Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Sanders: Is the Minister saying that that only applies to the situation in Wales? Does it not apply to advice across England and Wales? My experience of LEASE, or certainly the view that many leaseholders have relayed to me, is dissatisfaction at the fact that LEASE is overwhelmed with calls for advice and assistance. If it is going to extend its operation into advice on commonhold-I suspect that initially, at least, there will be a significant increase in the number of inquiries regarding the new concept-how satisfied is he that there will be advice services available to meet the demand? Will the new clause enable the Lord

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Chancellor to react quickly to meet the demand should it prove overwhelming to an existing organisation that is charged with the function?

I have a separate question. I do not mean this as a criticism of LEASE, but does it naturally follow that that body would give the advice? Is there not some mechanism by which someone must tender for the contract to give the advice? There is a tendering culture in local government that does not always seem to apply to central Government. Might not bodies come forward and offer an advice service under a tendering process in England and Wales?

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Mr. Cash: The explanation for the distinctions between the different parts of the United Kingdom seems thin and strange. I am also concerned about the lack of guidance about what the financial assistance would involve and how far it would go. The terms of the new clause are pretty broad. It states:

    ''The Lord Chancellor may give financial assistance to a person in relation to the provision by that person of general advice about an aspect of the law of commonhold land, so far as relating to residential matters.''

I do not know whether this is intended to be a social welfare operation, which, by analogy, could be applied to almost any Bill passed in the House. Some might argue that, on the same principle, financial assistance should be provided in any kind of Bill.

Many Bills are complex, as this one is. I have argued that the arrangements for unanimity will be counter-productive. I also raised the appalling discrepancy between the fines it was possible to levy in London, which amounted to 91 million, and the amount that was actually collected, which amounted to only 42 million. Should not the Lord Chancellor make some financial assistance available to ensure that the system for the enforcement of fines works more effectively?

I am taken aback by the prospect of huge sums being spent on making financial provisions on such a scale. Huge sums may inevitably be involved, but I cannot make an assessment of that, and I ask the Minister for further information. As a solicitor, I do not deal with such matters, because it is not the field of law in which I specialised, but I wonder whether the application of the principle should involve such huge sums, although the measure may be theoretically desirable.

I hasten to examine the Bill's opening passages to see whether it says that there are no financial implications. Such statements normally occur in a certain place in a Bill, but I do not see one.

I have made my point and would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say. Will he give us an estimate of what will be involved and what starting arrangements will be required in the Lord Chancellor's Department to support the measure? What is the overall implication of these provisions?

Gareth Thomas: It is clear to me from dealing with constituents who have problems with tenure, especially with retirement leasehold property, which is a feature of the area that I represent, that there is a need for the

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advice and persistence provided by LEASE. I do not share the views of the hon. Member for Torbay. My impression of the professionalism and competency of LEASE is favourable. I introduced a private Member's Bill a few years ago to deal with many of the problems relating to the abuse of retired people in purpose-built retirement accommodation with which the Bill deals. LEASE gave me considerable amount of advice then, and my impression of the organisation was very favourable.

Mr. Sanders: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that I was questioning the professionalism of LEASE. I was simply saying that it has a large work load. Those who have sought advice have no qualms about its quality but are concerned about the amount of pressure that it is under now and has been since it was created.

Gareth Thomas: I am grateful for that clarification. LEASE's burden of work will increase if the Government introduce a sunset clause, which would make commonhold a standard form of tenure for new developments.

As the only Welsh Member present, perhaps it is appropriate for me to remark that this Government introduced devolution in Scotland and Wales. We can be proud of that achievement, which is part of the Government's commitment to reforming the constitution. However, it is ironic that, because of the complexities of the devolution settlement, it was necessary to introduce the new clause in order to deal with the anomaly already referred to.

According to the Minister, whom I am not in a position to contradict, it would not have been possible to provide advice on commonhold issues in Wales unless funding for advice was channelled through the Lord Chancellor's Department. There is a need for advice on leasehold issues, which affect many people in retirement areas in Wales generally, and in Cardiff. On Second Reading, reference was made to the role of George Thomas, former Speaker of this House and former Secretary of State for Wales, who led a campaign, as a Member for a Cardiff constituency, where leasehold was a big concern, to reform the law. The amendment and the new clause are necessary and I welcome them.

Mr. Wills: Let me begin by reassuring the hon. Member for Torbay that the power is general and that the assistance could be given to anyone whom the Lord Chancellor deemed appropriate.

I hope that I am wrong, but the hon. Member for Stone seemed to consider that any matter of social welfare was to be resisted on principle. I hope that I misunderstood him. The Government think that considerations of social welfare are a desirable part of the Bill.

Mr. Cash: As a member of my family actually invented the co-operative society, namely John Bright, I am unlikely to have made a remark of that kind without careful thought. I want to know whether giving people a fair opportunity to, for example, engage in the acquisition of rights and interests in land of the kinds that are described in the Bill, needs to supplemented by making large sums of money

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available for the purposes of providing advice, which can be obtained from other sources? I would like to know where this is leading, because legal aid is a highly contentious issue. I do not know what kind of sums might be involved. Will the Minister answer me directly as to whether an estimate has been made of how much money would be involved?

Mr. Wills: I should have known better than to raise any matter relating to the hon. Gentleman's genealogy. I will confine my remarks from now on. The hon. Gentleman has overlooked the fact that the provision for the funding is already in the Bill. The amendment and the new clause are designed specifically to correct an anomaly of the kind that is inevitable in such a legislative process. They will restore the status quo, not create a new one. If the Committee does not accept them, the people of Wales will be deprived of advice.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister is explaining the technicalities of dealing with the constitutional position. He mentioned the partial devolution of a function and said that two Ministers may need to be involved. I have no problem with that, but I join my hon. Friend the Member for Stone on one issue. I have never been described as an uncharitable person, but I may have to produce my most recent receipt for membership of the human race, because I am concerned about the principle involved in the clause. If I have difficulty with my motor car, I must face the consequences and either get an estimate from the garage for repairs or draw on the annual subscription that I pay to the Automobile Association for assistance. If I need assistance with the plumbing in my flat, I must get a plumber. I am concerned about the conceptual difference in the Bill, where paid-for assistance is available. What is special about the case in the Bill? Could we not do the same in the case of my motor car?

Mr. Wills: Up until this point, we have had an extremely constructive and useful debate, but for the first time I feel that the proposed line of exploration has become utterly sterile and fruitless. I see no point in trying to establish general principles where the House has never done so before. Successive Governments have used taxpayers' money to provide various forms of advice, and they made judgments at the appropriate time. Under the present provision, the Lord Chancellor will decide in exactly the same way what financial support is appropriate in the circumstances to provide what level of advice.

Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee want commonhold to take root, and we have designed the process to be as simple and straightforward as possible. Self-evidently, the need for advice should diminish over time. We do not know that for a fact, but that is the expectation. When the concept is in its very early stages and is unfamiliar, as the hon. Member for Stone said, we expect that the need for advice will be greater than it will be three, four or five years down the line.

We are exercising ourselves quite unnecessarily about something that is straightforward and is

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simply designed to rectify an anomaly that has been created for the reasons that I gave. I see no reason why the people of Wales should be deprived of advice that the people of England can have.

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