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Law Reform

Volume 175: debated on Wednesday 4 July 1990

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14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received about the proposed changes set out in part II of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill; and if he will make a statement.

I have received a number of representations. I am pleased to be able to report to the House that, as a result of informal discussions with the Law Society of Scotland in the past few weeks we have today reached agreement with regard to the proposals in part II of the Bill.

The Law Society of Scotland has informed us that it is able to accept that the solicitors' monopoly with regard to conveyancing should cease. The Government for their part accept that the provisions in the Bill allowing persons other than solicitors to provide conveyancing services should be limited to independent qualified conveyancers. The provisions will not apply to the financial institutions.

The Government and the Law Society of Scotland have also agreed that the provisions in the Bill with regard to multi-disciplinary practices should be made the same for solicitors as for advocates. There are also some detailed points in part II which I have recently discussed with the Law Society of Scotland and am considering.

On that basis, the Law Society of Scotland has informed us that it is able to welcome part II of the Bill and is anxious to see it appear on the statute book. I am also able to inform the House that the Scottish Consumer Council has indicated that it, too, welcomes the agreement that has been reached.

I would like to thank the Law Society of Scotland for the constructive and helpful discussions that we have had, which have enabled us to reach this amicable agreement.

That is clearly a major statement—and a major retreat—by the Secretary of State. I am sure that he made it freely, and without any undue pressure. Substantial concessions have been made, however, and it is important to add that that is a tribute to the pressure applied by the Labour Members on the Committee. There are two outstanding questions that the Secretary of State has not addressed. Clearly, there is major concern about the other important measures in the Bill being rushed through in Committee, and about there being insufficient time to deal with them. Perhaps the Secretary of State can advise the House what proposals he has for the other parts of the Bill.

Finally, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that the agreement that he has announced today is accepted by all his own Back Benchers, as we have had the privilege of watching Tory Members and Ministers fighting like ferrets in a sack about the proposals?

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first question, I can say without fear of contradiction that the views of Opposition Members on the Committee considering the Bill have been of less significance than usual in terms of the development of policy. As for the attitude of my hon. Friends, they must speak for themselves, as they often do, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. As for the other parts of the Bill, I am sure that the House as a whole hopes that there will be an opportunity to consider properly in due course the licensing and other provisions that hon. Members believe are important.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend most warmly for his announcement and for the agreement that he has reached with the Law Society of Scotland. I thank him also for listening to his own Back Benchers' representations that in future rural solicitors should be able to compete fairly and play their full part in the community.

I thank my hon. Friend. From my point of view, one of the most important questions that we addressed was the need to end the solicitors' monopoly over conveyancing. I am grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for agreeing to that proposition.

In preparing for the humiliating climbdown that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just announced, did he have time to reflect on what he said in 1976—that a separate Scottish legal system needed a separate Scottish Parliament? Have not the tawdry and undignified scenes in the Corridor outside the Committee Room demonstrated the Government's inadequacy and inability to get their business through the House?

I can understand that the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a distinguished lawyer, is disappointed about the Government's ability to reach agreement with the Law Society of Scotland on matters of this kind. I appreciate that he may have other interests in that respect. However, we have demonstrated that with good will it is possible to reach agreement. That is something which I am delighted to report to the House.

I warmly and wholeheartedly congratulate my right hon. and learned Gentleman on his achievement. He has done a great service to the people of Scotland, the institutions of Scotland and the integrity of the House. Does he agree with me that, given good will and some reasonable compromises on the later parts of the Bill, there is every reason to believe that the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill can be enacted in this Session of Parliament, having been considered at reasonable hours?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It will assist the Committee to know that with regard to that part of the Bill which has given rise to the greatest public interest both the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Consumer Council, which have occasionally adopted different views on certain matters, have enthusiastically endorsed the proposals?

The Bill began its life in the other House in February 1990. It has taken the Secretary of State from February to the beginning of July to discuss and enter into an agreement with the Law Society on part II. How on earth does he expect the Committee to discuss, in the three weeks that remain before the recess, something on which it has taken him six months to reach agreement with the Law Society of Scotland? Does the Secretary of State also accept that although he has been a member of the Committee since it began its work, the words that he has expressed at the Dispatch Box are the first words that he has uttered on the Bill as he left everything to his junior colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)? Does he appreciate that there is simply not enough time to get the Bill through its Committee stage?

I am happy to pay a fulsome tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who has done a superb job in Committee. It is only in the recent past that the Law Society of Scotland has felt able to state its willingness to agree to the proposals that have been put before the House today. I pay tribute to the Law Society for its constructive contribution.

Although I recognise that the Secretary of State and his colleagues must feel very humiliated by this eleventh-hour decision, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House what discussions he has had with the Department of Trade and Industry about competition policy, given that that is included in the Bill? The problems did not become apparent in February, but when the Green Paper was published last year clear antagonism was expressed. Why has it taken so long to recognise that the Bill is totally unrepresentative of the wishes of the legal profession, particularly in Scotland?

