Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
Third Reading
12:07
Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted not only to take my Bill through its Third Reading but to be here on the auspicious occasion of the passing of the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, which is an important and valuable piece of legislation. If I have had any small part to play in that, I am very grateful.

Let me begin by thanking the Public Bill Committee, which met on 1 March to consider the Bill in detail. It was absolutely fantastic to see so many of us share the same goal of making it easier for people to create a lasting power of attorney with better protections, and to put in place a more sustainable process for the Office of the Public Guardian. I am delighted to confirm that my Bill passed Committee stage unamended. I am hopeful that the spirit of cross-party support that has remained since Second Reading will continue throughout the process until the Bill passes.

As I have said before, I believe that a lasting power of attorney is an incredibly powerful and useful document. It lets someone choose people they trust to support them and make decisions for them if they lose the mental capacity to make their own decisions in future. I make no apology for repeating the point that I have made at previous stages of the Bill. Modernisation is no longer an option but a necessity. I was grateful for the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) on that matter on Second Reading.

However, I am aware that some people have concerns about modernisation. Since my Bill was introduced on 15 June last year, I have met organisations that wished to discuss the importance of increasing accessibility while improving safeguards and, practically, the concerns about continued access to paper routes. The latter was also raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), and I would like to reassure everyone that I am aware that some people are unable to use a digital system and will continue to need a paper version. The new system facilitated by my Bill will provide for a paper route to create a lasting power of attorney. It will be updated with the safeguards that are mirrored in the digital version that the Bill will create.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) reflected on Second Reading on the fact that as a society we are moving more and more towards cashless transactions. I do not wish to open up the debate about the future of cash, as that is for a separate day. For now, if we accept that more and more transactions are online and digital, concerns were raised about how that would affect the elderly and possibly lead to their abuse. Because of the importance of that, I repeat that the Bill provides for a paper channel to continue to be available. In fact, it will go further and introduce a fluid system in which donors, attorneys and others involved can use the channel, digital or paper, that best suits their skills, confidence and access.

I am also acutely aware of the need for protections against abuse, especially for older people who are the main group making LPAs. My Bill will enhance safeguards in multiple ways, for example with the improvements to the notifications and objections process; by restricting applications to the donor; and through the introduction of identity verification.

As the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned on Second Reading, there is a burden on the Office of the Public Guardian because of the high volume of paper LPAs it processes. Combined with the effect of the pandemic, error rates due to confusing paper forms and logistical problems in the application process, that has resulted in a backlog. I am confident that the provisions in the Bill and the changes it will facilitate, such as automated checks, will build resilience into the process for the OPG. That should significantly reduce the chances of backlogs forming in the future.

The Bill includes provisions to enable chartered legal executives to certify copies of powers of attorney. I am grateful for the support in this House for that initiative. The legal services market has evolved over the last half century since the current legislation was introduced. The Bill will bring the process for certifying copies of a power of attorney in line with modern realities in legal service provision. Consumers will also benefit from the increase in choice in accessing those services, which will plug any current unmet demand.

I thank the Minister for his support during the passage of the Bill. I know he agrees with me that these changes are urgently needed, so that LPAs and powers of attorney can continue to provide the support that people need. As I said, these are powerful documents, and the Bill will help to improve their sustainability, reliability and access.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to those who have raised questions and points during this process and to all the external organisations that have expressed interest in and support for these measures. I hope my Bill continues to progress well once it passes to the other place, so that an improved system can be implemented and delivered for the benefit of those we serve as soon as possible.

12:15
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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A very happy St Patrick’s Day to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on the progress his Bill has made. I think all of us are quite relieved that we have made it to Third Reading at a respectable pace, after the House unanimously agreed on earlier Bills, particularly the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, which was of great concern to many of my constituents and people across the country.

It has been a slightly unexpected pleasure to serve on the Public Bill Committee and then to follow the progress of the Bill. We do these things as favours to each other sometimes and then find that a Bill piques our interest and there is even more we can take forward. As the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock and others have recognised, powers of attorney provisions are increasingly valuable in the modern world, especially as the population ages and we interact in different ways with authorities and institutions. The Bill will make that process easier, especially for people in England. It will also introduce important new safeguards.

Most of the legislation in this area is devolved, and there are a number of differences between power of attorney provisions north and south of the border, but the Bill makes a number of changes in devolved areas. Despite the Government’s assessment in the explanatory notes, the Scottish Government have chosen to bring forward a legislative consent motion and a legislative consent memorandum. Private Members’ Bills are done slightly differently, but where the Government are keen to facilitate the passage of a Bill, they should perhaps make sure that officials north of the border are fully apprised of that, so that things can move as quickly as possible.

The Scottish Government intend to use that memorandum and motion to consent to the Bill, because they recognise the importance of the smooth operation of powers of attorney north and south of the border. The legislative consent memorandum says in paragraph 12:

“Consent is recommended, because the Bill is aligned with the Scottish Government’s emphasis on increasing accessibility to obtaining a power of attorney. As noted above, the changes that apply to Scotland will allow the record in the register of LPAs maintained by the Public Guardian in England and Wales to be used as sufficient proof of the contents of an instrument in any part of the United Kingdom including Scotland.”

That is an important provision in terms of the recognition of powers of attorney north and south of the border, and the Minister and I have had useful exchanges in Committee and since then about how Scottish powers of attorney are recognised in England.

The website of the Office of the Public Guardian in Scotland notes that a Scottish power of attorney

“can be used in England or Wales if an Organisation (e.g. a bank) accepts its authority, but if they do not things are more problematic. The Organisation may require an endorsement of the Scottish PoA from the English authorities”.

As I say, the Minister and I have had exchanges on this, and he has recognised in a letter to me that there is a need to ensure that institutions and organisations are aware of the legal status of Scottish powers of attorney in England and Wales. I hope he might be willing to put a copy of that letter in the Library of the House, so that other Members can see the detail. I accept that this Bill in particular is not the vehicle, and he argues that legislative change generally is probably not needed; it is more about raising awareness and understanding.

That is particularly important, not least because all of us will encounter the use of powers of attorney in the years to come. For many of us, that will be in our roles; the issue of cross-border recognition has cropped up in my casework from time to time. Increasingly, we will all find interactions with powers of attorney in our personal lives as well.

The Bill strengthens and simplifies the system for obtaining and using a power of attorney, especially in England. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, and the Minister and his team, on their success in securing its passage.

