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Office of the Public Guardian: Lasting Powers of Attorney

Volume 703: debated on Monday 30 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they propose to deal with delays encountered by those wishing to create new lasting powers of attorney.

My Lords, since October 2007, the Office of the Public Guardian has seen a significantly higher than predicted number of applications to register lasting powers of attorney. A strategy to deal with the high volume has been implemented, and improvements are starting to be seen. I expect further progress to be made over coming months.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that it is now taking four months to set up a lasting power of attorney where it took only a month to set up the old one, that costs have risen fourfold to more than £1,000 a time and that relatives now have to complete two forms, each of 25 pages, compared with a single four-page document previously? Is any consideration being given to reducing those 25 pages?

My Lords, I think that the cost must refer to the cost of lawyers, which is a question between the client and the lawyer. Some of the time built into the new system is because of the safeguards that were deemed to be necessary and were thought to be absent from the previous system. I have copies of both forms, which were carefully prepared in consultation with stakeholders. However, I am sure that over the next few months there will be an opportunity to take account of the comments made by the noble Baroness. We are committed to reducing the time for the overall process to the absolute minimum.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that one of the problems with lasting powers of attorney is that people who enter into them are often ill and frail? Filling out 25-page forms is not the easiest thing for them to do, and they may be subject to influences. What would the Minister do to publicise the benefits of people entering into a power of attorney of this nature when they are relatively in charge of themselves and understand all the implications?

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord raises. The problem has arisen because the number of applications per month reached 6,000 last month against an estimate, when the new policy was enunciated, of around 2,600 a month. That suggests that, notwithstanding the short-term problems with the timetable, the message about the importance of the lasting power of attorney is getting through to potential donors. I entirely understand the point that he makes about the forms, and I am sure that, as part of the review after 12 months of the operation of the new system, that matter will be looked at carefully.

My Lords, when there are delays and when money from the person’s account is needed—for instance, to pay care home fees—what provisions are there to enable access to funds prior to registration?

My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness is referring to a situation where a person has not yet become registered. Clearly that will depend on the circumstances of the individual. Under Section 5 of the Act, there are provisions to enable a person to act on behalf of an individual on that basis. Ultimately, application can be made to the Court of Protection.

My Lords, the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, is absolutely correct. Difficulties are being experienced by people in precisely those circumstances. Will my noble friend undertake to look at that matter specifically and perhaps write to us?

My Lords, of course I am happy to look at the matter, but it should be remembered that the lasting power of attorney was not meant for emergency use; it is there to enable a person to plan their future in good time. That is why, as I just mentioned, there are the provisions in Section 5 of the Act and, ultimately, application to the Court of Protection, which allows a matter to be dealt with immediately if an application has not yet been registered.

My Lords, with respect, I think that the noble Lord is not right. The power of attorney is often used at a time of momentary distress, often with instructions to look after children. I speak from professional experience. It is then, at times, forgotten about and left there. It is a difficult situation, but it ought not to be regarded as a merely temporary arrangement, as the noble Lord said.

My Lords, I am not sure that I did get it wrong. I was referring to circumstances where an application has been made but has not yet reached full registration, where there are provisions to allow the matter to be dealt with. I think that the noble Lord is referring to what are sometimes described as fluctuating conditions, where a person may have capacity at one point but not at another. The whole point about the new structure is that it is designed to be flexible enough to deal with those circumstances.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his honourable friend in another place, Bridget Prentice, has been organising a series of seminars with her staff? I attended the first one last Monday, which I found extremely helpful and recommend to other noble Lords. She is holding more such seminars, where staff explain why it has been taking so long to deal with the matter, why they have to raise fees—because they have to be self-supporting—and why there are two forms. I ask the noble Lord to recommend the seminar to other noble Lords.

My Lords, I think that this is the first time in eight years that I have been able to say that I thoroughly endorse the views of the noble Countess.

My Lords, the noble Lord has made it clear that the principal hold-up is an excess of work falling on those who have to grant the powers. Surely, when there is too much work, it is a good thing to have some more workers.

Yes, my Lords, and part of the improvement programme has been to put more people to work in the registration system, alongside more IT equipment. That is why the time taken to deal with registration, where there is nothing wrong with the way in which the form has been filled in, is expected to be back on target by the end of August.

My Lords, because these forms are easy to read. Whatever other defects noble Lords might find in them, they are absolutely clear to read. I am sure that they resulted from consultation, which said that many previous forms were too small and difficult to read. I fully accept that we can learn the lessons from the past few months. The October review will take this into account. If the forms need to be changed, they will indeed be changed.