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This is, however, an interim solution. The Government remain committed to regulating all non-Crown employed enforcement agents through an independent regulator. A consultation document was issued on 30 January seeking views on options for regulation, with our clear preference being regulation by the SIA. Such a change can be effected through secondary legislation under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and does not require a change to the Bill. Any non-departmental public body would take
longer to set up than this transition to give the responsibility to the SIA, which is beginning to prove itself.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Before the hon. and learned Lady goes into more detail about the SIA, may I ask her about the magistrates courts guidance on search and entry powers, which was brought in under the 2004 Act to which she referred? That is the guidance to bailiffs as to how they should conduct themselves and what they may do. I understand that part of the guidance has been published, but 15 of the 31 pages have been redactedthat is, blacked out. Is there any possibility of our seeing the full text of the guidance? In the context of her remarks, it is important for us to know what guidance there is to bailiffs.
Vera Baird: I am aware that there have been applications to see the full text, but the rationale for leaving out part of the guidance is that if people are told how bailiffs are to go about their business, they can put defence mechanisms in place to stop them. I will make inquiries to see whether parliamentarians on a particular footing may be entrusted with the information. I imagine that that will be possible, but I will have to take advice.
Simon Hughes: May I ask the Minister the simple real-world question that she, I and others will have faced in surgeries? How does an ordinary member of the public know that somebody who is not a police officer or dressed to look like a police officer has authority to require them to open the door, and to go in? Most people naturally say, Im not opening the door, because Im not certain that this person has any authority to come into my house.
Vera Baird: Bailiffs must carry their authorisation with them, and they must display it on request either before admission or, if necessary, after admission. The guidance might be better if it simply said that they must show it as they arrive. I would have no personal problem with their wearing uniforms, which has not been suggested but which is worth considering.
Rob Marris: I suggest that the police should be informed. There was a situation involving one of my constituents in which someone, who rejoiced in the alias Mr. Colorado, showed up and effectively stole a digging machine, which was not the subject of court proceedings. The owner of the digging machine called the police, who said, This is a bailiff. You must let him have it. Neither the digging machine nor Mr. Colorado have been seen again, and my constituent came to see me because, unsurprisingly, he had had a barney with the police officers who allowed that rogue to disappear with his digging machine. Is it possible to let the police know about the proper certification procedure, to ensure that that does not happen again?
Chapter 2 of part 3 also abolishes the common law right of distress for rent and replaces it with a new, more limited power of commercial rent arrears
recovery, which will apply only to the seizure and sale of goods in the enforcement of commercial rent arrears. That procedure will not apply to residential premises. Taken together, that package of measures will help to protect the vulnerable from the over-zealous or illegal pursuit of debts.
Part 4 concerns the enforcement of judgments and orders. By contrast, it aims to tackle those who have the means to pay their debts but who choose not to. Clause 86 will simplify and streamline the arrangements for deducting payment of a judgment debt directly from a debtors salary. In future, deductions from salary will be made according to fixed rates, as they are for council tax debts and magistrates courts fines, rather than setting a specific rate for each debtor. A further difficulty is the lapse in orders where debtors change employers but fail to notify the court or the creditor. Clause 87 will allow Her Majestys Revenue and Customs to provide the court with the new employers details in such cases.
Clauses 88 and 89 make changes to the law governing charging orders. They close a loophole in the current law that prevents the charging of a property, if the debtor is maintaining payments under an instalment order. That means that if a debtor with large judgment debts is meeting their regular instalments, they can sell assets such as a second home or shares without paying off those debts in full. That loophole will be blocked, but it will not be possible for the creditor to obtain an order for sale as long as such an individual is paying the instalments. There will also be minimum thresholds below which a creditor will not be allowed to apply for a charging order to introduce some balance.
Part 4 will also help the civil courts track missing judgment debtors. It cannot be right for those who owe money and who have a judgment against them to avoid payment by going to ground. Clauses 90 to 97 therefore include measures to allow the courts to seek information from Revenue and Customs and a designated Secretary of State about a debtor. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is likely to be designated for those purposes.
The courts will also be empowered to request information from other bodies designated in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor to assist in the enforcement of judgments. We anticipate that banks and credit reference agencies are likely to be designated. Safeguards have been built into the process, including the new offences in clause 97, to ensure that information collected in that way is not abused.