00:00
James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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I welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on getting it to this stage and on securing cross-party and, importantly, Government support for it. I look forward to supporting its passage today. Although this Bill may not have attracted the same level of attention and celebrity endorsement as the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, which I was pleased to support, it is none the less important. It makes provision on lasting powers of attorney and proof of instruments creating powers of attorney.

A lasting power of attorney is a vital legal tool that helps people to plan for their future. It lets the donor choose another person—the attorney—to support them and make decisions on their behalf if they lose the mental capacity to make them for themselves. That might be because of an illness such as dementia, for example, or a terrible accident. The Law Society says:

“LPAs are arguably one of the most important legal documents a person will make, because they delegate such wide-reaching powers over their life.”

For a friend, a relative, a partner or a solicitor, that is an incredible and immense responsibility to take on.

LPAs were introduced in 2007, through the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to balance the need to improve safeguards for the donor with the need to make it easier to secure an LPA. The 2005 Act also created the Office of the Public Guardian, which, as we have heard, is responsible for registering LPAs and taking action where there are concerns about an attorney. LPAs were introduced more than 15 years ago and, given the progress of technology and our move away from paper-based record-keeping, the case for change is clear. With LPAs, MCAs and OPGs, we are not short of TLAs—three-letter acronyms—today.

I am pleased that the Bill will bring much-needed modernisation to the process of making and registering lasting powers of attorney, making it easier for individuals to obtain certified copies of powers of attorney. It will create for customers a simpler and faster system that is more resilient to disruption. The modernisation will be made possible by enabling changes to the process to make and register an LPA, by introducing the requirement to verify identity as part of applying to register an LPA, and by streamlining how people can object to registrations. The Bill will also enable different processes and evidence to be accepted depending on whether registration for an LPA is made digitally, on paper, or with a mix of the two. I am pleased that my hon. Friend set out so clearly that the paper-based option will be retained. That is something that Age UK in particular has raised, and it will benefit my North West Norfolk constituents.

The Bill will mean that people find it simpler to create their LPA while, importantly, being protected—through regulations that are enabled by the Bill—from abuse of the powers that are offered. The public will also be better protected from fraud, and the OPG will be able to run a more streamlined process that delivers better value for its fee payers. The fee is currently a relatively modest £82, which is noteworthy given the level of responsibility involved. Overall, the measures will allow more individuals to retain control of their lives by planning for the future.

In 2001, the Ministry of Justice ran a consultation setting out the case for change in the light of the number of LPAs since their introduction. In 2014, for example, just over 390,000 LPAs were sent to the OPG for registration. By 2019, that number had more than doubled to just under 920,000. Increasingly, people expect to be able to access Government services online. It is striking that in 2019, the OPG received 19 million sheets of paper in the form of hard-copy LPAs, and posted out a similar amount. That is not a sustainable or sensible practice to continue.

LPAs are particularly useful for people with dementia. Statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society show that about 900,000 people live with dementia in the UK, and that figure is expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. Figures from Norfolk County Council show that in 2019, about 11,000 people with a dementia diagnosis were registered at practices in Norfolk and Waveney. By 2030, that figure is expected to double. Indeed, in King’s Lynn and west Norfolk, dementia prevalence is expected to increase by nearly 24% between 2019 and 2030. The Bill will help to ensure that the process for registering LPAs keeps pace with that expected increase in dementia, while we also, importantly, put medical funding into research to help to treat that condition.

I welcome the digitisation of the process, which will bring many benefits to improve access and speed of service, but we must ensure that there are robust and well-thought-through safeguards. Poor decision making by an attorney could mean the loss of all of someone’s assets or someone being put into a care home, or it could have other serious consequences. The balance between ease of use and protection has to be properly struck, but I am pleased to support the Bill to help to deliver much-needed improvements to the process.

12:24
Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con)
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It is a privilege to follow the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on bringing forward this important legislation unamended to Third Reading.

Powers of attorney, specifically lasting powers of attorney, are incredibly powerful and useful appointments. They allow people to retain control over aspects of their lives in circumstances where they might not otherwise be able to make decisions or take actions. In particular, lasting powers of attorney ensure that people have the opportunity to make provision for a future where they may no longer have the mental capacity to understand what is happening to them and therefore to make decisions about the things that they care about.

We all know that our population is ageing and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk illustrated with good statistics, the prevalence of dementia is increasing. For those people, such documents will become ever more important to ensure that they can continue to live the lives that they want to live. They will also be more important in protecting people who might otherwise be the target of fraud, scams and abuse. I have seen some terrible examples of that in my casework on behalf of Guildford constituents, where vulnerable people have been taken advantage of in so-called romance scams and similar, without the protection of someone who can look after their best interests.

As has been said, hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the current situation is unsustainable. The Office of the Public Guardian carries out manual administration checks and stores 11 tonnes of paper at any one time. LPA applications are generally increasing, with the number submitted for registration more than doubling between 2014-15 and 2019-20. That creates an ever-increasing need for staff, equipment and storage space.

The ability to use a digital channel alongside the paper route to make and register an LPA would help to resolve some of those issues. Most of the current manual checks could be automated to speed up the time it takes for applications to be processed, which I know has been an issue. It would also increase the Office of the Public Guardian’s resilience to backlogs. It is important that some safeguards remain, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned. Importantly, the Bill achieves sustainability for the Office of the Public Guardian while keeping LPAs as affordable as possible for everyone in society.

12:24
Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Gagan Mohindra (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)
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I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) for her excellent speech. It is a real honour to speak in support of my very good and long-standing friend, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). I have known him for 20 years and he continues to be a leading political light in my eyes. I aspire to his lofty heights.

The Government have wanted to introduce such a Bill for a long time. During the pandemic, we saw the need for modernisation and how much it is now required. The critical point about the Bill is that it will always be difficult to see a loved one no longer being able to make their own decisions, so ensuring that their wishes are protected is essential. Making it quicker and easier to get a lasting power of attorney and smoothing out the logistical process must surely be the right thing to do.

Within South West Hertfordshire we saw the community rally round during the very difficult pandemic to support the most vulnerable in our area, and I saw how technology was able to help with allowing those people to get on with their lives. Within my own work programme, things such as offering virtual surgeries and meeting virtually with local organisations remain a critical tool for interacting with my community—something I am sure that colleagues around the House continue to use today.

There are some excellent organisations working in South West Hertfordshire and across the UK to help people with lasting power of attorney, but I want to mention Age UK. Every one of those organisations has said that simplifying the process would be a help to even more people. The problem is that, as we all know, the applicants who have to use the LPAs have said that since the pandemic the process of obtaining one has been cumbersome with all the relevant paperwork.

