HC Deb 09 June 1961 vol 641 cc1556-72

Order for Third Reading read.

11.14 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I beg to move, That, the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a modest Bill, as befits its position in the Ballot at No. 17. It is designed to do a certain amount of good without incurring the opposition of any substantial quarter of the House. Hon. Members who have read it will realise that its object is to increase the possibility of getting grants of representation from Customs officers rather than having to go to solicitors in such cases. The reference is to Customs officers in England and to the equivalent in Scotland, Customs officers and sheriff clerks.

The present limit on the value of an estate which can be so taken to a Customs officer is £500 gross value, and it is proposed in the Bill that this sum should be altered to £1,000 net value and £3,000 gross value. The advantage which I hope will flow to the public from a change in the law is that it will be cheaper and easier to obtain representation in all these small estates without having to go through legal formalities of any complication.

In England there are only 34 probate registers, but in addition there are 273 Customs offices. In most of the industrial towns and districts served by market towns there is a Customs officer, and these gentlemen are able to deal with some estates. The Bill would enable them to deal with more. In Scotland it will add a further 28 Customs offices to those already entitled to deal with these matters, and that will be of convenience in Scotland.

The House may inquire why this limit of £1,000 net value has been proposed. The amount of £500 gross was fixed in 1894, and the House will agree that £500 gross in 1894 is a very much larger sum than £1,000 net today. That is one reason for altering the lower limit. But we also propose a higher limit of £3,000 gross on the total value of the estate. The reason for that is, in the first place, that since 1954 no Estate Duty has been chargeable on estates of that size, and that led to a number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen putting down Amendments to the Finance Bill in 1956, 1957 and 1958 with the object of altering the value of estates in the way in which this Bill tries to alter them—those which can be taken to Customs officers. Those Amendments were put down by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), the right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker), the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). The Amendments have always been found to be out of order because the proposal before the House on the Finance Bill was that there should be no duty at all.

Secondly, it is said that if the limit of £3,000 gross were raised much higher we should at once move into the sphere of estates which are very complicated. While they would be less than £1,000 net, the gross value would need to be calculated by a series of Estate Duty calculations which might possibly be beyond the capacity or the time available of the Customs officers, and it would require legal advice to settle them.

There might be a case for raising the gross value even higher, but this figure has been chosen as one on which the greatest number of people would agree. Those who have been asked include hon. Members on both sides of the House. Those bodies or people who have expressed themselves satisfied with the financial provisions include the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, whose opinion has been asked as to what the appropriate level should be. The Solicitor-General for Scotland has been consulted. I think that this is a reasonable limit and a reasonable object to be achieved by the Bill.

Apart from convenience, the Bill to some extent will be financially in the interests of the public. The charge for proving a will is rather arbitrary at the moment. If the will is below £500 gross the charge is 15s. flat rate. If it is more than £500 gross, then although the net estate may amount to very little and sometimes even to nothing, the charge is £4, whatever the net value. It is proposed in the Bill that the charges shall be on a sliding scale and therefore appropriate to the size of the estate, and that should be of benefit to members of the public who are able to take advantage of this procedure.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

Is the sliding scale based on the net value or the gross value?

Mr. Kershaw

On the net value to get rid of the difficulty about gross values. An estate might have a gross value of more than £500 and attract a fee of £4 but have no net value. Nothing might remain.

A body of people who might regard the Bill with something less than affecttion are the solicitors, who will lose a certain amount of business in this way. The higher we put the gross value the more business solicitors will lose. We must bear that in mind. It is said that under the proposed limits there might be about 14,000 cases a year in England and Wales. I have not the comparable figures for Scotland, but no doubt they will be proportionately the same, although much fewer numerically.

I am informed that there are—and it seems a terrible thing—19,000 solicitors in this country. The average cost of a case of this sort—14,000 a year may well fall to be considered after the Bill is passed—is about £2. Therefore, if the Bill is passed, arithmetically speaking, each solicitor may find himself £2 10s. a year less rich than he might otherwise have been.

The Law Society has, therefore, expressed a view about this matter. It has generously said that it has no objection to the Bill being passed with the limits suggested. However, it has added a proviso that it hopes that the custom will not grow up of those who wish to prove wills going to Customs officers surrounded by unqualified advisers—those which the Society describes as "touting for work"—acting as unofficial and unpaid "solicitors" in place of qualified solicitors.

