I beg to move,
That this House has considered the publication of claimant data in county court judgments.
I begin by informing the House that one of my first jobs as a young person, before attending university, was at the Mayor’s and City of London county court, as an administrative officer. During that time I handled many thousands of claims, so I bring some knowledge and experience to today’s debate.
Turning to the debate, I want to make it clear how easy the solution to this problem can be. My ask is simple and straightforward: will the Minister agree to rectifying an omission in the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines Regulations 2005, so that claimant data is published? I am not asking the Government for funding, and there is no need for primary legislation. Instead, the issue I am raising today requires only a small adjustment, which will have a big impact, thereby underpinning the principles of justice, which are rightly celebrated in our country, tackling inequalities that are too often shouldered by those who have the least, and saving resources in our already stretched justice system.
I thank the hon. Member, and I absolutely agree with him.
The regulations were created in 2005. They allow for the sharing of specific civil court information with the registrar. However, that information does not include the name of the claimant in a judgment. That means that a defendant can obtain every other piece of information they might need, but not the name of the claimant who took the judgment out against them. That is a problem for several reasons.
Our justice system is world renowned. One of its key principles is that individuals should know who is taking them to court. That is a fundamental principle of natural justice—one that I am proud to champion, and one that I hope the Minister is, too—so it is ludicrous to discover that defendants in these cases do not know who is taking them to court. Indeed, it seems unreasonable and unjust that the claimant’s name is not published in county court judgments, and it creates something of an unbalanced system. It goes against the fundamental principles of natural justice that underpin our justice system. Again, I hope the Minister shares that concern.
To look at this on a more practical level, the omission of claimant data can have negative consequences for some of the most financially vulnerable in our society—for example, those wishing to settle and repay debts, or to come to an agreement with their creditor, who are unable to obtain the information they need about who is pursuing a claim. Instead, they must embark on the lengthy and convoluted process of seeking the judgment case number, via TrustOnline, and then making phone calls or writing letters to the courts to access claimant information.
The average waiting time for income inquiries to the courts often peaks at approximately one hour. That makes it likely that individuals will have to make repeated attempts to reach the courts, which further swells an already bursting administrative system. These delays in getting their calls or correspondence answered put individuals at risk of passing the 30-day window that they are given to settle their debt. If they miss the 30-day deadline, the judgment can be left to sit on their credit file for up to six years, at which point people will no longer be eligible for mortgages and may have further rent applications rejected, and insurance policies may lapse. That creates many problems.
Publishing claimant data would eliminate that. It supports both the claimant and defendant by making it easier to settle their debt, and it gets rid of an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, which stacks the system against those who fall into debt. It seems archaic, ineffective and inefficient that individuals have to make endless calls or continually write to the courts to find out such a small but important piece of information. Neither side of this House would disagree with the assessment that our court system is currently beset with severe backlogs, and the Minister, alongside his departmental colleagues, has said repeatedly in the House and elsewhere that the Department is committed to cutting those backlogs. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interests that they succeed.
Today I offer the Government an easy win. Every week, it is estimated that the courts field 2,000 inquiries related to claimant information, which adds up to 100,000 inquiries a year—a colossal and unnecessary figure. Imagine what court capacity might be freed up if our courts were handling 100,000 fewer inquiries every year. Publishing claimant data will do just that: free up capacity and help to cut the court backlogs. I remind the Minister that that is without additional Government spending and without the need for primary legislation.
If I have not yet been persuasive enough, let me share with the Minister some of the other potential benefits of making this change—I think I probably have, as I can see some nodding in the Chamber.
I will share a bit more anyway. Policymakers would be better able to understand what is driving problem debt and so would be able to develop better policy solutions. Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority or Ofwat would be better able to identify which firms are treating customers fairly by proactively supporting those who fall into difficulty. The Government would also be able to better target funding for debt advice services exactly where it is most needed.
Analysis by the Registry Trust, an organisation that I will talk about in more detail as I bring my speech to a close, found that 25% of all claimants in county court judgments are utility companies or parking companies. Unfortunately, in recent months Members of this House have become all too familiar with some of the poor practices deployed by energy companies in relation to the forced installation of prepayment meters. I know that is something that the Minister has engaged on with various Select Committees. Rightly, the actions of those energy companies have been condemned on both sides of the House.
Nevertheless, the fact that claimant data is not ordinarily published means that those energy companies can remain anonymous. Meanwhile, the people who the companies have registered a claim against are left blindfolded in terms of knowing who has taken out a judgment against them. That is wrong and a clear imbalance of justice, whereby our society’s most financially vulnerable people come second to energy giants who rush warrants through the courts, break into people’s homes and force-fit prepayment meters without proper regard for their customers’ welfare. Surely the Minister is not satisfied with this situation and wishes to rectify this inequality.