In particular, organising the paperwork presents logistical difficulties for people who have become used to technology. It can also be an expensive process if people feel the need to use a solicitor. There has been an increase of 50% in the waiting time for LPAs, from about 40 days to 82, and there is currently no method to track the progress of an application. I am in support of this Bill. A digital method of verifying witnesses for an LPA is possible, given technological advances.

The Government consulted on whether a witness is still a necessary part of the process, how to reduce the chances of an LPA application being rejected by the Office of the Public Guardian and whether an urgent service would be helpful. The consultation got 313 responses and the overall response was positive. Respondents supported a modernisation of the LPA service that offers a digital and, just as importantly, a paper channel.

In conclusion, modernising the LPA application system will allow applications to be processed more quickly and easily while putting digital protections in place to keep the same level of security, which will help to give people peace of mind as they approach what can be a very difficult task.

12:31
Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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It is an honour to speak on this Bill, brought forward and championed so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), who spoke very cogently on the subject.

I am incredibly glad that this Bill has had full support from the Government during its passage through Parliament. After all, it is a wholly sensible Bill and will bring lasting powers of attorney into the 21st century. In fact, it builds on some sensible recommendations that the Office of the Public Guardian and the Ministry of Justice identified in their recent work on modernising LPAs.

I recently heard from a constituent of mine, Tim, who works as a volunteer for the Paperweight Trust, a charity that provides free services to those needing guidance on legal, financial and welfare issues. Tim is an expert on this subject, so I was interested to hear his observation that the Office of the Public Guardian is taking much longer to process LPAs. Based on his experience, he told me that, for many people, the complexity and accessibility are a constant worry when it comes to this kind of documentation.

Therefore, I want to make some observations. First, how will this Bill seek to address the problems that Tim has highlighted, and will it make a difference? The Bill will deliver two important changes to legislation around powers of attorney and add to the work in the report led by the Ministry of Justice. It will reform the process of making and registering a lasting power of attorney to make it safer, easier, and more sustainable. It will bolster safeguards and explicitly permit a third party to object to the registration of a lasting power of attorney, a very important protection. Moreover, it will modernise the process of filling in a lasting power of attorney, a move that—in my view—is very long overdue.

Secondly, it will widen the group of people who can provide certified copies of powers of attorney to include chartered legal executives. From my point of view, that is most welcome, and works to correct a historic omission: it will mean that chartered legal executives can certify alongside solicitors, which I hope will mean that we can speed up the process, because there will be more professionals involved in it. I say to my hon. Friend who is taking the Bill through Parliament, the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, that these reforms are most welcome. Of course, digitalisation offers the opportunity to create a more efficient service for creating powers of attorney; however, that process needs to put protecting older and vulnerable individuals at its heart. To that end, I emphasise the need for any digital system to place a premium on accessibility. I hope that we will hear from the Minister on that point.

James Wild Portrait James Wild
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So far in this debate, we have all talked about how we are going to be moving to a far more digital system. Unfortunately, the record of the public sector—and in fairness, equally, the private sector—in delivering IT systems has not always been as stellar as we might want. Having been on the Public Accounts Committee for two years, I can certainly attest to that being the case. Does my hon. Friend join me in looking forward to the Minister explaining in his comments where we are in the process of developing this digital system, which, according to the explanatory notes, will only cost £3 million? That is a relatively small figure, so I hope that it is all on track, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is very important?

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those issues regarding the digitalisation of the whole process. We all know that Governments, no matter their political persuasion, do not always have the greatest record in improving digitalisation of this kind, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that point. As we all know, he is an able Minister, so I am sure that he is already ahead of the game and knows exactly what he is doing to improve the speed of that digitalisation while keeping it within budget.

The premium on accessibility will be absolutely key for people who are not too familiar with the internet; given that 25% of over-65s do not use the internet, that is a point that we have to make, though as we get older, we are more used to using the internet. A woman who is in her 50s, like I am, is very used to using the internet now. [Hon. Members: “Never!”] I thank my hon. Friends for their kind comments. Likewise, any approach to a multi-channel system needs to work just as efficiently as the digital option.

Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Mohindra
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My hon. Friend is making a valuable contribution, as she always does. Does she share my concerns that if people who are not necessarily technology-advanced are seeking support in getting their applications through, there need to be relevant safeguards in place to ensure that those people are not being manipulated, as they would not necessarily have been if the system was purely a paper one?

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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My hon. Friend makes a key point. The Ministry of Justice might want to look at what public-sector organisations, such as libraries and local authorities, can do to help support people—possibly older or more vulnerable people—who are not au fait with using the internet. That may be something for the Minister to consider eventually as this process continues.

However, I welcome the Bill and what it sets out to achieve. It is tough, and often heartbreaking, when loved ones lose the ability to make their own decisions as a result of mental incapacity. As such, a lasting power of attorney is one of the most important legal documents a person will make, so we need to get the legislation right. I will take this opportunity to provide my own experience with lasting power of attorney. I am the lasting power of attorney for my father and mother. I did that six years ago when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it became obvious that he would not have the mental capacity to make decisions for himself as the condition progressed. At a point when he still had the capacity, we organised lasting powers of attorney on health and on the financial side. It is important to make the point that lasting power of attorney is so important in both areas—the financial side and health.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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I am very interested to hear my hon. Friend’s experience with this process. Does she agree with me that, having been through the process, it is needlessly complicated?

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We went through our family solicitor, who is somebody that we trust and who knew the family. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the process can be long, and, when not using a solicitor, it can be quite unnerving for some people. It is such a massive and important document. From my own experience, when it came to the end of my father’s life, and there had to be major decisions made on whether to continue his treatment, the fact that I had the final say ensured that the family knew that we were making the decision for my father in his best interests. It was not left to medical professionals. I would absolutely trust a doctor or a medical professional to make that decision, but having the health power of attorney meant that I made the decision on his behalf.

Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Mohindra
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My hon. Friend continues to amaze me with the quality of her speech and the points she makes. Does she agree with me that the fact we are discussing what some families may regard as a taboo subject, in this great Chamber, will hopefully give families up and down the country the confidence to start those conversations? As a result, if and when they need power of attorney, those difficult decisions and discussions will have happened well in advance.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I say to people in this House, and across the country, “Have the conversation now.” Having looked at the Bill and written my speech, I am going to have the conversation with my husband. We never know what is around the corner. I want to ensure that, if anything happened to me, my husband has the lasting power of attorney so that he can make the decisions both financially and for the benefit of my health—and vice versa.