I can hardly believe that this is a very great danger or that a stout living is to be obtained by accompanying a person to the Customs office and undertaking to put forward his or her case concerning a will. However, the objection is noted, and perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will bear it in mind when considering any regulations which may have to be made as a consequence of the Bill. A financial saving will also result from going to a nearby Customs office instead of having to travel to the county town or to the High Court in London or some other city. I therefore hope that the House will agree that the Bill is likely to be of financial benefit to the public also.

Lastly, the House will notice that in the Clause 3 (5), which was amended In Committee, the Government of Northern Ireland is mentioned. It is necessary to do this, since these are reserve powers which affect the status of the Supreme Court of Northern Ireland, the Clause was amended in Committee because, after reading the Bill, the Northern Ireland Government decided that they might at some future date wish to take advantage of the provisions contained in it, although at the moment they do not wish to do so. They therefore asked that the Clause should be amended in such a way that, without further trouble, they could adhere, so to speak, to the Bill in future if they desired.

I hope that the House will pass the Bill.

11.23 a.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

I think that the Bill illustrates one of the fundamental difficulties of introducing legislation without it having ample consideration on Second Reading. I believe that this Bill received a Second Reading on the nod. It is a pity that it was not given some consideration on Second Reading. I do not like Bills going through without some consideration being given to them by the House. I therefore much regret that this one was not given some thought by the House before going to Standing Committee.

The Bill was in Standing Committee for a very short time. Consideration of it started at 10.32 a.m. on 29th March and by about 10.45 it had gone through the Committee stage. If I had been a member of the Standing Committee, I should have made some constructive suggestions for improving the Bill. It was my intention to table Amendments for the Report stage, but, unfortunately, because of my heavy Parliamentary duties during the last week or two, I made a mistake about the date of it. I thought that the Report stage would be today, but, on inquiry in the Public Bill Office yesterday, I regret that I was informed that it had taken place. I am therefore only able to make the remarks that I wished to make about the Bill on Third Reading.

I do not agree with the purpose behind the Bill. I do not think that it goes far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) referred to the fall in the value of money since 1894, when the figure of £500 was fixed. I do not think that anyone would say that the £1,000 to which estates are limited by the Bill is in any way equivalent to the £500 of 1894. I should have liked to suggest—perhaps my hon. Friend will consider my remarks to see whether some Amendments may be introduced in another place—that we should have made the limits in the Bill comparable—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has recited his misfortune and mistake about the date of the Report stage, but I am afraid that not even those misfortunes bring discussion of Amendments which might be made to the Bill within order on Third Reading.

Mr. Williams

I take the point, Mr. Speaker, and tender my apologies to you. While I am not prepared to vote against the Third Reading of the Bill because I think that it gives a certain amount of benefit to people with small estates, I regret that it has been so finely drawn. I should have liked to see the Bill extended to include estates which do not attract death duty at all. However, I must not go outside the limits of the Bill, since this is a Third Reading debate.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be fortunate in the Bill receiving the assent of the House, and that we shall see further legislation of this kind in years to come which extends the limit so that others may have the benefits which my hon. Friend seeks to give to people with small estates.

11.27 p.m.

Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) on having chosen this subject for his Bill and having got the Bill to this stage. I am sure that, in general, the Bill will be of material benefit to the public as a whole, because there is, on average, at any rate in England and Wales, less than one probate registry per county. I am not able to talk about the average number in Scotland, because I do not know the total number of Scottish counties. The Bill will enable an average of about seven Customs and Excise offices within each county to be available to the public. That must be of benefit especially to people related to impecunious deceased persons or to persons who have died without large estates and who do not wish to be put to the trouble and expense of travelling substantial distances, which they often have to do, in order to reach a probate registry.

The Bill will also provide them with another benefit. It will greatly ease the frequent situation of deceased persons who had no assets except a policy of insurance on a motor car in the driving of which he was killed and caused substantial injury to other people whose remedy depends, in the first place, on administration being taken out in respect of the estate, because they cannot obtain the benefit of the policy of insurance unless there is an administrator. Thereafter, the action is taken charge of by the insurance company, which ought to be liable in any event. The Bill will help to persuade relatives to undertake the simple task of going to the local Customs and Excise office in order to take out administration or probate, if necessary, in such cases which are not infrequent in the experience of those who have to deal with litigation concerning motor cars.

