Consumer Protection

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Industry – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th January 2001.

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Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour/Co-operative, Heywood and Middleton 12:00 am, 18th January 2001

If he will make a statement on recent steps he has taken to ensure consumers receive value for money. [144528]

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

We are ensuring that consumers get better value for money through stronger protection in such areas as distance selling and e-commerce, better advice through consumer support networks and, most important, a stronger and more effective competition regime.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour/Co-operative, Heywood and Middleton

House buyers are consumers. Can my hon. Friend offer them some protection and an honest deal from unscrupulous cowboy builders?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

Ultimately, any disagreement is a civil dispute between a customer and a builder. However, colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have developed a quality mark scheme to help consumers find reliable builders and workers in allied trades such as plumbing and roofing. The scheme ensures that quality mark builders are technically competent, possess relevant qualifications and display financial probity.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Does the Minister agree that one of the worst examples of a failure to give business and private consumers value for money is in the banking sector, where consumers are being ripped off by up to £5 billion a year, according to the Cruickshank report? Will he explain how the Government intend to implement the report's recommendation that mergers involving a major bank—such as the present merger between Lloyds and Abbey National, which affects the current account market—will automatically be referred to the Competition Commission? Will he assure the House that the fact that the banks are helping to establish the Post Office universal bank will not lead to their being given an easy ride on competition policy?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, competition matters are judged and decided by the Office of Fair Trading. There will be no automatic referrals. We consider the judgment of the Office of Fair Trading, under the director general, as the most valuable source of information. In most cases, we accept it.

Photo of Frank Roy Frank Roy Labour, Motherwell and Wishaw

On the issue of ensuring that consumers receive value for money, my hon. Friend will be aware that I presented a petition to the Office of Fair Trading which bore more than 20,000 names. It demanded an investigation into the rip-off involving the holiday fuel prices charged by holiday firms. May I ask for an assurance from my hon. Friend that he will ask the Director General of Fair Trading when an inquiry will take place and when we can have the findings that ensue so that we can finally put an end to the rip-off of holiday price fixing, and especially fuel supplements?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

Like my hon. Friend, I am determined that holidaymakers should get good value for money. I know that he has been waiting for answers to the questions which he put to the director general in writing last July. Successive directors general have promised him responses. Now that my hon. Friend has raised the matter with me, he can be assured that I will raise it with the director general and ask him to contact my hon. Friend immediately.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

But why are the Government undermining consumer rights by persecuting traders who are selling fruit and vegetables off market stalls in pounds and ounces? Why did the Government not even try to extend the directive, which would have permitted the continuing use of pounds and ounces in the way the previous Government succeeded in doing in 1989? The Government did not even ask for that. Why did they have such a warped sense of priority that they failed completely to bring forward their promised consumer Bill, which would have clamped down on rogue and dishonest traders, while at the same time, and instead, they are persecuting honest traders whose only crime is to serve their customers in units which they ask for and understand?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it was the Leader of the Opposition who signed up to the directive in the first place. The previous Government agreed with the Commission that twin pricing, so that metric and imperial pricing could operate alongside each other in shops, would be phased out in 1999, but the Labour Government secured a 10-year extension to it. It is indicative that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who has a much bigger voice than appetite, could manage only a quarterpounder—he could not manage even a Big Mac.