That is what I learnt through the process with my father. When he sadly died last May, because I had the lasting power of attorney for the financial side I could help my mother with all the finances, which made it an easier transition. She had never had to do any financial planning or management in the household; it was always down to my dad. I could work with the insurance companies, the banks and the pension providers. It was a fairly seamless transition. One of the positives from the pandemic is that many pension providers and insurance companies will now accept the death certificate via email, so people do not have to keep posting so many copies of the death certificate. I hope the digitisation of the lasting power of attorney will have similar success in making the transition easier when people have to provide information to whoever they are dealing with on behalf of their loved one.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)
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I am struck by my hon. Friend’s speech and her reference to her father—I am very sorry about that situation. We had a similar experience with my mother-in-law; my wife and her siblings had lasting power of attorney, which was all the more important as she lived for many years with Alzheimer’s. A key point is that the speed with which lasting power of attorney is granted is incredibly important, because a person’s condition can sometimes deteriorate very quickly. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill is vital in considering ways in which we can speed up the process, which is the key point of digitisation?

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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I agree 100%. We know the progress of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia can be slow or rapid, so it is important that we make the process as quick as possible to give the person at the heart of the decision making the reassurance that their family will do everything in their best interest. It also gives the family the reassurance that they have the power to make sure their loved one is as comfortable as possible in their last years.

James Wild Portrait James Wild
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My hon. Friend is being generous in taking interventions. Conversations about lasting power of attorney are very important, but does she agrees it is also important that more people talk about writing a will so that their financial affairs are in good order? It is on my to-do list every year, and I will do it very soon, but I have not got around to it. I encourage others to do as I say and not as I do.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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I absolutely agree. We never know what fate has in store for us, and I urge my hon. Friend to put writing his will and arranging a lasting power of attorney at the top of his list, and I promise that I will do the same. I urge everyone in this country to discuss with those closest to them whether they should arrange a lasting power of attorney for each other.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
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My hon. Friend makes an important point that everyone should have these conversations, but not everyone can follow up on them because of the expense of, for example, getting legal advice to arrange a will or power of attorney. She says she was fortunate to be able to use a solicitor, but that will be too expensive for some people. Does she agree that the measures in the Bill will make it much easier for people to access lasting power of attorney without incurring the extra expense and difficulty?

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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Again, I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. One of the reasons I support the Bill is that I think it will do that. It will give the reassurance we all need as human beings about what will happen at the end of life, or if things go wrong and we end up in hospital without the capacity to make a decision on ongoing treatment. These days, everything in our lives is done digitally, whether it is banking or insurance, and this Bill will enable our partner, a family member or a close associate to get into our bank account, if we are incapacitated for whatever reason, to look after our financial affairs so that our family’s lives can go on.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting my Bill and being so eloquent in her explanation of some of its effects. She had just moved on to the digital aspect. One of the Bill’s effects is to create a digital record of lasting powers of attorney—a digital truth—that will be accessible for those wanting to check LPAs. Those are powerful documents, but there may come a point when someone wishes to take back that power, as the donor, from one of their attorneys and give it to someone else. At the moment, that record would exist in paper form. In future, there will be a digital version, which will be bang up to date. That is an important safeguard.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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I agree with my hon. Friend, who is responsible for the Bill. Everything we do with it has to improve the situation for those at the heart of the LPA and those who are caring for them. Of course, life changes and someone may be incapacitated from a health point of view but then recover, as we would hope. They could then take back that power. It is so important to have the flexibility and protection in future, so I absolutely agree with the point he makes.

I will now conclude, as I think I have been speaking for long enough. [Hon. Members: “More!”] I could speak for so much longer on this subject, but I know that other Members wish to support the Bill. I believe it does get things right, I support it and I hope to see it become law shortly.

12:51
Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure and an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and to support this Bill, which has been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), who spoke with great vigour in advocating for it and with great experience and authority. I have to declare an interest, because in the merry-go-round of ministerial changes during the year I was briefly a Justice Minister and I conferred with him at the beginning of his journey on this Bill. I am not surprised, but I am delighted, to see the fantastic way in which he has brought it forward. I was also particularly impressed by the way in which he made reference in his speech to all the other people who had spoken during the earlier stages of the Bill. That showed a degree of respect, care and attention to detail in relation to our fellow Members. All of us who participate in the proceedings on these Bills, be it in a Bill Committee or on a sitting Friday, appreciate the sort of respect he has shown to people in bringing forward their ideas alongside his own.

To go back to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and to my earlier intervention, at the heart of this lies an incredibly difficult period in people’s lives. We are talking about processes, digitisation and paper alternatives, but at the heart of this is a time of great vulnerability for people: not only the person for whom the LPA is being sought, but their family and carers. My mother-in-law, like my hon. Friend’s father, suffered from Alzheimer’s. It is a difficult and confusing time; you do not quite know what to do. It is difficult to decide when to seek an LPA. It almost feels disrespectful to suggest that that person is not in control of their life.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he agree that, rather than waiting for someone to get into that situation, perhaps when they are in their 70s or 80s, it is perhaps time that we now—in our 30s, 40s or 50s— think ahead and put together an LPA now, to take away any embarrassment and upset?

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes
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That is an extremely important point, to which I think my hon. Friend referred in her speech. I remember the difficulty we had in reaching the point at which my mother-in-law was actually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She had to go and have an MRI scan, which she was very scared of doing, and we felt that we were placing an impossible imposition on her by making her go and have the scan, but by then we knew there was something that really needed to be addressed. So there is not only the difficulty of making the decision to seek lasting power of attorney but what leads up to that, which may be the diagnosis of an illness, particularly a dementia-related illness. So I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about the importance of planning ahead.

Although many do not like to think or talk about it, some people will find themselves in circumstances in which they are no longer able to make their own decisions owing to a loss of mental capacity, and obviously the lasting power of attorney exists for that purpose. It was introduced in the Mental Capacity Act 2007 with the aim of making improvements in the previous system of enduring power of attorney, and it constitutes a legal agreement governed by the law on deeds and the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The 2005 Act is designed to protect and empower people who may lack the mental capacity to make their own decisions about their care, treatment and financial affairs, and LPAs have an important role within that framework. This is something that I think we all understand, and indeed have discussed already this morning.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock and many others who have spoken, the case for change is clear. The existing protections within the LPA system are losing their effectiveness as technology improves and society’s attitudes change. There have been a number of references today to the levels of digital technology use by older people. I do not dispute those statistics, but on the basis of my experience I think there may be more people than we realise at the older end of the age spectrum—silver surfers like me—who use computers and digital technology and consider them to be an important part of their lives, and I think that people are becoming more accustomed to obtaining Government services efficiently online.