If there is a policy of insurance for damage which has taken place, I presume that that would be covered, but the Customs and Excise officer would be qualified to decide whether the estate was within his jurisdiction in a case such as the one about which I once heard, where the only asset of the estate was a policy of insurance in respect of the deceased's fifth and last fraudulent fire.

I would have suggested to my hon. Friend that the limits of £1,000 for the net estate and £3,000 for the gross estate are extremely narrow, not only in view of the fall in the value of money, but because of a number of other factors which have to be taken into consideration when contemplating these figures. First, under intestate distribution, since 1954, when a deceased person leaves a spouse and any number of other relatives, the spouse takes the whole of the personal chattels and the whole of the first £5,000. Therefore, a net estate of £1,000 would go to any such spouse in any event and substantially greater figures would also go to such spouse. Furthermore, since 1954, no Estate Duty is payable on estates of under £3,000 net. Therefore, from that viewpoint also, the Bill seems to be drawn very narrowly.

The other factor which has to be taken into account is the change in the definition of "gross estate" which provides that included in the gross estate shall be the total value of any freehold property, irrespective of whether it is mortgaged. Normally, one would include in the gross estate only the equity of redemption or the actual interest in the property that the deceased person has because the rest of the interest in the freehold property belongs to the building society. Nowadays, however, when so many people buy their houses on mortgage, to include the whole of the value of that property in the gross estate will put many estates outside the limit of £3,000, even though in reality it is quite a small estate with a very small equity of redemption in the freehold property.

I should not have thought that there was any great risk either to solicitors or of touting in any extension of the figures. As I understand it, a person who wants to take out probate or administration of a small estate such as this is perfectly entitled still to see a solicitor and, I would suppose, he would be well advised to do so. The solicitor can do all the paper work and charge a fee for it. He can advise the person to whom the documents should be taken and they will then be in proper order.

The figure of 14,000 cases a year which the Bill affects is a very small number. So far as the Customs and Excise officers are concerned, it is an average of fifty per Customs office, or one per week for each of the Customs offices throughout the country. On the basis of 19,000 solicitors, it works out at an average of three-quarters of a case per year per solicitor.

I suppose that a substantial number of those 14,000 cases will still, in any event, be dealt with by solicitors even though the probate or administration is actually granted ultimately to the Customs and Excise officers. Therefore, on balance, I am inclined to support the Bill, although I very much regret that the limits of estate are placed at such a low level.

11.35 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) has voiced the reaction of many people that the limits could have been placed higher. At first sight, it looks as though the figure in the Bill is not the right one. There is, however, another side which we as Members of Parliament should consider.

Had the figure been put any higher, it could well have been that the number of cases which, as a result, would have been taken to the Customs and Excise officers or to the sheriff clerks would have been so many more that those people would have applied for an increase in staff at a time when we do not want the administrative staffs throughout the country to be increased.

There is just that risk that had the figure been much higher, we should have transferred to civil servants work that is at present done by the private solicitor and which is done without any extra charge being imposed upon the administrative costs of the country.

I have a figure which bears some relation to that. I understand that if cases within the proposed limits are handled in similar proportions in future to what has been done in the past, it could be assumed that 14,000 cases now dealt with by solicitors would be transferred to the Customs officer or to the sheriff clerk. We know that by dividing the figure by 19,000, we arrive at an average of three-quarters of a case, and this appears to be very light indeed. If, however, the 14,000 extra cases were to be channelled through Government offices, those of us who have had experience in Government Departments know that prima facie they would consider that a very good case for getting extra staff.

Therefore, whilst I do not disagree completely with my hon. and learned Friend that, in view of present-day money values, the figure seems rather low and while we are altering the limit from £500 to £1,000 we could have taken into account that little bit of extra inflation which, I have no doubt, will take place over the next few years, the figures cannot be disregarded when one considers the additional cases that might be channelled through the Customs and Excise officers.

