§ 33. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
What discussions he has held with the Law Society concerning the operation of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. 
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr.David Lock)
I met the president of the Law Society on 20 October. I discussed with him the current position at the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors and the timetable that has been laid down by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor for the improvements in the performance of the OSS up to the end of December next year.
§ Dr. Whitehead
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate him on his richly deserved appointment.
881 What targets did he set for the Law Society and the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors at his meeting? What does he envisage happening if the targets are not met?
§ Mr. Lock
My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor wrote to the president of the Law Society on 23 July and set the following targets: the number of unresolved cases on the office's books should be down to 6,000 by 30 December next year; subsequently, 90 per cent. of cases should be tackled within three months, and 100 per cent. within five months of receipt. He also said that the quality of decisions should not decline. We will judge that by the views of the legal services ombudsman.
The agenda is clear: reform of the OSS is essential. The Law Society is investing £10 million in reform. It must produce an acceptable quality, and a reliable and efficient system in solicitors' firms and in the office. If that does not happen, the Government will use the powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to enforce a proper complaints system for solicitors through the legal services ombudsman.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretaries on their appointments. Will the Minister ask the Law Society whether its complaints and supervision committee has been excluded from discussions on the future of the OSS and whether the policy of handling complaints independently has been watered down? What action will the Government take to secure the independence of the OSS? Does the Minister consider the maximum compensation payment of £1,000 to be adequate? If not, what will he do, and when will he do it?
§ Mr. Lock
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words. There have been persistent rumours about the exclusion of the Law Society's complaints and supervision committee. I am assured that that is not so. Both the chairman and the lay chairman of the committee sit on the OSS change management task force. I would be interested to discover the source of the rumours.
882 There is no question of watering down the independent handling of complaints in firms. When the president of the Law Society spoke at its conference last week, he made it clear that client care and the proper handling of complaints in solicitors' firms should be a priority.
My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor told the Law Society that he considers the present compensation limit of £1,000 for unsatisfactory professional service inadequate and proposes to increase it to £5,000.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does the Minister accept that urgent reform of the OSS is vital, not least to a long-suffering constituent of mine—Mr. Philip Stanton of Greenacres, Marsh road, Shabbington, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire—who has undergone a harrowing ordeal? He will veritably dance round the political mulberry bush with the Minister if thoroughgoing and effective reform is forthcoming without delay.
§ Mr. Lock
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations. He gave us all the details of the case, except for the postcode.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right. There has been a long history of failure by the Law Society to provide effective complaints mechanisms for clients who have not been satisfied with the way in which their cases have been handled. The problem goes back to the days of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau and to the early days of the OSS. However, this Government took powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to enforce the right to complain. We took effective action and the Act gives us the stick which is now being wielded.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to see the targets, they are set out in the letter that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has placed in the Library. I assure him that we shall monitor the performance of the OSS against those targets. Should it fail to provide the complaints system that all members of the House are entitled to expect for their constituents, we shall have no choice but to act.