When I was a parliamentary candidate about 10 years ago, there was a great deal of debate about benefits being paid directly into people’s bank accounts, which it was thought would cause difficulties for many people. There was a twin-track approach in that instance, like the one that my hon. Friend is suggesting now, with both a digital and a paper track, but what we found then was that in fairly short order people became used to having benefits paid directly into their accounts without their having to go to the post office or the bank to collect them in cash.

The covid-19 pandemic has of course accelerated this expectation, and has caused many people who were previously unfamiliar with digital technology to embrace new ways of interacting with organisations and public services. A point that may not have been made strongly enough today is that the last two or three years have changed the way in which many of us—particularly older people—find information and assistance.

Jane Stevenson Portrait Jane Stevenson (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
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I hope I am not going beyond the scope of the Bill, but does my hon. Friend share my concern about local council provision, which has to balance digital accessibility with maintaining access to many services for a generation who are less familiar with tech? On powers of attorney, there needs to be clarity for people who are approaching that time. It cannot be only digital; there needs to be physical help and access. I am concerned that in some services councils provide, such as parking, council tax or green bin collections, they are going digital slightly too quickly.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes
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I thank my hon. Friend for an excellent intervention, as always. She makes an extremely important point. Many constituents come to me in Clwyd South, as I am sure they come to other hon. Members, to ask for assistance in accessing such services. I agree that maintaining a paper route alongside a digital route is extremely important.

I do think, however, that the covid pandemic has changed how people embrace interactions with organisations and public services. That is reflected in user feedback that the paper-based process is cumbersome, bureaucratic and complex. I have to say that in the brief two months that I was a Minister I had a lot of interactions with the Office of the Public Guardian, and there are big backlogs in the granting of powers of attorney and lasting powers of attorney. I am sure that the Minister is addressing those backlogs with great efficiency and vigour, but I certainly think that the cumbersome, bureaucratic and complex nature of the process is a real issue. If the Bill can bring greater efficiency to the dispatch of business, it will make a big difference.

James Wild Portrait James Wild
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From his experience with the Office of the Public Guardian, does my hon. Friend know whether its senior managers have bonuses and performance measures that are linked to delivering the target of a 20-week processing time? That target is so important to so many people, particularly those who are in a vulnerable situation.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes
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I think it is for the Minister to comment on that point, and I would not wish to tread upon his territory. However, from what I saw when I held the position, I am sure that the OPG is chasing the backlog with the greatest efficiency it can muster. One problem, which goes to the heart of the Bill, is that when people work from home, as they did at the OPG during covid, a paper-based system creates huge delay and problems. People can work on a digital system on their laptop at home, whereas with a paper-based system they really need to be in the office. The delay is perfectly fair and understandable in the light of the covid pandemic, which had a particularly acute effect in this case.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I should apologise for not mentioning my hon. Friend in my speech, because I am very grateful for his help and support with my early work on the Bill last summer. I was very impressed by the knowledge and experience that he had gained in such a short time.

When my hon. Friend was the Minister, was he as surprised as I was while researching the Bill by the sheer volume of paper with which the Office of the Public Guardian has to deal? The forms are cumbersome, with many pages, and the number of applications runs into thousands daily. With 11 tonnes of paper floating around, it is not surprising that there is a backlog. I hope that the Bill will not only help to alleviate that backlog, but prevent it from happening ever again.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, I was surprised, but, as he said, it is a cumbersome paper document to fill in. Clearly, the necessity for lasting powers of attorney was increased by the covid pandemic. The fact that people were not able to see somebody in person exacerbated the situation. The forms are also not easy to fill in. The problem that the Office of the Public Guardian has, which is not its fault at all, is that if a form is not filled in correctly, it has to send it back again for changes to be made. Although we can say that that is just bureaucracy run wild, it is not at the end of the day, because this is a vital legal document. The care and support for vulnerable people that it provides means that this has to be done properly, so I fully agree with my hon. Friend.

The modernisation provides the opportunity to update the protections provided by the LPA to align with the new world and the ever-increasing move towards the use of digital technology. There are new opportunities to improve safeguards against fraud, abuse and undue pressure. At the same time, there is the opportunity to make the OPG more sustainable through increased efficiency, and make lasting powers of attorney more widely accessible through multiple channels of creation. Accessibility and safeguards are very important parts of that.

I have two other points to make, then I will call it a day. The consultation received 313 responses and the overall response to the proposals was positive. I am pleased that, as a result of the feedback, the Government feel confident that they can build a modernised LPA service. I take on board the point that some hon. Members have made that creating a new digital service can be quite complicated technologically. There are cases in which there is not a great precedent for that, but this is something that we need to do. Other systems have been created in local councils and central Government, so I am sure that it cannot be that difficult to do it. None the less, the retention of both a digital and paper channel is vital.

I wish to finish by referring to comments made by Stephanie Boyce, the president of the Law Society. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) also referred to her in his excellent speech earlier. She said:

“LPAs are arguably one of the most important legal documents that a person will make because they delegate such wide-reaching powers over their life.

The consequence of an attorney making a poor decision could be the loss of all their assets, being put into a care home against their current or past wishes, or even their premature death.

We welcome the MoJ’s commitment to improve the speed and accuracy of making an LPA, as well as to continue to provide a paper service. Many people—such as those in care homes or people with learning difficulties—will continue to need to make an LPA via a paper process.

We are pleased the Government is looking at proposals to improve support for those who will struggle with using digital channels, as more needs to be done to ensure the reforms do not negatively impact vulnerable, disabled or older people.”

That is clearly an authoritative voice in support of the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock and sums up very well how I and, I suspect, many other people here today feel about it.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my hon. Friend again and pay my respect to him for introducing the Bill and for improving the performance of LPAs to the benefit of many vulnerable people, across the whole of the United Kingdom, at a very difficult time in their lives.

13:08
Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow for the second time today my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes). As warm-up acts go, it really is quite unfair to follow somebody so articulate and so well-considered twice and try to look good by comparison.

I wish to pay tribute to, and thank, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) for introducing this Bill. I have had the pleasure of participating in the Science and Technology Committee and various other endeavours with him. I know that he takes very seriously any endeavour in which he participates, and this has all the hallmarks of his usual excellent work.

