HL Deb 09 May 2002 vol 634 cc1340-54

7.36 p.m.

Baroness Greengross

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the rules laid before the House on 27th March be annulled (S.I. 2002/832).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the effect of this statutory instrument is to increase substantially some of the fees paid to register an enduring power of attorney. I should add that I speak also to Statutory Instrument 833, against which the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has prayed, as it relates to the same subject; namely, reforms for the Public Guardianship Office (PGO) and the Court of Protection.

This order is all about the welfare of, quite literally, the most vulnerable people in our society: those who rely on others to manage their affairs. The general public could be forgiven for sometimes thinking that Parliament is more concerned with the welfare of foxes. It is important that we take this opportunity to consider how well the Public Guardianship Office is operating for the benefit of those who need our support so much: those who lack mental capacity.

I have tabled my Motion because I want to ask the Government to justify the Public Guardianship Office fee increase, to highlight concerns in the way the office operates and to ask the Government to undertake to monitor the reforms to the PGO more closely, particularly in the light of the long delayed incapacity Bill which I hope will be presented shortly to Parliament.

I was very grateful for the time the Minister gave me last week to discuss my worries about the PGO and for providing me with some factual information asked for by Written Question. I am also grateful to a number of organisations and individuals who have written to me since the debate was secured to alert me to their concerns about the PGO and specifically this statutory instrument. They include the Law Society, MIND, Action on Elder Abuse, Alzheimer's Society and Age Concern and also individual solicitors and the Master of the Court of Protection.

The facts are these. It seems that without much notice the PGO fee structure was altered radically. Indeed, a misleading Written PQ in another place was answered on 3rd April stating that no date had been set for the new fees when in fact the regulations had been laid on 27th March and were implemented, on 17th April. So we are debating tonight a statutory instrument which has already been implemented. For example, the fee to register an enduring power of attorney rose from £75 to £220 and the first year fees for receivership rose from £230 to £565. Those are substantial increases.

The Minister has pointed correctly to the introduction of a new £65 short order fee from which many will benefit. I welcome that. But there are concerns that the new fees will still deter people from registering when there is already great concern about attorneys not registering as they should, despite the Government's policy to encourage registration. Will the impact of the new fee structure be monitored.

Frankly, I do not believe that this legislation is being handled as well as it could be by the Public Guardianship Office. That has resulted in many people who work with the office in a professional capacity becoming frustrated with the way in which it operates. Since its establishment from the relics of the Public Trust Office, one might have expected fees to rise with inflation. However, if they were to rise substantially one would normally expect a period of notice and consultation about their impact. Instead the matter was all done and dusted within three weeks over the Easter holiday. We have to ask why.

My second concern relates to the fee remission scheme. That there will be a clear and publicised remission scheme for both enduring powers of attorney and receiverships is welcome, but it has not yet been published nor even adequately consulted upon. I believe that the cart has come before the horse and that it would be better to delay implementation of the new fee structure until the remission scheme is firmly in place. I invite the Minister to withdraw the statutory instrument and to introduce another when the remission scheme is agreed.

Alternatively, could the Public Guardianship Office undertake to inform any new cases that have arisen since the 17th April that they can apply under the existing unpublished remission scheme for fee remission pending the publication of the new remission scheme? If the new scheme is more generous, a procedure will have to be built in to review and to reimburse those who would have come under its remit. It is also vital that there is a clear and independent method of appeal available to those people whose fees are not remitted.

I seek reassurance about those people, some of whom are very young, who have fluctuating mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and who during their lifetime may make more than one application either for registering an enduring power of attorney or for a receiver. In such cases I firmly believe that there should be only one initial fee and no further setting-up fees requested.

I have some wider concerns about the Public Guardianship Office that have been brought into sharp relief by the way in which this statutory instrument has been handled. The Public Guardianship Office was set up last year on the grounds that it would be self-financing; hence the fee increases are borne by the people it aims to help, for example those who lack capacity. Is there any guarantee that those fee changes do not herald further increases if the office's financial targets are not met? Can we be reassured that the changes are not being implemented because they benefit the financial viability of the Public Guardianship Office rather than the protection of the vulnerable? An additional —5.1 million will be raised in 2003–04. It also begs the question why the Public Guardianship Office has to be self-financing.