My reason for intervening is based upon the words used by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), not his words about his Parliamentary duties having been so heavy that he could not carry out the task that he ought to have done. If my hon. Friend finds it so heavy, he should drink Guinness. That helps one to pick up in all sorts of ways. Had he taken Guinness instead of gin or milk, then he could have carried his Parliamentary weight more easily.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is a little away from the Third Reading of the Small Estates (Representation) Bill.

Sir H. Nicholls

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. That was a little aside which, I hope, will help my hon. Friend in future and, I am sure, explains why he might not have done something he should have done.

My hon. Friend made a substantial point concerning the absence of security, certainly on a question of this sort when dealing with people who do not have legal advice at their elbow. Big estates generally have regular communication with their lawyers and they do not need to be told of amendments in the law of this nature in the same way as the smaller estates. The smaller estates rely upon people like the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the snippets they read in the newspapers. When amendments of this nature are made, a Second Reading debate, with its full explanation of the principle, is essential. It is a pity that we did not have it.

Therefore, while keeping, I hope, within the rules of order, I reinforce some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw), because the more concise and clear that we can make the alterations now, when they are on the record, the more assistance we will be giving to many thousands of people who have to deal with small estates.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable members of the public in England and Wales to obtain the assistance of Customs officers, and in Scotland of sheriff clerks, in seeking grants of representation where the net estate is less than £1,000. I do not, however, think that it was understood previously by many people that estates even of £500 could be dealt with in this way. By the Bill, the existing limit of £500 becomes £1,000.

In England and Wales, there are only 34 probate registries, including Somerset House, from which grants may be obtained, but under the procedure instituted by Section 33 of the Revenue Act, 1881, extended by Section 16 of the Finance Act, 1894, applicants for grants of representation to small estates may apply now instead to some 273 Customs officers. The increase from 34 to 273 means wider scope for getting assistance at these troublesome times. However one looks at it, it is an improvement that people who need assistance will be able to get it.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Now that the hon. Gentleman has secured a measure of approval from the House to making a Second Reading speech because there was no Second Reading, and not making a Third Reading speech because there is a Third Reading, could he go further and give some information, which some of us would like to have, on how many of these cases have gone through Customs officers out of how many applications that could have been made in any relevant year in the recent past?

Sir H. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to my opening words, as he usually does.

Mr. Hale

The hon. Gentleman was talking about Guinness.

Sir H. Nicholls

They were not my opening words, but the second in line. My opening words dealt with the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, and I have given that proportion. If the hon. Gentleman will work it out, perhaps it will give him the answer he wants. Now that the figure has gone up from £500 to £1,000, if the proportion of people making use of this outside service—the existing 34 offices, and, in future, 273—remains the same, it will mean that 14,000 cases now dealt with privately will be dealt with by Customs officers. I am quite certain that if the hon. Gentleman gets out his slide rule, he will be able to find what the figure would have been if the limit had remained at £500.

Mr. Hale

I do not need a slide rule to do that. I take it that the hon. Gentleman means 34/273rds of 14,000, which is roughly 2,000, which is not a great deal of use to be made of a Statute passed by Parliament to provide facilities.

Sir H. Nicholls

I am not accepting the figure given by the hon. Gentleman, who thinks while on his feet. That is his reputation here. When working out figures as complex as this, it may be that his figures are right. On the other hand, they may be wrong. The figure I have given is fairly low. If the proportion remains the same, it seems to me that this alteration will mean that about 14,000 people who previously had to get this matter settled through private solicitors, not all of them as able as the hon. Gentleman, will be able to get it done for them.

Mr. Hale

The figure is 1,840.

Sir H. Nicholls

The other point that I wanted to make is that Northern Ireland is contracting out of the Bill. People in Northern Ireland do not wish the law on this subject to be amended, and they are still relying upon the Acts of 1881 and 1894, which will apply there by virtue of Clause 3 (5). I think that that is the position and it is as well that it should be so—is my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud dissenting from what I am saying?

Mr. Kershaw

Not at all.

Sir H. Nicholls

The fact that Northern Ireland does not come into this ought to be known, because I had not got that point clear before I read the Bill with great care, as I did yesterday. The proposed financial limit of £1,000 may not be high, taking into account the fall in the value of money, but it is a move in the right direction, and if it had been placed much higher, though it is difficult to know what the correct figure might have been, it could have been that we were pushing on the Customs and Excise officers a greater volume of work than their present staff could cope with, bearing in mind their already onerous duties.

