I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to introduce this important Bill. It has been widely consulted on outside and inside the House and our understanding is that it is welcomed by both business and consumer groups. There has been some constructive criticism from inside the House during domestic scrutiny and we have taken on board the large majority of the suggestions. As the Bill proceeds, we will further debate much of the detail.
The context of the Bill is our determination to build and enhance a climate of trust in which UK business operates, restoring trust, which is often needed, in markets and market transactions. The consumer law reforms that we are discussing lie at the heart of a crusade towards trusted business and trusted capitalism. We see them as part of the overarching overhaul of UK competition and consumer legislation that we have been undertaking over the past four years.
Essentially, the coin has two sides: competition policy and consumer protection. Let me start with the competition reforms. A competition regime is essential to encourage efficient and innovative businesses, allowing the best to grow and enter new markets, driving investment in new and better products, and pushing prices down and quality up. That is good for growth and good for consumers. That is why earlier in the Session we introduced reforms of competition policy and the new Competition and Markets Authority, which will come into effect in April with strong new powers to take robust decisions more quickly. Changes we have made to the criminal cartel offence will enable the CMA to address the pernicious influence of cartels.
What we are doing in the UK is mirrored in what is happening in the European Union. There are people who think that the European Commission is entirely about regulation, but it does important work in opening up markets, deregulating and increasing competition. It is worth citing several examples. Last year, fines of almost €1.5 billion were imposed on companies engaged in fixing the price of TV and computer monitor tubes and fines of €1.7 billion were imposed on companies that had established a cartel to fix interest rate derivatives. The European Commission is conducting a competition investigation into Google’s business practices. Among other things, the Commission is considering how Google uses third-party content without consent and how it structures its search results. Our domestic Consumer Rights Bill will enable us to strengthen that framework by making it easier for individuals and businesses to seek redress through private actions where they have been harmed by anti-competitive behaviour. That is covered in one of the clauses.
Competition also relies on consumer law and the framework of protection for individuals who suffer from unfair business behaviour. That is why we are reforming the landscape of consumer bodies funded by Government to improve consumer protection and give greater clarity about where consumers need to turn for help and advice. I hope that will deliver a better deal overall for consumers through clearer responsibilities and better co-ordination.
We cannot expect consumers to be confident when they do not understand their rights or when they find it hard to know what they are entitled to if something goes wrong. Unclear rights and remedies mean that businesses can also find it costly to understand their responsibilities. We seek to address those concerns. We have set out in one place key consumer rights and what consumers are entitled to. The measure covers goods, services and, for the first time, digital content such as e-books and software. We estimate in the impact assessment a value in the order of £4 billion over a 10-year period.
Of course, this involves strengthening statute and regulation, but overall this is a deregulatory measure, with a positive impact on business. It makes it easier for business to understand what should happen when a problem arises. It will stop problems escalating, with all the associated costs and the development of disputes, and it will help to create a level playing field for business. It is pro-consumer, but it is also pro-business.
I am going to elaborate on that when I discuss digital measures. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there are different consumer protection arrangements for the DVD—the physical equipment—and for content. The measures in the Bill specifically relate to how we strengthen protection on content.
The Bill was published in draft last summer and, as I have acknowledged, we are grateful for the feedback we received as a result of scrutiny, particularly by the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. Many of its recommendations are reflected in the Bill before the House, and I believe that it has been improved as a consequence of that scrutiny.
The first main measure in the Bill deals with goods, which are a critical part of the economy. There are roughly 350,000 retail businesses, but much of the law pertaining to this area is 30 to 40 years old. We have tackled the complexity that makes compliance burdensome for companies and confusing for consumers by setting out in one place the standards that have to be met. For example, we have defined a 30-day period within which goods have to be inspected. We have made it clear that, where consumers have a faulty item repaired or replaced, that repair or replacement must remedy the problem the first time round, or they can insist on some money back. Survey data show that all but 6% of faulty goods can be remedied the first time round, but we have embedded that in a clear set of rules.
We often hear, for example, about consumers trapped in a cycle of repairs that fail to fix a fault. Which? recently reported a case of a car owner who had fault after fault after fault, but he was consistently fobbed off with further repairs that failed each time to fix the fault. Under the Bill, that will not arise, as we will narrow down the obligations.
Robert Flello asked about digital content. There is a good deal of legal uncertainty about consumer rights in relation to digital content, which is unacceptable in a rapidly growing segment of the economy with a turnover of around £200 billion. That is why we have introduced a new category of digital content with a set of quality rights. As I said, we need a distinction between the way in which we protect content, which is intangible, and the way in which we protect goods, such as DVDs, which are tangible and are dealt with under the goods provision.
For example, many people now download music albums, but if one of the tracks is corrupted and will not play, it is not clear what they are entitled to. Under the Bill, they are entitled to a repair or replacement of the digital content and, if that does not fix the problem, they will get their money back. This is a complex matter, and we recognise that, in relation to complex software, for example, there are flaws—that is the nature of the business—but we have tried as far as possible to narrow down the areas of fault and consumer obligation. Clear digital rights are good, not just for consumers but for responsive businesses, particularly new market entrants—a key part of the industry—which will find it easier to attract customers, even if they are not an established brand, because they can establish a track record in consumer service underpinned by the legislation.
Another part of the Bill deals with consumer protection in relation to services. We know from reviews by the Law Commission that the law governing the provision of services is difficult to understand and, when things go wrong, there is no statutory redress regime to put them right. However, we are talking about 75% of the British economy. That is why the Bill provides new statutory rights and introduces new statutory remedies when things go wrong. There is a great deal of debate about the specifics: the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has suggested a statutory quality right, which we looked at, but we found it too complex. We considered the evidence from Australia, and we are certainly happy to engage in further debate on the matter.
As an example of how the new rights would apply, we can look at the case of cowboy builders. Almost all of us have dealt with such cases in our constituencies, and they cause particular anger. A cowboy builder is doing domestic work and altering someone’s bathroom. They start the work, but there are problems, with debris strewn around the house and disruptions to the water supply. Currently, it is unclear what the householder is entitled to, and a lot of frustration flows from that. Under the Bill, there will be a statutory right to ask for a poorly performed service to be redone if possible. If it cannot be redone within a reasonable time or without significant inconvenience there is a right to money back. I stress the example of cowboy builders, as I think that Stella Creasy, who may well want to discuss this, issued a press release this morning in which she singled out cowboy builders and said that there was no reference to them in the Bill. In fact, these measures will improve significantly consumer protection in that area.
Another area in which the Bill introduces reform is unfair contract terms—essentially the small-print problem. Legal ambiguity arises from recent landmark court cases—the so-called banks case in particular—and our reforms endeavour to protect consumers from the small print while making it easier for businesses to understand how they can prevent contract terms from being challenged in court. In a typical example, someone joins a gym in January with a lot of enthusiasm, but they have not read or fully understood the details of the small print. When they cancel the contract in March, as many people do—I seem to remember cancelling my gym contract rather earlier in the year—they have to pay for a full year’s membership. Currently, it is not clear whether a court would find that unfair. Under our proposals, it is clear: a court can find it unfair, and if it is unfair the consumer is not bound by it.
The reforms endeavour to make clear what the courts can and cannot consider in assessing fairness. In particular, we make it a key test that price and subject matter in a contract need to be transparent and prominent—the operative word is “prominent”—to ensure that it cannot be challenged for fairness in court.
I am interested and encouraged to hear that proposal, because I dealt with a constituency case in which a young man found himself with precisely the sort of problems that the Secretary of State has described. Does he agree that there is a role for local councils, if it is a local gym or other local body, and their consumer protection departments, which should intervene in these issues? Will he encourage local authorities to use their public protection departments in that way?
Trading standards at a local level are extremely important. It is not a statutory obligation, and councils vary in their support for it, but it is absolutely crucial. This is where much of the enforcement action will be eventually taken. At national level, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we put £13 million a year into the National Trading Standards Board, which provides training support, for example, and helps trading standards authorities to co-ordinate activities. That is often required, because an abuse can occur across borough boundaries. He is absolutely right: local trading standards officers are crucial in implementing much of this legislation.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on consumer affairs and trading standards. In my constituency and around the country, trading standards do a tremendous amount of very good work, but one of their challenges is that their budget depends on local authorities and can be patchy. I appreciate that, as a result of the streamlining measures in the Bill, much of the enforcement will be done by trading standards. I think that the Bill will make that easier and make a real difference. Will the Secretary of State or his officials meet me and some senior trading standards colleagues so that we can work out how that can be done more efficiently or better, or even find ways to squeeze more income from the Government to help them to do that?
I know very well my hon. Friend’s interest in this area and the work that he has done on it. He has made Eastbourne an exemplar of good practice. I accept that local authority budgets are squeezed, and sometimes trading standards are squeezed relatively severely. We can help with that by helping to rationalise their operations, training and cross-border co-operation. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others, cross-party or otherwise, to see how we can progress this.
A further set of measures in the Bill relates to consumer law enforcement. We will consolidate and simplify the investigatory powers of consumer law enforcers—this takes us back to the discussion we have just had on local trading standards officers—into one generic set to make it easier for enforcers and businesses to understand what powers can be used and in what circumstances. We estimate that that measure alone will save businesses around £40 million during the next 10 years. We will also make it easier for trading standards to collaborate across local authority boundaries to tackle the kind of rogues we saw in a recent scam drawing people throughout the country into costly and unnecessary driveway repairs.
I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way, particularly as I unfortunately missed the start of his speech. He makes an interesting speech—as interesting as he can given the subject. Why is there so little in the Bill for people who are failed by public sector agencies? Is there not a great need for increased rights when consumers or citizens find themselves on the wrong side of these bureaucracies when they let them down?
Some of us find this a passionately interesting subject. The enthusiasm shows, I know. There is the ombudsman for the public sector. One could argue that the legislation will bring the private sector up to the same standards of scrutiny that we would expect when there are failures in public administration.
I am extremely interested in what the Secretary of State has been saying, which is important for consumers throughout the United Kingdom. As some of the measures that he has been speaking about today are devolved to Northern Ireland, in the interests of consistency, how will he ensure that whatever is introduced in this House is also introduced in other parts of the UK where there is devolution?
There have already been discussions with the Northern Ireland authorities, and we plan to introduce the same measures in Northern Ireland. There is agreement on the subject. I cannot say off the cuff where we are in relation to Scotland and Wales, but there are discussions with devolved authorities to try to ensure that this is widely applied. Everyone agrees that these are improvements and it would be desirable if everybody throughout the UK benefited from them.
I was so fascinated by what the Secretary of State would be saying today that when I realised that I had missed the start of his speech I came hotfoot over here.
My point also relates to the issue of public services. On premium rate phone lines, the Government have said that all Departments should migrate to the use of geographic phone lines—03 lines—or others to ensure that consumers will not be charged rip-off rates by
Government Departments. I welcome that, but will he give us some indication about when that will happen? The promise is good, but consumers need action.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that an undertaking was made, which I understand is in process. Different Departments are proceeding at different speeds, but there is a commitment to do this. If he wants more information on it, I will try to get it to him. It is a perfectly legitimate complaint that people have.
The consumer law enforcement powers establish a primary authority to improve co-ordination. The enhanced consumer measures relate to the law and the gap between criminal and civil law in relation to consumer enforcement. At the moment, consumers rarely get their money back when a business breaks consumer law. That is partly because criminal courts are reluctant to award consumers redress and enforcers are often unable to seek redress in the civil courts. There is a common law remedy, but it is often difficult to realise it. What then tends to happen is that the more extreme cowboys are prosecuted on criminal grounds, but compensation, particularly for lesser levels of abuse, is more difficult to obtain. The legislation will enhance consumer measures to give enforcers greater flexibility to get the best outcome for consumers.
Many of these issues are dealt with through small claims courts. I recognise that there is often a difficulty in enforcing claims in the small claims courts. I am not sure that legal aid is the central issue there. It is a question of ensuring that, when court remedies are imposed by the courts, they enforce them and there are proper fines on companies that do not yield at that point.
The measures on the civil courts seek to ensure that there are properly specified rights aimed at giving consumers their money back, giving them more information and increasing business compliance. We must try to ensure that the measures are reasonable and proportionate, and that there is flexibility. Let me give a concrete example, because this is a slightly abstract and legalistic issue. Under a more flexible regime, a furniture retailer that has made false promises on delivery dates may not only have to give consumers their money back, but have to advertise in the press or social media what they are doing to put the situation right. They may also be required to change their internal systems to ensure that there is no repeat of the breach of the law. Essentially, the changes will enable enforcement to take place in a much more flexible way that reflects the circumstances of particular companies and customers.
How will the Bill address the issue of companies going into liquidation and what happens to their creditors? We have all seen what happened with the Farepak scandal. Consumers do not understand the difference between part-payments, deposits and pre-payments. Will that be clarified in the Bill?
Those issues are covered by insolvency legislation, which we hope to review later in this Parliament. I am aware of the hon. Lady’s close involvement in the Farepak victims’ case, on which she has worked with my Department and helped a great deal with. The issue that has been triggered is whether we should change the order of claims of creditors. We have looked at this sympathetically. The danger is that by promoting one group of creditors, another, perhaps equally worthy, is subordinated. We have not yet found a satisfactory way of reordering creditor claims that everybody would accept as fair and just. I am aware of the Farepak problems, but we have made quite a lot of progress in that case.
I thank the Secretary of State for singling out the furniture industry, which has a number of problems. In particular, people can spend a lot of money on one item of furniture from a company that they think is UK-based, but discover that it is not if the product delivered is in any way faulty. It can then take months to get it repaired or replaced. Can we look at how we deal with such companies, including Laura Ashley, which has terrible reviews of its furniture on the complaints board? Its consumers also have to pay 10p a minute to make a complaint. It is very difficult to get redress if it delivers something that is faulty, as with any furniture company not based in the UK.
The proposals are designed to address exactly that kind of problem, because they would enable the remedies to be tailored and varied according to circumstances and the seriousness of the offence.