This short debate needs to be seen in the context of proposed changes to mental incapacity legislation. That could mean that the Public Guardianship Office will have to register many more continuing powers, covering health and welfare decisions as well as financial decisions. That will be welcome.

A further worrying anomaly has been brought to my attention that could adversely impact on the judicial discretion of the Master of the Court of Protection. There is an enormous difference between the fees—possibly many thousands of pounds—that a person would face if it were decided that he required a panel receiver and the fact that there is no fee for last resort receivership, where the Public Guardianship Office itself manages the affairs of a client directly. I seek reassurance that that will not undermine the discretion of the court in choosing a receiver as the court is obliged by statute to act in the best interests of the client.

Although the Public Guardianship Office is self-financing, cross-subsidisation between clients still exists. Contested enduring power of attorney cases are being funded by the larger fees for uncontested cases, which on average cost £140, which is £80 less than the new fee level. A wider issue that may be of even greater importance is the fact that legal aid is not available for the Court of Protection. That is despite the fact that it is available in all other cases where a decision has to be made in the best personal interests of a person who lacks capacity, such as mental health tribunals and Children Act proceedings. The Government need to consider whether legal aid should be available for Court of Protection cases.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister can provide an explanation for why the statutory instrument has been implemented so quickly and how the other place was misled. Perhaps she will reassure the House that the impact of the new fee levels will be monitored; that the new remission scheme will be quickly implemented and back-dated to 17th April; and, in the longer term, that the continuing reforms to the Public Guardianship Office will work for the benefit of people of all ages who are the most frail and vulnerable in our society. If the Minister is unable to give the House clear assurances, the House should annul the statutory instrument. I beg to move the humble Address and hope that it has the support of noble Lords from all sides of the House.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the rules laid before the House on 27th March be annulled (S.I. 2002/832).—(Baroness Greengross.)

7.47 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, in speaking to the prayer of the noble Baroness I seek permission to speak to my own. I am not against increased fees as such, and I am pleased that the power of waiver remains to deal with hardship cases, although I share the observation of the noble Baroness in that I would prefer to see a more specific scheme relating hardship to concession. I hope that the Minister will deal with that matter.

My purpose in speaking in the debate is to ensure that the money yielded by the fees is spent in guaranteeing, through effective supervision, that patients are properly cared for by their respective receivers.

What is the general supervisory scheme? I take that to have been set out by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in a statement that he made on 29th March 2001. Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me if I quote extensively from it. In paragraph 3 of the statement the Lord Chancellor said: The Public Guardianship Office is committed to making a difference to its clients. It will not be remote: it will work in partnership with Receivers, and others, to protect and manage the financial affairs of some of the most vulnerable members of society. The Public Guardianship Office will deliver better customer service, and will be more accessible to its clients. For Receivers, this will mean a vastly improved advice and information system, available locally wherever possible—a service which supports as well as monitors. It will be a personalised service, designed to meet the needs of individuals. The staff of the Public Guardianship Office will be fully trained, effectively led and managed, and equipped with the tools to do a difficult job in a modern environment". In the following paragraph the noble and learned Lord continued: This Framework Document sets the framework in which the Public Guardianship Office will operate … It also sets out the Public Guardianship Office's responsibilities to all those who use its services and its ultimate accountability to me". The noble and learned Lord then stated: The creation of the Public Guardianship Office is part of a radical programme of change. The last twelve months of change and preparation has been only a beginning. I look now to the Chief Executive and the staff of the Public Guardianship Office to focus their efforts on building a genuinely new organisation that can deliver radically improved services". As the Lord Chancellor then went on to say, these are "challenging targets" for the office.

The latter brings me to my first line of questioning to the noble Baroness the Minister. In that statement, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is, in effect, saying that the buck stops with him. I wonder whether the noble Baroness will be able to tell your Lordships how the Lord Chancellor's Department will be monitoring the performance of the Public Guardianship Office. Can she say what resources in the noble and learned Lord's department will be devoted to that task? For example, will there be a specific unit to fulfil the heavy burden that the noble and learned Lord has placed upon himself, or will specific individuals be asked to undertake certain tasks.

