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Power of Attorney

Volume 749: debated on Monday 11 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to make it easier to nominate a power of attorney.

My Lords, the Government have taken the following steps to make it easier to make a lasting power of attorney. First, the Office of the Public Guardian has released a test version of a digital tool which allows donors to make lasting powers of attorney online. Secondly, it has redesigned its paper forms to make them easier to follow and is consulting on proposals to combine the application processes of the two types of lasting power of attorney and to introduce a digital signature. The fee for registering a lasting power of attorney has been reduced from £130 to £110 from 1 October this year.

My Lords, I wonder who has told who about that reduction because I was quoted £200 by the lawyers. Many women, and maybe men as well, are thoroughly put off by the amount of money it will cost simply to do what one used to do. If the Minister asks his more elderly relations he may find out that one used to get a bit of paper, write on it “I give you power of attorney”, sign it and send it to the bank—that is all you had to do. This whole business seems to me unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming. I ask whether we might return to having a simple piece of paper.

My Lords, I have to tell the noble Baroness that the number of older relations I have is becoming increasingly small. I take the point that she made, but we also have to be careful in dealing with matters where often quite considerable sums, in terms of inheritance, are in question. There has to be an orderly process that can be much better checked than the noble Baroness’s scrap of paper with a line on it. We are trying—and the Office of the Public Guardian is making every effort—to consult on this, and the consultations end on 26 November. We are trying to simplify and make it easier for people to do this without having to pay expensive legal fees.

My Lords, this is the document to register power of attorney: it is 12 pages chock-full of questions, cautions and warnings. It is the most verbose document that I have had to deal with either for myself or for those I have represented in over 30 years in public life. Of course there must be safeguards in all this. A doctor has certified in this document that I am capable of making decisions—I have all my marbles. Why then do I have to name from two to five people to be told that I am registering power of attorney so that they can object to it? Why? Can this bundle of red tape and jargon not be withdrawn, consolidated in a new draft and put in the Library so that I and people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who said it all, and lots of other people who might want to see this—solicitors and what have you—can inject some common sense into it?

The last thing that I said to my officials was, “You realise I’m going to be addressing an informed and vested audience?”. I will make sure that the Hansard of these exchanges is taken as part of the public consultation, which I emphasise ends on 26 November. The reason for the consultation is very much to do with the noble Baroness’s point: there were, and continue to be, complaints about how complex this matter is. We hope that the outcome of the consultation will be a much simpler process which people can use.

My Lords, I am very glad to hear from the Minister that simplification is intended. Recently I have had to deal with these complications because unfortunately my sister is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and it has become necessary for me to find somebody to assume the power of attorney in that case. It is not easy. It is not only complicated and expensive but the person whom you nominate, and who has been nominated by me via our lawyers to handle the power of attorney, has his own job to get on with. It is also very time-consuming for the person who assumes it. I am grateful that a relative of mine has taken on this task, but it needed a bit of persuasion. It is not only the expense; it is also the time involved in doing it. It is important that it be really simplified so that people can take this job on. This is increasingly important as we are dealing with an older population in which people require this kind of service as simply and quickly as possible.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has put her finger right on it. We all know the change in the structure of the population that is going on. I am always amazed when I am in the corridor and pass a colleague who I know is as old as I am and who says, “I’ve got to go and visit Mother this weekend”. That is one of the responsibilities; and because of these increasing responsibilities, we have to make sure that as well as making this process simple, we also make it fraud-proof. That is the balance that we are trying to get.

My Lords, I am taking my life in my hands a bit by confronting the two noble Baronesses but, as an old solicitor, I wonder if my noble friend Lady Trumpington has taken account of the fact that the piece of paper that she so rightly said she could sign and waft off is still available to her. She can still go to a stationer and buy a general power of attorney for a pound, and that is all that she will need to pay. The problem is that the lasting power of attorney created in 2007 deals with people who have lost their capacity to command and deal with their own affairs. That is a hypersensitive issue, and within a family many people might be deeply uneasy about who gets that power, particularly in terms of life and death issues. Perhaps the answer is not as simple as it might at first appear.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that question. I look forward to witnessing the meeting of my noble friends Lord Phillips and Lady Trumpington in Peers’ Lobby after Questions.