The Bill is pragmatic—it is pragmatism at its finest—as it addresses the key issues and gaps in the current LPA application process through a combination of good sense and innovative technology. I was struck by the fact that the Bill passed its Committee stage on St David’s day and it is having its Third Reading on St Patrick’s day—happy St Patrick’s day, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that its next stage will be closer to St George’s day than it is to St Andrew’s day, because we cannot wait for this much longer.

The measures in the Bill will help to reduce administrative burdens and minimise the likelihood of application errors which, as we have heard, can be tortuous and drag the process out for far too long. Most importantly, they will ease the burdens on applicants and their loved ones who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances. As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Clwyd South, sometimes these situations can move extremely quickly. When someone is going through a complex and tortuous process, the emotional burden can make it too much to complete the process, leading to the very worst of outcomes.

The Law Society considers these to be some of the most important legal documents that people will ever sign. To that end, I welcome the provision to allow chartered legal executives to perform certification. That will provide more choice and will be much more affordable for people. One of the perversities of the process is that sometimes people feel that they have to commission a solicitor to go through the process and that can be expensive. Someone on a modest income may have financial assets to protect, such as a house, and the wellbeing of a loved one to consider, but may not have the disposable income to get a solicitor. It is wrong that some people may be effectively priced out of the system, and the Bill will go a long way to removing some of the barriers that people have to accessing it.

A case in which that happened came across my desk not long ago. A constituent wrote to me about his experience of a delayed LPA process. During the height of the covid-19 backlog in 2021, I was contacted by a man who had been waiting for more than five months for a decision on his LPA application for his 91-year-old mother who was suffering from dementia. Weary of the process and the delays, my constituent hired a solicitor to complete the application. He had been assured that it was filed correctly. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) flagged a similar case. My constituent waited months for the application decision while his mother’s mental health deteriorated and she was no longer able to manage her finances or health-related arrangements. It then turned out that an error had been made in the process by the solicitor, the forms had all been returned and the process had been in abeyance. My hon. Friend mentioned that he had encountered a similar situation when undertaking this process for a loved one, and he is himself legally qualified. That is how mystifying the process can be. I too have a legal background and have taken a cursory look at what the process involves: it scares the living whatsits out of me. As my constituent’s mother’s dementia became more severe, she had no concept of the value of money or how to pay bills, and was acutely vulnerable to cold callers and scammers, but there were no protections in place for her.

My constituent and his mother are not the only ones dealing with the delays. I am acutely aware that people up and down the country are waiting for certainty. We have all had the conversation—people put off the decision, as they do in making a will, because they do not like to think about their own mortality. They are always waiting for the next time. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, fairly late, none of these things had been done because everybody thinks that they will live for ever and will get around to it tomorrow. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), “Get that will sorted asap!”

James Wild Portrait James Wild
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I am happy to confirm that I will have a conversation with a solicitor to draw up that will next Friday.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
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Being a good friend of his wife, I am sure she will be very pleased and putting roller skates at the top of the stairs after that date—[Laughter.]

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made the interesting point that in some circumstances people do not recognise or accept Scottish lasting powers of attorney. As he probably knows, I got my legal education at Dundee, which is one of the few universities that dual-qualifies its students, so I have a particular interest in ensuring that the two jurisdictions work as closely together as they can. The reality is that most people, when relying on a legal instrument, do not really care whether it is a solicitor in Glasgow or Manchester; they just want to know that their loved one will be looked after. Similarly, people move across the border and have family on both sides. I would welcome a conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside this debate about how we can streamline the process to ensure that this place and the devolved Administrations have some sort of framework to allow it to work properly. I appreciate that there is a legislative consent motion for the Bill.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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I am happy to pick this up with the hon. Gentleman. We recognise that the Bill is not quite the vehicle to deal with this issue in legislative terms, but it has shone a light on the importance of mutual recognition south of the border and of people having powers of attorney in the first place. I assure him that we are all working together on this, and there is consensus.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and completely agree; there is an outbreak of consensus across the House. These are such important and necessary changes.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock has made provision for maintaining the paper route, with a fluid system in which it is possible to use both paper and digital. It is not just older people who sometimes struggle with accessing or using technology, although I have been approached repeatedly by constituents who are upset or concerned that they are not able to access the full range of services from various providers for that reason. There is also a digital divide. I represent a constituency that is not particularly affluent. There are people who simply do not have access to the technology or might not have had sufficient training in using it to feel confident going through this process, whereas if somebody can sit down with them and go through a form, they have the certainty that it is being dealt with properly, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend has maintained that route.

The Bill strikes the balance between improving the efficiency and processing times of applications and minimising the dangers of fraud. These circumstances are never easy—they are often some of the most heartbreaking and challenging situations, where loved ones are simply losing capacity and people have to make difficult decisions about what happens to them next. The Bill is a step in the right direction. It eases the burdens on individuals and takes away some of that difficulty and stress. It removes some of the expense, which blocks some people from accessing this, and gives people flexibility and choice. I strongly commend the Bill to the House and thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock for his diligent work on it.

13:16
Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in support of this incredibly important Bill. I pay tribute to the brilliant speech we just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who spoke with such fluency and detail about this topic that there is little anyone now needs to say. That puts me in the difficult position of trying to follow him, but there are a couple of points that I want to emphasise.

I am extremely pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on the Treasury Bench and to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), whose Bill we are supporting today. It is terribly important to have such a strong showing from Essex when discussing this important topic, and that is not just some “TOWIE”, collegiate Essex chest-beating, important though that always is. It is because 21% of people in Essex are over 65, compared with just 18.5% in England as a whole. With that higher than average age profile, there is a higher call for lasting powers of eternity—sorry, attorney; I am going off in another direction!

That thread of evidence runs through Essex. Some 21% of my constituents are aged 65 and over, and 1.5% are over 90. If we look at age-related disease in the new powerhouse city of Southend and picturesque Leigh-on-Sea, we see that 1.2% of people are registered as having dementia, which is 50% higher than across the country as a whole. That makes the Bill incredibly important for people in Essex. While we do not like to talk or think about such things, clearly it is vital for my constituents that their rights and freedoms are protected and that they can take early action to appoint people they trust to act on their behalf.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) also spoke brilliantly—so brilliantly that I had to write down the point he made. He is right to say that the existing protections within the lasting powers of attorney system are losing their effectiveness as technology improves and society’s attitudes change. People are now accustomed to being able to obtain Government services online; not only are we working online much more, but we want the convenience of being able to fill in the forms when we happen to have a spare half-hour or hour, whether morning, noon, night or even in the wee small hours. The system has to come up to date and become less cumbersome, bureaucratic and complex.

