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Public Guardian (Fees, etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2017

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2017

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Public Guardian (Fees, etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2017.

My Lords, these regulations apply to England and Wales and reduce the fee for registering enduring and lasting powers of attorney. The current fee of £110 will be reduced to £82. The resubmission fee, paid when an application has to be resubmitted because of an error with the original application, will be reduced to £41 from £55. If Parliament agrees, we intend these changes to take effect on 1 April this year.

The new fee will be an enhanced fee, allowing us to cover the full cost of registering a power of attorney as well as to ensure the efficient and effective discharge of the public guardian’s functions. The power to charge an enhanced fee is contained in Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

There are currently more than 2 million powers of attorney registered. These comprise lasting powers of attorney and their predecessor enduring powers of attorney, which remain valid and may still be registered. In October 2017, we will celebrate 10 years since lasting powers of attorney were introduced. In that time, the Office of the Public Guardian, the body responsible for maintaining a register of powers of attorney, has registered nearly 2.5 million powers.

The high uptake of lasting powers of attorney is an indication of the success of the Mental Capacity Act. They allow individuals to plan ahead for a time when they may lack capacity to make decisions for themselves and to appoint someone they trust to make those decisions for them. It is, of course, positive that so many more people are now making powers of attorney, but it has led to a position where the income we receive from fees charged is exceeding the cost of delivering the service. A detailed review of power of attorney fees, together with an improved forecasting model for volumes of applications, taking into account the ageing demographic and the rise in dementia, has enabled us to take decisive action to reduce fees and bring them closer to the cost of providing the service.

As many more people have been registering LPAs in recent years, increased volumes coupled with greater efficiencies in processing applications have resulted in fees being charged above the operational cost of delivering the service without our having exercised the power provided by legislation to allow us to do this. Clearly this situation must be remedied, which is what these draft regulations seek to do. Furthermore, alongside the reduction in fee, we will also introduce a scheme for refunding a portion of the fee to customers who may have paid more than they should. Full details of the scheme will be announced in due course. We will take such steps as are necessary to make sure that people are made aware of, and receive, the refunds to which they are entitled.

The Government’s aim is to ensure that the public guardian’s functions are properly resourced. We consider that an enhanced fee will go towards funding vital wider functions carried out by the Office of the Public Guardian. The enhanced fee will allow the public guardian to ensure that those who cannot afford to pay still have access to the key services offered by the Office of the Public Guardian; there is a remission scheme in that regard. The fee will also contribute to costs of the public guardian’s safeguarding activities, including the annual costs of supervising deputies appointed by the court to manage the affairs of people who have lost capacity to do so for themselves. I therefore commend these draft regulations to the Committee, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I am not sure whether I need to declare an interest in this matter as having registered an enduring power of attorney myself, which might entitle me, I suppose, to a rebate. It is pretty unlikely, I suspect, but it is a possibility and I shall have my old firm explore it.

Obviously, therefore, I welcome the main thrust of the order, which is to reduce the fees from their current level. The Government have acted perfectly properly in that respect. However, it is interesting that the Explanatory Memorandum confirms what the Minister has described as the Government’s policy—namely, that they have decided,

“in view of the financial circumstances and given the reductions in public spending, that a fee above full cost is necessary in order to ensure that the Public Guardian is adequately funded and that safeguarding the vulnerable is protected in the long term”.

That does not seem to be a logical explanation for retaining, albeit now reduced, a fee that is above the full cost. It is a philosophy which I hope will not be applied elsewhere in public services—namely, that you contribute not just to the cost but to an excess of the cost. Have the Government made any estimate of how much they will benefit by this device over time? How do they justify charging more than it actually costs to provide the service? They have been doing so, as it were, unconsciously for some time; now they will do so consciously. That strikes me as a very odd way of proceeding.

The fees charged in respect of a power of attorney in 2007, when the scheme came in, were £150. They have reduced steadily since then, although they increased between 2009 and 2011, while transitional measures were being taken to upgrade IT for the Office of the Public Guardian. When they were reviewed in 2013, they were brought down. Subsequently, audit has indicated that they are still above a necessary and appropriate level.

However, with regard to the question about the enhanced fee, that allows for the fact that over and above the actual cost of dealing with a power of attorney, the Office of the Public Guardian also has to deal with other costs and demands—namely, those involving the application of parties who get a fee exemption and therefore the cost of their application has to be covered, as well as the cost of appointing deputy supervisors by the court. I did not use the correct term. It is not deputy supervisors but supervising deputies.

I am sure it does—to somebody. Therefore, the limits in Section 180 of the 2014 Act are there to ensure that although we can recover more than the actual costs of the operation itself, it is for the purposes of funding the wider demands on the Ministry of Justice.

Is there any report of how that actually works in practice? I do not expect the Minister to have the answer today but what is the amount that has been raised in that way and where has it been spent?

So far as the additional funding is concerned, I should have made it clear that it is funding for the Office of the Public Guardian and not wider than that. As to the precise sum, no, I do not have the figure to hand.

Motion agreed.