Further, can the noble Baroness say how regularly the Lord Chancellor's Department will investigate the affairs, not only of the office as a receiver but also of the disparate receivers that it is the ambition of the PGO to appoint? What I am seeking to establish is: how will the hierarchy of responsibility work through as the system develops.

How, indeed, is the system working so far? I have been reading a document produced by the Public Guardianship Office called Reaching Out. There is an article on the front page of the February 2002 edition written by Mr David Lye, who is the chief executive of the office. Under the general heading of "Other Challenges", he says: I know from the letters, emails and telephone calls I have received from some of you, that some areas of our service have not been satisfactory recently … I know that recently you have been most frustrated by our poor communication and for this I offer sincere apologies. A number of factors have affected our ability to respond to your queries and complaints in the usual way. Working from two sites … has delayed our postal services. We introduced a new telephone system at the same time; and of course we physically moved office. At the same time, casework staff moved into new team working practices and such change inevitably reveals some teething problems". I mean no disrespect to Mr Lye—he is the third chief executive officer in the Public Guardianship Office within the past year—in wondering whether his analysis really gets to grips with the fundamental problems faced by the office.

As a result of my familiarity with a recent and difficult case—that of Miss Elizabeth Laurence—I have identified at least two of those fundamental problems. The first concerns the way in which cases are dealt with by the staff. As far as Miss Laurence is concerned, there have been about 90 separate telephone or written communications in the past two years between the Public Guardianship Office and Miss Laurence's trustees or her cousin, Lord Iliffe. Those communications have been dealt with by no fewer than 20 members of staff. I recognise that there are occasions when individuals are away on holiday, or when specific technical tasks are undertaken by particular individuals. However, if the confidence of the office is to be established in the minds of its clients, it is absolutely vital that one specific person should have overall responsibility for each patient.

Having reached that conclusion, and bearing in mind Mr Lye's article in Reaching Out, I was a little concerned to read that the office is now thinking of shifting from an individual caseworker scheme to a team caseworker scheme; in other words, it will be a team of staff and not an individual member of staff who will be responsible for a particular case. I can understand why different technical skills may be needed in some cases. However, if an individual is not specifically tasked with ultimate and overall responsibility for a patient, the process of accountability in the office will be extremely difficult to establish. I should be most grateful if the Minister could reflect on that point when she replies.

The second fundamental problem concerns accounting. As I understand the present situation, it is not possible to extract any financial information from the PGO about particular patients without an order of the Court of Protection. Yet very large sums of money—much of it trust money—are handed over to receivers who have no obligation to account to anybody for anything. Fortunately, in the case of Miss Laurence, such an order has been forthcoming from the court. A firm of independent accountants has now been charged with the task of investigating inconsistencies between payments in by trustees and the PGO recorded receipts, inconsistencies which, in one case, go back 12 years. I should like, incidentally, to express my thanks to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for ensuring that that step was taken.

Had there been a proper and regular system of accounting and auditing, none of that particular and special investigation would have been necessary. I shall, therefore, be most interested to hear what the noble Baroness has to say about proposed accounting plans for the future. In my submission, this issue is especially important when your Lordships take into account the aspiration of the Public Guardianship Office to devolve more and more of its receiver responsibilities on family members, other individuals, professionals, groups of trustees, and so on. As I understand it, the PGO increasingly aspires to supervise the supervisors. That is an admirable aspiration, as long as the PGO has established a system of supervision that can really call to account the receiver outside the office.

In that regard, I was somewhat surprised at the rather low fee that the Public Guardianship Office intends to charge in relation to the operation of receiverships by individuals other than the chief executive. Unless all these individual receivers are properly called to account on a regular basis, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that bad practices—even, on occasions, fraudulent practices—are likely to find their way into the system. Thus all the aspirations of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and of the Minister, will be set at nothing.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, I should like to speak in support of both prayers. I agree with every word that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. I also agree with the call from the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that there should be the best possible management practices within the Public Guardianship Office.

