HL Deb 22 February 1982 vol 427 cc749-60

3.3 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I rise to move that this Bill be now read a second time. If any of your Lordships read what I trust will not be one of the last numbers of The Times newspaper this morning, they will have read a feature under the title, "Lord Hailsham at Bay". One could imagine me in the role of a latter-day Actaeon about to be torn apart by a pack of ferocious and ravening hounds. I do not quite cast myself for that role. Actaeon, it will be remembered, was an ancient voyeur who presumed to crawl through the undergrowth in order to watch the goddess Diana bathing and who was in retribution torn to pieces by the divine huntress's hounds. There may be some who deserve to take warning from his appalling fate, for there is nothing quite so up to date as ancient Greek mythology, though no doubt a modern Actaeon would have used a telephoto lens and sold his product to the German press. But I am not in that class and, looking at the list of speakers who have put down their names, I doubt whether any of them quite qualify for the part of the ferocious animals who applied that cruel and unusual punishment to the ancient hero.

What I am afraid of is that, of necessity, I am bound to make a pedestrian, technical and somewhat workaday speech confined to the subject-matter of this Bill, which, in its turn, is confined to criminal legal aid and does not afford me a vehicle for a discussion on legal aid generally, much as I should welcome one at some time if some noble Lord could be persuaded to put down a Motion.

But perhaps by way of preface, I may say that in four successive terms of the Lord Chancellor's office, Lord Chancellors have presided over the fastest growing of all our social services—an achievement all the more remarkable because all were operating under an economic climate of severe constraint on public expenditure in which legal aid has to compete with education, the Health Service , social security, the need to restrain taxation and very many other calls upon the public purse.

Legal aid at present is confined in three separate compartments. Each is administered in a different way. First, there is civil legal aid, the oldest of the three, which is administered by the profession through its committees, with a merits test attached, in addition to a means test. Secondly, there is legal advice and assistance deriving from the Act which I was able to pass in my first term of office. This has no merits test but has a means test and is administered by individual members of the profession, particularly solicitors. Thirdly, there is criminal legal aid, which we are now discussing and which is administered, so far as it can be said to be administered at all, mainly by the courts.

To give some indication by way of background of the rapidity of growth, I think we might bear in mind some of the statistics—of which I will give as few as possible. These are net figures and, as the House will remember, the gross figures will be much larger. To take civil legal aid first, in 1970, only 12 years ago, civil legal aid (by that time already well established) cost the country a net figure of £6.3 million. By 1980–81, the last complete year for which I have a statistic, it cost £35 million net. In the coming year, which is very nearly but not quite over, it is estimated that it will cost just over £50 million. The green form scheme (that is to say, legal assistance and advice) by 1973–74, an early year of its operation, was costing £1.3 million. In 1980–81, it cost just short of £20 million and in 1981–82 it is estimated that it will have cost about £31 million.

Criminal legal aid is the most expensive. In 1970, by which time it was already well established, it cost £8 million. By 1980–81, it cost £85 million and it is estimated that in 1981–82 it will cost £100 million. In the economic climate which I have described, the chances of extending coverage must be limited and, with the clamour for reduction in taxation, of course, more limited still.

But I must now return to the Bill, which, as I say, is confined to criminal legal aid, for which I undertook responsibility only in July 1980; that is, just over a year ago, in the wake of the Benson Report. This Bill is only the beginning of a process of reconstruction which I think is likely to take several years to complete. Perhaps I ought to explain at the outset that, so far as I have been able to identify them, there are five main problems connected with criminal legal aid. Together they add up to an insufficient degree of public control.

The first problem is the almost total absence of any effective merits test. It is difficult to know how one could easily be devised. But it does mean that many frivolous pleas can be put up with impunity at public expense. The second is the absence at the time of grant of sufficient information to show whether the grant should be given or not. The third is the very large number of time-wasting applications for change of representation when applicants receive somewhat unpalatable advice. This always causes adjournments, inconvenience, delay and expense. The fourth is the absence of reliable information as to the probable length of cases to allow of effective listing by the court's staff, which of course inevitably leads to wasted time as you wait for your case to come on, for which, not unnaturally, the representatives quite reasonably expect to be paid. The fifth, which I think is related to some of the others, is the actual structure of remuneration itself, which is more related to the length and conduct of the trial and hearing than to preparation for the trial and hearing which could, if it could be improved, manage to save expense to a quite a considerable extent.