I want to make two brief points. First, clause 90(1) is infelicitously worded. After the word, information, it should say, to assist that creditor to make an informed decision. Secondly, clause 92(4)(d) refers to prescribed information, but I cannot find an indication either in the explanatory notes or on the face of the Bill as to what that is. When I was an articled clerk doing such work about 20 years ago, such cases would go to what was known as an oral examination as to meansI think that that involved form N39to consider matters such as whether the debtor was
employed. In such cases, the debtor answered questions under oath. I wonder what prescribed information a court would seek from a Ministry on application.
Part 5 is about debt management and relief. It affords greater protection to those who should be able to pay their debts but cannot deal with their financial problems, or require temporary protection to enable them to get back on their feet. It also deals with those who cannot pay their debts and are unable to access current debt relief procedures. It introduces a package of targeted measures that improve and extend the range of solutions available to help debtors with low incomes and debts. Those solutions seek to promote financial inclusion and are targeted particularly at those who are disproportionately affected by debt and are generally least able to deal with competing creditor demands.
Chapter 1 of part 5 updates and amends the system of county court administration orders, removing the statutory limit on debts, which is currently set at £5,000, and allowing the Lord Chancellor to set it at a more realistic level so as to be helpful to more people.
Chapter 2 introduces an enforcement restriction order allowing the court to make an order to protect a debtor from enforcement by their unsecured creditors for up to 12 months. That is likely to cover a sudden and unexpected deterioration in a persons financial circumstancesfor instance, through losing their job or sudden illnessand where there is a realistic prospect of their being able to repay their debts within a reasonable time scale, through recovery, for example. That is an important provision.
Chapter 3 introduces a new individual insolvency procedure called the debt relief order for those who owe relatively little, are on low incomes with low levels of assets, and who have no realistic financial prospect of paying their debts within a reasonable time frame. Bankruptcy would be disproportionate for such people, who are financially excluded from the other debt solutions that are available because they have no money to pay their creditors and cannot afford the £325 required to present a petition for bankruptcy.
Chapter 4 will let the Lord Chancellor approve debt management schemes. Many organisations negotiate with creditors on behalf of debtors and set up debt repayment plans, but those depend on voluntary creditor participation, and one unco-operative creditor can block the creation of such a plan. The Bill will allow that to be addressed.
These measures strike an appropriate balance between the rights of the creditor and the needs of the debtor. They provide clear incentives to encourage debtor compliance for the lifetime of an order, including powers to tackle abuses. At the same time, orders that include a repayment element will offer creditors potentially higher returns than provided by the current system. Details of orders made under the new measures in part 5 will be available on public registers so that creditors can make better-informed decisions on future lending. In conjunction with the Bill, the Government are committed to encouraging
responsible lending through a range of actions, including implementation of the reformed consumer credit licensing regime introduced by the Consumer Credit Act 2006.
Part 6 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects that are lent to the United Kingdom for temporary exhibitions to the public at an approved museum or gallery. We currently have no anti-seizure legislation, and foreign lenders are becoming reluctant to lend works of art to the UK. The problems that that may cause were illustrated by the seizure in 2005 of 55 Russian impressionist paintings on loan to an exhibition in Switzerland, under a court order obtained by one of Russias creditors. This places us at a disadvantage compared with other countries and will ultimately limit our museums ability to stage major exhibitions. Apparently, problems have already arisen. An important Chinese exhibition planned by the British Museum for 2004 was cancelled after a major loan from Taiwan could not be secured because the lender could not be assured that the material would be protected from seizure while it was in the UK. The measure is particularly important for London as it becomes the centre of the world stage in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, at a time when many of our leading institutions are planning major exhibitions to coincide with that.
Sir Patrick Cormack: This part of the Bill has received a widespread welcome, particularly from directors of museums and galleries. Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that it is very important that it should be implemented as soon as is reasonably possible, because London has already slipped down the league table of major exhibition cities?
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that, although I understand and sympathise with the point that the museums and galleries and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made, there are two interests to consider? One is the ability of museums and galleries to loan and borrow works, and the other is the interest of people who have a claim to works of art that may have been illicitly traded or looted, especially by Nazis in the second world war. It is not impossible to reconcile both interests, but despite the constructive changes that have been made in the other place, I do not accept that we are quite there yet. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will retain an open mind, because it is possible to reconcile the interest of the museums and galleries with those of putative owners, but we are not there yet.
