A financial advisory group has asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) if it can investigate the planned reform of probate fees as the controversial proposal nears final approval in parliament. The LEBC Group said that the changes would cause ‘hardship and distress’ to the bereaved.
The row over the reforms escalated yesterday as opposition politicians accused the government of introducing a new tax through secondary legislation. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told the Daily Mail that bringing in changes without proper parliamentary scrutiny is a 'clear abuse of power'.
Yesterday, the House of Commons’ Fourteenth Delegated Legislation Committee voted by nine votes to eight to approve a statutory instrument (SI) applying a sliding scale of charges based on the value of estates rather than a flat fee. The SI will now go before the House of Commons chamber where, barring a formal objection and subsequent vote against the proposals, it will pass. The changes would then come into force in April.
The Law Society this week urged members to write to their MPs over what the Society described as 'a misuse of the lord chancellor's fee-levying powers'.
The approach to the CMA will be on the grounds of fairness, LEBC’s director of public policy Kay Ingram said: 'The CMA has shone a light on poor treatment of the bereaved in the field of funeral services and care homes. If, as the MoJ argues, this increase is not a tax increase, but a fee, then it deserves the same scrutiny as exploitative pricing by business. If it is a tax increase then MPs must account to their constituents for this.’
The CMA has been contacted for comment.
Ingram admitted to the Gazette that it is unclear whether the CMA has the power to investigate government departments: 'I have asked them this question.' However she said the rise in probate fees 'strikes me as a classic example of exploitative pricing by a monopoly provider, where the consumer has no choice but to use the service at a time of extreme vulnerability'.
'In reality this is not a fee but a tax increase. It is therefore a tax which should form part of a Finance Bill and be subject to full debate in Parliament.'
Under the plans, probate charges will be linked to the size of the estate. The wealthiest estates (those valued at more than £2m) would face a £6,000 charge. At the moment there is a flat fee of £215, or £155 for those applying through a solicitor, on estates of any size. However the government says that the reform will exempt people with estates worth less than £50,000 from any fees at all.