Since I took on responsiblility in July 1980, as the result of the Government's acceptance of the Benson recommendations, I did so conscientiously and without doubt, although I confess I did so without particular enthusiasm. I had long thought that it was illogical for responsibility for criminal and civil legal aid to be dependent on separate Government departments. It may turn out to be a poisoned chalice; I nevertheless propose to quaff its contents conscientiously, perhaps leaving a small libation to Æsculapius at the end.

In March 1981 we sent out to justices' clerks a circular setting out my preliminary views. That circular emphasised the importance of ensuring that courts should always obtain sufficient information to determine whether aid is desirable in individual cases. It also stressed the importance of avoiding waste, and suggested that courts should ensure so far as they can that listing arrangements should not lead to unnecessary expenditure on solicitors' time spent waiting for their cases to be called.

In addition, the circular dealt with two matters which are also covered by this Bill; namely, first, the need to ensure that work is not duplicated by unjustified applications for a change of solicitor, and, secondly, the desirability in appropriate cases of requiring a defendant to contribute towards the cost.

The Bill deals with four main subjects: first, duty solicitors, secondly, the scope of legal aid orders, thirdly, the involvement in certain matters of the Law Society's legal aid committees, and, fourthly, contributions from defendants.

I return to the first: duty solicitor schemes. By now, duty solicitor schemes have proved their worth. They provide emergency initial advice and representation to defendants when they first appear in magistrates' courts. Many of these defendants, particularly if they have been held in custody overnight, will have been unable to consult their own solicitor. The purpose of the duty solicitor is to ensure that defendants can obtain advice before they appear in court, and, if the defendant so requests, to make an application for bail. On a plea of guilty, the duty solicitor may also offer a plea in mitigation. The number of schemes has increased steadily over the past 10 years, which I think in a sense proves their worth. They now serve over 130 separate courts. They have filled an important gap in our legal services and provide an excellent example of the benefit which may be obtained from co-operation between magistrates' courts and local practitioners. The time has now come to provide for them a statutory framework. The provisions in Clause 1 enable the Law Society to make arrangements for duty solicitor schemes in a scheme under Section 15 of the Legal Aid Act 1974. These schemes require the approval of the Lord Chancellor and the concurrence of the Treasury. The clause recognises the importance of co-operation between the profession and the courts by providing for the inclusion of a justice of the peace and a justices' clerk on the scheme-making body and on the committees which will administer the arrangements.

Finally, the clause enables the Lord Chancellor —again, I add, with the approval of the Treasury—to make regulations for remuneration. The provisions of Clause 1 will help the Law Society to ensure that the services provided to defendants fully meet their needs, and that those providing the service are sufficiently experienced. They will also enable more satisfactory arrangements to be made for remuneration, instead of continuing to require duty solicitors to act under existing schemes for aid, advice and assistance.

The second matter is the scope of legal aid orders. Those are dealt with in Clause 2, which enables a magistrates' court to make an order covering both committal proceedings and trial at the Crown Court as soon as its venue has been determined. At present, a legal aid order for trial in the Crown Court may only be made after committal. Accordingly, solicitors are sometimes reluctant to prepare for trial—including the need to seek counsel's advice—because the magistrates' court legal aid order does not cover counsel, and, if for any reason the defendant should not be committed or a different solicitor is assigned for the trial, the solicitor who has carried out the early preparation will not be paid for it. Where preparation for trial is thus delayed, counsel will often not be involved until the day of trial. If his advice leads to a late plea of guilty, unnecessary and wasteful preparation for trial will have been carried out, and the listing arrangements of the Crown Court will be seriously disrupted.

The purpose of Clause 2 is to encourage early preparation where the defendant does not wish to contest the committal itself. Early preparation is usually better preparation, and in any event will enable the solicitor to give realistic information about the case of the Crown Court shortly after committal. This will be of considerable benefit for listing purposes. There is still an unacceptable delay between committal and trial in some parts of the country—particularly the South-East and London—and it is imperative that the best possible use be made of the time of Crown Court judges. The ability of the Crown Court to make in advance an accurate assessment of the probable length of cases is essential to ensure that the judges' time is not wasted.