I went to my family solicitor a few years ago to make a new will. While I was instructing him on how to prepare the will, he asked me if I was minded to prepare an enduring power of attorney. I was a little offended at first blush, as I was then in what would politely be described as the "very early fifties". He explained to me that, these days, it was part of the everyday kit for solicitors advising clients of whatever age on the making of wills. The reason for that is obvious: people live much longer. Many people survive well into their late 80s and, for a large number, into their 90s. If they create an enduring power of attorney, they have a useful and practical opportunity to ensure that the people whom they choose—people whom they trust—will manage their affairs in the event of serious incapacity.

The result of having an increasingly ageing population is that the number of enduring powers of attorney is increasing fast, particularly as solicitors give the sort of responsible advice that was given to me. In almost every instance, enduring powers of attorney work well. As it happens, my wife exercised an enduring power of attorney over an elderly aunt who had become mentally incapacitated. As a result of hard work under the power of attorney, my wife was able to ensure that her aunt's assets were maintained and that her aunt had the highest possible quality of life consistent with her incapacitating condition. That fulfilled the aspirations of the aunt before she became incapacitated.

Registration of enduring powers of attorney is not compulsory. I have no idea what proportion of EPAs is not registered; I suspect that it is a large majority. One of the reasons why they have not been registered is that people have been put off even by the previous fee that was charged. Registration is important. It gives a degree of protection against fraud, and the discipline of registration itself—the knowledge that an enduring power of attorney has been registered—will discourage any temptation of fraud. Registration is in the public interest. As I understand it, government policy is that registration should take place in as many cases as possible. I should welcome confirmation of that.

I should not complain for one moment if the registration fee were increased by a sum that reflected the cost of living or even if the fee took into account something that was demonstrable and specific, such as an increase in the cost of processing the forms. The registration of EPAs is a modest administrative exercise; it cannot cost more than a few pounds. The increase from £75 to £220 for registration—a staggering increase of 300 per cent—cannot possibly reflect an increase in costs. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. It looks awfully like a punitive form of tax collection, in which enduring powers of attorney are an easy target.

Whether it is right or wrong and even if the Government can demonstrate that an increase is necessary to meet the costs of the registration and administration of powers of attorney, the matter must be subject to an element of public interest consideration, for the reasons given earlier. An increase to £220—a significant cost for people making wills that certainly exceeds the cost of many wills by some distance—will discourage people from securing the power of attorney for when they become vulnerable. It must be in the public interest to ensure early registration, so that the person who creates the power of attorney has a hand in the process. He or she will want to know that it has been registered, so that there is full protection. The increase in the fee for registering powers of attorney will discourage that.

It would be more convincing if the Government had said anything that demonstrated an improvement in the monitoring arrangements for powers of attorney. We return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. We have not been told a single thing about any improvement in monitoring arrangements. It would be helpful to know how many extra staff will be employed in monitoring powers of attorney. How many more investigations will there be into the use of the powers.

It is also surprising that there was so little consultation, prior to the increase, with those who might have had something constructive to offer, such as the Law Society, whose members are involved in the great majority of cases involving enduring powers of attorney, the major charities and other professional groups. I hope that I will be corrected about this, but I understand that there was limited consultation even with the Public Guardianship Office's consultative forum, which was set up for the specific purpose of being consulted on such issues.

My other point relates to receivership. Under the previous arrangements, there was a standard fee of £1,750 per annum for the administration of receiverships. One of the reforms that flowed from the quinquennial review of the PGO was the use of external receivers. Those receivers are drawn from a panel of professional receivers who are mostly—not exclusively—solicitors. Some of the receiverships cost less than £1,750; some cost a great deal more. The flat-fee arrangement has compensated for the existence of dearer and cheaper receiverships. That is a fair, rounded system.

The PGO no longer charges fees, but it has retained some receiverships of last resort. It was always recognised that there would be a residual number of cases—200 or 300—in which the Public Guardianship Office would act as the receiver of last resort. They might include, for example, cases of fraud by a family member or in which the patient is particularly violent or demanding. Under the new arrangements, that service is provided free of charge by the PGO, subsidised wholly by the taxpayer. However, a choice must be made by the PGO as to whether it is a receivership of last resort or one that will be put out to a member of the panel. There will be many marginal cases. What will be the effect in those marginal cases.