The hon. Lady must appreciate that it is not just the interests of any one profession that the Government must take into account. We discussed competition policy with the relevant Departments arid I am delighted that the opportunities for greater choice are preserved on the basis of what I reported to the House today.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the agreement that he has reached with the Law Society of Scotland. I remind him of Churchill's words

"In War, resolution; in defeat"—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman should ask a question, and please not give us reminiscences.

I will take the point of order, but it may affect the time available to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.

Does this matter appertain to order during questions? If so, please make the point of order brief.

I wish to raise a point of order which is germane to the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill.

If it requires my immediate attention, I will take the point of order now, but we are in the middle of Question Time and I want to call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.

It is important that you take my point of order now, Mr. Speaker. You have observed what happened in the course of Question Time. A specific question was used by the Secretary of State to make what was, in essence, a statement and not an answer to the question. The whole issue is certainly important and germane to Scotland. You know what happened yesterday in the House, when there was an endeavour by the Government and by Ministers to abuse the procedures of the House and to abuse Parliament. I ask you to do your duty Mr. Speaker, as it is your responsibility to protect Back Benchers—

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please now sit down? I trust that I speak for the whole House when I say that I hope that there will not be a repetition of the disgraceful scenes that we had yesterday—[Interruption.] I am protecting Back Benchers.

The question was on the Order Paper and the Minister has a right to give his answer to that question. I wish to call Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, and then the Oppositon Front-Bench spokesman, to conclude the discussion on the question. I will not hear the hon. Gentleman any more.

No. On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] It is—

I should be very reluctant to take severe action in the case of such a senior Member. I order the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat.

In that case, under the powers granted me, I reluctantly say that if the hon. Gentleman does not obey the Chair, I must ask him to leave the Chamber. I am reluctant to do so.

I will leave the Chamber, but something will have to be done about the chairmanship of the House.

I hope that we shall not have a repetition of the scenes that we had yesterday. I receive a great deal of post and representations from members of the general public. The reputation of the House is in the hands of its Members. It is up to us inside this Chamber to set a good example to those outside.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I will continue the question that I was asking. It was in response to a question from the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) who asked whether the Secretary of State would make a statement. Given good will and consideration of the requirements of the people of Scotland and its legal services, will my right hon. and learned Friend accept my congratulations on what he has done today and remember the words, "so far, so good"?

This is not a precedent because we are now past the end of Question Time, but, in view of the point of order, which should not have been raised then, I call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.

My criticism of the fact that there is no statement is directed at the Secretary of State for Scotland. I entirely understand that you. Mr. Speaker, had to call question No. 14. It is unfortunate that an important announcement has been compressed into this unsatisfactory parliamentary space. However, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said as far as it goes. It is a remarkable retreat, although I fear that it is not a matter of intellectual conversion but has been forced on the Secretary of State by his total isolation and the evident lack of confidence in his competence among Conservative Back Benchers.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the effect of what he has said is that the banks, building societies and larger institutions will not now take on conveyancing work? Will he note our strong view that, however valuable the lobbying of the Law Society of Scotland may have been, the matter should not be decided by a deal on that basis but is an issue for the Standing Committee and, ultimately, the House? I did not like the way in which the Secretary of State suggested that the matter was settled. Is he not, in effect, accepting the amendments to part II of the Bill which have been standing in my name and those of my hon. Friends for some time?

Finally, I have an important question. Do I understand from what the Secretary of State has said that he does not intend to proceed to a guillotine and expects to avoid that? That must imply that large sections of parts III and IV of the Bill will have to be dropped if progress is to be made.

I am certainly prepared, as my hon. Friends will be, to be constructive, but we must make it clear from the beginning that the only way to save the Bill from the chaos created by the Secretary of State's mismanagement is to enter into talks and to drop the parts that are not agreed in the rest of the measure.

The hon. Gentleman, in questioning my right to make the remarks that I did today, should reflect that the question of his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) was to ask me to make a statement. The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to complain that that is exactly what I have done. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is quite correct that the Standing Committee and, ultimately, the House will determine whether the proposals in the Bill are acceptable, but they will wish to take into account the views of outside organisations which have taken an interest in the issue. The hon. Gentleman is also correct in saying that a number of the amendments that he has put down relate to matters to which I referred earlier. That will be relevant at a later stage. Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's interest in discussing these matters with other members of the Committee. The use of the guillotine is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. However, in the light of progress and of the agreements to which I referred earlier, I think that the matter has been overtaken by events.

These matters should be dealt with through the usual channels and not decided by the Law Society of Scotland.

Order. I will take points of order later, in their usual place. I call Mr. Secretary Clarke.