The third major provision is contained in Clause 3. This enables the Lord Chancellor to prescribe that the Law Society's legal aid committees shall exercise some additional functions. These committees, as the House will remember, consist of experienced practising lawyers who bring an independent professional judgement to bear on their work. They have always been closely involved with civil legal aid, where their functions include determining applications for aid or a change of solicitor, with issuing legal aid certificates, limited to particular steps in the proceedings, with extending certificates where desirable, and with authorising the solicitor to incur certain specified costs. There is scope for these committees to play a larger role in criminal legal aid. At present their functions are limited to the assessment of bills in proceedings in courts of summary jurisdiction. The desirability of an extended role in criminal cases is confirmed by recent reports of the Advisory Committee on Legal Aid and of the Law Society. Each recommends that the role of the committees in criminal aid should be increased.

The functions which the committees could thus acquire fall into two groups. Some powers are new. Some are presently exercised by the courts under Sections 30 (subsections (1) and (2)), and 31 of the 1974 Act. The powers in Section 30 concern the assignment of counsel in magistrates' court cases and of more than one counsel in Crown Court cases. Those in Section 31 concern the amendment of orders by the substitution of new legal representatives for those originally assigned, and the revocation of legal aid orders. It is not easy for the courts to carry out these functions because, to make a fully informed decision, it is very often necessary to know the nature of the defence or details of the defendant's conduct, and the courts are naturally, and, I think, properly, reluctant to inquire closely into such matters.

The idea now is for the Lord Chancellor to make regulations under which applications would continue to be made to the courts in the first instance, so that where they were obviously correct they could be granted without reference to the committee. On the other hand, where it was necessary to inquire further, the court would refer the application to a committee for decision. These committees will be better equipped, where necessary, to probe applications thoroughly, and I expect that their involvement will enable more fully informed decisions to be made. It is obviously im- portant that reference to the committees should not lead to delay. To ensure that this does not occur, arrangements will be made to enable them to deal with applications very speedily. Such arrangements already exist for emergency certificates in civil aid. The proposed regulations will also enable the courts to refuse re-applications, and applications made after the trial has commenced, without reference to committees.

The new powers under Clause 3 will also enable the committees to authorise specified reasonable expenditure in advance for the purpose of taxation or assessment of bills. They already exercise that function in connection with civil aid, but there is no corresponding power for criminal aid. The absence of a power to authorise expenditure in advance means that when, for instance, a solicitor wishes to instruct an expert witness or to spend money tracing a witness as to fact, he cannot be sure that the cost will be met by legal aid. Advance approval will ensure that, provided the work is properly done, the solicitor will be reimbursed. I am sure that this will be welcomed by the profession.

The fourth major provision introduces new arrangements for contributions. Until the Criminal Justice Act 1967 came into effect, there was no contribution system for criminal legal aid at all. Up to then criminal legal aid was granted on an "all or nothing" basis. If defendants were granted legal aid they paid nothing. If they were not, they had to meet the full cost of their defence. That system was criticised by the Widgery Committee on the ground that it operated unfairly, particularly since the standard of eligibility imposed varied from court to court. The committee's recommendation that a system of contributions should be introduced was carried out in the Criminal Justice Act 1967 and since then the system has remained substantially unchanged. But contributions have not yielded the income expected. The Widgery Committee estimated that receipts might be as much as £500,000, at a time when criminal legal aid expenditure was running at a rate of less than £5 million a year. So the expectation was that contributions might cover 10 per cent. of the cost, but they have never done so. In point of fact they have never exceeded 3 per cent. In the current year the figure is expected to be about £2 million, out of the £100 million 1 have already mentioned. The gap between expectation and experience is partially attributable to the inherent fallibility of all estimates (if that is the right word) of that nature. But it is also a result of defects in the system for assessing and collecting contributions, and these this Bill now seeks to remedy.