Let me reassure the Minister that I am not here to point the finger; I am here to help him put a solution in place that will actually work out in practice. The register of judgments, orders and fines has been run by the Registry Trust on behalf of the Ministry of Justice since 1985. The data managed by the trust supports millions of lending and credit decisions across the UK and Ireland every year. The Registry Trust provides services to Government bodies, regulators, credit reference agencies and many other organisations. On average, it processes over 130,000 records each month—vital work that helps our economy to keep moving. Before this debate, I shared with the Minister the news that I have been liaising with the Registry Trust for some time on this matter. The Registry Trust could not be clearer: it has the capacity to manage the addition of claimant data to the register.
If the Minister takes on board the arguments that I have laid out, goes back to his Department after this debate and drafts a statutory instrument so that it can be laid before Parliament at the first opportunity, I can assure him that he would not face opposition from the Registry Trust. Quite the opposite—the Registry Trust is leading the campaign for the publication of claimant data. If the Minister wants reassurance from the trust, I know that it would be only too happy to meet him and put their case forward.
Let me conclude by saying to the Minister: please do not look a gift horse in the mouth. This proposal requires no primary legislation, as I have already said. It does not add to Government spending. It promotes fairness and efficiency in our justice system. It is even being asked for by the organisation responsible for administering it. I therefore hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s intention to update the 2005 regulations and publish claimant data.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Fovargue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this debate. I am tempted to say, “I agree”, and sit down again. Sadly, there are a few things that I have to put on the record first.
I genuinely welcome the hon. Lady’s focus on this issue. I have heard her set out how enhancing the data that the Registry Trust holds could help protect households facing financial difficulties. I can confirm that the Government are considering whether we can support the proposal by the Registry Trust to allow claimant data to be included on the register of fines, orders and judgments in England and Wales, as articulated so clearly by the hon Member.
I want to commend the Registry Trust for the valuable service it provides to consumers, businesses and the wider economy. Access to data it holds supports millions of lending and other business decisions each year. The register holds more than 6 million records of fines, orders and judgments. Ordinarily, if a debt is not paid within one month of the court order, an entry will remain on the register for six years, as the hon. Lady set out.
Currently, entries on the register in England and Wales include the name and address of the judgment debtor, the amount owed and whether the debt has been satisfied. Every day, His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service provides the Registry Trust with a secure data feed of new or amended entries to the register. Once the Registry Trust has reviewed and processed the data, it is uploaded to TrustOnline, which provides members of the public and businesses with access to search the public registers. TrustOnline has enabled more than 100,000 customers to check county court judgments registered in the courts. It also provides organisations or individuals with bulk data, which is typically used to support lending and other types of business decisions.
The hon. Lady clearly set out the benefits of including the name of the claimant on the register in England and Wales, as happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Reflecting on the proposal, I note that that could benefit households in two ways. First, it would provide greater transparency about the use of the county courts by creditors. It would shine a light on the businesses and institutions that most frequently bring county court claims against consumers.
When we first started to discuss the topic of the debate, I tasked officials to see how we could start publishing the top 10 or 20 users of the data, so that we could shine that light as fast as possible. Because the data could help regulators to monitor how firms treat their customers in vulnerable financial positions, and it would help to identify which firms are the most aggressive in using enforcement action. The data could also be used by the regulators of utility and telecom providers to monitor the effectiveness of policies intended to support consumers in financial difficulty. Data could also provide an indication of the credit controls that lenders have in place to prevent irresponsible lending.
Secondly, the Registry Trust states that the addition of claimant data on the register could help academics and debt advice providers obtain better insights into the source of problem debt in the economy. As the hon. Lady said, the Government do provide a lot of support to debt advice. If this would make debt advice more effective, she is quite right that we should proceed.
There is a benefit to HMCTS, as well, as the people and businesses who find out that a court order has been made against them. Often they find they are in default without having received the claim, and transparency would help in that case. That can happen sometimes because, although the court rules require claimants to take reasonable steps to ensure that they have served the claim to the right address, they are not required to prove that the claim forms have been received. These rules seek to balance the rights of claimants to recover debts and the rights of debtors to be informed of the claim against them. As the hon. Lady said, that lack of transparency as to who is making the claim, sometimes means that people do not find out in time or are unable to satisfy within that 30 days. That is an incredibly powerful point. As she said, it could save the courts time, and lead to a quicker resolution of the debt, which would help restore the person’s business credit rating.
As the hon. Lady set out, the change would require the Government to amend the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines Regulations 2005. It would also require HMCTS to update its existing digital systems to implement it. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that we are carefully considering Registry Trust proposals. We agree it could bring several benefits to consumers.
We also want to ensure it does not expose consumers to any risks. For example, we are aware that criminals seek to exploit publicly available data to extort money from vulnerable people, for example by impersonating enforcement agents. We also need to consider where to focus the Department’s efforts to modernise many of the back-office systems that we are currently grappling with. I can reassure the hon. lady that this is, as she says, a gift horse, and something that I am keen to deliver as fast as I can.
In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to support and respond to this debate, to the hon. Member for Lewisham East for securing it, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for his support. I have the found the debate and reading around the subject in preparation incredibly helpful in finding out how we can address what sounds like a simple solution, for the benefit both of businesses and of those who find themselves in difficulty. I give my commitment that I will do my best to move this forward at pace.
Question put and agreed to.