Cases that fall on the non-residual side of the line must pay the full charges of the professionals who are involved in the receivership. In some cases, that could run to several thousand pounds a year. Those in the residual category will not have to pay. That creates a serious problem for the Public Guardianship Office. How can it justify the appointment of a panel receiver as being for the benefit of a patient when the panel receiver will charge several thousand pounds, even though the in-house provision is entirely free? How can the Master of the Court of Protection give a serious and reasonable answer to a member of the public who has in his hands the interests of a patient and says, "I want this to be a residual case because I won't have to pay for it"? The cost of a panel receiver will be prohibitive.

That puts the Court of Protection in a difficult situation and makes something of a mockery of the PGO's panel receiver system. I do not believe that that point has been fully considered. If it has, I should welcome the Government's response to why they have allowed such an anomalous situation to arise.

The regulations have been introduced in haste and without proper consultation. It would be better if they were withdrawn, so that consultation could take place in the normal way. That way, we could return to the matter in due course with more balanced regulations.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for raising this issue. A number of noble Lords have raised many important questions. The noble Baroness was right to say that the Public Guardianship Office plays a crucial role in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society—people who suffer from mental incapacity. Its clients include people who suffer from mental illness, people who have learning disabilities, people who have suffered brain damage and elderly people who suffer the effects of dementia.

These are people who are easily forgotten or sidelined. They need champions. For many years, the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has been their champion through her work with Age Concern and other organisations. Perhaps I may say also that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, have both demonstrated that they too share concerns about these vulnerable people in our society. I take the remarks made by all noble Lords very much in the spirit that they were meant and I shall respond as fully as I can. I appreciate the concerns that these rules have given rise to, and I shall try to answer as many of the points as I can before the close of today's debate. However, if I do not respond to all of them, I hope that noble Lords will write to me. I shall then seek to give a fuller response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked for an explanation of how the fees arose. I am happy to give that explanation, which I hope will also be to the elucidation of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. Before doing so, however, I think that it is important to explain the principle that we followed in setting the new fees.

We wanted to ensure that we act in line with the findings of the Public Accounts Committee in its 1999 inquiry into the affairs of the Public Trust Office which, as noble Lords will recall, was the predecessor body of the Public Guardianship Office. The PAC was very critical of the way in which the costs of services to some clients were being cross-subsidised through higher fees being charged to other clients.

It has been the policy of successive governments that people should pay for the services they use and that those who cannot afford to pay should be subsidised. Taking this important principle together with the criticisms of the PAC, we have devised these new rules to reflect more accurately the cost of services used by clients and to support the provision of better services to them, based on a system which is fairer to all.

The new fees fulfil those aims. They ensure that the fees reflect the costs. They eliminate cross-subsidy between groups of clients and they will allow the PGO to develop and improve its services. Most important, they contain improved protections, support and better value for poorer clients.

Quite naturally, noble Lords have focused on where the fees have increased. I should like to respond to those concerns but, first, I wish to place on the record that we have reduced some fees. For protection cases, the commencement fee, which covers the cost of processing a first application to the court, has been reduced from £230 to £65. In Court of Protection cases, where clients have net assets below £16,000, their representative can be given authority to manage a client's finances under a "short order", and will have to pay only the £65 fee. That is one example of the way in which the new fees will help the poorest clients of the PGO. Previously they would have paid £230, the same amount as for more complex applications. That higher fee partly subsidised users of other PGO services, in particular enduring power of attorney clients, to whom I shall turn later in my remarks.

Officers of the Court of Protection and the PGO have also developed new guidelines for remission of fees which are both more generous and wide-ranging in their scope and which will be more widely publicised than in the past. They have consulted the main stakeholders, bodies such as Age Concern, the Alzheimer's Disease Society, Action on Elder Abuse, MIND and the Law Society. The new remissions scheme reflects their views. For example, the guidelines increase the capital limit for remission of all fees from £3,000 to £11,750, an increase of almost 300 per cent.

There are two other important aspects of the remissions scheme to which I should like to draw the attention of noble Lords. First, the increase in enduring power of attorney registration fees has caused concern, a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. Under the revised remissions guidelines, clients with assets of less than £16,000 will be treated in the same way as "short order" protection clients. They will pay a registration fee of only £65; that is another illustration of how the fees policy will protect the PGO's poorest clients.