Under present arrangements, unless a legal aid order is revoked, a court cannot require an assisted person to pay a contribution until the case is disposed of. It can require a defendant to make a down-payment on account of any contribution that may be subsequently ordered as a condition of granting aid. But if no order is made at the end of the case, that down-payment must be returned whatever the result. At the end of the case, there may be many other demands on a convicted defendant's resources. For example, the court may wish to fine him, to order him to pay compensation, or to order him to pay part of the cost of the prosecution. If a convicted defendant is imprisoned in the end, he is unlikely to have resources from which he can pay any contribution. Conse- quently, less than the expected 10 per cent. of the cost of legal aid in criminal proceedings has been met by contributions from defendants.

A further defect is that the regulations governing assessment are inadequate and out-of-date. The regulations lay down levels of disposable income and disposable capital below which courts may not require a contribution, but do not require the courts to order a contribution at all from persons with resources above those levels. Nor do they provide any guidance as to the manner in which a contribution should be established. The minimum levels themselves are too low, and have not been changed since 1979. They do not even ensure that persons whose income is well below the level of supplementary benefit cannot be ordered to pay a contribution.

The arrangements for civil legal aid are quite different. By that system, contributions from income are assessed by requiring assisted persons to pay a specified fraction (currently one-quarter) of the amount by which their disposable income exceeds a specified level (currently £1,700 a year). Contributions from income are normally payable by monthly instalments, from the date legal aid is granted.

My intention would be to use the new powers under Clause 4 to introduce broadly similar arrangements for criminal legal aid. The system of means assessment would be simpler than that used for civil aid, so that it can he operated quickly and easily by administrative staff in court offices. But the principles will be the same. Contributions will be determined in accordance with regulations and, in the case of contributions from income, will be payable in instalments from the date on which aid is granted. In Clause 5 there is provision for contributions to be reassessed where the assisted person's resources change.

One respect in which the system will differ from civil aid is that the courts will have some power, at the end of the proceedings, to remit and repay contributions. Where a defendant has been convicted, the court will have power to remit contributions which have not yet fallen due. This is necessary to ensure that the court's sentencing powers are not constrained by pre-emption of the defendant's resources. Where a defendant has been acquitted the court will also have a discretion to order the repayment to the defendant of contributions which have already been paid. This is necessary because, while the successful litigant in civil proceedings can normally expect to recover his costs from the losing party, that principle does not apply in criminal cases.

I envisage that the courts will exercise the discretion on similar principles to those governing the award of costs to acquitted defendants. In other words, an acquitted defendant will normally be relieved of any obligation to contribute except where he has brought the prosecution on himself by misleading the police into thinking that the case against him is stronger than it is, or where he is acquitted on a mere technicality but for which there would be ample evidence to justify a conviction. These new arrangements will ensure that contributions are assessed and required in a consistent manner. Defendants who can afford to contribute towards the cost will do so, but those who cannot will not be required to do so. They will also increase income from contributions, although it is difficult to estimate by how much.

There is very little else that I need mention in the remainder of the Bill, which deals with minor and technical amendments. But perhaps I should mention Clause 9, which provides for the integration of advice and assistance with criminal legal aid where a solicitor acts for a client under both schemes—that is to say, both the criminal scheme and the green form scheme—in the same case. This means that instead of submitting two separate bills, one under the green form scheme and one for aid, the solicitor will submit a single bill covering all the work he has done in the case. It will also remove the disadvantage to a defendant seeking advice and assistance which arises from the fact that he is, at present, liable to pay two separate contributions. Under Clause 9, a contribution due for advice and assistance will be credited against the legal aid contribution. Clause 10 removes a doubt of a very technical kind, which I am prepared to explain if demanded, but it is not intended to alter the effect of present practice.

I think that I should conclude this speech by thanking those who have submitted various proposals for changes in the system in the last 18 months or so, since I assumed responsibility in 1980 for criminal legal aid. Both branches of the profession have helped. The Justices' Clerks' Society has helped, and so has the Association of Magisterial Officers. All have made valuable suggestions and all have been carefully considered, though not all appear in the Bill. In particular, of course, I must pay a special tribute to the Advisory Committee on Legal Aid, who give generously of their time to advise on all these matters and on many others.