Will the Bill be in any way retrospective? For example, will it bring relief to a customer who has entered into a long-term contract, the provisions of which extend beyond the Act’s implementation date? Will a customer in those circumstances be able to cancel any unfair terms?
The right hon. Gentleman asks a tricky and quite specific legal question, and I do not want to guess the answer. Of course, in general we always try to avoid retrospective legislation, but I can see that for contracts spanning a period of time we need to cover the whole contract period. I will check the details of the proposal and get back to him.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s generosity in giving way to me a second time. I want to touch on something my hon. Friend Mrs Moon raised, the issue of companies based overseas. The Secretary of State has generously met me and other colleagues from north Staffordshire on a couple of occasions to discuss the ceramics industry. People can sometimes be misled into buying something that they think was made in Stoke-on-Trent, but when they get it home discover was made not in Fenton, but in Indonesia or China. How does the consumer get redress in those circumstances? If that is not dealt with in the Bill, is it something he will look at?
As the hon. Gentleman says, I have discussed that with him before. Indeed, there was a discussion in the European Union last week about rules of origin legislation. I am very sympathetic. The potteries are reviving somewhat and the ceramics industry is returning, and we want to ensure that that is sustained. I think that the issues raised are somewhat different from the content of the Bill. We might be talking about fraud, trading standards or enforcement, and there is an issue about mandatory origin reporting, which is currently being debated in the European Union. I fear that the Bill’s provisions will probably not help to solve the problem, but those are important issues.
I want to raise a further question that is not addressed by the Bill as currently drafted, and surprisingly so. It relates to electrical product recalls, which are clearly a matter of safety for people and properties. The law is currently deficient, and the Electrical Safety Council has made it clear that it wants it improved. It points out that the recall checker on its website often lists products for which there is no procedure in place and no traceable manufacturer. Surely, with regard to consumer rights, that is an area that needs to be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the safety aspects are dealt with separately. I was under the impression that the relevant law was tightened up several years ago. I am familiar with it because a colleague who formerly represented Richmond Park in the House had a family tragedy in circumstances similar to those that the hon. Gentleman describes. I understood that the regulations relating to defective electrical equipment had been tightened, but that is a specific point that we can check.
With regard to the time it can take for products purchased from manufacturers based overseas to be returned, or the number of times someone may have to be called out to repair a product before it is fit for purpose, does the Bill set out a time scale within which repairs must be done, products must be replaced or money must be returned?
As I tried to explain when describing the reforms relating to deficient goods, repairs must be done the first time round. If they cannot be done in a reasonable time, there will be cash compensation. Previously that was ambiguous and unsatisfactory. There will be either a repair or cash compensation, and that will be much clearer than it has been in the past.
Let me talk about the provisions in the Bill that relate to competition law and the role of private actions. Competition is good for growth and one of the pillars of a vibrant economy, so a key part of the work is tackling anti-competitive behaviour. The European Commission—I quoted some examples a few moments ago—has estimated that cartels can raise prices by between 20% and 35%. Despite the strong competition framework that the Government are putting in place, the Office of Fair Trading has shown that businesses believe that the current regime for private actions is too slow and costly. As a result, businesses and consumers rarely get redress when they have been harmed by anti-competitive behaviour. In 10 years, there has been only one collective action case in this country, and only one 10th of 1% of the consumers who were eligible signed up to it.
We have tried to strike a careful balance. We do not want an American-style system of prodigious and constant litigation, which would be costly and benefit only lawyers. None the less, we believe that there is some imbalance in the current system that needs to be redressed. We will try to discourage parties from engaging in costly court cases by encouraging alternative dispute resolution. We propose reforming the Competition Appeal Tribunal by introducing a fast-track regime so that small and medium-sized companies can get quicker and cheaper access.
For example, let us take a car garage that relies on spare parts from a large supplier that has started withholding supplies to drive up prices, showing cartel-type behaviour. Previously, the garage would have had to take costly legal action in the High Court, possibly bankrupting itself in the process—it is a small company up against a big one. Under the Bill, the garage could take the case to the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which could swiftly issue an injunction resulting in the supplier having to restart its supply.
We will also introduce an opt-out collective action regime for consumers and businesses that have been harmed by anti-competitive practice, with safeguards to ensure that cases are appropriate and merit that approach.
I am grateful for what the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is doing in relation to the Competition Appeal Tribunal. As a result of the cost of legal intervention, numerous small businesses have been unable to challenge anti-competitive behaviour, so I applaud that and think that it will make a real difference for small businesses. Has the Department made any impact assessment of the number of cases it anticipates over the next three to five years and, if not, is it in the pipeline so that we can get some sort of idea?
I cannot give any figures, but we are starting from virtually zero, so there will almost certainly be an increase. We will have to conduct an impact assessment as part of the regulatory regime in Government. I will endeavour to give my hon. Friend more facts and figures if I can unearth them.
In conclusion, the Bill represents a radical and far-reaching set of reforms designed to streamline the law, making it clearer and more accessible. It will enhance consumer rights and deregulate for business. It will benefit consumers by reducing the time and cost of finding out how to deal with problems. It will protect consumers from the small print in contracts and increase the redress they get when things go wrong. It will benefit businesses by reducing the need for ongoing legal advice, and it will save legitimate businesses from losses from anti-competitive practices. The benefits are substantial. They will create more confident consumers, who in turn will be more likely to try new and innovative goods and services, which in turn will create a more responsive and vibrant UK economy.
I share the Secretary of State’s passion for this subject, and I challenge the idea of my hon. Friend John Woodcock that it is boring. I am delighted that so many hon. Members have come into the Chamber to stand firm on the idea that consumer rights are a key concern. Despite the short notice, I hope that they will join us in agreeing that it is important to have a strong consumer rights framework in this country.
We agree that the Bill is long overdue. The previous Government introduced a White Paper on delivering a better deal for consumers. It was designed to take action on rogue traders, empower and assist trading standards and bring in a consumer rights Bill to help modernise consumer sales law, so giving consumers the real power that we all want. The Bill should be the culmination of that elephantine gestation.
We therefore welcome the idea of bringing in consumer rights legislation to meet the test that the Government set on their website, which states:
“The government believes that consumers who are well-informed about their rights and what they’re buying are more confident and more likely to spend money well, getting better deals or buying new goods and services.”
It seems to the Opposition that a good first test to set the Bill is whether it meets this ambition: does it help consumers not to be big spenders, but smart ones, and does it give them the information and rights to be able to use their money well and wisely? I am afraid that the Opposition believe that the Bill falls at that first hurdle, in that it provides neither information nor rights, and it makes the Secretary of State a consolidator, not a champion of consumer rights. As such, this legislative opportunity short changes, rather than strengthens, the pounds in our pockets.
The Opposition know that healthy, fair and competitive markets and effective methods for information-sharing across providers are vital for building an economy that works both for consumers and for businesses. We know that savvy consumers make for better customers for businesses, and that better-informed citizens get better outcomes.
In my speech, I will set out the scale of the challenge that demands a roar, not a whimper, and a Government who will speak—indeed, shout out—for consumers and their rights in a free, fair and functioning economy to provide a consumer rights framework that does not wait until people get ripped off before coming into force. In explaining what that means, I want to set out the areas of the Bill that need to be strengthened and on which we will therefore table amendments.
This is a Bill on consumer rights, and many consumers would, for example, like the opportunity to shop freely at a large store on a Sunday, as they already can in Scotland. Does the hon. Lady agree with extending the rights of consumers to spend their money in whichever shops they want, whenever they want on a Sunday, or perhaps with devolving that down to local authorities, so that they can vary Sunday trading hours if they so wish? Is she really that much on the side of consumers?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is on the Public Bill Committee, because I would enjoy many such conversations with him. His interest in how widely consumer rights can be applied is legendary in this House and in the country. We need a fundamental understanding of where rights for consumers make a difference to our economy. We believe that the Bill needs to meet such a test, and I shall set that out today. I hope that I can make clear and compelling arguments about why the Bill should make a real change to people’s lives and redress the balance of power for consumers.
My hon. Friend has already proved herself to be a superb champion of consumer rights since entering the House in 2010. I am following what she is saying about the need for the Bill to go further. Does she agree that one real issue, particularly in my constituency of Blackpool South, is the amount of counterfeit goods that are regularly sold—worth tens of millions of pounds every year—and the crucial role of trading standards? Many trading standards bodies have been affected by the cuts in funding to local government. Does she agree that the Government need to look at supporting such bodies more centrally, especially in their role in relation to counterfeit goods?
I want to come on to precisely my hon. Friend’s question about trading standards, and about how to have stronger powers for consumers at local level, which is one issue that the Bill does not seem to understand or to address.
I am honoured that the Secretary of State made time this morning to read my article for PoliticsHome. I, too, took the time to read his speech last night, and I very much enjoyed his attempt to use Jedi mind tricks on the Government. In particular, he paraphrased one of my personal heroes, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in his attempt to claim that the recovery has
“not been all we might have hoped for”, which is recognition that consumers are bearing the burden of this Government’s economic policy as a result of their lopsided attempt to balance the budget. I am therefore glad that the Secretary of State has acknowledged that growth is being driven only by consumer spending, because many of us are concerned about the impact of that.
Although the Secretary of State celebrates the idea that consumers have dipped into savings that they hold for a rainy day, I have to tell him that he is mistaken to presume that they have done so only for long-term investments. His own Money Advice Service shows that a third of British people have no money put aside for rainy days, due to the everyday costs of living, and that those who have such savings have been forced to dip into them to cover those costs, with three quarters of the people surveyed having been hit by a bill that threw them off-budget in the course of the past year. Indeed, a third of people in our country who now have no savings at all have said that not having a high enough income is the problem causing them not to save. We agree that we should be extremely worried about an economy in which, every day, people get further and further into personal debt. We are also worried that when the Government are presented with an opportunity to do something about that, they stand aside. They talk strongly about national debt, but say nothing about personal debt.
I know that the Secretary of State will want to blame the Treasury for the National Audit Office’s damning indictment that Government failure to assess the impact on consumers of investment in infrastructure might lead to consumers facing financial hardship and unplanned taxpayer support being required. That damning report shows that Whitehall Departments are forgetting the needs of consumers, and therefore the cumulative impact of household bills. I know that some in the Government want to cast the Public Accounts Committee as the dark side, but I fear that consumers will feel the Sith inhabit the Treasury, not Committee Room 16. Why does the Secretary of State therefore not use the Bill to address that gap and to help such hard-pressed households, as well as to show that he gets the need to tackle the rip-off charges and broken markets in goods and services that they face?
Does the hon. Lady agree that companies selling products often overlook the rights of consumers on islands and in some rural areas, saying that they will not deliver to them, and often overlook the best distribution network, which is the Royal Mail? Does she agree that the Bill should ensure that consumers who do not live on the mainland are given access to the market that is equal to the access for those who do?
The hon. Gentleman makes some strong points about exactly the kind of contracts that consumers get into and the kind of service standards they should expect. That the Bill will simply consolidate existing rights, rather than address some of the challenges, shows that it could go much further on such issues.
It would not take much to make a real difference to households across this country. The Money Advice Service research shows that if consumers saved just £3 a day, it would be enough to cover their average unexpected bills in a year. That may not sound like much, but for millions of British consumers who have already used up their savings or are getting into debt in dealing with the cost of living crisis created by this Government, it is a stretch. For millions of people, reducing their outgoings would also make a real difference to their financial precariousness. The Centre for Social Justice has estimated that about 4 million British families do not have enough savings to cover their rent or mortgage for more than a month, and that more than 5,000 households became homeless in the past year alone because of arrears.
I hope that the Secretary of State will at least do better than his Cabinet colleague, the Prime Minister, who denies that living standards are falling as the public pay for the cost of this Government’s policies. The Prime Minister claims that it is a matter for statisticians to argue, but I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that it is a matter on which politicians should help out. It is not our role to make decisions for consumers, but it is our role to help to make decision making easier.
We could also help with the cost of living crisis, because it is about not just job creation, but every extortionate charge to which the Government turn a blind eye or every broken market they ignore, and that all adds to the struggles that people face. Every unfair service contract term and every bad decision that consumers are duped into making is more money down the drain.
I hate to interrupt the hon. Lady in full powerful flow, but I want to ask her whether there is anything about the Bill that she likes, or does the whole direction of travel and everything that we are doing on the cost of living crisis, which she has mentioned about five times, mean that it is just a poor Bill?
I can safely say that I will please the hon. Gentleman by talking about the cost of living crisis an awful lot more. I said at the very start that we welcome the Bill. Our concern is that this is a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to get consumer rights legislation right. There are so many challenges that the Bill does not face that it will become a missed opportunity, to the detriment of all consumers and all our constituents, who are paying the price for our failure to tackle these issues. It will have minimal impact on the problems that we are seeing every day in our constituencies. The fact that nothing in the Bill is of particular concern tells us everything we need to know about its narrow ambitions in addressing the problems that our constituents face.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is at least something that the coalition has brought the Bill forward? Many consumer groups and people who are involved in this area are very supportive of the Bill. That has to be a good thing. Perhaps it is a shame that the Labour party did not bring forward such legislation six, seven, eight, nine, 10 or even 15 years ago.
The hon. Gentleman is again being a little uncharitable. I pointed out that consumer rights legislation in this country has had an elephantine gestation. If his argument is that something is better than nothing, when we could be aiming for the best for this country, I think that people will see the difference between the choices of the Government and the Opposition.
I want to set out our ambition today. If the hon. Gentleman is on the Committee, I encourage him to support it. We want to get the best possible consumer rights framework in this country and to truly tackle the detriment that people in our communities are facing. We want to prevent problems in the first place, rather than waiting for people to be ripped off. That is the ethos that we want to see in the Bill. We know that when we do not get consumer rights right in this country, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who pay the biggest price.
Consumer Futures and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have found that lower income families can end up paying £19 more a week on average because they face higher charges for the same products. Their research shows that such poverty premiums can add up to 10p for every £1 that is spent by households. Poorer households in this country are subsidising richer households as a result of the levels of detriment that they face.
