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5 Mar 2007 : Column 1294

Mr. Hutton: We will certainly pay particular attention to those problems, and I appreciate the work that my hon. Friend has done as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on all such issues. In relation to the suggestion in Freud’s report about additional requirements expected from lone parents, it is important that we are clear that we will set those as and when barriers can be removed that prevent lone parents from working in the current circumstances. The approach, which is not punitive but enabling, is fully consistent with the approach that we have taken in relation to the new deal, for example. In return for additional help and support—that is now the promise on offer—we expect lone parents to engage with us and to plan a more rapid return to work. Work is good for their health and for the general well-being of their families. We in this House have an overall responsibility to do all that we possibly can to help lone parents back into work.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Secretary of State said that the report was published today, that the debate would start today and that he had made a written statement today. I cannot, however, find that written statement listed on the Order Paper. The Secretary of State also knows that the debate started yesterday—all the media were aware of the report yesterday; it was covered by all the networks. Why were Members of Parliament the last to know, as usual?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is right that the debate has been going on for a considerable time. I tabled a written ministerial statement because I felt that that was the right way to inform the House about what was going on. However, in relation to the urgent question, we felt that it was more appropriate to come before the House. I have tried to make it clear that there was no suggestion of any discourtesy to Members, and I am happy to make that clear again now.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many civil servants at Jobcentre Plus are likely to be affected by the proposals, and will they be expected, or encouraged, to move across to the new providers?

Mr. Hutton: There are no specific proposals yet, but the Freud report clearly suggests that, there will be an important and central role for Jobcentre Plus.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): The Freud report talked about simplifying the massive complexity of the benefit system. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most pernicious examples of that complexity is the variation in the earnings disregard? It can be just £5 a week for someone on income support, rising to £10 or £20 a week after a year, but it is £84 a week for someone on incapacity benefit, on a contributory basis. Therefore, the poorest people are the most disincentivised by the earnings disregard from looking for work. Will the Secretary of State look into simplifying the earnings disregard system across the range of benefits so that everyone knows exactly where they stand and no one is disincentivised from looking for work?

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Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has already made it clear that that is what we are doing.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I raise with my right hon. Friend an issue at the interface between the Freud report and the Lyons report into local government finance? I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that low-income families in work with children generally start paying their council tax at a much lower level of pay than they start paying income tax. That is clearly a disincentive to work. I realise that the issue is very complex, but will he at least consider doing something to align the point at which council tax benefit starts being withdrawn with the point at which income tax starts being paid? That would do an awful lot to remove disincentives to work, and to take thousands of children out of poverty at the same time.

Mr. Hutton: Yes, that is a very important issue. In terms of pensioner poverty, there is a clear link between council tax benefit take-up and financial hardship, and we must look at that issue carefully. However, my hon. Friend’s specific point is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Mr. Philip Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has twice told the House that he tabled a written ministerial statement today, but we cannot see reference to it anywhere on today’s Order Paper. Could you clarify the situation, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker: I think that the right hon. Gentleman meant that the written statement would be put down today for publication tomorrow.

Mr. Hutton indicated assent.

Mr. Speaker: The important thing is that an oral statement has been made today.

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Orders of the Day

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Second Report, Legislative Scrutiny: First Progress Report, HC 263; and Fifth Report, Legislative Scrutiny: Third Progress Report, HC 303.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome at least some of the Bill, which was generally well received in the other place. The Government have listened and responded to the thoughtful debates there, and I hope that we can attain equal levels of thoughtfulness and responsiveness in this House.

The Bill reflects three key principles in the Government’s legislative programme: institutional reform, extending opportunity, and protection for the vulnerable. The Bill aims to improve the experience of the public in their dealings with legal and quasi-legal problems by improving access to justice and the administration of justice.

The Bill makes far-reaching reforms in a number of areas. Part 1 delivers significant reform of tribunal institutions—the most significant changes to the system for 50 years. In part 2, we change the eligibility requirements for appointment to judicial office, thereby widening the pool of potential applicants. In part 3, we create a consolidated code of enforcement law and introduce increased regulation of enforcement agents, while part 5 will offer greater help to those who have fallen into debt and need assistance with their problems. Taken together, those measures will offer greater protection to the vulnerable. Part 4, by way of contrast, sets out more effective powers to pursue irresponsible judgment debtors who have the means to pay but choose not to do so. In addition, the Bill provides a regime to allow cultural artefacts to come to this country for exhibition without undue risk of seizure.

Tribunals deal with more than 500,000 disputes a year, often involving very vulnerable people. That includes people who have been victims of crime, persecution, discrimination or unfair treatment, or who are involved in disputes over benefit entitlement, tax or employment. Tribunals are an important means of resolving disputes between the individual and the state. They originally grew as attachments to the individual Departments with which the dispute occurred, and they grew in a disparate and unstructured manner over many years.

