Orders of the Day — Consumer Credit Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 9th June 2005.

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Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East 3:48 pm, 9th June 2005

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is entirely right. To be frank, people in Southend laugh at that suggestion. Southend has new build and infill building, alongside the many houses that have been converted into flats.

There are arguably too many people coming to Southend because it is such a great place. The lack of recognition of the real population figure has lead to lower funding based on an artificially low population figure. I was extremely impressed by the Minister's attitude to this largely non-party political matter. It is clear that when there is a genuine problem, that Minister in particular is ready to listen, and I believe that he will be ready to act if the case is proven. I am looking forward to the more detailed discussions on the matter that are planned for the next few weeks.

I would hate to let my maiden speech descend into a shopping list for funding, but there is also a real problem with the cliff slipping into the sea. This is not an aesthetic problem; it could threaten large numbers of houses, as well as our main commercial and tourist centres. The cost of resolving this problem is some £40 million, although we have been unable to find the appropriate funding. While money seems to be available for high profile capital projects across the country, there appears to be insufficient money either for large scale repair works or to support revenue expenditure.

I come now to the Consumer Credit Bill. I welcome the Bill from the broad consumer protection perspective, but I wish to raise two points of concern, both of which have already been mentioned today. My first is the excessive burden being placed on the financial services industry. My second, which has been raised by many hon. Members, especially when the Bill was last in Committee, is the lack of definition of an unfair relationship between a creditor and a debtor, which has caused all kinds of problems and will continue to do so unless we do something about it in Committee.

I have seen at first hand the effects of regulation on the financial services industry, both in the UK and overseas. I spent 10 years of my life working for a British bank. I also worked in the unit trust industry at the time of the abolition of personal equity plans and tax exempt special savings accounts and the introduction of individual savings accounts. I was also responsible for regulatory changes in another country. In both cases, the legislative changes and the projects that followed prevented us from concentrating on our customers' needs, which is fundamental, and from providing value for shareholders, which is in the long-term interest.

It was with that in mind that I read the full regulatory impact assessment referred to in the explanatory notes to the Bill. No one can criticise the document for its lack of detail, but I found that it fell well short of the mark in business reality. Furthermore, I was concerned, when speaking to some in the industry, about the speed at which the consultation was done. Numbers have been placed on the regulatory costs, but I do not believe that those figures are a fair reflection.

My second point involves an example of where the costs of the regulation cannot be accounted for because the regulation itself is unclear. I am referring to the impact of the lack of a clear definition in the unfair relationships test. I trust that the House will forgive my bluntness, but it appears to me that the definition has been fudged. The buck has been passed to the courts, and in my view that is very dangerous. The Bill adds the following to the definition of something that is unfair:

"any other thing done (or not done) by, or on behalf of, the creditor (either before or after the making of the agreement or any related agreement)."

It strikes me that that could cover just about anything.

John Battle spoke, in his very thoughtful speech, about whether we should go for openness or narrowness. I would go for narrowness, but the difference between openness and narrowness is not the point. The point is clarity of definition, and I do not believe that that should be for the courts to decide.

If we leave it to the court, that is particularly invidious given that the Bill states that that test will be retrospective. It seems wrong to me, as a new Member of Parliament, that new legislation will cover old contractual relationships. Certainly, the problems of retrospective legislation will increase the cost of syndicated loans. Purchasers of a syndicated loan book will not know whether they are purchasing an unfair loan book, which has a number of implications: it would increase legal costs, reduce the value of the loan book, and ultimately and perhaps most importantly, make the cost of lending to the average consumer higher, which is not an intended consequence of this legislation.

Finally, in my maiden speech, may I say that it is a privilege and an honour to serve in this great House?