I will set out for the Secretary of State four questions that we believe could make the Bill better and that will be the focus of our efforts in Committee.
Often, the poorest families shop away from the main street. Something that has long concerned me is that furniture dealers in white vans are selling products that are lethal because they do not meet British fire-retardant foam standards. If a fire starts, it can literally kill a family before they get out of the room. How can we tackle that problem and ensure that poor families are protected by consumer protection legislation, not just those who can afford to shop on the main street?
My hon. Friend is spot on and shows why the Bill falls short. That issue in the furniture industry reveals the problems that we have with the ombudsman system. I will come on to that matter and talk about her work on it.
The first question that we want to ask relates to the role of competition and challenge within markets to produce choice and value for money, which is something that the Secretary of State spoke about. We agree that competition is a key driver of quality, innovation and personalisation in products, goods and services. However, in many markets in Britain, people are paying over the odds for essential goods and services because the barriers to entry into those markets have created dominance for a small number of providers or because there is outdated regulation. The existence of many companies does not always mean that there will be competition either. The ability of small firms to compete with larger providers is a key element of a free and functioning market.
If the Secretary of State wants examples of where those problems lie, there are many. My right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend Tom Greatrex have been clear about the broken nature of our energy markets. Six companies dominate the retail market in the UK, supplying to 98% of the domestic market and 82% of the smaller business market. The fact that no new entrant has managed to challenge that dominance suggests that there are significant barriers to newcomers that inhibit competition. That is reflected in the prices that consumers pay. A lack of competition in the retail market for energy has resulted in consumers paying £3.6 million more than they need to every year. Switching levels in that market are the lowest that they have been for years. The low levels of switching mean that the big energy companies have a captured market, which again reduces the incentives to keep prices competitive.
It is not only in the energy market—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would be delighted to take an intervention from the hon. Lady at any point if she would care to make one. I am sure that whatever she is chuntering from a sedentary position is absolutely fascinating.
It is not only in the energy market that we see such problems. My hon. Friend Gregg McClymont and Heather Wheeler have highlighted similar problems for consumers in the pensions market. The current restrictions on the operations of the National Employment Savings Trust mean that it is impossible for it to compete with other providers, to the detriment of consumers. It is a market where hidden charges and fees create problems for people. There are penalty charges for people who want to change jobs and exit charges for savers who switch schemes. Which? found cases of consumers having up to 50% of their savings being absorbed by such charges and costs.
If the Secretary of State does not believe me on the energy and pensions markets, let us look at my passion, the payday lending market, in which a lack of competition is clearly causing problems for consumers. Not every consumer in that market gets into financial difficulty, but enough of them do because the way in which it operates causes huge detriment to the consumer and huge problems for our economy. The National Audit Office estimates that unscrupulous behaviour by firms in that market costs consumers at least £450 million a year. The lack of competition to provide services to the customers of those companies, as well as a barrier to accessing alternative services being created by borrowing from them in the first place, enables the exploitation of their customers.
If the Secretary of State is not interested in the impact of high-cost credit, perhaps he will look at the banking market. My hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson and Andrea Leadsom have again highlighted the raw deal that consumers get. The pricing power of big banks means that they dominate the market in key products such as mortgages. Banks are able to retain their dominance by making it hard for customers to move their custom. Some 1.3 million people have switched their current account in the past year, which is a churn rate of just 2% to 3%. Studies show that a truly competitive industry would have a switching rate nearer to 10%. It is not only in the dominance in the current account market that we see problems. When banks are able to set their own terms, they can set requirements such as those for buy-to-let mortgages that force borrowers to offer only short-term tenancies, which are causing problems in the housing market.
Given the Secretary of State’s speech last night and his commitment to competition, I would have thought that a healthy dose of competition across the sectors I have mentioned for the benefit of consumers is what the doctor would have ordered. However, we do not see that in the Bill.
The second question that I want to pose for the Bill is about the importance of information flows, which is linked to free markets. What are the Government doing in the Bill to address the information gaps and asymmetries that enable consumer detriment? We know that data are vital to ensuring that consumers may compare goods and services in order to make their own choices. We know that a lack of information helps providers to hide behind confusion and a lack of transparency. The Government’s own research shows that if consumers knew more about products, they would be able to gain £150 million to £240 million a year. However, only 13% of those who use price comparison sites get the lowest priced deal. The Government admit that one reason for that is that people do not have accurate information about their past usage and therefore find it difficult to predict future usage.
We are at the bottom of the European league for consumers being able to switch and shop around to get the deals that they want. The contrast with countries such as Australia is clear. Mass movement switching campaigns have led to one in four Australian citizens being part of schemes that get them better deals not just on energy, but on health insurance and financial services.
Consumers have legal rights to request access to personal data, but half the respondents to Which? were not even aware of that right and very few people have exercised it. I am sure that the Secretary of State will point to the midata project, which is a voluntary scheme to give consumers access to their energy, mobile and financial services data. However, that scheme has struggled to have any impact for a simple and obvious reason: companies have little incentive to release commercial data that could convince a customer to go elsewhere. We welcome the fact that the Government took an order-making power through the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to compel certain businesses to release such data, but that affects only four core sectors and has not yet been applied. It could be applied more widely if secondary legislation was used. That is another missed opportunity in the Bill. Let us revise the Bill to unlock the capacity of informationLet us revise the Bill to unlock the capacity of information to improve outcomes for all consumers and citizens.
That capacity would help in many sectors. My right hon. Friend Mr Denham has run a tireless campaign, for example, on the lack of clarity in supermarket pricing. We have seen how some deals and special offers mislead shoppers when clear information is not provided. There are products that are more expensive than the original price when they are in a multi-buy offer; products that have been at a sale price for longer than the original price; and products whose prices are increased immediately before they go on offer, to make the discount appear more significant.
Supermarkets, like many other industries, hold a wealth of data about us as consumers that they use to design their pricing strategies. Making those data easily available—in principle, they are already public data—could transform consumers’ power to shop around and to know a good “buy one, get one free” deal from a dud one, unlike some coalition voters, I suspect.
Or the Secretary of State could learn from my hon. Friend Bill Esterson and Mike Crockart and use the Bill to help consumers protect their data and to deal with nuisance calls, which I know many Members are frustrated by. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jenny Willott, who is in her place, has campaigned on that issue. We know that 71% of landline customers say that they have received a live marketing call and 63% a recorded marketing message. The Information Commissioner receives 2,500 complaints a month from people sent unsolicited text messages, usually for debt or payment protection insurance claims. With 75% of landlines being registered with the Telephone Preference Service, the number of complaints shows that something is going seriously wrong. Again, the Bill will do nothing to help consumers protect their own data, which will be to their detriment.
We know that it is not enough just to have data, because they are not a disinfectant if the curtains are closed to the sunlight. Helping people make the right decisions the first time is key to outcomes, yet many people, especially those with complex needs or a lack of confidence, struggle to get the information and advice that they require to make effective decisions. In turn, that generates cost to the public purse, including the costs of putting it right. I know that George Freeman, who is in his place, feels strongly about that subject.
We know that when good advice is provided, services are improved. Indeed, one study in Nottingham showed that 40% of the cases dealt with by a local advice service referred to poor decision making in the public sector—what was called “preventable failure in the system”. A project that piloted advice services working with the council showed that 60% of those issues were preventable. When we see such studies and the impact of good advice and good access to data, the question is why the Government are not truly empowering consumers and citizens to bring them the benefits of the right changes. Why does the Bill not offer any action on that?
Where the Bill does offer input is on contract terms. It sets minimum standards that supplied goods must meet, sets out that they should be fit for purpose and satisfactory, and provides a legal right to reject faulty goods within 30 days of receiving them. Again, however, consumers will ask whether that will deal with the real problems with terms and conditions that they face time and time again. That must be our third challenge for the Bill.
A lack of clarity about prices causes many of us to purchase products that are not suitable. It is about the most basic of consumer needs—to know the cost of the product that we are purchasing and what our money will buy us. Prominent pricing is not the same as transparent pricing. Hidden charges are a problem for too many in our society. One study found that buying insurance through a broker could push up premiums by £500 a year, and that the gulf was caused largely by the added expense of the broker’s fees.
Many consumers experience the frustration of signing up for services or goods and then finding that the terms and conditions are varied because the prices are not clear. A constituent wrote to me this week about a website called Tax Return Gateway, a copycat of a Government website that looks suspiciously like the real deal. My constituent was charged £500 for filling in her tax return, and only after she had paid it was she told that that was the fee for the service, not the tax return itself. Such sites exist for a whole range of public services, including passport applications, visa programmes and driving licences. It seems a simple principle that people should be told the price before they purchase something, but again, the Bill will do nothing to provide for that.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. There are scam versions of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency sites, and many people do not understand what they are purchasing, far less the costs of it. They do not realise that they are only getting a form to apply for a road tax disc or whatever.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and if the Bill met the test of providing the best consumer rights framework that this country can have, such scams would be addressed. Again, we find the Bill wanting on that point, and we will look to address such challenges in Committee.
Does the hon. Lady agree that Members should encourage their constituents simply to use the Government’s own website at gov.uk, and not to google other alternatives that can lead to scam sites?
The hon. Gentleman’s question reveals one challenge that we face. I would love to sit at a computer with him, google those websites and see whether he could tell the difference. Making that difficult is one thing that the companies in question do. It is fair to ask how we can empower consumers, but it is also fair to ask what we can do to ensure that someone knows precisely what they are buying. That does not need to be an unreasonable requirement on terms and conditions, but the Bill does not address that challenge.
The Bill also fails to address the problem of people paying for services that they cannot get the details of. I beg the House’s indulgence to mention a second case in my constituency. At present, 4,500 leaseholders in Walthamstow have buildings insurance via their leases, on top of which they pay a premium for terrorism cover. According to the freehold manager, that is on the basis that the plane bomber lived in my constituency. Indeed, the freehold manager has sent me newspaper coverage to justify that additional charge of £80 a household to leaseholders in my community on top of their buildings insurance. Yet my constituents cannot get the details of the policy that they are paying for, because the insurer claims that its deal is with the freehold manager, not with the leaseholders. It seems that they cannot test in a tribunal whether the charge is fair, and consequently whether they can challenge it.
If the Secretary of State will not listen to my cases as arguments for why pricing and contract information need to be addressed, perhaps he will listen to the many other Members who have raised similar issues about contract terms and who is selling goods. In particular, there is the question of secondary ticketing sales, which my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and forEltham (Clive Efford) and Mike Weatherley have raised repeatedly.
We know that it is vital that there is a marketplace for the reselling of unwanted or unneeded tickets for events, because there is little scope for refunds or returns in that sector. However, there is also widespread abuse in the sector, because online touts can buy up tickets en masse to resell once an event has sold out. Indeed, Ticketmaster USA has estimated that for some high-profile events, up to 60% of available tickets can be taken in that way. Consumers who are unable to buy tickets on the first release must then pay over the odds to buy them from sites such as eBay or viagogo.
The secondary ticket market in this country thrives on a lack of clarity about who is selling a ticket and what right they have to do so, and it is estimated to be worth £1 billion a year. That is why I am surprised that the Secretary of State, as the Member for Twickenham, is not seeking to use the Bill to protect rugby fans in the run-up to the forthcoming world cup.
I am listening to the hon. Lady with interest, and one cannot help but agree with her on a large number of issues. I recently had a case in my constituency of people being ripped off on what looked like a DVLA website. However, is there not a danger that if we tried to specify every possibility and detail, the Bill would become far too fine-grained and would ultimately be used much less than if we defined things more generally?
We can have that argument in Committee, but being clear about pricing is not about any one of the individual issues that I have mentioned. It is a fundamental principle that should be in contracts. That would benefit consumers and mean that businesses could be clear that they had sold goods, so that we would not have some of the problems that we see further down the road. One point for us to consider in Committee is whether we can make clear what should be specified in a contract across a range of industries. That is not being specific; it is a general principle. Surely the hon. Gentleman would want his constituents to know what they are buying in advance of buying it.
Again, I cannot disagree with the hon. Lady, and that is indeed what the Bill is intended to do. At the same time, she makes specific criticisms about all sorts of cases without recognising that it would be extremely challenging to produce a general rule that would capture them all in a way that the courts could interpret.
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that we can clarify what should be included in prominent pricing and at what point in the sale that information should be provided. Perhaps that reflects the Government’s small vision for consumer rights, because we could put that basic principle into the Bill and it would help to deal with a range of issues. The Government have chosen not to do that, and we are going to challenge them about it.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points, especially about the secondary ticketing market. Does she agree that there is now demonstrable market failure, which is one of the measures that the Government always said they would need before they would regulate the market? Does she think that the time has now come when we need to legislate to do something about that parasitic economy?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. She has been a tireless campaigner on this issue and seen at first hand the frustration of fans denied the opportunity to go to events. There are ways we can address that market, and principles about how sales are made and who has the opportunity to sell a product. We could put those clear and simple proposals into legislation and they would benefit not just the secondary ticketing market, but also some of the other markets under discussion. The Opposition have committed to testing the Government in Committee about why they feel they cannot provide that protection for people, and I hope George Hollingbery will reflect on that and agree with us. As he said, it is difficult to disagree with these issues, but we now need to act. It is no good wringing our hands when we could prevent some of those problems.
It slightly confuses the matter if the hon. Lady tries to bring secondary ticketing within the scope of the Bill. That is more about how touts get hold of tickets, rather than what people choose to pay should they buy a ticket from a secondary ticketing market. It would confuse the Bill’s good intentions if she tried to drag all that in.
I think the hon. Lady does not quite recognise that a contract involves both a vendor and a purchaser, and the terms of a contract can apply to both. That is the point of the amendments we will table. On secondary ticketing, for example—the Secretary of State should be interested in this as the Member for Twickenham—legislating to make the rugby world cup an event of national significance would require tickets to be resold through recognised ticket vendors at face value, as happened in 2012. It would then be illegal to sell tickets through any other means. Indeed, viagogo already has tickets on sale for that event at huge mark-ups, and tickets do not even go on sale until the autumn. Some 2.3 million tickets will be sold at between £7 and £15 for children, with a top price of £700 for adults. That means that touts will be able to cash in on those prices on top of that, and damage the affordable ticketing policy of the organisers. Surely it cannot be right for us not to include in the Bill a way of ensuring that if someone wants to sell a ticket at a certain price, they can.