With that addendum to the speech of my hon. Friend, I wish to support him in what I think is certainly a move in the right direction. Although we cannot be absolutely certain that the figure is absolutely correct, it is certainly better that it should be £1,000 rather than £500. I hope that this is a case of Parliament making the task of people administering small estates much easier than it has been in the past. This is a big problem for families to handle, and I think that this modest alteration in the figures will be generally welcomed. I hope that it can be done without the Customs and Excise Department and the Sheriff Officers having to ask for extra staff.

11.44 a.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I do not intend following my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir H. Nicholls) over the whole field, but I want to say a word of regret at one phrase he used when he linked the Citizens' Advice Bureaux to "snippets in the newspapers." The Citizens' Advice Bureaux do excellent work in advising people on all the problems of life, and the executors of small estates about their problems, whereas "snippets in the newspapers," by and large, lead us astray.

I wish to make only two small points. There is no Money Resolution to the Bill. A number of the smaller Customs offices are open only for a very limited number of days, and, if the volume of work increases, they will undoubtedly have to be open more frequently. Various hon. Members have expressed concern lest the costs should go up in Customs offices, and some hon. Members have expressed concern about the potential increase in staff. I should deplore that, but the potential increase in work due to extra opening of the offices alarms me.

We see that Clause 2 provides that the fees will be fixed fees, irrespective of the amount in the estate. Obviously, these will be small estates, and the fees will be pitched rather low. It seems to me likely that if the remote Customs offices, which are seldom open now, get a lot of work to do, they will have to be open more frequently. Therefore, there will be some extra cost on the Exchequer, and it rather surprises me that we have been given no Money Resolution to allow for this eventuality.

My second point is that various hon. Members have said that they regret that the limit is drawn so finely, and that they would have liked to have seen a higher limit. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw), who introduced the Bill, said that the Association of British Chambers of Commerce had supported the Bill, and I know that it has, but I was under the impression that it had specifically asked him for a higher limit. I do not know whether my hon. Friend could give us any guidance on that point. I should also be grateful if we could be told why there has been no Money Resolution, and, also, what is the likelihood of the smaller Customs offices having to open more frequently.

11.48 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Jocelyn Simon)

I do not intervene to keep the House from coming to a decision on the Bill in the near future, but I want, before a decision is taken or before my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) replies to the debate, if he wishes to do so, with the leave of the House, to congratulate him on having piloted thus far a very useful Measure.

Speaking for myself, I do not altogether assent to the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) and the hon. Baronet the Member for Peterborough (Sir H. Nicholls) that a Bill of this sort, which does not raise any point of principle, necessarily suffers from not having been debated on Second Reading. I think that, in fact, the discussion we have had today, with the examination of the Bill in Committee, which has improved it, will satisfy the House that it is an extremely useful Measure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who is responsible for the Bill, asked me a question about unqualified advisers touting for work in applications before the Customs and Excise officers. At present, the non-contentious probate rules lay down that a personal applicant for a grant may not apply through an agent, paid or unpaid, and may not be attended by a person acting or appearing to act as his adviser. It is our view that in all probability it does apply to the grants which the Bill envisages; but even if it should not do so the matter can be taken care of without amendment of the regulations by administrative instructions to the Customs and Excise officers, and that will be done.

All the other discussion which has gone on today has really turned not on what is in the Bill, but what is not in the Bill; and has suggested that the limits are too narrowly drawn. I would point out that the limit which corresponds to the £500 in 1898 is not £1,000, but the £3,000, because the £500 was gross estate. I should have thought myself that the limits are correctly drawn, although it is a matter of judgment, in the Bill, because one does not want the Customs and Excise officers to have to deal with difficult problems of law and administration.

If we have a gross estate of substantially more than £3,000 representing a net estate of only £1,000, the estate is likely to be heavily encumbered and to throw up some quite difficult legal problems, and those are better dealt with in the probate registries. Therefore, my own view is that the Bill does strike just the right balance.