In particular, the requirement to sign the lasting powers of attorney in a particular order presents many logistical difficulties. I remember well with my mother’s and father-in-law’s powers of attorney how all the documents turned up and we needed to focus and get them in the right order. If we had all done it at the same time online, it would have been so much easier. I am delighted that this Bill is before the House and that it will facilitate three things: first, and importantly, improvements to safeguards; secondly, a simpler process and better access for all involved; and, thirdly, making the Office of the Public Guardian more sustainable.

The only word of warning I would add is about ensuring that there is support for people going through the process electronically. That is why I am particularly pleased to hear that we will have both a digital and a paper channel available. I think of my own mother, who is an academic doctor in her own right and a powerhouse in her 80s; the fact that it was a paper process, and that she did get a lawyer, put her in control and meant that she understood it all. Even though she was doing something that she perhaps did not particularly want to be thinking about, she was in control.

My slight worry is that, if we were to go fully digital, people might feel additional stress and pressure at a time when they are perhaps considering their own mortality—not the happiest of moments—and they would probably have to turn for help to the very people to whom they were looking to give the power of attorney.

Jane Stevenson Portrait Jane Stevenson
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and I thank her for her tribute to her mother, who sounds like an inspirational woman. My mother is also in her 80s and is very tech-minded—she is a bit of a silver surfer powerhouse. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that as we move to digital, especially in provisions for older people, we must also raise awareness of any scams and any potential abuses or misuses of that new technology, and that education is crucial?

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth
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I am delighted that my hon. Friend has made that point, because I was about to come on to the two other issues with digitisation and why it is so good that we are keeping the paper channel for the time being. One issue is the 8 million-odd people who are not online at all, and the other issue is scams. Even my mother often calls me to run through something that someone has rung her up about or put on the computer. She needs that extra person to say, “That is complete nonsense.” She is lucky that she has family around her to do that, but there are plenty of people in their 80s who do not. I agree with my hon. Friend’s point.

Much has been said—almost everything that could be said—in support of this important Bill, which leaves me to say only, once again, that I am delighted to support it and to see support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is an important change to the legislation that will make a genuine improvement to the lives of my constituents in Southend West and will provide them, I hope, with the peace of mind that they need to ensure that their wishes, values and views will be represented, even when they can no longer make decisions for themselves.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson.

13:24
Steve Reed Portrait Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab/Co-op)
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I start by wishing right hon. and hon. Members, and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a happy St Patrick’s Day. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on securing his private Member’s Bill and on his success in progressing it through the legislative stages with Government support. We look forward to that continuing in the other place.

We have had an interesting debate. I congratulate hon. Members who have taken part and made important contributions. The provisions in the Bill are much needed and Labour is pleased to support them. A lasting power of attorney ensures that an individual’s personal wishes and preferences can be considered when capacity is lost, which can massively reduce the stress and anxiety for their family through an extraordinarily difficult time. The process for making and registering a lasting power of attorney, however, has long been due an update. The current paper-based process is extremely confusing and bureaucratic, and often increases rather than reduces the family’s stress.

We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the modernising measures that the hon. Member has brought before the House. We need to plan now for the challenges that will face our legal system in the coming decades. I hope that these changes will help to future-proof our system and ensure that the caseload of the Office of the Public Guardian, which is already beset by delays and backlogs, does not become completely unmanageable as our population continues to age and the number of people living with illnesses that affect capacity increases.

Currently, about 900,000 people in the UK have a diagnosis of dementia, and almost every hon. Member present will know someone living with that incredibly destructive and debilitating condition. According to Dementia UK, that number will rise to more than 1 million people by 2025, and it is projected that it will have increased to more than 1.5 million by 2040. It is clear that the need and demand for lasting powers of attorney will increase significantly in the coming years, so the creation of a digital process to streamline much of the work is a necessity. I was astonished to read in the Minister’s response in Committee that the paper burden on the Office of the Public Guardian stands as high as 11 tonnes of paper at any one time, which is clearly unsustainable and certainly not how a modern Government body should be working.

I am glad that the hon. Member has ensured that the paper route will remain in place for all those who need it. Current figures suggest that about a quarter of those over 65 do not have easy access to the internet. We are all aware of the challenges that our digitally excluded constituents can face when trying to engage with online Government systems. As we have discussed, applying for an LPA is a stressful and difficult process at the best of times, so it is right that the paper route is kept open so that our constituents can apply through whichever means most suits them.

I am also pleased that the Bill will amend section 3 of the Powers of Attorney Act 1971 to enable chartered legal executives to certify copies of powers of attorney. They are legal professionals who can carry out many of the same services as solicitors, so it is good to see that inconsistency being addressed.

Finally, I turn to the issue of safeguards in the process. The hon. Member’s Bill builds in a number of welcome safeguards, including the introduction of identity verification, restricting who can apply to register the LPA and changes to the objections process. However, the Law Society has some additional concerns around safeguarding and it has suggested several additional measures that it believes would help safeguard vulnerable people from exploitation. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on these matters when he responds at the end of the debate.

Has the Minister considered amending the Mental Capacity Act 2005 to make it clear that the certificate provider has a responsibility to confirm that the donor has the mental capacity to make an LPA? Can he confirm whether future guidance on the role of the certificate provider will include questions for them to ask the donor that will test whether they can rely on the presumption of capacity? Finally, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure a certificate completed by a certificate provider for an LPA application shows that the certificate provider has been satisfied that the donor understands the information relevant to the decision to execute the LPA, can retain that information, and is able to use and weigh up that information as part of the process of making that decision?

We welcome the Bill of the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, but it is clear that more can be done to improve matters of safeguarding in relation to LPAs. Today’s Bill is certainly a step in the right direction: we need a lasting power of attorney system that is fit for the future and protects the vulnerable individuals it is intended to serve.

13:31
Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) for his sterling work on this valuable Bill in steering it through to this stage; he has done an amazing amount of work in the background and in the Chamber and in Committee to ensure it has obtained cross-party support, and I am extremely grateful for that.