Not least because the hon. Lady is looking after my constituency for me. Let me reassure her that I live on the road from Twickenham station to the rugby ground, and I am well aware of ticket touts as they operate outside my front door. There is, of course, a public order offence of ticket touting, and in addition, the hon. Lady might not be aware that there have been extensive discussions between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Ticketmaster—the agent for the world cup—to ensure that those problems are minimised. It is not as if the issue is being overlooked.
I think the fact that the Secretary of State is considering the ticket touts rather than the rugby fans is the challenge. If we get consumer rights legislation right, rugby fans will be put first in such matters. That is why Labour, including my hon. Friend Clive Efford, has offered to co-operate with the Government to get the legislation through and support the negotiations in time to protect rugby fans next year. The fact that the Bill is silent on such issues—I say this as a regular gig-goer in my time off—causes me great pain because it is consumers who suffer.
We see such problems not only in the secondary ticketing market but also with letting agencies because there are no regulations about how charges are levied, and there is a high demand for properties. My hon. Friend Emma Reynolds has highlighted those problems, including charges such as excessive up-front fees, additional letting agency fees, and people losing deposits.
It is kind of the hon. Lady to give way, and laudable that she should try to cover every single possible thing that could possibly go wrong if we ever buy anything. I am not sure how long the Bill is at the moment, but I imagine that if we covered everything that could go wrong—surely that is the only way to be completely fair—we would not be able to get it through the door of the Committee Room.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for illustrating so vividly why the Government believe there must always be winners and losers in every element of policy. The Labour party believes that if we get the framework right, it would cover a range of industries. My point in describing the many different problems with current pricing and contracts is that if we took a different—indeed, stronger—approach to the laws on pricing and contract than that currently in the Bill, we could deal with a range of detrimental problems. Indeed, I would wager that if we get this right, two-thirds of the casework that many of us see would disappear overnight. Surely the merits of such a proposition alone would cause the hon. Gentleman to reflect on whether we can make the Bill stronger, and therefore better. That is the case we are trying to make.
We have already discussed letting agencies, and the way that charges and a lack of clarity over prices are a problem, but contracts do not cause problems only with pricing. The Minister will be as frustrated as I am about the lack of action on poor services, and I know she feels passionately that in her constituency, where residents are not receiving a mobile phone service they should be refunded. Despite raising the issue for months, she must be frustrated because nothing has happened, and I query whether her constituents are also frustrated. Although she is in charge of the Bill, and therefore has an opportunity to clarify when a refund for poor service would be due, the Bill will do little to help that issue. We would all like stronger powers of redress.
On the contrary, the issue has been resolved and a mobile phone signal has been restored to my constituents, a number of whom are receiving compensation. It is perfectly possible to do such things under current legislation, and a lot of the issues the hon. Lady raises fall completely outside the remit of the Bill we are supposed to be discussing.
The Minister raises an interesting question about why, if the Bill will simply consolidate powers that she says are already effective, she does not use the opportunity to go further and deal with matters that she considers to be outside the legislation. She cannot have the argument both ways—either we need new consumer rights in this country, or we do not and she is wasting everybody’s time. Labour Members think there is a case for a new, stronger consumer rights legislative framework, which we are trying to set out, and part of that is about redress. I am delighted to hear that the Minister’s constituents have got redress for their mobile phone coverage, but I hope she will also consider how we can use the Bill for things such as nuisance calls, which she mentioned. This is about how we tackle such problems once and for all.
There is a secondary problem with mobile phones because as well as when a mast breaks down, there is also a lack of sharing and networks across the UK are incomplete. A customer of a certain network can travel to certain places and find no coverage at all. Mobile phone companies could share masts, but the renting and price structure around them militates against that and makes it an expensive thing to do. If something in some Bill somewhere were to tackle that, consumers who use mobile phones would have far better services in the UK than they do at present.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I will come on to whether the voice of the consumer is strong enough with the regulators. That is the sort of issue a regulator could consider, because not all people access services in the same way.
With that in mind—I am conscious of time—I will press on to the final question that we will set for the Bill in Committee, which concerns whether it has a clear enough framework for when things go wrong. We know that absence of enforcement gives an advantage to firms that break the rules, whether in a local community or nationally. Consumers are getting a poor deal and providers are getting away with it because there is little accountability or likelihood of prosecution. Giving consumers a stronger voice in the regulation of goods and services would enable consideration of the consequences of the different way that services are managed among different groups in society.
Again, the Bill could have led on that and tackled the problem. The concept of an ombudsman is clear in principle, but confused in practice. There are at least 17 different ombudsman services including the Financial Ombudsman Service, the local government ombudsman, the housing ombudsman, the pensions ombudsman and the legal ombudsman, as well as the parliamentary ombudsman and the health service ombudsman. In addition, there are also 14 recognised complaints handling services, including the Advertising Standards Authority, the commissioner for young people, the Information Commissioner and the schools adjudicator. However, not all ombudsmen and adjudicators are the same. Some exist through European and UK statute, such as the housing ombudsman, but others have been set up by the industries as voluntary bodies.
Let me return to the point raised by my hon. Friend Mrs Moon, who has sadly left the Chamber, about the furniture industry where we see such problems at first hand. The furniture ombudsman was set up as part of the Furniture Industry Research Association and is the only profit-making ombudsman service in this country. Some sectors have one ombudsman, but others have many. Businesses can pick and choose which they sign up to, further complicating matters for consumers. The lack of clarity about what an ombudsman could do and what powers it has is a problem for all consumers, and I say to the Secretary of State that tweeting about the issue or using social media is not the way to address it. My hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue has been diligent in raising the case of Farepak consumers, which seems exactly the point at which a stronger and clearer ombudsman system would come into play.
Order. I heard the hon. Lady say that she wanted to press on. May I point out to her that she has been speaking for more than 40 minutes now? She has been generous in giving way, but I would be grateful if she could conclude her remarks so that other hon. Members can participate in the debate.
I promise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I, too, want to conclude my remarks.
The Bill does not deal with the European directive on alternative dispute resolution, which the Opposition will want to look at in Committee. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has said that that needs to be dealt with. There is also a need for a stronger take on the role of trading standards. The Secretary of State seems to believe that trading standards, which are desperately short of resources, can deal with many of the problems. We know that most consumer detriment happens at local level, and therefore that we need to do more to help people to take action at that level. The Secretary of State has not told the whole truth on cowboy builders. Many builders repeatedly rip people off, and yet there is little provision locally to take them on. The Opposition believe that the Bill has a role in doing something about that.
The Opposition also believe that there is a role for the Bill in dealing with the broader social impact of changes. I would flag up prepayment meters and premium phone lines, in relation to which there is a need for a broader social concern in the role a regulator can play.
Order. When I say that the hon. Lady needs to conclude her speech, I do not mean that she should speak faster through what she has left to say; I mean that she should finish her speech with a few sentences. I would like her to do that now. That is not an opinion, but a request, and I expect her to do it.
It is a request that to which I willingly oblige.
Suffice to say, the Opposition look forward to the debate in Committee. I hope we have set out that there are many more things we can do in the Bill. We believe that we should make the pound in our pocket truly powerful. We hope the Government join us in that ambition.
Perhaps the hon. Lady could explain that to the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to her commitment to the subject. We heard all too little of such commitment during the 13 years of the Labour Government. Her commitment is all the more welcome for that.
I strongly welcome the Bill. It is deregulatory, pro-consumer and pro-business. After saying something about some of the measures in it, I will turn to one or two points it is appropriate to think about on Second Reading, such as the changing pace of technology and how it is changing the landscape, and the way in which the debt crisis and the model of broken public finances we inherited from the previous Government demand that we embrace a more radical model of consumer empowerment and citizenship to drive the recovery all hon. Members want.
The truth is that consumer law is currently not clear enough. It is often out of date, and it is confusing and incomplete. The Bill sets out a simple modern framework of consumer rights. Twelve pieces of legislation currently govern them, and I welcome the fact that there will now be only one.
I welcome the fact that there will be one simple Act to govern what has hitherto been covered by 12. I also welcome that, underpinning the Bill, are core consumer principles. People will have the right to get what they pay for; for goods and digital content to be fit for purpose; and for services to be provided with reasonable care and skill. We will also have the right to have faults in purchases put right free of charge, or to be provided with a refund or replacement. The reforms will enhance measures to protect consumers when appropriate.
I welcome the deregulation to reduce business burdens and costs. I also welcome the modernisation of the legal framework to ensure that consumer law keeps pace with technology. It clarifies the law when it is written in legal jargon and streamlines consumer rights, remedies and enforcement powers.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the modernisation of consumer rights. Does he agree that it is time to change the bill of sale legislation, which was introduced in the 1800s, but which is now used to create log book loans—people give their log books for loans and can have their cars repossessed if they miss so much as one small payment? The legislation obviously does not intend to allow that, and it is time to modernise it.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, some of which is dealt with in the Bill. It will be interesting to see whether it is picked up in Committee.
Consumers spend more than 59 million hours a year dealing with goods and services problems, which costs an estimated £3 billion a year to the British economy. The Bill is deregulatory by nature, which means that consumers and businesses will find it easier to resolve problems with faulty goods and substandard services, and, for the first time, corrupted digital downloads. I noted with great interest that the executive director of Which?, Richard Lloyd, has said that the Bill
“brings consumer law into the 21st century, extending rights into digital content for the first time, and making it easier for people to understand their rights and challenge bad practice.”
The House will agree that that is a welcome step.
I welcome the fact that underpinning the Bill is the principle of fairness and helping customers when things go wrong, as they sometimes do. The measures will provide a firm foundation for empowering consumers, which will benefit businesses that treat consumers fairly.
Many businesses provide their customers with enhanced rights, but the truth is that even the best businesses still spend significant time and resources—more than they should have to spend—understanding the law and training their staff to apply it. The Bill will benefit businesses by reducing many of the burdens they face because of complicated consumer law. I particularly welcome the competition affairs tribunal.
My support for the Bill is genuine, but I wanted to mention one or two aspects of it that reveal, within our society, a view of consumer rights that is, at times, rather too narrow and that does not embrace broadly enough a concept of true consumer and citizen empowerment on the scale we need to drive a sustainable recovery and to reform how we deliver public services and put this country back on its feet. There are three specific areas in which the challenge of unleashing citizen and consumer power are urgent.
First, some markets—banking, utilities and telecoms—are holding back our recovery. Secondly, I am struck that the consumer rights conversation is framed around consumables, point-of-purchase rights and commercial rights in the commercial market. Many of those concepts could and should apply equally in the public sector and public services. Thirdly, it is also important to have active and empowered consumers in supply chains to drive them. That subject may not entertain all hon. Members, but I know that the Secretary of State feels particularly strongly about it.
In the bigger markets—banking, utilities and telecoms —we inherited from the previous Government an extraordinary concentration of power. One or two institutions had a very unhealthy predominance in each of those key markets, which are vital to the proper functioning of a free market economy. What we need as we try to recover from that toxic legacy of debt and dysfunctional markets is an insurgency of empowered consumer citizens to drive a new paradigm of choice, and to demand and insist that that which is available in so many fields of public life is available in banking, utilities and telecoms.
In banking, why is it still so difficult for bank customers to take their accounts to different banks? I would like to see consumer power, and consumer frustration with some banks, driving much more insurgency and the creation of new banks. First Direct appeared nearly 20 years ago, which was a stunning moment for our generation, who had never seen an online bank. We tapped the mouse and wondered whether it could be trusted and whether it would work. It turns out that First Direct was a stunning new entrant that catalysed all sorts of reforms in banking market. Why not have more now? Our banking sector is dominated by too few big banks, which were propped up by a very unhealthy burst of crony of capitalism under the previous Government and shored up in the crisis that that incubated. We need to release customers to drive that insurgency in banking.
I would argue that the same is true with some of the utilities. Following privatisation in the ’80s, we saw those markets consolidate under the previous Government. For 13 years, we did not see or hear very much about that. We have inherited, particularly in energy, a small number of big companies that now pass on substantial global commodity price rises to customers, who have all too little real choice and power to drive across the market. To a lesser extent, the same is true for telecoms and broadband. We still see a very powerful monopoly provider in BT. Of course, other providers are able to operate on the railway tracks, but I do not think that in the telecoms market, given the extraordinary empowering impact of the underlying core technology, we have seen a parallel opening up of consumer power. Going the final mile to get broadband into deep rural areas to drive a rural renaissance, in my constituency and in East Anglia more generally, will require us to support consumers through some sort of voucher mechanism—I welcome the steps the Government are taking on this—to be more empowered to choose satellite, digital or any one of the insurgent broadband providers appearing on the market.
On public services, as important as the measures in the Bill are and as important as this subject is, they are still framed, as is the wider public debate on consumer rights, within the notion of point-of-purchase and consumerist trade descriptions legislation. It is principally concerned with the rights of the consumer at the point at which they buy a consumable. However, the concepts, ideas and rights enshrined in this useful Bill could and should go further. In fact, a number of the reforms that the Government are rightly unlocking in other areas of government will demand that they do. For example, why can patients in the health service, parents in the education system, or even pupils—possibly not young pupils, but sixth-form pupils—not have greater choice, transparency and consumer rights in the public services they receive? I would argue that a sixth former in a failing school who is receiving a bad education has just as many rights as the consumer of faulty electronic goods at a supermarket checkout. We need to extend this principle more broadly across public services.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. On education, many students are not aware of how little time they will have in lectures or interactive courses when they apply for degrees. Expanding transparency to what exactly students are purchasing when they take a course might be helpful.
