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Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, on a personal level perhaps I can thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the considerable trouble he has taken in discussing this matter with me and the courtesy he showed in so doing. As the noble Lord explained to the House, the provision seeks to alter the amendments your Lordships passed last week in the sense that the ceiling on the fees will not now be the approximate £120 they would have been in the county court but the £500 set out in the amendment agreed by another place. Obviously we regret the increase but we are very much reassured by the various promises made by the noble Lord as to the fact that it will be a sliding scale and a completely all-in fee.
In my view the benefit behind the amendment, like the amendment your Lordships accepted last time, is that it entirely abolishes any reference to a fees charge being sufficient to meet the entire costs of providing a service and it is therefore merely a question on a purely practical level of whether the maximum shall be £500 or whether the standard shall be £120. I venture to believe that the many noble Lords who kindly and energetically supported the amendment last time, both in speaking and in the Division Lobby, were concerned much more with the principle of not having full-cost
Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, perhaps I may advert specifically to Amendments Nos. 102A and 102B. I can think of many reasons for opposing this Motion. First, I believe that the community should provide the machinery of justice at community expense and that the cost ought not to fall on those who need to resort to the legal system in quest of justice.
Secondly, even if that principle is discarded in relation to the courts, there is a distinction between courts and tribunals. It is one of the distinguishing and important characteristics of tribunals that they provide justice for those who can receive justice only if it is provided without serious financial implications.
Thirdly, even if that process is breached, I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, indicated in his introduction, that it should be enunciated clearly that there should be full consultation; that there should be debates in Parliament; and that it should not be introduced in a Bill on a different subject relating to part of the jurisdiction of one tribunal. Fourthly, I believe that those least able to afford the fees should be fully protected. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not resile from any of those reasons.
Like the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, I believe that there are two reasons for supporting the Motion. First, where the two Houses have the misfortune to disagree, I believe that each should be prepared to make some effort to secure an accommodation. In the other place, there has been some movement since the initial proposal in the Bill. Secondly, I believe that the proposal now on offer is less draconian and potentially less unjust than the initial proposal in the Bill. As for what the noble Lord said about the intention of making use of the power to change the amount of £500, I think that that fell somewhat short of an undertaking that the amount would not be changed within five years, but I think that I detected an indication in good faith that, other things being equal, there was no intention to alter it within a period of five years--and five years is a long time in politics.
Accordingly, like the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, I would not seek today to dissuade your Lordships from approving the Motion. Perhaps I may add that I am extremely grateful for the generous support that I received from noble Lords in all parts of the House. Lastly, I too express my appreciation of the unfailing courtesy and good humour of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, throughout our debates.
The Earl of Kinnoull: My Lords, I welcome the Commons amendment and the measured arguments put forward by my noble friend. I congratulate him on his success in meeting the powerful arguments that were put forward both at Report and Third Reading, particularly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, as well as many other noble Lords. Indeed, the House carried that amendment.
I am sure that the amendment will be welcomed by the very large number of professional bodies which are concerned about the issue and that the future leasehold valuation tribunal should work; that it should work well, and that it should not be constrained by punitive costs.
Lord Renton: My Lords, the Housing Bill, as it was put before your Lordships originally, raised the controversial matter about the way in which tribunal costs should be met. Although I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, for the part that he played in helping to put the matter right, I do not think that we can generalise about the functions of tribunals and courts. Tribunals vary so very much, but they have one thing in common which all of us should always bear in mind. Indeed, it was borne in mind by your Lordships when the matter was before us only a week ago. The costs of tribunal cases should not vary greatly from the costs of court cases where somewhat similar issues are being dealt with.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for having consulted me before the matter came before your Lordships and I congratulate him on the sensible and workable compromise that we are now being asked to approve. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, must above all be very pleased because these provisions come so close to those of the amendment which he proposed previously.
Finally, perhaps I may express our indebtedness to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, for his initiative on the last occasion and for the wisdom that he has shown and the constructive attitude that he has taken in helping the Government to reach this compromise.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, my noble and learned friend Lord Archer summed this up when he said that the amendment is less draconian and less unjust than the Government's original proposals. Nevertheless, I cannot say that I welcome the Government's compromise with wholehearted enthusiasm.
I should like to test the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on two points. First, in spite of his assurance that five years might be the right period before the Secretary of State activates his power under the provisions of Amendment No. 102A, he slipped in a phrase about the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could elaborate on that because if, under this legislation, anything that the noble and learned Lord proposes (which may be adopted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor) can be slipped through by order, we should like to know about it more comprehensively.
Secondly, I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that when--if--the Secretary of State decides to activate the powers which are recommended by another place in Amendment No. 102A, there is no chance of amendment. We can debate the matter but, under the normal procedures of this House, we cannot amend the provisions. In those circumstances, my noble and learned friend Lord Archer would have to take Trappist vows and be silent or simply talk, knowing that
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I turn first to the second of the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Williams. His noble and learned friend would always have as an alternative the possibility of joining the Liberal Democrat party. He would then be free to oppose affirmative resolutions in this House and he could thus find his voice again. However, the noble and learned Lord might consider that too severe a solution to the problem.
I have tried to be as careful as possible not to mislead the House about the ways in which the power would be used. Clearly, if there is for some reason a general revision of fees in three years' time, which would sensibly include an uprating of this amount in line with inflation--the idea being that it could run for another 10 years before we tackled the subject again--it might be sensible to roll this up in that change.
Turning to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and to the proposals for full-cost recovery and changes to the ways in which courts charge fees, perhaps I may say that if that subject comes up, is debated and is agreed, it may be that all that we would need to do to change the fees of the tribunal would be to make an amendment under our powers to change the level of the fee by affirmative resolution. That would be a subsidiary matter to something else that had been agreed and debated at great length elsewhere. I think it most unlikely that a power so narrow could achieve anything useful in relation to a wholesale revision of the fees which courts should charge. I would expect that we would have to seek primary legislation. I did not want to mislead the House by saying that we would not use the power if that was the sensible conclusion to a much more wide-ranging debate and discussion on the level of the fees which should be charged. If all that we needed to do was to change the limit under this power, that would seem sensible. However, there is no intention of going back to the stage where perhaps we were seen by some noble Lords as trying to implement my noble and learned friend's proposals without having fully discussed them in the round.
I am grateful to be standing here today not being showered with rotten fruit, as on Third Reading, but being pelted with bouquets. I am grateful for that, even if some of them seem to have the odd thistle embedded in them. I commend the Motion to the House.