I should like to remind noble Lords what the full fee for registration of an enduring power of attorney covers because, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, demonstrated in his speech, there does not seem to be much clarity on that point. The fee of £220 covers the cost of registration, handling any disputes or technical problems and correspondence during or after registration, helping and advising attorneys or their legal representatives, investigating allegations of financial abuse against the donor and cancelling registration on the death of the donor. The registration fee covers that work over the lifetime of the case. It is not for a simple act of registration of a document, as perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, thought or suggested. I hope that noble Lords will agree that a fee of £220 over such a period represents incredibly good value.

Finally, the Public Guardianship Office will publicise its remissions guidelines and will incorporate them in a review process if a client believes that the PGO has failed to apply the scheme properly. I hope that that will be of reassurance to the noble Baroness. The PGO will retain the discretion to remit fees for clients who do not meet the set criteria if it judges that they would suffer hardship as a result of having to pay fees.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness, in particular as my question will take her back to her last but one sentence. Are figures available to illustrate the average cost per enduring power of attorney of registration and all the other processes which she mentioned in her remarks.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, in setting the fee, an assessment was made in relation to how much are the real costs. I do not have that information to hand, but certainly if the noble Lord wishes to write to me, I shall do my best to satisfy his interest in that regard.

It may be helpful if I give an example of the exercise of the discretion. Mr A is a client of the PGO. He lives with his wife in a house that they own. His income and capital exceed the minima that would automatically qualify for remission but his expenses are also significant. He receives remission on the ground that if he did not he and his wife would be forced to sell their house to raise capital. I am happy to confirm that the PGO will notify all those who have made applications since the order came into being advising them of the remissions procedure that is now available. Furthermore, the PGO is already taking steps to ensure that the office itself raises these issues with those whom it believes may be entitled to such remission. We are taking proactive steps in that regard.

Before going on to respond to some of the specific points that have been raised, I wish to cite one more example of how the new fees scheme will protect the PGO's poorest clients. The difficulties of the Public Trust Office were exposed to all by the PAC report published in 1999. One of the actions that we have taken since then was to seek to devolve the PGO's in-house receivership work to panel receivers, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile; they are professionals, usually solicitors, who are better able to provide a more local and professional service. However, some in-house receivership clients remain. These tend typically to be people who have no one to act as receiver for them or there are complexities which make them resource-intensive to manage. The majority will fall below the £16,000 capital threshold.

Those cases involve liaison with other agencies which are stakeholders in the care of our most vulnerable clients and tend to require a more senior grade of staff to manage them. The cost is estimated at £2,535 per annum per case. The PGO expects to be left with about 50 cases where clients would not be exempt fees on grounds of hardship under the current fees instrument. In most of those cases, the clients are very elderly or very ill and regrettably are unlikely to survive long.

Given the complexities and the opportunity costs involved in serving this small number of clients, the full cost in the very few cases where fees would normally be payable, the charges to receivership clients would have been £665 for the first year fee; £2,535 for the annual administration fee; and £1,390 for the winding-up-fee, compared with £500, £205 and £360 in protection cases involving private receivers. This would clearly be unacceptably high.

In view of the nature of the remaining client base and the impact of introducing steep increases in fees for a very small number of the PGO's most vulnerable clients, we will subsidise those clients' fees, as the noble Lord indicated. The subsidy will be from government funds rather than a cross-subsidy from other PGO clients. We believe that that system will work and work well.

I turn to some of the specific points raised. The noble Baroness raised the issue of parliamentary time and consultation. There have been suggestions that there was insufficient time for consultation regarding the rules laid before a Recess. As regards laying the rules, we have complied with the necessary procedures. The new rules were laid before Parliament on 27th March and came into force on 17th April. That was in accordance with the normal 21-day rule for this type of secondary legislation.

I stress that such measures have been taken in accordance with the normal procedure. However, I accept the concern that the laying of the regulations coincided with Easter. That was a regrettable result of the proximity of Easter to the financial year-end.