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an extremely interesting and shrewd observation. The truth at the heart of public services is that the taxpayers provide the money and the Government, as best they can, the service. In that loop, something is lost: a direct connection between the recipient of the public service and the point of payment. Most of the recipients of public services have, of course, already paid for them through their taxes, but the sacred moment of the empowerment of the consumer gets lost in a complex chain of public service delivery. She makes the point that we need to look across our public services at how we can restore that moment. I would like more parents and pupils in schools to feel that the choice they make—choosing which school to send their child to—is a choice that the system respects. I wholly welcome the reforms that the Secretary of State for Education is putting in place to that end.
I want to mention health care, in particular, as we are seeing an extraordinary change in modern health care. I do not think it is too profound or bold to claim that health care is going from something that traditionally, in the 20th century, was done to us by Governments when they decided we needed it, to being something that modern consumer health care citizens do for ourselves. We are seeing across the NHS much greater patient demand for information, transparency and choice. We are seeing click health care and modern patients wanting to be able to access information and be empowered. That is all to the good if we want a new generation of citizens empowered to understand what causes disease—how lifestyle, diet and even genomics affect one’s predisposition to disease. We want to empower consumer citizens to prevent disease. We will not do that without empowering them to make choices and receive information. That is why I have a ten-minute rule Bill on the very subject of releasing patient data to patients within the framework of acknowledging that it is their data—our data. By giving patients back their data, we empower them to use them better for public health care.
My hon. Friend talks about empowering health consumers to gain greater transparency. Does he welcome the improvements in the past several years to the nhs.uk website, which now provides a great deal of very useful information on all manner of health issues to our constituents?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I think this is a subject that we will debate more in the House. I am struck that some in the media are beginning to suggest that it is dangerous to release health care data because it challenges how health care is delivered and will create all sorts of unfortunate misunderstandings. It seems to me that those are prices worth paying to drive the revolution of transparency and accountability that the Government’s reforms are beginning to deliver with such benefit. We have seen in health care in the past two or three years a very difficult, at times, but powerful transparency revolution in which failings in the system have been exposed and those responsible for them held to account on behalf of the patients who ultimately paid for the service and have the right to expect that that service is delivered. That genie is out of the bottle and it is not in anyone’s interest to try to put it back. In fact, quite the opposite: at the heart of modern democracy and a modern economy, the notion of empowered citizens who are able to exercise choice in their supply chain—in public services, every bit as much as in private commerce—is an important idea that, although I appreciate the limits of the Bill, we ought to embrace in the rest of this Parliament and the next.
On supply chains, globalisation and technological change mean that in all sorts of sectors many of the goods, services, products, medicines and foods we buy have global supply chains. That globalisation and the extending of the distance of supply chains removes the consumer in many cases from the point of origin of the goods they are buying. In some areas, consumers do not appear to care very much, but in some, such as food, consumers are passionately interested in the source. We saw that most recently illustrated with the horsemeat scandal. Something interesting is going on: globalisation and technology are extending supply chains, but technology is also requiring, allowing and encouraging people to take more interest in the source of the products they buy. That creates a huge challenge. Many of the goods we buy digitally come from global websites that could be pulled down at the flick of a switch, destroying transparency. I welcome the measures to introduce transparency and accountability to the digital marketplace.
I note that the Secretary of State has, I am sure briefly, left his place, but I know that he has a strong interest in the role of supply chains in industrial policy. The turnaround in the British automotive sector has come about principally through important strategic work on how the UK’s strength in components, down at the bottom of the supply chain, can be better integrated through a policy for skills with the manufacturers at the top.
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the many examples in the west midlands of reshoring, including in the automotive sector, where businesses are coming back to the UK for processes that they took away from the UK over the past 10 or 20 years?
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. In fact, no industry is more symptomatic of the post-war British economy, culminating in the crisis of productivity in ’79 and the collapse of that model of growth under, it gives me no pleasure to say, a Labour Government, than the British automotive sector and its restoration over recent years—longer than just the past two or three years, I would grant; over the past 10 years—so that Britain is now a net exporter of vehicles. That has been brought about through a combination of enlightened supply chain work, fostering and supporting the UK’s extraordinarily strong world-class components sector with the bigger manufacturers at the top.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about supply chains, but does he not agree that those who operate supply chains have a duty and responsibility to monitor them at regular intervals to ensure that they live up to the quality and standard of the product at the end of the chain that they will be delivering?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts precisely the point I was about to make about balance in supply chains. The manufacturer at the end of the supply chain has a duty to understand, monitor, measure and take responsibility for the supply chain, but we also need to provide for consumers to exercise their rights and understand the supply chain.
I want to talk about the two areas I have most experience of: the Government’s industrial strategies for life sciences and agricultural technologies. The central thrust of the agri-tech and food strategy, which we launched last summer, is that corporate interests in reducing costs and dependence on agrochemicals, energy and labour are now very much aligned with consumer interests and demand for increasingly green food with low-carbon, low-plastics and low-water footprints. The challenge in global agriculture is how to measure those inputs and communicate to consumers clearly and simply at the point of purchase that the thing they are buying comes with a low-carbon and low-water footprint. A proper system for measuring that will also make Britain a leader in the technologies required to hit those targets. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Laura Sandys, who has done a lot of work on resilience in supply chains and the importance of this agenda. I suspect we will get the benefit of her comments in a moment.
That agenda applies equally in the field of medicine. The challenge of discovering drugs for modern patient groups has seen the industry reinvent itself and move away from spending 15 years and $1 billion on developing a blockbuster drug that it can present to Governments as working for everybody. The more we know about disease, genomics and different patient groups, the more we know that different people get the same disease in different ways, and the challenge is to help the industry develop drugs around the patients who we know will benefit. Then we can give the right drugs to the right people, instead of wasting drugs and having to set dosages at levels that make drugs ineffective in those for whom they work well in order to prevent side effects in those for whom they do not.
That agenda is driving a completely different way of discovering drugs—one where the NHS works with patients—and creating extraordinary opportunities for the UK to lead the world in providing targeted and ultimately personalised medicine, but it requires a different way of thinking about patient rights. We need to think of patients as having the right to be involved in NHS research; to access the best medicines available; and to access and use data, both personalised and anonymised, to support research. I understand that the Bill does not address that area of consumer rights, but the House will have to return to it in the coming years.
On supply chains and consumer rights, my hon. Friend might be aware that the all-party group on Bangladesh visited that country last September to look into the Rana Plaza collapse. One thing that came out of our report was the suggestion that consumers should be able to identify whether garments have been produced ethically through a supply chain that does not use people who work in bonded workshops or sweatshops or who are badly treated and not paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work. That is the driving force. I know the Minister is considering a kitemark for garments so that people can be reassured.
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. If we are to seize the benefits of globalisation and embrace our potential to play a role in those emerging markets, we could help set in place a framework in which citizens of the globe can buy products from the global supply chain confident that they are not supporting sweatshops or irresponsible capitalism. That is a deeply inspiring and progressive purpose for this country in the next cycle of growth around the world.
Consumer rights are not the sexiest subject in public debate—it is not something one hears discussed in those terms down at The Dog and Duck—but it sits at the heart of a lot of the issues the electorate, citizens and taxpayers in this country are grappling with. I do not want to be overly partisan, but under Labour we had 13 years of what increasingly—and perhaps surprisingly—became an example of crony capitalism, and the nation is now grappling with that inheritance: an overconcentration of wealth, privilege and power, and in key markets, such as banking and elsewhere, a small number of providers. As a consequence of that crisis—the black hole in the public finances, the structural deficit—we will have to unleash the powers of modern consumer citizens to drive enlightened public services and a more entrepreneurial and innovative recovery. Consumer rights—consumers of public services as well as private goods—sit at the heart of that. Consumers must be able to understand and demand the right standards from all those supplying them goods and services—whether at the till in the supermarket, on a global website or in the public services on which we all rely—and to hold them to account.
As Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, which spent four sessions examining and discussing the Bill, I understand the point made by my hon. Friend John Woodcock, although I do not totally agree with it. It is not often that an intervention gets such currency throughout a debate. While some of the issues in the Bill are extremely arcane and legally complex, the consequences of not getting them right could be devastating for individual consumers, as well as detrimental to the economy and to the culture of informed consumerism that we want to underpin and drive better standards of business provision in this country.
Several hon. Members have unfairly criticised my hon. Friend Stella Creasy for the range of issues with which she dealt, but of course not only do consumer rights encompass a huge range of issues, but how goods and services are delivered changes all the time. The growth of online retailing and the digital revolution have thrown up new products and purchasing and marketing processes, all of which, to the unscrupulous, offer new opportunities to rip off the consumer. I agree with hon. Members who have said it is impossible to devise consumer rights legislation that deals with every possible eventuality, but we can consider certain basic elements of legislation that will at least inform consumers and make them less susceptible to being ripped off in what is a rapidly changing and sometimes pretty vicious business world.
The Secretary of State himself said that the Bill was only part of the picture. The much bigger picture includes competition and transparency, and the idea that we can solve all consumer rights problems with one piece of legislation is fanciful. It must be accompanied by a range of policies across Government designed to improve competition and transparency, so that those who wish to exercise their consumer rights have the right information basis on which to do so. I would single out three elements as being essential for everyone: first, clarity of pricing; secondly, clarity of contracts; and thirdly, and in some respects most important of all, clarity in the mechanism by which someone can obtain redress if they are not satisfied with either the quality or pricing of a particular good or service. The Bill tries to address some of those, but could be improved in certain areas.
The Committee heard evidence from business and consumer rights groups, and both Government and local government organisations, and received 43 pieces of written evidence. In its report, the Committee welcomed the aims of the reforms but also raised a range of issues that it felt merited further examination and it made stronger recommendations on those. A rough count of the Government’s responses would indicate that they have accepted about 70%, which is a decent hit rate for pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise the Government’s willingness to listen to the Committee’s arguments and to take them on board.
I will not pick out those that the Government rejected and re-argue the arguments from the Committee, as I am sure that they will form part of the debate that will take place in the Public Bill Committee. Having said that, I will single out some issues where I feel the Government have not delivered and which merit further debate in Committee. The first is the sale of goods. The Bill retains the provision for “deduction for use” which, in effect, is a discounting of the refund for something that is faulty that may be made if the consumer exercises his or her final right to reject. The Committee—based to a certain extent on the Law Commission’s recommendation—said that that should be removed. The Government’s arguments for not doing so, which they will no doubt rehearse during the Bill’s progress, is that that would lead to complications in terms of the time scale involved, the level of use and so on. They asked whether it would be fair to give anybody a total refund or replacement for something that they had had, and had used, for a while.
We proposed a fallback position, which happily the Government accepted: if the Government retained the deduction for use provision, they should have a formula that was fairer than the ones that were debated beforehand. I will not go into the technical elements of that but basically the provision should reflect the cost to the consumer for the loss of use rather than the market condition or the cost to the business providing that product.
On digital content, we felt that the remedies for tangible content—for example, CDs—and intangible content, such as a download, were inconsistent. There are again some complex legal issues surrounding that but we felt that the Government had taken the safest position and perhaps should try to equalise the rights of redress so that anybody could get a refund for downloaded content as well. I recognise that the Government have gone some way towards that but the issue is complicated and needs further examination.
On services, it is fair to say that that was a subject of considerable debate and disagreement among witnesses in the evidence that the Government and the Committee have had. Where there is the provision of a service—the Minister mentioned cowboy builders—it is true that the Bill contains the opportunity for redress. But the Government have retained the legal liability standard of where a service is provided with reasonable care and skill, rather than the one that the Committee preferred, which was basically an outcomes-based model; if the service were not provided, full stop, the person who paid for the service should be entitled to a refund.
To encapsulate the different perspectives on that, there was an argument that one could have a very competent and expert French teacher who took somebody on a course for which that person paid but, at the end, the person—for various personal reasons—was no better at speaking French. Would that person have a right of redress notwithstanding the quality of the teaching received? I agree that there are issues there. However, I would have thought it possible to build into the legislation some conditions that recognise that one could measure reasonable care and skill rather than the outcome.
The Government looked at the other perspective in their reply to the consultation, using the example of an electrician who rewired a house very competently but, for one reason or another, could not wire it up to the mains. The Government said that because that electrician had exercised reasonable care and competence in rewiring the house, the person who paid for the service should not get the full compensation. In effect, the electrician would be entitled to discount the compensation because he had done at least part of the job correctly. That was the Government’s example but I could not help but feel that if an electrician did not start off on the basis that he could connect a house to the mains, that would be a fundamental flaw in their competence. We would reasonably expect a person, whatever the electrician’s skill, who could not access electricity in their house to be entitled to a full refund.
I mention those examples to demonstrate the different perspectives and complexities involved, but the Committee would have preferred a harder line to be taken, not least from the point of view of the consumer, because it is much more difficult to prove that a person has not exercised reasonable care and skill—and much more difficult for a consumer to take that through a legal process—than if there is a simple outcomes-based standard based on the failure of someone providing a service to deliver that service.
On unfair contract terms, the Bill does not add a term to the grey list, with which MPs may not be familiar; it is the indicative list of contract terms that may be regarded as unfair. The Bill does not add a term concerning a change by the trader where the consumer is not free to dissolve the contract without being disadvantaged. Again, that is an arcane point but here is an example to give it some depth. In at least one quoted example, a bank changed its interest rate halfway through a mortgage period and a person paying that interest was highly disadvantaged. There was an option in the contract to get out but there was no alternative provider. It was felt that, where a person was locked into a contract—even by default—they could be severely disadvantaged by a change in the terms of the contract. If that change were for no reason other than the desire of the company to get extra profit, that should be put in the grey list of unfair contract terms. I hope that the Government will look at that further in Committee.
Earlier I outlined three elements where it was essential that the Bill should demonstrate that it empowered consumers; pricing, contracts and redress. Members may not have seen the excellent briefing from Citizens Advice, whose recommendation of a legislative requirement for a trader to promote that statutory right to the purchaser at the point of sale was supported by the Select Committee. It should be possible for a receipt to contain information about how and where the purchaser of a good or service can obtain redress if for any reason that good or service is not up to scratch. The Government have made sympathetic noises, but they have yet to agree to implement that recommendation.