Finally, if it is for me to answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), why there is no Money Resolution, the answer is the one, I imagine, he expected—that it is not anticipated that the Bill will throw any increase on public funds.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having brought the Bill thus far. It has the commendation and good will of the Government.

11.52 a.m.

Mr. Kershaw

I am very much obliged to my hon. and right hon. Friends who have spoken in favour of the Bill. I would just say a word on the points which they have raised. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for pointing out the correspondence between the amount prescribed in 1898 and the £3,000 mentioned in the Bill. That is because of the fall in the value of money, which has been borne in mind rather more than some hon. Members thought, perhaps.

Nevertheless, some hon. Members have said that £3,000, even so, is rather a low figure at which to fix the upper limit. All I can say in reply to them is that the figure of £3,000 has been chosen with the advice of those whose task it is to administer the Bill when it becomes law, and, therefore, it is advice which it is very difficult to disregard. One may assume that they have anticipated the difficulties which are likely to arise rather more keenly, perhaps, than others. While I admit that £3,000 looks rather low, it has been chosen because of the advice received from the President of the Probate Division.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maid-stone (Mr. J. Wells) mentioned the question of what fees would be charged. I do not know whether he had in mind a fixed fee. It will be a sliding fee in future. He wondered whether that might provoke extra expense. To illustrate to him the way in which these things will probably work out, I would cite to him a case which has been sent to me by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. A Birmingham fireman's wife died intestate. The estate was just over £500, in a local building society. The fireman went to the building society who told him to call at the Customs and Excise office in Birmingham, which gave him the necessary forms and advised him how to fill them up and told him he should go either to Manchester or Lancaster, to the offices there. He filled up the forms and he went to Manchester and paid £3 15s. in fees and thus the matter was settled within 14 days. That is the way in which it is to be worked and I think that that illustrates the procedure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maid-stone also asked whether the Association of British Chambers of Commerce had asked for exactly this figure of £3,000 or any other. It received representations from some of its members and wrote to the Board of Inland Revenue on 9th May, 1960, and the Board said that At the moment Customs officers are empowered to grant probate in cases of small estates up to £500, which is more convenient outside London. It is suggested that the limit might be substantially increased. Liability for Estate Duty only begins at £3,000. While it may root be possible to go all the way to this figure something much nearer to it would have great advantages. Although it does not say whether the £3,000 is gross or net, it is clear it would be very satisfied with £3,000, which we have put in. I hope that that will satisfy my hon. Friend that the Association will be very pleased.

11.56 a.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I would like to make one observation about this, which will be a brief one, for I have not the slightest desire to prevent the Bill from being piloted through what have seemed such stormy waters as the Solicitor-General indicated in congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) upon his navigation.

As it is known to the House that I was once a member of the solicitors' profession, I am rather shocked by the sort of general attitude that solicitors will be rushing down here in their thousands saying that the Bill will rob them of one-tenth of their income, and that the question of the public interest will not arise in their minds at all.

So far as I know, it has always been the practice, as it certainly was in the early days, that in the case of any small estate without any trouble people could pop into the probate registry and one of the clerks there would help them fill up all the forms which are and always have been available, or enable a person to make personal application.

Even in the somewhat difficult financial times through which at least the provincial part of the profession passed, no one was desperately anxious to get small cases of this kind which involved quite a bit of trouble and a lot of explanations and only very small fees, and I would think that it would be a slander to say that solicitors have ever taken the view that the professional interest should dominate the public interest.

In point of fact, when a solictors' committee was formed by a Member of the other side of the House, some time ago, I wrote to point out that Oldham and I felt no passionate interest in its activities and that I did not, therefore, propose to join.

Notwithstanding that, I am sure that this Measure is perfectly harmless, although I do not think that it will be used as much as some hon. Members suppose. People in the provinces especially prefer proximity and friendliness, and I do not think that, in practice, the Bill will make very much difference, but I have not the slightest objection to it. There has always been an overwhelming source of objection to the kinds of people who refuse to make a payment of small sums to all those legal administrators who are concerned with all the paraphernalia and formulae concerning the old bondsman and the long forms and certificates stating that there was no real probate and the net value, and so on. Therefore, if this Measure does contribute to greater ease, simplicity and facility, it may do a little good. I think that it cannot do any harm, and I therefore would not raise objection to it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.