I pay tribute to Lord Irvine for perceiving, when Lord Chancellor, the need for a thorough and independent examination of tribunals, and to Sir Andrew Leggatt for his independent review of tribunals, published in 2001, which was the consequence of that referral. He
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found many faults with the system, and he recommended one that would be independent, coherent, professional, cost-effective and user-friendly: a system that he said would be

We agree. We have already brought the administrative support for tribunals together, having launched the Tribunals Service agency last April. The service’s aim is to provide the best possible support to enable tribunals to resolve disputes quickly, fairly and economically. The Bill reforms tribunals with a similar aim in mind. It intends to optimise the use of all tribunals with the user in mind. Its watchwords are openness, fairness and impartiality.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Does the Minister feel that there is sufficient scope for us to discuss the Bill now? Is not too much weight placed on the secondary legislation that will allow the Bill to be changed in the future?

Vera Baird: I am sure that there will be much discussion about that in Committee. The need for flexibility makes this an appropriate framework at present. If there are serious concerns that matters that we propose to deal with in secondary legislation should be in primary legislation, that will have to be discussed.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister and I have had other conversations about legal aid, and I want to ask her about it in the context of this Bill. She knows that detailed factual and legal issues come up before tribunals, but what is the Government’s position on whether legal aid should and will be available in any, some or all such cases? Do they have any proposals to make the immigration and asylum judicial process the same as other such processes, because it appears to be exempt from the two-tier system of a first hearing followed by an appeal, which the rest of the tribunal service will have as a result of the Bill?

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is certainly correct regarding his second point. There are no plans to incorporate the system beyond the current position. As for legal aid, if the changes that we are introducing—putting lawyers on to fixed fees for standard cases, with exceptional cases being paid for by the hour—have the desired effect, the legal aid budget will level out and become predictable. The reason for the changes is partly so that we can move legal aid over to the welfare benefit sector. I am not putting any particular tribunal as a first likely recipient of that impact, but it is key that we move money by introducing the fixed-fee regime now. I urge the hon. Gentleman, who I know is extremely interested in legal aid, to support those moves. Legal aid is available for the Lands Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and legal help is available for all preparatory work up to, but not including, representation at all tribunals.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does the Minister know that a number of solicitors no longer give advice to asylum seekers, and does she think that there is any particular reason for that?

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Vera Baird: That is a big question. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that there has been an attempt to ensure that only the best calibre asylum advice is given. The steps that we have taken to ensure that change have reduced the supplier base. A new set of legal aid fees for asylum advice was published on Thursday or Friday, which I hope will boost the confidence of current suppliers as to the profitability of that work.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Vera Baird: Yes, but after that I intend to make a bit of progress.

Joan Walley: I am grateful. On employment tribunals, when the last changes were made, there was quite a lot of concern about costs and wasted cost orders. It was clear that they cannot be made against non-profit making representatives such as the citizens advice bureau and trade unions. Will the Minister reassure me, regarding clause 29, that there is no intention to change that? Will she confirm that people who are acting in a voluntary capacity to assist others at employment tribunals will not be affected? There appears to be a contradiction, and I would be grateful if the Minister put my mind at rest on that.

Vera Baird: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that beforehand, because it enables me to confirm that there is no intended change in clause 29.

First and foremost, chapter 1 of part 1 puts it beyond doubt that the tribunal judiciary are independent of the Executive, and that the tribunals themselves are independent of the Departments that make the decisions that the tribunals will review. It is right that that has happened, and it strengthens our commitment to increasing public confidence in tribunals.

Chapter 1 creates a new judicial office. The senior president of tribunals, who will be the leader of the system, will hold a distinct statutory and independent office, and will be the voice of tribunals. I would like to say how pleased I am that the president designate is Lord Justice Robert Carnwath.

Chapter 2 of part 1 creates a new statutory framework for tribunals, which will be a two-tier system. The first-tier tribunal will deal mainly with first instance appeals from Departments and local authorities. The upper tribunal will deal with appeals on questions of law from the first tier. It will also be able to deal with judicial review cases in the specialist areas covered by tribunals when they are transferred by the High Court or the Court of Session.

Chapter 3 of part 1 will allow the Lord Chancellor to transfer to the new two-tier system the work of the tribunals listed in schedule 6. We envisage that that will occur between 12 and 18 months after Royal Assent. It will bring tribunals dealing with, for example, social security, tax, mental health and special educational needs into the new structure.