I admit that this Bill does not make fundamental changes in criminal legal aid. But it does lay foundations for more widespread changes than perhaps are realised, and fundamental changes will, no doubt, be made in due course either by this or by some future Lord Chancellor. In the meantime, I hope that the Bill will be worthwhile and will make valuable improvements to the present system. My Lords, with those words, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.33 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, this Bill deals with a very important part of our social services: namely, the provision of legal aid in criminal cases. We are grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for taking us through its provisions. The need for equal access to justice should, your Lordships may think, be an imperative in all civilised societies. A fair trial in serious cases depends, to a very considerable degree, on proper representation for accused persons. It is particularly the case in this country where we have the adversary system of court procedures, whereby it falls to the defence to bring forward its case and the power of the judge, exercise it as best he will, is somewhat more limited than in other jurisdictions with different dominance of the judge over the proceedings. Therefore, criminal legal aid is a crucial need in our community and, of course, particularly for the poorest members of the community who are very often those who are more liable to be brought before the courts.

We have made signal advances in this field, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said, since it was introduced by my then right honourable friend the Attorney-General, Hartley Shawcross, way back in 1948–49. Since that time, it is undoubtedly the case that a large number of our fellow citizens, whose cases would not have been defended in the courts, have been defended, and I have little doubt that a great deal of injustice that might have occurred has been saved by reason of the provisions of the scheme. In absolute terms, it looks an awful lot of money, but in terms of its value to our society I think that the financial aspect of it is certainly not excessive.

I recollect when I made my maiden speech as Lord Chancellor in 1974, indicating how much room there still was for extension of the legal aid scheme both on the criminal side and, in particular, then, on the civil side, for I had just received a report from the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, indicating wide areas where the absence of legal aid was not only denying to our fellow citizens knowledge of their rights, but denying the means of enforcing their rights in the courts when they became aware of them. Frankly, I hoped that my term as Lord Chancellor would be marked by major advance in this field. We did advance, but, unhappily, the advance was restricted by financial limitations.

Now we meet to discuss this matter today, at a time when the legal aid system is facing the combination of, first, the pressure of a vast increase in the number of cases coming before the courts, particularly the criminal courts; and, secondly, the increasingly high costs of legal proceedings. There is no doubt that the legal aid system is under great strain and it is therefore appropriate that this Bill should have been brought forward to us on this day, not only because of its own provisions but because it enables us to look at the situation and to see where we go from here.

The immediate occasion for the Bill coming forward is, I suppose, the transfer of responsibility for legal aid in the Crown courts, and, indeed, in magistrates' courts, from the Home Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. I venture to suspect that it is a buck which the Home Secretary passed joyfully. I shall not speak of a poisoned chalice, but it is pretty sour wine. The difficulty about it is that it leaves the Lord Chancellor helpless in one important regard. He can do nothing to improve the procedures in the courts, to eliminate wasteful procedures that are going on, or that may be shown to be going on, in the magistrates' courts or the Crown courts.

I recollect—I say this not out of boastfulness—that the last major advance we made in the legal aid field was in 1979, when, owing to the fact that as Lord Chancellor I was able to take away legal aid from undefended divorce cases, a good deal of "lolly" became available—I know that there is argument about how much there was. With the same resources, we were able to make a considerable contribution, at any rate, to the package which I introduced in 1979, which increased eligibility for legal aid and the coverage of the scheme, cut contributions and made it possible for more money to be made available for law centres, and for more law centres.

In passing, unless I forget, because I regard their role as of great importance in the provision of legal services to the community, what is happening to the law centres? I have had some critical messages from them. Are they being allowed to sink? If so, we shall light very hard to save them. I feel that the House would be gratified if, before the debate ends tonight, we could have some reassurance from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor relating to that matter. Not only do the law centres, in the most needful areas, contribute to the civil side but, particularly in making provision for young defendants in the criminal courts and the magistrates' courts, they arc playing a very important part indeed. Therefore, I hope we shall receive some reassurance about that.

However, that diversion to which I attach great importance has taken me away from the question: To what extent have we been giving earnest consideration to limiting the occasions when the requirement of legal aid to enable justice to be done is reduced by the elimination of wasteful procedures? One of the most wasteful matters is the cost of waiting time at the courts. The Law Society itself has drawn attention to the listing problem, particularly in the magistrates' courts, and the very considerable expense which that confers upon the public purse. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is able to give us hope of any proposals emerging there.