Surely the first stage in the creation of an informed consumer society involves enabling consumers to know exactly where they need to go and what they need to do in order to obtain redress if what they have purchased is not what it ought to be. We are living in a highly complex world, in which goods and services are delivered in all sorts of ways. I believe that that one simple change would do an enormous amount to create that society of informed consumers, which could then drive our economy, and hence drive the business practices of those who provide goods and services.
I could go into much more detail, but I think that I have exercised the patience of Members to a sufficient degree. I hope that the Select Committee’s arguments and recommendations will be examined again in the Public Bill Committee, perhaps in a more politically robust way. Overall, however, although I do not think that this is the most ambitious of Bills—it is essentially a consolidating Bill, and it has a long way to go before it can realise the visionary objective of transforming consumers’ awareness—I think that it is a step in the right direction, and that if the Government accepted the Select Committee’s other recommendations, they would take a few more steps in the right direction.
I support the Bill because the principles that guided it are exactly what the country needs in order to get back on its feet after 13 years of what could be described as misappropriation of the public purse by the Labour Government.
I am utterly astounded that the hon. Gentleman should believe that this is the legislation that will put the country back on its feet. The Bill is a consolidating measure. Surely we need something a bit more dramatic.
Perhaps the hon. Lady misunderstands the Bill. It is at the heart of empowering consumers—empowering citizens, indeed—by providing them with information and freely operating markets so that they can make the choices that will lift the whole economy. If the hon. Lady will allow me to continue, I shall explain precisely why the Bill should be welcomed by Members in all parts of the House.
As I have said, the Bill will empower consumers and enable them to make choices. It will also simplify regulations—particularly those governing small and medium-sized businesses, which are the life blood of the economy—and help small businesses and consumers to tackle manipulative, anti-competitive and monopolistic practices by creating a form of speedy redress. Above all, it will help us to continue the process of facilitating the fierce competition between businesses that will not only improve public and consumer services, but help to lift the economy further in the future.
This is a Bill that takes competition seriously, and raises the game for everyone. It empowers people, and it backs British businesses. I listened carefully to what was said by Stella Creasy, and I accept that some small changes may be required in Committee, but, on balance, I think that the Bill and the principles behind it will be good for the United Kingdom’s economy.
Competitive markets are a successful country’s bread and butter. They are what we need in order to lift all the boats, not just the yachts. I fear that unless companies compete fiercely to sell goods and services, the future of the nation will not be particularly successful. Competition raises standards and pushes down prices: every person who has been in business knows that, as does every person who has ever bought a product or service, including those who have done so online.
We know that if we can choose where to buy a product, and if the contract terms and the information about what we are purchasing are clear, the means of exchange will be facilitated, and our ability to make a choice will drive down prices. I believe that any business that does not respond to those signals from the market and from consumers, and to the extra signals that will be conveyed by the Bill, will in fact no longer be in business. Principles such as that are at the heart of the Bill, and at the heart of the competition that will enable businesses to create a better country.
The Bill will give the consumer the power to shop elsewhere, and it will also drive innovation. If businesses have clear, fair contracts which their customers understand, they will need to work harder and innovate more quickly to remain in business. That, indeed, is the joy of being in business: competing, innovating, and knowing that the business is not only making profits for its owners and shareholders, but lifting economic growth nationwide, and providing better goods and services for everyone involved.
I also think that the Bill should be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House because, for the first time, consumers’ rights are contained in a single piece of legislation. To that extent, the Bill is a consolidating measure, but I can say with my business hat on that consolidating those rights in one simple piece of legislation will enable business productivity to increase. Instead of spending hours being trained and briefed on legislation that does not actually help anyone, staff will be able to concentrate on providing better services for their customers, and on making a return for the business—as well as a return for the Exchequer in the form of the increasing tax takes that that will generate.
The simplification in the Bill is no small matter. Estimates vary, but it may scrap up to 100—perhaps up to 1,000—pages of existing legislation, and bring measures together in a package that is easier to understand. I hope that it will also close many loopholes created by disparate pieces of legislation, some of it dating back to the 1800s and certainly much of it to the 1970s, which have enabled unscrupulous businesses to escape from the spirit of the law.
Given that many others wish to speak, I shall make only a couple of observations about part 3, which I believe should also be welcomed with open arms. For the first time, consumers and small businesses will be able to challenge anti-competitive practices. We all know, as consumers, that if a company does not quite deliver what it is supposed to deliver in the case of a low-value item bought on the internet or perhaps in a supermarket, it is futile to suggest that we should attempt single-handedly to argue that competition was not working effectively, or that monopolistic practices were involved. The Bill and the competition tribunal will make it a great deal easier for smaller businesses to get together, and consumers to get together, to ensure that their voice is heard, not by means of incredibly expensive court battles with corporate companies that have multi-million-pound budgets for lawyers, but by means of a simple and cost-effective tribunal route.
The principles that guide the Bill are the principles that will guide us further out of recession and further into economic growth. I very much hope that Opposition Members will support those principles. I also hope that any modifications that they seek to make will be proportionate, will have the consumer’s interests at heart, and will not overlook the fact that the purpose of the Bill is to enable fiercely competing businesses to drive down prices, giving citizens and consumers the choices that they need.
Colleagues who remember my speech during the debate on the Queen’s Speech at the start of this Session will know that I see this Consumer Rights Bill as an opportunity to address the serious failings in the secondary ticketing market. I want to explore that opportunity in my speech today. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend Stella Creasy agree with my views on this in her excellent speech, and I am pleased that she is drafting amendments to the Bill accordingly. I know that a growing number of Government Members also agree with me.
Many colleagues will know that I have campaigned on this issue for a long time. I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the subject only last week. I see that one of my sparring partners, Mr Nuttall—who is often on the opposite side to me on this issue—is in the Chamber today. That debate was intended as a curtain-raiser for an inquiry that is being undertaken by the newly-formed all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse, which I am pleased to co-chair with the hon. Member for Hove (Mike
Weatherley). He is also a long-term campaigner on this issue. That inquiry is intended to inform the thinking on amendments to the Bill that could be tabled in order to enhance the rights of consumers in a market that has had precious little scrutiny thus far, despite being worth around £1 billion a year.
I hope that the Government’s timetable for the Bill will allow us to conclude our evidence-gathering in time to present that evidence to Ministers in time for the Report stage, although, for my money, there is plenty already out there that makes the case for intervention, some of which I will skim over in my speech today. If Ministers want a more detailed case, I would be happy to send them the Official Report of the debates on my Private Member’s Bill in 2011 and of last Tuesday’s Westminster Hall debate.
Like all markets, the secondary ticketing market serves a purpose. It meets a need, and that need is for people who have bought tickets for an event they can no longer attend to sell on those tickets, and for people who decide late that they want to go to an event to purchase tickets nearer the time. However, the refusal of successive Governments to get involved in this issue means that the market has moved far beyond simply performing that role, and it is now fundamentally failing consumers.
If anyone needs proof that these secondary ticketing websites are not about legitimate fans selling tickets they cannot use, they need only watch what happens on the day that tickets for a major sporting event, concert, or stage show go on sale. Within minutes—sometimes even seconds—an event or series of events for which there are thousands of tickets completely sells out on the official market, only for thousands of tickets to appear instantaneously on the secondary market at a significant mark-up. Nobody buys a ticket at 9 o’clock in the morning, only to realise at 9.5 am that they cannot go to the event. Those are tickets that are harvested in vast quantities, by fair means or foul—the foul means involve the misuse of computers or back-channel dealing—and then either dumped or drip-fed on to the secondary market for profit by industrial touts.
Just last week, the BBC highlighted the resale of state-subsidised theatre tickets at the Donmar Warehouse and the National Theatre for up to 10 times their face value. Those tickets are rightly subsidised to increase access to the arts, but those arrangements are being exploited by faceless individuals who are pricing out the very people the tickets are supposed to be for. The same happens with art tickets—the Da Vinci exhibition in 2012 and the David Bowie exhibition last year are prime examples. This applies to more commercial enterprises as well. The last big example of that was tickets for the Monty Python reunion being snapped up and resold at eye-watering mark-ups within minutes.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is a fan of the Arctic Monkeys—it is not exactly ballroom dancing music—but that band has done more than most to try to stop touts cashing in on its hard work. Even it cannot stop the practice, however, despite trying to do so and despite doing nothing to encourage it, as some bands and promoters are accused of doing. If the Secretary of State wanted to see the Arctic Monkeys at Finsbury park in May, the minimum he would have to pay for a ticket on the secondary market would be double its face value. On one of the websites, I counted seven pages of listings, with some entries allowing up to 10 tickets per applicant.
This is not about random gig-goers; this is large-scale manipulation of a market, and an exploitation of copyright and intellectual property by individuals who put nothing into the industry that they are capitalising on. It is a parasitic market that is now out of control. In many cases, the practice severely undermines the strategic objectives that are factored into ticket pricing decisions, such as the need for artists or sports to develop long-standing relationships with fans or, as in the case of National Theatre and exhibition tickets, access to the arts.
More importantly for me, this practice is obviously bad for consumers. Many never get a chance to buy a ticket at face value, and if they can bear the cost of going to the secondary market, they do not know who they are buying from or whether the ticket will be genuine or still valid, as event holders have the right to cancel tickets they identify as having been resold. They cannot even be sure whether the ticket was ever available on the primary market at the face value printed on it, as more and more event-holders try to cash in on the secondary market by directly allocating tickets to it, passing themselves off as fans selling to fans so as not to damage their reputation with fans.
The report from Operation Podium, the Metropolitan police unit set up to monitor crime related to the Olympic games, shows that the complete and intentional lack of transparency in the market creates a front for fraud and large-scale money-laundering. The market is therefore attractive to organised criminal networks, which are of course more likely to use illegal means such as botnets to harvest genuine tickets, making it even harder for consumers to buy tickets at face value. The report, “Ticket Crime: Problem Profile”, clearly states:
“The lack of legislation outlawing the unauthorised resale of tickets and the absence of regulation of the primary and secondary ticket market encourages unscrupulous practices, a lack of transparency and fraud.”
Those are not my words but those of the Metropolitan police report.
I hope that the Government will have heard the excellent exposé that Radio 4’s “You and Yours” produced in conjunction with ticketing expert Reg Walker last summer, which uncovered a large-scale fraud being perpetrated through the main secondary websites by their so-called power sellers, whose privileged status allowed them to do that. This was able to happen precisely because of the opaque nature of the market and the way in which those websites operate.
What better way of addressing this kind of problem than through the Consumer Rights Bill? At the very least, the Government need to ensure that there is a right to transparency. After all, there are very few markets in which we think that it is fine not to have at least some basic knowledge about who we are buying from. To ensure that consumers have the information they need to make an informed choice, these websites must ensure three things. First, they must ensure that all ticket listings display the face value, and seat number where appropriate, of the tickets being purchased. That would prove that it was a real ticket that was already in existence.
Secondly, websites selling tickets that they have acquired themselves, or that have been directly allocated to them by an event-holder, must disclose that clearly to buyers, instead of passing the tickets off as being sold by fellow fans. Thirdly, individuals selling tickets via the websites must be able to provide proof that they actually own the ticket. When we buy from eBay or Amazon, we are at least able to see a profile of the individual or company we are buying from. We can see what they have sold in the past, and what other consumers are saying about them. The secondary ticket market could learn a lot from that approach.
Those measures would cover the right to information, but there must also be a right to recourse when the market lets consumers down. As I demonstrated earlier, the way in which the market works at the moment is allowing fraud to be perpetrated under the anonymity that the secondary websites offer to sellers. When someone turns up at a venue and finds that they cannot get in because they have been sold a fraudulent or invalidated ticket—or a ticket that has rightly been cancelled because it has been resold without permission, in contravention of its terms and conditions—it is not just the price of the ticket that that person loses.
The hon. Lady has mentioned the word “fraud” twice now. If a fraud has been committed, does she not agree that a crime will have been committed and is therefore actionable by the police as a crime?
I do agree, but people who report fraud or illegal activities to Action Fraud are finding that the offence is not being taken forward. Perhaps it is because it is seen as a minor fraud or a minor criminal offence. The Metropolitan Police have recommended that we pass legislation to ensure that we take forward such offences as criminal activity. We need to put such a measure in the Bill so that we can follow their recommendations.
A new report by UK Music on music tourism and its value in our economy calls on the Government to tackle the problems of the secondary market. It says that people who travel from one country to another or from one end of the country to another for the sole purpose of going to a gig or seeing a show incur substantial costs, such as those for travel, airfares, accommodation and subsistence. Consumers who are sold fake or invalid tickets should not expect to have just the cost of the ticket refunded promptly. That guarantee, which they actually pay for as part of the service charge that is slapped on the tickets when they buy from these sites, is not always honoured judging by some of the stories that people have sent me over the years. Consumers should also have the right to be able to reclaim all of the associated costs they have incurred where they can be proven with receipts.
Such measures would not prevent the secondary market from functioning, but it would ensure that it is focused on the rights of consumers, rather than on the rights of a handful of industrial touts who want to make unlimited amounts of money off the hard work and investment of others. Personally I would like to go even further, and allow rights holders properly to protect their tickets from being resold without authorisation. I hope that a future Government would look more favourably on such a measure than the current Government do.
It is ludicrous that the Government have ignored the calls of the Rugby Football Union and England Rugby 2015 to ban the unauthorised resale of world cup tickets as they did for the Olympics. I hope that when the world cup comes around, our streets are not littered with those who have, in all innocence, bought counterfeit tickets, because they are being sold all over the place and are available from unofficial outlets, and fans have not been able to tell the difference.
Given that two of the four secondary ticketing platforms are already listing tickets for the final and for numerous other games and were doing so as far back as December, despite the fact they do not go on general sale until October, there is clearly a question about whether every ticket that is listed on those sites actually exists. However, the best should never be the enemy of the good. The measures I propose are very much in keeping with the spirit and intentions of this Bill, and will be widely supported by the live events industry and consumers alike. I hope that Ministers and other Members will look on them favourably—perhaps they can be incorporated into the Bill before its later stages—and take action to put consumers of live ticketed sporting and cultural events first and to tackle once and for all the parasitical ticket touts who prey upon them.