Because of the special nature of their work, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal will retain their existing legal frameworks, being separate
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pillars of the new structure, but they will still enjoy the benefits of the overarching Tribunals Service’s single administrative structure. The tribunal reforms will create a single pool of tribunal judges and non-legal members. Judges and members will be able to sit in more than one jurisdiction, provided they have the appropriate skills or experience, and want to do so.

Chapters 4 and 6 of part 1 set out ancillary matters. Chapter 5 replaces the Council on Tribunals with a new Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, which will have a wider remit to look at the administrative justice system as a whole, ensuring that relationships between the courts, tribunals, ombudsmen and alternative dispute resolution routes satisfactorily reflect the users’ needs. It was pleasing that Lord Newton of Braintree, who is currently the chair of the Council on Tribunals, appeared to be ready for and pleased with that broader role in the administrative law arena. Again there will, of course, be a specific component to look at users’ needs.

Finally, the Bill makes it easier for those who are awarded compensation by a tribunal or who are subject to an ACAS-brokered settlement to have that award or settlement enforced. We believe that will further increase confidence that justice can be delivered effectively.

Part 2 deals with judicial appointments and amends the minimum eligibility requirements for judicial appointments, which will comprise three elements. First, applicants will have to be suitably qualified as a barrister, solicitor or, for some appointments, as a legal executive, patent agent or trade mark attorney.

Secondly, they must have held that qualification for seven years or five years, depending on the post. That is a reduction from the current 10-year and seven-year qualification periods—thus, the qualification for circuit and High Court judges will be reduced from 10 to seven years, and for district judges it will be reduced from seven to five years. Tribunal appointments will match.

Thirdly, during the qualifying period they must have gained post-qualification legal experience. That would include, for example, practice or employment as a lawyer, acting as an arbitrator or mediator, carrying out judicial functions, or teaching or researching law.

The changes will increase the pool of those who are eligible for appointment, particularly by enabling fellows of the Institutes of Legal Executives, Patent Agents and Trade Mark Attorneys to become eligible to apply for judicial office. The changes will also ensure that those in the pool have actually been engaged in legal work after qualifying and before becoming eligible.

Overall, we think the numbers in the pool will increase. Of course, all appointments will continue to be made on merit, and merit alone. That remains the test of suitability, and the Judicial Appointments Commission will continue to apply it rigorously. The larger the pool of people qualified to apply to be judges, the higher the quality should be of those who are appointed.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The jurisdiction that obtains in England and Wales is much sought after around the world for various dispute resolutions and it is a considerable source of foreign
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earnings for this country. I am concerned that the provisions in part 2 might dilute that reputation, so will my hon. and learned Friend reinforce what she said just before she kindly gave way to me—that there will still be a process of rigorous scrutiny to ensure that the wider pool of applicants are thoroughly investigated so that we retain high standards in our judiciary?

Vera Baird: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance entirely. It is a very odd notion that widening the pool will dilute the quality. The usual understanding is that widening the pool of appropriately qualified people will inevitably enhance the quality of the people chosen from that pool. The selection process will be on merit and in every way compatible with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which was recently brought into force.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Many people have the concern that this is not widening the pool in order to gain a higher calibre of people, but widening it in order to meet some politically correct target to get more women or people from ethnic minorities in as judges. Unlike the politically correct consensus in this place, I do not want more women judges; I just want the best people to be judges—irrespective of whether they are women or men or from ethnic minorities. Will the Minister explain why she is giving up on selecting people by merit when the number of women judges appears to be about the same proportion as the number of men in the Equal Opportunities Commission? Why is it such a big issue?

Vera Baird: I cannot think that the hon. Gentleman has listened to what I just said. I said that selection will be on merit and, clearly contrary to how the hon. Gentleman’s thought processes work, women are capable of being meritorious—

Philip Davies: Indeed, so why gerrymander the rules?

Vera Baird: One widens the pool in order to extend the diverse range of people who are eligible and one then chooses rigorously from those. I cannot see how even the hon. Gentleman could find fault with that.

Simon Hughes: If a magistrate obtains a legal qualification or was previously legally qualified, or if an academic is a solicitor or member of the Bar, or if someone in the commercial sector has a legal qualification, would they after a certain number of years’ service in those three areas of work be eligible—if they were suitably competent and passed the other merit tests—to be appointed to the bench?

Vera Baird: I am sure about the magistrate and the commercial lawyer, but I am less sure about the academic who had not practised. I think so, but I will shortly provide the hon. Gentleman with an answer to that specific question.

I move on now to deal with part 3, which is about enforcement by taking control of goods. Chapter 1 of part 3 provides a comprehensive code for the enforcement of civil debts, judgments and criminal fines by the seizure and sale of goods.

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