Powers of Attorney Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice
Committee stage
Wednesday 1st March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Powers of Attorney Act 2023 View all Powers of Attorney Act 2023 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock on bringing forward the Bill and securing Government support. I have a few brief comments to make. Power of attorney provisions are increasingly valuable and necessary as the population ages and our interactions with different authorities and agencies become more complicated. The Bill’s simplification of the application process and introduction of further safeguards for applicants and donors are very welcome.

As the hon. Member recognised, the legal system in Scotland is devolved; in fact, it has had its own legal system since the Acts of Union. The aspects of the Bill that apply north of the border are largely technical and consequential in nature—for example, relating to the recognition of chartered legal executives. There are certain differences in how power of attorney arrangements work north and south of the border—for example, in how the application is witnessed and certified—and Scotland has its own Office of the Public Guardian. It is important that both systems are robust and that everybody—donors, or granters as they are known in Scotland, attorneys and the institutions they interact with—has full confidence in the integrity of the system.

I understand that there are some issues with mutual recognition north and south of the border. I am not sure whether the Bill is the correct vehicle to tackle them, but I wonder whether there is an opportunity to explore that before Report. If there is an opportunity to simplify and clarify the law in this area and ensure that there is mutual recognition north and south of the border, it is important that we take it. There are often cross-border issues for families and individuals and their attorneys. Many of us, myself included, have had constituency casework related to the complications that can arise when a family is in one part of the United Kingdom but care is being received or properties have to be managed in another part of the United Kingdom. Perhaps that could be considered before Report.

I am extremely glad that there is consensus on the Bill, and I am glad to be able to take part in the Committee and help it to progress. It cannot cover everything, and there are some wider issues that could be considered in the longer term—not least the variation in the charges that solicitors often apply when providing advice in this area. Ensuring that more people can safely and with confidence provide for a power of attorney in the long run will hopefully help people to save money and, more importantly, save some of the stress and confusion that can arise when a relative is incapacitated. We should all be working to raise awareness of the value that having the power of attorney in place can bring. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock again, and I look forward to the progress of the Bill.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I will try not to detain the Committee for long. I want to express my wholehearted support for the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, and I thank him for introducing it.

It is my privilege to be the Minister responsible for mental capacity, and I am particularly aware of how necessary these provisions are. A lasting power of attorney, or LPA, ensures that a person’s wishes and preferences can be considered and reduces the stress and burden on families when capacity is lost unexpectedly. However, despite the intention, the reality is that a lot of people find the current paper process for making LPAs stressful, confusing and bureaucratic. Having had experience of trying to put an LPA in place for both my mother and my mother-in-law, I can testify to how confusing, bureaucratic and difficult the process can be.

It is ever clearer that modernisation is no longer just an option, but an absolute necessity. It will help the Public Guardian to respond to changing societal needs and ultimately make the process for making and registering LPAs safer, simpler and more accessible. No doubt the introduction of a digital channel and an improved paper route will help to make an LPA more accessible for more people. The hybrid approach will provide flexibility between digital and paper channels to create a single LPA. However, it is the changes to the application process that my hon. Friend explained, such as removing the ability for anyone other than the donor to apply to register an LPA and allowing the Public Guardian to co-ordinate the completion of the document, which allow for that flexibility.

My hon. Friend outlined that in the new system, the LPA will be registered as an electronic document and accessed digitally; therefore, proof of an LPA can be provided and accessed instantly. Of course, as my hon. Friend also mentioned, physical proof of an LPA can still be requested for those unable to access a digital service. More generally, chartered legal executives will also be able to certify copies of any power of attorney, including LPAs, which they are unable to do under the current legislation. That will remedy an anomaly in the process that allows Chartered Institute of Legal Executives lawyers to participate in the creation of a power of attorney, but then renders them unable to certify as genuine a copy of the same document. Along with modernising the LPA, that will help to make sharing and using all LPAs, whether old or modernised, easier in the future.

As my hon. Friend covered, those measures relating to evidence of the LPA or power of attorney are the only sections of the Bill that extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I therefore want to take the time to affirm that it is the Government’s position that no legislative consent motion is needed, as changes are consequential to the legislation in England and Wales. I take the point the hon. Member for Glasgow North made, and if he wishes to contact my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock or myself afterwards, we will see if we can address any specific concerns he may have about the application in Scotland.

So far, I have spoken about the benefits of the Bill for the access and use of LPAs and powers of attorney generally, but digitisation will also help the Public Guardian to become more sustainable. Digitisation reduces the Public Guardian’s burden to scan, process and store enormous volumes of paper—11 tonnes at any one time. Manual checks can be automated and happen earlier; I am confident that that will create a speedier process, help to reduce errors in the LPA that prevent registration and ensure the Public Guardian is fit for the modern world.

As my hon. Friend has so eloquently explained, the Bill will guarantee access to a system that is simple to navigate and easier to complete. However, that must be balanced against the need for suitable safeguards. That is partly achieved through changes made by the Bill to notification and objection. Currently, the Public Guardian trusts that the applicant has notified people of their ability to object. Having the Public Guardian inform parties means it can be certain that notifications have been sent, increasing the protection provided.

What is more, the Bill simplifies the objection process by providing a single route for all objections, starting with the Public Guardian and ending at the Court of Protection. If required, the Court of Protection can step in. I share my hon. Friend’s view that formalising the existing process will increase protections for donors, due to clarity about where and how to express concerns about the registration of an LPA.

I am also delighted to see the introduction of identity verification for certain parties. That will help to protect donors and wider society from unauthorised access to people’s assets by reducing the risk of fraud. It is a significant increase in safeguards. The introduction of identity verification, alongside the changes to notification and objections, is a driving factor in why the Government support the Bill. It will embed robust safeguards throughout the process for making an LPA.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock for sponsoring this important Bill and confirm the Government’s continuing support for it. This may not be a long Bill, but its impact is far-reaching. It is therefore vital that we support the measures, and I am grateful to the Committee members who have spoken so helpfully. I look forward to engaging more as the Bill progresses through Parliament.