Following the contribution of Mrs Hodgson, I will be watching very carefully when I next buy a ticket to an event.
I am the only Member of Parliament who used to work for the Consumers Association. It is important that the consumer voice is heard in the House. This Bill is an excellent piece of legislation. As my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie said, it is simple, clear and designed to give consumers access to redress and ensure that they are in a position to take control and that they are getting the value and the product or service that is clearly “on the package”. I welcome the legislation and feel that, at last, we are pulling the threads together and ensuring that we have clarity at the heart of our consumer policy.
I was also very taken with what my hon. Friend George Freeman said about broadening the debate and ensuring that we do not just address the issues of consumers at the point of redress and when things have gone wrong. I feel passionately that we must take our agenda even further and place consumers at the heart of markets. Good markets put consumers in the driving seat and that enables consumers to make, shape or break products. Bad markets disguise; they mislead and control consumer choice. This is the first in a number of pieces of legislation. I am sure that, over the following stages, the Government will look at where we can embed consumers at the focal point of our competition and market philosophy.
Markets, regulators and Government Departments must put consumers at the heart of the economy. I welcome the role played by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in that regard, and I hope that it will champion it across other Departments because we need to ensure that they look at the power of the consumer, and not just be captured by the power of the supply chain.
Members have talked about energy prices, ticket touts and telephone and broadband suppliers, but there is also the food sector, which needs to allow consumers to shape the market. I am particularly concerned about “shrinkage”, which is becoming very common. It is something that poorer consumers are finding extremely challenging. Food companies are creating a perception for the consumer that a particular product is the same as another one that they may have seen or bought. Ultimately, what has happened is that the quality ingredients in the product have been reduced. That is happening across a wide range of products and, because no obvious flash is placed across the product, saying, “30% less good ingredients”, consumers are not able to make proper choices. They are not able to recall the weights and measures of the ingredients in every favourite item to try to establish whether its content has been reduced.
Mintec, one of the big analysts of the food sector, says:
“Shrinking products have become a ‘common tool’ used by a range of food sectors, from confectionary and snack foods to soft drinks, to mitigate the volatility of commodity prices.”
It is crucial that the Government bear down on those companies that are not being transparent. I hope that this Bill will be the platform for further pressure on the supply chain to ensure that consumers have absolute clarity and transparency in what they are purchasing.
It is important that we extend and broaden our consumer policy beyond just protecting the vulnerable consumer. We should do more than just protect the consumer at the point of market failure. We must engage the consumer right at the beginning of the design, regulation and governance of our markets. I suggest that we look at some measures that we can take over the next couple of years and into the next Government. They include a very clear focus on consumer policy. I propose that we consider appointing a Minister of State for consumers. That Minister needs to act as an advocate around all Departments to ensure that they are looking at the consumer who needs to be at the heart of their decision making.
I also urge the Government to consider the regulators. They have consumer representatives on their boards, but do they design their markets around consumers? Or are they also, in many ways, looking to, and captured by, the supply dynamic? We must review regulators’ remits to strengthen the consumer voice, not just in terms of redress but in terms of consumer activism and efficiency.
I also welcome the Bill because it creates simplicity of information, which is absolutely fundamental for consumers. Frequently, energy companies, for example, say that they must educate the consumer—for example, that they must do a public awareness course so that consumers understand what kilowatt-hours are. I would turn it around and say that they needed to design their product around consumers rather than expecting consumers to become electrical engineers.
It is incumbent on people who have dominant roles in markets and those who are an important part of our consumers’ lives to deliver the truth. We need to be very clear that we expect a presumption of truth and that redress must become simpler and more public. I propose that companies that have been prosecuted by trading standards should have to put that prosecution on their website for a month. We must ensure that the consumer sees what goes on and sees when they have been taken for a ride. It is crucial that we address the question of the large companies that put their hand in the petty cash box and pay the money to trading standards so that nobody is any the wiser while continuing to pursue certain non-transparent aspects of their business model.
I know that the Government care about putting the consumer at the heart of markets and I am sure that we will consider legislation that does that. It is imperative that we ensure that we start to rebalance the relationship and create greater symmetry between the consumer and the large dominant companies, particularly those in the food and energy sectors. I know that the Government have consumers at the heart of their agenda and I believe that it is our role to remind the market that the consumer must be king.
I want to focus on certain aspects of the Bill that relate to the changing landscape of the types of products we purchase, the sales techniques we encounter, the impulse purchases consumers make, the consequences of those purchases and, last but not least, the consumer’s experience of the unknown data sharing that clearly happens.
A number of Government Members tried to entice us to welcome the Bill. Although I do not welcome it in its entirety, I welcome the spirit behind it. We welcome anything that brings consumer rights up to date, although I do not think that the Bill totally does that, or that protects the consumer, although the Bill does not do that in the way that we would like to protect them. Those on the Front Bench suggested, as I would hope, that they would engage with the devolved Administrations and encourage them to consider consumer rights and to embrace and work on some of the issues that are raised today and will be raised in Committee and during the later stages of the Bill.
It is difficult for consumers. It is difficult for them to know their rights and for some of them to understand those rights, or to know where to seek assistance if they believe that their rights have been breached. That crosses the generations, covering both the elderly and the young. Let me give an example, which is not in the Bill, that I would ask the Government to consider, caused by the changing way we purchase things. We go online to purchase nowadays, so protection is required on downloads as much as on the hardware and the physical products that we buy.
We must embrace the idea that we live in an age of online shopping and we purchase things that we can only download, as they have no hard physical existence. We still need those products to do exactly what we have purchased them to do, however. We are now living in the world of apps and if we download a patch to our phone or tablet, we should not just accept that it did not operate and move on to the next download.
I want to enlighten the House by sharing some of the experiences that my constituents tell me about when they come to my surgeries. They have had, or believe that they have had, their consumer rights infringed.
One example involves unfair business behaviour and sales techniques, such as those used to sell products over the phone. Elderly constituents have come to me who have been caught out time and again by those selling over the phone. The most recent case involved insurance sales. It is not hard to pitch a sale when we have been through a difficult winter, with storms and so on. If someone says, “We can do your house insurance £50, £60 or £100 cheaper,” that would be enticing to an elderly couple, for example, with a low budget.
As we say, if something is too good to be true, it probably is, but those people only find that out when the dream bargain they think that they have acquired over the phone turns into a bit of a nightmare when they have to make a claim. I have heard complaints that such insurance sales companies are difficult to contact and difficult to get back to. After the difficult and stormy weather that we have had, they renege on their commitments for months on end. That means that we have elderly couples in extreme panic about the repairs needed to their roofs. They take on the insurance, but find that they end up phoning the other side of the country and are in a queue, meaning that it can take anything from 20 minutes to get through to someone to talk to. Even after that, the repair does not transpire for months.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that one of the great problems with some of those calls is how the company at the other end of the phone can make it look as though the consumer has to purchase the product, as though they are coming from some pseudo-position of knowledge? That is especially the case with the rightly much-unloved energy companies, some of which urge consumers to take out higher direct debits by making it look as though they have to do so because otherwise there will be serious problems. They even suggest that there will be money at the end and that it will be a nice way of saving. That is completely unethical.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is absolutely right to say that there is a pressure from the other end of that telephone line to make the recipient think that the caller is selling the best possible product imaginable. Time and again, it catches people out.
It is not only a question of the elderly being caught out by sales over the phone and so on. Increasingly, a number of young people are coming in to my surgery. They are not the only people who purchase online, but they are increasingly purchasing certain products online and are bitterly disappointed by their quality. I am speaking about those who might have downloaded things, especially music, from the internet in the months leading up to Christmas, only to find that the music is not quite what it said it was and is not quite of the quality they would have expected from the group or individual they downloaded. For them, it is a case of saying, “That is not what I wanted: the product does not do what I thought it would when it was sold to me.” In some instances, it is not entirely the person they expected when they downloaded their purchase. Other people are filling up tracks just to make up the album.
The problem does not often come to light, because when people purchase something for £2.99 or £3.99 they think that it is not really worth their while to go back and complain. However, when we multiply the problem by the number of young people who make downloads and share that experience, it adds up to quite a bit of money. The Bill should look at the download and software side as much the hard physical side of the problem.
We live in an era in which we share a lot of data—perhaps we do not realise how much data companies have on us, including about our buying habits and other trends. I dare say that if we went into certain supermarkets, they could tell us what we purchased every week, what we changed every week and, more to the point, what we were probably enticed to buy when there were “Buy one, get one free” or “Three for the price of two” offers. It is that sharing of data that leads to another consumer experience: nuisance or persistent calls in which people are told, “We know what you buy, we know what you like, and we know what you might buy.” We live in a different world in which we are told that we should not wait and that we have to buy something now—“Get it now; don’t wait”—which is in stark contrast to the experience of a previous generation, who thought that if they could not afford something, they should not buy it. There are pressures to impulse buy as a result of the sharing of that sort of information. For some people, that leads inevitably to debt. An increasing number of people are getting into debt as the result of such purchases.
Is it not the case that when certain groups of people take those calls they take a backward step? They think that they are talking to the agent or the company, but in fact they are talking to a sub-company. They are left with a belief that they have to do something. It is not a question of whether they should do it—they have to do it.
We should never forget that those sub-companies have targets, and they will do anything to meet them. For example, a young constituent came to see me. He had purchased a mobile phone contract, and wished to give up the phone after the term of his contract had ended. He found that, yes, it was easy to give up the phone, but he noticed on his bank statement that every month a deduction of £5 continued to be made by the company. He wondered what on earth it was about. He had given up the phone, only to find in the small print that he had been sold phone insurance. Because of its targets, the company continued to take insurance money, even though he did not have the phone.
That leads me to the problem of debt and how we help people to get out of debt. I am delighted that in my area we have begun a campaign to highlight the problem called Debtbusters, which has been rolled out across Scotland both to help people who have got into debt as a result of those purchases and to tackle payday lending. One way out is to offer advice on credit unions. The focus on credit unions tends to be the credit side, but we need to change that and focus on savings. It is unbelievable that, after eight weeks, someone can take out three times what they have saved and that leads to increased debt.
In conclusion, Labour believes that this Bill does not do enough to clarify the way in which customers are empowered in both local and national structures to ensure that they know who to turn to for help when things go wrong.
I welcome this important Bill. We have heard much about its impact and the positive benefits that it will bring to consumers, and I will talk about that shortly. When I was even younger and a law student studying the myriad regulations and legislation that made up consumer protection, I remember spending many a sober hour late into the night trying to get my head around a very complex area of law, which was beyond the reach of many lay people who would not have been able to devote the time that I, as a student, could. Occasionally, I suspect, it was also beyond my reach as a law student. Therefore, it is welcome that we see a real and genuine attempt by the Government to consolidate much of that regulation and legislation into a clear and straightforward Bill which will, I hope, become a clear and straightforward Act, and will empower consumers and enable them to enforce the rights to which they are entitled.
As a starting point, this consolidation Bill, which is part of what it is, is welcome. Compared with other consolidation Acts, such as, to recall again my days as a young law student, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—a monster of an Act, which tries to do many things and to bring together many pieces of legislation, and is so complex that it is very hard to decipher—this is clear and straightforward. We know what it says and what it means. We know what it means for our constituents and what it will mean for consumers in this country and for our economy. That is a positive benefit.
It is also worth noting that the Bill updates our consumer law for the 21st century—not my words, but the words of the chief executive of Which?—because it talks about protection for digital downloads and digital content. It is a glaring omission that our consumer regulations have not been able successfully and adequately to keep up with what is now such an important part of our economy. In 2012, more than £1 billion was spent downloading digital content, and more than 16 million people who did that had a problem of one sort or another with what they downloaded. That is not a good situation, but it is even worse when we have a regulatory framework that does not address it and does not directly give people the sorts of rights that they need in order to be protected in an increasingly important part of our economy.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I welcome the fact that competition regulation can be properly done across borders, across Europe, in a way that allows us to continue to trade together and to have a functioning free market within the European Union. I welcome the directive. It is something that we can do ourselves, and are doing ourselves, but that does not mean that I am against it in principle. It is an important point. This is something on which we can unite across the House because it is about getting the right deal for our constituents. This is about protecting people, some of whom—we have heard examples of constituency casework—are vulnerable, are pressured by unscrupulous sellers and need protection in the form of legislation, and others of whom, while they may not be vulnerable, find themselves, through unfortunate circumstances, with goods or services that do not meet the standards that they expect. It is right that we have a clear and straightforward framework that offers them the protection that they should be able to expect to rely on. That is what the Bill does, and that is what the Bill extends to digital content, which is incredibly welcome.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but it is important that, on behalf of law students throughout the country and consumers in our economy, we recognise that the Bill does a good thing. It simplifies and consolidates an important area of law and regulation, and it will make life better for people who buy goods and services and rely on the functioning economy that lies behind the selling and providing of goods and services in this country. I welcome it. I hope it will gather support across the House and that it will be successful and become an Act.
Laura Sandys said that she had previously worked for the Consumers Association. Earlier in my career I worked for the Scottish Consumer Council. It is important to recognise that Governments of all colours have wanted to strengthen in various ways the rights of consumers. The National Consumer Council and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents were set up by the Labour Government of the 1970s, so everyone has aspired to putting the consumer at the heart of things. The problem sometimes is how to make that a reality for those consumers. How can we ensure that people understand how to use the rights that they are given?
People often encounter the greatest difficulty when dealing with smaller retailers, because in larger companies staff are generally better trained and so better able to respond. Indeed, some larger retailers would rather allow the consumer to go away happy, even if that means going beyond the basic statutory minimum. Many smaller retailers, however, either seem unaware of what the law states or deliberately obfuscate when a consumer complains. They say, “You have to go to the manufacturer for that,” even though that has not been the case for many years.