Vera Baird: I note my hon. Friends comments. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton has worked hard in the House of Lords to try to reconcile those interests. We owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Janner, who has also worked hard on the matter. I had hoped that we were there, but doubtless the issue will arise again in Committee.
The immunity will provide protection only from seizure. It will not protect museums in the UK or lenders from being subject to a claim in conversion.
The specific restitution of a work of art being claimed is only one of the remedies that the court can award. It can also award damages. The lawyers present will know that that means that all that is being protected is the picture, not its value. The immunity will be given only to museums and galleries approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, or, for institutions in Wales or Scotland, Welsh or Scottish Ministers.
We have listened to concerns expressed in the other place and added an extra safeguard to the Bill in clause 131, which lists the factors that must be considered before a museum or gallery can be approved. In particular, to be approved for receiving immunity, institutions will have to satisfy the relevant Minister that their procedures for checking the provenance of an item that they intend to borrow are satisfactory and comply with Department for Culture, Media and Sport guidance on due diligence. If museums do not maintain high standards of due diligence, especially if they do not follow the guidelines, they risk the withdrawal of that approvaland the protection given by the provisions.
Museums and galleries will have to publish specified information about objects that they intend to borrow, in advance of bringing them to the UK. That will enable anyone to raise questions about an objects provenance before it arrives. When a query is raised, the institution will need to examine the evidence carefully before taking a final decision on whether to borrow the object.
Parts 7 and 8 deal with miscellaneous provisions, including measures to allow the High Court in judicial review proceedings to substitute its decision for that of a court or tribunal when the original decision is quashed on the ground that there has been an error in law. Part 8 contains general stuff, including extent and commencement.
Rob Marris: My hon. and learned Friend suddenly accelerated through part 7. I want to ask about clause 137, which is entitled Recovery of sums payable under compromises involving ACAS. Will she briefly explain the need for the provision, given that the majority of signed compromise agreements never go near ACAS and are enforceable in the civil courts?
Vera Baird: My hon. Friend refers to an ACAS-negotiated agreement. It is simply a contract, so it has to be sued on, just like any other commercial contract, in the civil court. People who believe that they have toiled through one set of proceedings and got an answer have to start again with another set in the civil court. The clause therefore provides for a much speedier process to ensure enforcement.
The Bill will improve access to justice, reform institutions to deliver better services to users, and deliver reforms to protect many of the most vulnerable in society. After nearly one hour, I commend it to the House.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill may not be the raciest title to come before us this Session, but the Bill covers important subjects that affect people in their everyday lives. I want first to pay tribute to my noble Friends Lords Kingsland and Lucas, who made some important improvements in the other place and turned this into a better Bill.
Tribunals exist to allow people straightforward, inexpensive and relatively informal access to justice and they play a crucial role in our justice system and our society. Equally, the enforcement of debt is crucial to business, but also vital to consumers, particularly as debt is at an all-time high.
We support the broad objectives of the Bill. It will unify the tribunal system, and much of it is based on Sir Andrew Leggatts report, Tribunals for Users, which proposed significant structural reform of the tribunal system, including a move towards a unified service. The purpose of that is to improve and simplify the tribunals for those who are required to use them, which is an objective that we fully support.
There are 70 tribunals with many different sets of rules of procedure. That makes the system more complicated than it needs to be and difficult for users. Sir Andrews report set out three key principles for reform: first, and most important, the tribunal system should be completely independent of the Executive; secondly, the system should be rationalised to give the full benefit of economies of scale; and, thirdly, tribunals should not be courts and should be there for the users and be a reflection not of the state, but of the needs of the consumer.
On the first principle, the Bill is a great improvement on the existing arrangements. Each Department of State provides administrative support for each relevant tribunal, appoints and pays the members, and sets outor promotesthe legislation defining what their procedural rules should be. However, for bodies that have an important judicial function, tribunals have not been constituted sufficiently independently. Responsibility for administering tribunals should not fall on the very Department whose decision the tribunal will be judging, so we support the Governments proposals in that area.
Economies of scale will achieve improvements of two sorts. With the Department for Constitutional Affairs responsible for a single tribunal system, there will be opportunities to make savings by amalgamating functions: dealing with the appointment of staff, more flexible working of staff between tribunals, the purchase of equipment in bulk, united interpretation and other communications services, training, and the efficient use of premises. However, we have certain concerns over some ways in which the intentions behind the Bill are to be delivered.
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