I am sure I speak on behalf of many in saying that it is difficult to talk about and plan for a time when we might no longer be able to make our own decisions due to the loss of mental capacity. It is clear that we all recognise that a lasting power of attorney is a vital resource. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that the process for making one has sufficient safeguards while remaining accessible and efficient. As my hon. Friend highlighted, however, there are a number of problems facing the current system for making and registering an LPA. These problems can be summarised in three points: outdated safeguards; confusing paper forms; and an unsustainable volume of forms for the Office of the Public Guardian to deal with. The service needs to be modernised: the volume of paper is such that the system is rapidly reaching the point where it is no longer fit for purpose.

The Bill effectively tackles those problems by facilitating changes to the service to make and register an LPA. The introduction of a digital channel will make it easier for users to create and register their LPA. However, I hope my hon. Friend has reassured those with concerns that modernisation does not mean removing all traces of paper; instead, it promotes an enhanced paper channel so that donors, attorneys and others involved can have a choice of using a digital or paper route, depending on their needs. I am greatly in favour of this fluid system as it is important to increase access to this important service so that everyone who wants or needs an LPA can have one.

My hon. Friend has also eloquently summarised ways in which this Bill strengthens protections for the donor. It gives assurances that the process for making an LPA has sufficient safeguards, for example allowing anyone with a legitimate concern to raise an objection with the public guardian. Along with restricting who can apply to register an LPA just to the donor and the introduction of identity checks, the changes will build in more confidence that the system will better protect individuals from coercion or abuse.

It is important to ensure that the public guardian can successfully operate the new service. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about the current burden on the public guardian. I have seen for myself when visiting the Office of the Public Guardian the receipt of 4,000 envelopes a day, each containing 18 pages of paper—that is nearly 80,000 papers a day having to be processed. A number of colleagues have commented on the backlog. I can reassure colleagues that the Office of the Public Guardian has been working throughout covid. It does use technology: it uses a three-shift system to ensure that the office is manned for up to 18 hours a day, to ensure that these vital applications are processed as safely, as securely, and as fast as possible. However, the use of electronic registration for LPAs will help reduce that burden and build resilience into the process, making the public guardian much more sustainable.

I should also mention the support that these provisions have received. It is especially pleasing that everyone supports chartered legal executives being allowed to certify copies of the power of attorney. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the utility of that provision. I recognise that a power of attorney is a very important legal document and that it is important to maintain public confidence in the security of the process, but let me also say quite clearly that the proposed change to the legislation does not affect the contents of the power of attorney. It ensures that chartered legal executives who support their clients to prepare the original document can also legitimately certify that a copy is a true and complete copy of the original.

Before closing, I will address some of the issues raised by Members. The shadow Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed)—I am pleased to see him in his place today—raised the issue of capacity assessment. That is quite a detailed issue, so I will write to the hon. Gentleman with much more detail, but the certificate provider is required to ensure that the donor understands the purpose of the LPA and the scope of the authority conferred under it. Obviously, there is a raft of other provisions, so without detaining the House, I will ensure that the shadow Secretary of State gets a full response in due course.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) raised a very good point, both today and in Committee, about the recognition of Scottish powers of attorney in England and Wales. I can confirm that legislation is already in place that allows for the recognition of Scottish powers of attorney in England and Wales. Paragraph 13 of schedule 3 to the 2005 Act provides that where an individual is habitually resident in another country to which England and Wales is a connected country—which would include Scotland—the law applicable to the power’s existence is the law of the other country, so both are recognised. However, I accept that institutions do not always recognise that duality. Not only will we address that point as part of our engagement, particularly with banks and the insurance sector, to ensure that those organisations are aware of the new changes we are making, but we will reiterate the legitimacy of Scottish powers of attorney. As requested, I will place a copy of that letter in the Library.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) quite rightly welcomed the retention of the paper process. I would also say that the digital process is increasingly important if we are to ensure that the Office of the Public Guardian is fit for purpose. My hon. Friend asked what stage we are at with the new digital system; the development of that system is ongoing, and the cost given in the explanatory notes, which he mentioned, is correct. I know he has spent some considerable time looking at IT problems that the Ministry of Justice is involved in, and if he wishes it, I am happy to ensure that we can have a more detailed briefing on how the new system will work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) also raised the issue of the 11 tonnes of paper, but having seen the scanners in operation, I can reassure her that it is quite an impressive operation. Literally every envelope with its 18 pages is scanned through at speed, so that the processers can see them online. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) mentioned Age UK. It is correct to pay tribute to the work that that charity has done, and it did recognise that the paperwork system is cumbersome. That paperwork is often being embarked upon at a difficult stage, and it is right that we streamline it but, equally, ensure that the verification of the people involved is as secure as possible. I reassure my hon. Friend that there is a system—I keep calling it the one-touch system—through which one can check on where the system is, and on verification.

I cannot mention all hon. Members’ contributions to the debate, but I do want to respond to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). So often in this place, we deal with dry, technical issues, but our job is not just to vote things through: it is to ensure that the legislation we are voting for is rooted in changing people’s lives. The personal testimony that my hon. Friend brought to the debate demonstrated why we are here: it makes for better law if we have personal experience or testimony from those we know—from our constituents—to bring our legislation to life. I reiterate, on her point about battling institutions, that we will continue to engage with banks and insurance companies. I thank her for her personal and powerful perspective.

Finally, I thank all colleagues for their support and all those who took part in the debate—I am sorry that I cannot address all their points. I thank the officials who have assisted in the passage of the Bill, as well as the previous Ministers who have been involved in the process. I hope that the Bill’s passage has made it clear that modernisation is a necessity for improving user experience, protections and accessibility.

Let me take this final opportunity to reiterate the Government’s wholehearted support for the Bill and our thanks to our hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock.

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Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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With the leave of the House, I will say a final few words. It has been an absolute privilege to take the Bill through the House. I am sure that we all wish it well on its journey into the other place, where I am sure—or I hope—that it will receive the same level of support.

As we have heard, with only a small number of clauses, the Bill is relatively narrow in scope, but it is none the less an important Bill that will do some important things. It will put the Office of the Public Guardian on a sustainable footing, create a digital channel for the creation, registration and checking of lasting powers of attorney, and allow chartered legal executives to have a role in that process.

I thank all those who have helped to get the Bill to this point, particularly the Minister and the shadow Minister, and, of course, all the officials and those from outside organisations who have offered help and advice. I thank, of course, my colleagues from both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and my hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk (James Wild), for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and for Southend West (Anna Firth). I will not go through why they have all made important contributions to the debate, but—needless to say—I give a big thank you to them for their support, and to all those who served on the Committee, which allowed us to get to this point.

I look forward to the Bill’s becoming law in due course and making the system of creating and maintaining lasting powers of attorney more sustainable and more deliverable in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.