One matter which I do not think that the House has yet considered are the recommendations of the Philips Committee which touch very importantly upon this problem. They have no doubt controversial but very important suggestions to make regarding the cost and the procedures of committal proceedings, which undoubtedly are an important element in legal aid costs. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to indicate what are the Government's intentions in that field.

May I also say in passing that there has been a thundering silence from the Lord Chancellor's Department about the report of the Benson Royal Commission which has also made important contributions by way of suggestions in the legal aid field. I confess that I myself felt somewhat frustrated when it was set up, way back in 1977 or thereabouts, that ideas which I and my department had about legal aid were temporarily put into cold storage. The members of the Benson Commission must feel, to say the least, a little frustrated by the substantial inaction which has followed the publication of the report. But perhaps I am spreading the net of my questions too widely for it to be reasonable to expect the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to answer them. However, I stress the importance we should attach to striving to eliminate wasteful procedures, which in turn attract the need for legal aid. It is an important factor in this field.

The provisions of the Bill have been described to us by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor lucidly—as one would expect. He has indicated, as I think is the case, that it is largely an enabling Bill and that until we see the flesh which will be put upon the skeletal framework we are not fully in a position fully to appraise the ultimate result of the cases. There will no doubt be some hard negotiation and discussion before the relevant orders that fall to be made are made.

So far as some of the proposals which the noble and learned Lord has mentioned are concerned, like the provision of a statutory framework for duty solicitor schemes to replace the present unco-ordinated arrangements, I certainly favour that approach. But it is important to emphasise that valuable as duty solicitor schemes have been, especially as a first aid measure, they are no substitute for full legal aid in preparing a case for trial in the normal course of events. I also think that the extension of the scope of legal aid orders in the manner which the noble and learned Lord has indicated seems to be a sensible way of avoiding duplication and of piecemeal dealing with a continuing problem. May I turn to the third important step which the learned and noble Lord mentioned, of increasing the functions of legal aid committees by enabling them to deal with the additional matters which the noble and learned Lord has mentioned are important—matters like representations by counsel in a magistrates' court or by a leader in the Crown court and dealing with amendment of legal aid orders. On their powers to deal with revocation of legal aid orders, this of course raises a very serious problem. Is there to be any appeal machinery in respect of such revocation, which could be disastrous and, if unjustified, would be a monstrous denial of justice? I hope there will be some indication as to whether revocation will in fact require a court hearing before it is finalised.

Perhaps the most important part of the Bill and the one which has already caused the most controversy and concern is the proposed new scheme designed to levy contributions for criminal legal aid. I have already had representations from the Child Poverty Action Group that the Bill's proposals will result in fewer poor families receiving representation in criminal cases. I think it would be an appalling consequence of some limited saving of finance if there were a greater proportion of unrepresented defendants appearing in the courts or of defendants forced to plead guilty, solely for financial reasons. Accordingly, when they appear we shall be looking very carefully at the details of the proposals for the levying of contributions. The position of the accused persons in a criminal case is very different from that of the civil litigant, important as his rights are when one considers the merits of bringing forward a civil case. The time factor is more pressing, more urgent, in the criminal case. That is partly why it has been left to the magistrates' court to deal with the position as best it can as quickly as it can, which I agree results in an unsatisfactory end result. But we must be careful how we proceed.

Turning to the quick means assessment, I did not know whether it is intended to be on precisely the same level of contributions. It would be deplorable if parents of children on the margin of ability to finance the defence of their children had the result of their children being unrepresented.

Therefore, all I do at this stage is to sound a note of warning that we shall examine the provisions with great care when they appear. I notice that a solicitor who worked well in the Lord Chancellor's Department, Mr. Cyril Glasser, has given a very critical view in the Law Society Gazette about the implications and the details of what is proposed in this field, and it may well be that when we come to the Committee stage we shall be able to examine those and other criticisms in great detail.

At this stage at any rate we on this side of the House will certainly not oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. It has elements of which we approve, but, as I have already indicated, we shall be indeed casting a very wary and watchful eye on many parts when in due course it comes back to the House.