-prone, both by the user and by the probate service on handling the application, because everybody is using a common format and typing in material directly to the system. I strongly urge people to use the online system.

I have heard some examples of much longer waiting times than two to five weeks for digital or five to seven weeks for paper, and I am happy to look into the specifics of those cases if the hon. Member would like me to. I get a number of probate delay cases coming up in correspondence from constituency MPs. In more than half of the cases, where there are long lead times of 10 or 12 weeks, often there has been a mistake in making the application in the first place, or there is an outstanding tax matter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or something like that. Using the digital system reduces those errors, so I repeat my previous plea to use that where possible.

In the last year or two, the system has been in transition to the new computer system and the new service centres that are supposed to provide a centre of excellence where things can be processed more quickly and efficiently. We are midway through that transition. Those have been established, but there is still some activity going on in the local registries, and the process of completing the transition has been effectively paused due to the pandemic. My hon. Friend asked about resources and observed that the number of people employed in the probate service has gone up from 156 at the end of 2018 to 215 in March this year, and the amount of money being spent has gone up from £5.7 million to £7.5 million. He asked, quite reasonably, why there are issues if extra money is being spent. The answer is that it is still a service in transition. My objective is to get through that transition as quickly as possible, first, to realise the savings that were originally promised but have not yet been realised because the transition has not been completed, and secondly, to deliver the faster and better service that was promised at the outset. I think we can all agree with those aims.

My hon. Friend asked for a commitment from me to work tirelessly to make the necessary improvements, and I am happy to give that categorical commitment this morning. I am grateful to him for not pressing me to make the Rory Stewart kamikaze pledge, but I do commit to doing everything possible to make the improvements. In that spirit, I was going to suggest, before my hon. Friend called the debate, that we meet officials to go through some of the points that he has raised and the work currently going on in the service. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) has a similar professional interest in this area, as an accountant, so I suggest that he join us to go through the issues in a little more detail. I would like to hear from Members with particular professional expertise, to make sure that I as the Minister, and the Ministry of Justice more generally, learn from the observations and experience of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.

One concern that has been raised with me relates to Welsh language wills. Will the Minister assure me that the new provision will be able to deal appropriately, according to the Welsh Language Act 1993, with people’s right to present wills in the medium of Welsh, and that that will be dealt with effectively?

I believe that that is the case, but in the interest of absolute clarity it would be safest if I were to write to the right hon. Lady confirming it. I believe it is, but I will double check and write to her formally giving her the confirmation that she has quite reasonably requested.

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about consulting other MPs and what he is trying to achieve for the probate registry. I just want to make a couple of points. First, I think people are quite happy to pay the probate registry fee if they get a good service. I and many other people thought the increase proposed in the past was like an increase in taxation, but if there were an increase in the fee so that effectively the service could just wash its face, I do not think anybody would have an issue with that—certainly professionals would not. The other thing I would say to the Minister is please listen to other bodies such as STEP. It suggested that there should have been a delay in the compulsory digitalisation and it proved correct on that score. I think sometimes that Governments should listen in a positive way to what is suggested to them.

My hon. Friend is right on the question of the fee. The very large fee increase contemplated a year or two ago went far beyond cost recovery. The current fees, I believe, cover approximately two thirds, or perhaps three quarters—probably more like two thirds —of the cost of running the service. I am grateful for his observation that practitioners, the public and parliamentarians would consider modest fee increases that cover the cost of the service, but no more, to be justifiable.

As for the digital service, after my hon. Friend made the point about the problems yesterday, I checked with the Department about whether there was a general digital service outage, and I was told that there was not, so I would like to hear a bit more—perhaps when we meet—about the digital issue that his firm experienced yesterday, so that we can get to the bottom of exactly what happened there. However, the reason we have made digital applications compulsory is that they are faster—two to five weeks—which benefits the user. Also, the evidence we have gathered indicates that they are far less prone to error, both by the applicant, whether that is an individual, a solicitor’s firm or an accountant, and by the probate service itself. Those are considerable benefits that flow from the use of the digital service, but if there are teething problems or if my hon. Friend’s firm has experienced issues, I would definitely like to investigate the precise nature of those.

I hope that this morning I have acknowledged the problems that have certainly existed in the past. There have been considerable improvements over the course of this year, but there is more work to do to realise both the savings that were promised by the centralisation process and the service improvements that were promised. I will make achieving that a priority, but in doing so I will work with Members with expertise such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, to make sure that we deliver on the promise, and deliver to constituents and their families, at a time of bereavement, the service that they are entitled to expect.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.