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Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further on her response to an earlier question. What advantages will the national park be given that the New Forest does not already enjoy? Other noble Lords have stated that the forest works well now and has made a great contribution as one of our national assets. What advantages will come as a result of national park status? If the Government are still only at the consultation stage, should not that consultation be completed before any final decision is taken?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we are acting in response to advice given from a remarkable range of interest groups. When the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, brought forward a Private Member's Bill in your Lordships' House, it was clear that many noble Lords held the view that now is the time for the process of national park designation to begin. I can recall contributions made by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. We believe that the security of funding and the full planning protections that will come with the status of national park, together with the full integration of the role of local communities, are important benefits that would accrue were my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to proceed with an order, following the due processes.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I declare an interest in that my family home has been in the New Forest for a long time. Perhaps I may say, first, that I very much welcome the decision of the Government to protect the forest from commercial exploitation. Secondly, does the noble Baroness agree that the general regulations that apply to national parks will
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am certain that I can give the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, the assurance that she seeks. The first and paramount duty of a national park is to take on responsibility for the protection, conservation and enhancement of the area it covers.
The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I am heartened by the reports of good progress from right across the system since the new regime was instituted on 26th April. The object is to drive down cost and delay in court proceedings through firm judicial case management and to promote more settlements.
New time limits are being complied with under pre-action protocols. There is a greater exchange of information and documents earlier on. There has been a 35 per cent drop in new cases since 26th April. It is much too early to draw firm conclusions, but many more cases may be settling pre-court to avoid the disciplines of the new system. Litigation may be becoming the last, not the first, resort.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I welcome the words of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and I welcome too the positive way in which the Woolf reforms have been received right across the field of litigation, making it once again the last resort. Will the noble and learned Lord take this opportunity to welcome the code of best practice on rehabilitation endorsed by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and also the Forum of Insurance Lawyers as being a model which will at last make the courts able to accept that the primary objective for the victim is rehabilitation? In that context, will he also give the courts power to order income settlements so that we can move away from out of date, often inappropriate lump-sum settlements towards greater security in the future for the victim?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the noble Lord asked two supplementary questions. First, perhaps I may take this opportunity to welcome as a first-class initiative the new code on rehabilitation, to which the
Secondly, the noble Lord asked about having income settlements in place of lump sum settlements. It is possible, in the context of structured settlements, for the court to make such orders today but subject to a limitation--only if the parties agree. In fact, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has called for the courts to have powers of their own motion to make awards of periodic payments in place of lump sum awards. Speaking for myself, I think that there is a very great deal to be said in favour of that. I shall be issuing a consultation paper shortly on settling the appropriate discount rate to be applied to lump sum payments and at the same time I shall be seeking views on whether the courts should be given powers of their own motion to order income settlements.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend share the concerns reportedly expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and by Sir Richard Scott that the court fees are so high with regard to small claims made by claimants that they may be deterred from using the scheme which my noble and learned friend himself has increased in importance by raising the limit to £5,000?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am fully familiar with and sympathise with the concerns that have been raised about the amount of the allocation fees in very small claims. I am actively considering this very issue on an urgent basis. I have to say, however, that it is in the context of a system which requires overall full cost recovery. The costs of the civil courts should be met by the parties who use them rather than fall on the taxpayer. Thus any reduction in allocation fees, for which I can particularly see strong justification in the case of small claims, will have to be dealt with through other fees. But, that said, I am looking sympathetically at the particular problem to which the noble Lord has called attention.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as a solicitor with three offices, all of which do legal aid and two of which are high street practices, and commend what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said about the Woolf reforms and progress so far. Will the Government have particular regard to the difficulties faced by many small high street firms in trying to match the higher demands of the Woolf proposals against extremely high caseloads, bearing in mind that they are the only resort for most citizens, and the extremely modest levels of remuneration with which most of those firms have to contend?
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this is the amendment which we heralded at Report stage when we said that we were prepared to accept by-elections as the mechanism for filling vacancies among excepted Peers in the unlikely event that the transitional House lasts beyond the end of the first Session of the next Parliament. Time and again we have emphasised that the Bill itself is a transitional measure providing for a transitional House. That is why we have always believed that the so-called "fastest loser" system, provided for in the first Standing Order under Clause 2 and agreed by your Lordships' House on 26th July, remains the most sensible and the most flexible way of filling vacancies for the entire duration of the transitional House.
The transitional House will be of short duration, but let us proceed on the hypothetical assumptions that it might last for more than two or three years and that the "fastest loser" system might have outworn its effectiveness by that time. That being so, our amendment provides that after such time any vacancy due to the health of an elected excepted Peer should be filled by means of a by-election.
The amendment itself does not spell out what is to be the constituency for these by-elections. The detail is left to the Standing Order. However, for the sake of clarity and completeness, perhaps I may repeat what was said at Report stage. If a vacancy occurs among any of the 75 Peers elected by the respective parties and the Cross-Bench group, then the voters will be the excepted Peers in the relevant grouping. If the vacancy occurs among the 15 office holders, then the electorate will be the entire House. That reflects the constituencies in the initial elections to be held this week and next. But one thing is clear and is common to all constituencies; and that is that no hereditary Peer who has been excluded from the House at the end of this Session will have a vote. Such excepted Peers may stand but not vote and the electorate will be those who remain in the relevant grouping.
Your Lordships will see that we have also brought forward an amendment to provide a fixed number of 90 excepted Peers rather than a maximum of 90 as currently provided for in Clause 2(2). This is to address the concern that was raised by several noble Lords
The Standing Orders make it plain that "vacancies shall be filled". The difficulty with making that plain on the face of the Bill arose because there could have been doubts about the validity of proceedings in the House if the number of excepted Peers fell temporarily below a number fixed in statute: for example, if for administrative reasons there were a gap in time before the vacancy was filled. However, now that we have a provision for by-elections, it is acceptable to have the fixed number of 90 in statute. That is because, although there may still be times when the number of excepted Peers falls below 90, as a result of this amendment it will be plain on the face of the Bill that just that state of affairs is contemplated and that it is possible for the number to drop below 90 perfectly lawfully while the procedure for filling vacancies contained in Standing Orders or the by-election procedure is completed.
So in bringing forward the by-elections amendment, the Government have honoured the commitment made on Report, as we have honoured all our commitments throughout the passage of the Bill. I am confident that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition will welcome this amendment; it is one for which he himself previously argued. I beg to move.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset what a pleasure it is to hear the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. He always creates a slight frisson in the House, but perhaps not quite the one he expected this afternoon. These are two important and welcome amendments. They are a substantial step forward from the original drafting of the Bill. I thank the Government for the way in which they have responded positively to our pressure on this point.
The original wording in the Bill left it open to the suspicion that the number of excluded hereditary Peers might be allowed to decline below 90. I accept that that was not the intention and that fears over that point were largely technical. None the less, it is an important change to make.
Although important, the proposal is not nearly as significant as that in Amendment No. 6, to which the noble and learned Lord referred. Again, we discussed the matter in some detail on Report. The system that is proposed is not the most satisfactory, or indeed the most ideal. I myself might have wanted some of the details to be different. But I believe that it is one that will work and will command support on all Benches, including, I hope, this time the support of the Liberal Democrats.
The agreement of the Government to a by-election after the first three years or so of the duration of this legislation is notable and important. It is notable because the Government thereby accept the principle of a continuing representative hereditary peerage; and it is important because the Peers brought in will have
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