I have already apologised for the fact that the Answer given in the other place appears to have been inaccurate. It was certainly accurate and correct when it was written. Unfortunately, publication was delayed because of the Easter Recess, and therein lies the difficulty.

The noble Baroness also asked when the next fee increase would be. We do not know the date of that but the PGO reviews its fees every year and fees may go up or down depending on the cost of the service. However, we are hopeful that for the next two or three years fees will need to increase only in line with inflation. The PGO will also be making efficiency improvements which we hope will exert downward pressure on costs.

I turn to the two major issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. They appear to be the issues arising out of the change in the team working and also the supervision by the PGO of the panel of receivers. The Lord Chancellor's Department has an agency-monitoring unit. It monitors on a day-to-day basis. There is a ministerial advisory board which my colleague in the Lord Chancellor's Department, Miss Winterton, chairs. It meets quarterly to review performance and the PGO produces annual reports setting out that performance. Therefore, there is a robust scheme for monitoring.

In relation to the change that has taken place from case working to team working, we entirely understand the attraction of having a named caseworker. Having a named caseworker worked well in many cases but by no means all. In some cases, the client and the caseworker did not work well together. Individual case working meant that when a member of staff was away or left there was a risk of lack of continuity.

Finally, individual case working was not the best way to develop consistency of practice. The growth in the number of cases with which the PGO deals also necessitated a change. Team working offers the opportunity to develop better continuity and consistency, but I sympathise with the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I can say to him that the issue will be kept under review and the PGO is determined to have the most efficacious means of delivering well targeted help and support to the people whom it serves. Therefore, the process which we now have in place will continue unless and until such time as change seems to be indicated.

As regards supervision by the PGO, I want to reassure the House that as a result of the concerns expressed the panel receivers work under a more structured supervisory framework. They agree a service level agreement with the PGO at the start of their appointment to the panel, which includes an outlying framework of the level of service the clients can expect. In addition, they are subject to the same supervision as other professional receivers and the PGO reviews their annual accounts as well as the requirement on the panel receiver to seek specific court authority for a number of actions such as sale or purchase of property. The court and the PGO continue to ensure that clients whose affairs are managed by panel receivers receive an appropriate level of protection.

When the PGO hands over cases to panel receivers, they are accompanied by a brief review of the client, details of income arrangements, expenditure projection, property details, investment holdings, an up-to-date account and other relevant information. Therefore, the PGO aims to ensure that cases which transfer to panel receivers are in good order for panel receivers to manage them in the future.

I hope that I have reassured noble Lords on the points raised today. If, having considered what has been said, noble Lords feel that there are further and other matters which need to be explored, I shall be happy to respond. I want to re-emphasise that those rules offer the opportunity for clients of the PGO to be charged as fairly as possible for the services offered by that organisation and that the new fees recognise the need to protect the finances of the poorest and they do that. The PGO will continue to seek every opportunity in the future to consult with the relevant organisations to ensure that any policy affecting fees, such as remission and fee levels, continues to reflect a just system of assessment of each individual circumstance. With that explanation, I hope that noble Lords will find themselves content.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I shall be brief. I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I am grateful in particular for her obvious commitment to fairness; a more tailored service to meet clients' individual needs; to a review process; and to notify everyone who may not have been aware of the new remission scheme and of subsidy schemes in particular circumstances.

Noble Lords have spoken from all sides of the House and I hope that we shall soon have the opportunity again to debate such vital people-centred issues. It is easy to see the debate as about an organisation, the Public Guardianship Office, but it is really about people with mental incapacity. We really must be sure that they are always in the forefront of any such discussion.

This House is now aware that there has been a great deal of concern about the Public Guardianship Office. The reforms and changes, including changes to fees and to how we look after those with a mental incapacity, must be better monitored. I hope that this debate will have played a small part in making sure that this is so. I was pleased to see the explanation of the remission scheme which appeared on the website today.

On this occasion I do not intend to test the opinion of the House. To have done so might have meant that I would need the protection of the master myself. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. No doubt inadvertently, she said nothing about improved accounting procedures. Perhaps she will be kind enough to write to me on that matter at a later date. In the mean time, I do not intend to move my Motion for an humble Address.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.36 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended front 8.31 until 8.36 p.m.]