Citizens Advice has suggested amending the Bill—perhaps the Minister will consider this—to make it a requirement that information on consumer rights is provided at the point of sale. It has made some suggestions on how such information could be presented, because it is aware that it could be quite difficult to convey simply. I think that that information, whether it is on a notice in the shop or on the till receipt, would be helpful, as consumers would be clear about what to do if something goes wrong.
Another relatively minor amendment that Citizens Advice proposes is including a time limit for repairs and replacements. I remember what things used to be like, when I had to try to explain to people what was going on with repairs, when they could get a refund and whether accepting a repair put them in a difficult position. The simplification is to be welcomed. However, the question remains whether there should be a limit on the time a company can take to repair and return a product. Citizens Advice suggests a 30-day limit. I would like to know whether the Minister will consider such a change.
Services have always been more difficult to regulate than goods—when we buy an object, it is much clearer what we are buying. The relevant legal wording, which effectively requires one to make a judgment on whether reasonable care and skill has been used in the performance of the service, has always been quite difficult. It is good to have that made explicit, rather than implicit. It is not an implied term; it is to be taken as an expressed term in the provision of services. However, that still leaves open the question of precisely what that means. Could it be measured in some way?
I was interested to hear what the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Bailey, had to say on that and about the Committee’s recommendation. I hope that it can be explored more fully to see whether other measures could be used, at least in relation to some services, to give a clearer and more explicit measure of whether a service has been performed in the way it should have been, rather than having to rely on a debate on what is a reasonable level of skill.
Ultimately, we must also look at how people exercise their rights. Ideally, they should be able to exercise them face to face with the person providing the service or selling the goods. Things should be sufficiently clear that the consumer can go back, exercise their rights and get a good response, but we know that that does not always happen. We must therefore look at the means by which people can get redress.
Citizens Advice also wants the Government to consider the question of collective redress in relation to competition cases—if there is a particular kind of mis-selling or product or service failure—that affect not just individuals, but people in particular localities or up and down the country, and on which a collective response is available, because there is strength in numbers.
Although allowing an individual consumer to have all their rights and choices is clearly important, they are sometimes a small cog in the wheel, and it can be very difficult for them to push a case. Many people simply give up, because it is not worth the effort: if they are rebuffed at first, they will not necessarily pursue their case further, because they do not know how to do so or find the whole process so difficult.
Even for people who contemplate going to court, the process can be quite expensive. Other hon. Members have spoken about the difficulty of getting legal aid to go to court or even for legal advice. A court fee can be a considerable block to people’s ability to exercise their right. For example, in Scotland, an action for a small claim can be made for something worth more than £200, which is not a huge amount in relation to various consumer purchases, but it costs £71, which is quite a lot for someone to risk if they feel that they might not win the case. We therefore have to consider the whole idea of redress.
When I was involved with the Scottish Consumer Council, we did much work on developing proper small claims courts to which people could easily go, be represented and get a lot of help. There is still merit in trying to develop such an approach, rather than people feeling that their case cannot be taken forward. That is where the collective becomes important. For one individual, the cost and effort of pursuing a case will be great. As my hon. Friend Mr McKenzie said, even in relation to what seem very small amounts—less than a fiver—such amounts add up and, collectively, it should be possible to put such cases together.
I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy that no one wants a book of law of huge size, as was suggested by Mike Thornton, but this is an opportunity to legislate on some of the issues that hon. Members raise time and again because of their constituents’ experiences. Various people are campaigning on many of the issues, because they understand the detriment that people are suffering. This seems to be an opportunity to legislate, and it is sometimes important to legislate. Rather than end up with smaller pieces of legislation in future, which would recreate the difficulty that we now have in consumer legislation, we could take the opportunity of having this Bill to consider some of the issues.
My geographical, if not adjacent neighbour or political colleague, Mike Crockart, has pursued the issue of nuisance calls. With other hon. Members, he has made some progress in highlighting that important subject. Nuisance calls are an irritant to those of us who thought that we were on the telephone preference service, but still get calls that we are told are for research or some other spurious reason, or calls where only one in 20 people who have been rung is spoken to when they answer.
That is an irritant for those of us who cope with that sort of thing very or reasonably well, but it can be worse than an irritant for others. My father, who is now in his 90s, has got to the stage where he hardly ever answers the phone, which is not particularly practical. He certainly will not answer the phone if it is an unknown number. As Members will know, if somebody phones from an institution, such as this place, it comes up as an unknown number. He is not only exasperated by such phone calls, but anxious about answering the phone. It is highly harmful that nuisance calls are being made and it is important that we legislate to deal with them.
Has the hon. Lady found, as I have, that this matter is of particular concern to our older constituents because they tend to rely more on landlines than any other age group? Many young people do not have a landline or have one only for broadband services and use their mobile phone for incoming calls. They are therefore not affected in the same way as many older people.
That is correct. I suspect that that may be a reason why older people get so many nuisance calls.
A related concern, particularly for less well-off consumers, is the phone numbers that are used. When I tried to pay my electricity bill by calling from my mobile phone, because that was the most convenient way for me to call, there was a message to say that I would be charged if I called that kind of number. I put the phone down and made a mental note to call from a landline. That probably led to a delay in the bill being paid. However, some people would find it very difficult to call from a landline and so would be charged a premium.
Government Departments are not immune from the problem of premium rate numbers. It is a major issue for many people that the Department for Work and Pensions still uses numbers that cost them a lot of money when they phone in for information, to report changes in circumstances or to change an appointment because they cannot attend. We need to look at that problem. People should not be charged—sometimes they do not even realise that they are being charged—to engage with a private firm that is selling them goods or services, or with a public agency.
I hope that the Bill has room to cover the problem that less well-off consumers and older consumers often pay more for their utilities than the rest of us, which Robert Halfon and I have raised. I think that he was planning to seek a debate on that issue at the Backbench Business Committee this afternoon, because he has approached various Members for support. It is one thing for companies to say that direct debits are so much more convenient and cheaper to process than other forms of payment that they will give direct debit consumers a discount and everybody else will pay a standard charge, but companies have gone beyond that and are making other customers pay an additional charge. Not only energy companies but organisations such as BT are charging people a £6 fee to pay via PayPoint.
The constituent who brought that issue to my attention did so on behalf of her elderly uncle, who was insistent that he wanted to pay in that way. He had always managed his finances in cash and was going to go on doing so. He could no longer use certain methods that he had used before and the only way in which he could pay by cash was to use PayPoint. It is not only people on low incomes who are affected, but such people are more likely to use the cash economy and can be wary of banks.
I was talking recently to one of the housing associations that took part in the pilots set up by the Department for Work and Pensions for the direct payment of housing benefit. The DWP would like people to get bank accounts and pay by direct debit, and that would certainly help housing associations as well, because it would help people to be responsible for their own payments. The problem that the housing association found was that a lot of its tenants were not comfortable with doing that, either because they had had bad experiences of being charged because their direct debit went out at the wrong time of the month or because they knew people who had. They preferred to pay when they wanted to pay, preferably in cash or through some other payment mechanism. They were not keen on banks and direct debits, even if they could get a bank account, which still not everybody can. We must think about the aspects of the system that harm the least well-off consumers as well as competent and able consumers. It would be helpful if room could be found in the Bill for some of those issues.
More and more people are coming to my surgeries and indicating that, because of the type of contract they have—zero-hours contracts, for example—they cannot use direct debits. They pay when they can pay. That is a major issue that is beginning to develop in my area.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We must examine that issue more carefully, because there is an assumption that people will have bank accounts. The Government have stated that they want to make that assumption in relation to universal credit payments, for example. People who are working will be affected as well as those who are not. People are naturally wary of that, because they do not want to be caught up in the payment of high charges. There has been talk of trying to find some form of bank account that would avoid that happening, which would be all the better. I am sure that Members of all parties have had cases come up, whether localised or not, that have made them realise the need for legislative change to protect people. The Bill provides us with an opportunity to make that change. I do not want to rewrite “War and Peace” or create a huge doorstop of a Bill, but we could take this opportunity, perhaps in Committee, to improve the Bill and improve the lives of many of our constituents.
I support the Bill, because it must be right to simplify a complex area of law by reducing eight pieces of legislation to one consumer Bill that is easy to understand. I wish to concentrate particularly on two matters: the help that the Bill contains for digital consumers, who are a fast-growing part of the economy, and the reforms to trading standards, which will support small businesses as they seek to compete with bigger rivals and bring vital competition on price and usually also on service.
Sheila Gilmore stated that customer service is sometimes better in larger organisations, because they have departments purely to deal with customer complaints and customer service issues. In my experience, many nimble small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency offer excellent customer service and are doing a great job of taking on their larger rivals.
At the core of the Bill is the principle that people have a right to get what they pay for. In 2012, UK consumers spent more than £1 billion on downloaded films, music and games. I confess that, as you would expect, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was one of those consumers. Until now, the law has lagged behind in protecting consumers who do not get what they pay for or who receive poor-quality content. Apple’s iTunes service is dominant, and I am sure that its customers nearly always get what they have paid for to the correct standard. However, there are new entrants to the market all the time, seeking to take some of Apple’s market share, that may not provide a proper service or genuine content. Consumers in my constituency deserve protection from shoddy or spurious content providers, and the Bill certainly goes a long way towards protecting their hard-earned money when they make online purchases.
In 2011, a staggering 16 million people experienced at least one problem with their digital content, as my hon. Friend James Wharton mentioned. I imagine that many Members consider themselves digitally savvy, but it is easy to get caught out by an attractive price proposition online. I believe that my constituents deserve protection from rogue businesses supplying poor-quality, corrupted or inferior downloads. More and more people will download content on mobile and smartphone devices, where sometimes the telltale signs of a rogue or spurious site are much harder to spot.
As more “silver surfers” go online, perhaps without the experience of having operated online for some time already, they may be unsure of the difference between http and https, for example, or less able to spot a problem site or the telltale signs of a spurious site, before using it and entering their card details. I believe that the Bill is welcome in helping to correct such problems, and it is a correct use of the House’s time today.
I know my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench are determined to help small and medium-sized businesses by reducing unnecessary red tape and regulation, and the Bill helps to deliver that aim. Enforcers such as trading standards officers will be required to give 48 hours’ notice to businesses when carrying out routine inspections, saving businesses an estimated £4.1 million per year—a welcome saving. Trading standards officers will still be able to carry out unannounced inspections where illegal activity is suspected. Therefore, the new start-up businesses in my constituency, and all the growing SMEs in the black country, can go about serving their customers to the best of their ability and introducing innovative new products and services, without the worry of unexpected, unannounced and unnecessary inspections by trading standards. There is something to fear only when there is something to hide. We need trading standards to work closely and fruitfully with our small businesses, and the proposals in the Bill will help businesses on the smaller end of the scale to get on with serving and innovating.
I welcome the Bill’s Second Reading and the prospect of my constituents having their key consumer rights for goods, services and—for the first time—digital content set out in one place. As my hon. Friend George Freeman said, there is a 59 million man-hour saving to be addressed, as that is the amount of time consumers spend dealing with goods and services problems, at an estimated cost of £3 billion a year. The Bill will go some considerable way to saving many millions of those hours and many hundreds of millions of those hard-earned pounds.
Like Chris Kelly, and others, I have no problem in welcoming any Bill that successfully consolidates quite a number of existing pieces of legislation, and helps to clarify practice as well as better codify the legal basis. However, it is a long way to jump from that consolidation to implying that the Bill will deal with all the consumer issues that we know exist, and the active and pressing matters that hon. Members from across the House regularly express, not only in debates such as this but through other means such as early-day motions.
A number of hon. Members mentioned areas where the Bill could be improved or go further, and indicated that they hope that that will happen in Committee. One point that has been mentioned is the issue highlighted by Citizens Advice in its submission about better information at point of sale. I fully support that, including the points raised by Sheila Gilmore. However, in any future improvement of the standards and requirements for point-of-sale information, the fact and quality of that information should not of itself become a new marketing lure, where businesses imply to customers that they are doing everything in their interests as consumers. Many hon. Members have complained about claims management companies. Claims management companies ring people and tell them they are ringing on behalf of, for example, the Department of Justice. They imply that they have been appointed by the Department to tell people they have a claim simply because they have been licensed as claims management companies. We do not want to assist any firm or supplier, whether online or in-store, in any other mis-selling, but they might use the fact that they are giving point-of-sale information to new consumer legislation standards to do so.
Many hon. Members have heard complaints from their constituents about extended warranties. They have become something of a racket. People find it very hard to buy goods without being spooked into buying extended warranties. The small print that attaches to extended warranties is not matched by small prices. People often find that they have cancelled out any headline discount by buying an extended warranty, but also that, if they need to use it, it does not do the job for them. Many people mistake an extended warranty for an extended guarantee—they believe that it absolutely guarantees against any problem, but do not realise that they are buying a fairly narrow form of insurance, which will be fought and resisted using all means in the small print.
I fully endorse the point made on point-of-sale information, but we need to recognise that point-of-sale abuses take place. The Bill does not give us very much to deal with those problems and does not tell us where consumers stand. We must test the Bill not only on how far it consolidates existing law, but on how far it mitigates the problems consumers encounter.
More needs to happen on a time limit on repairs and refunds. I fully endorse everything other hon. Members have said on that.
On part 3, a point was made on the idea of collective redress. I welcome the important concept in the Bill which suggests that, if action is taken by consumers in relation to a product or service, the eligibility to benefit from it should apply to other consumers—people need not be party to the action to benefit. Of course, it would not apply to anybody who had specifically opted out. That raises an interesting question, which goes back to my intervention on the Secretary of State.
On time limits on repairs and refunds, and on collective redress in respect of known faults that are identified and pursued, there is a glaring omission in the Bill on product recall. Even if faults become known to the product manufacturer and the supplier, they might remain unknown to the consumer. There are problems with product recall, particularly in relation to electrical goods. The Electrical Safety Council runs a recall check and says that only 10% to 20% of the products it tracks are subject to successful recall. We should remember that those products are recalled because of a risk to people and property. Hon. Members have argued about what the Opposition want and what the Government want, but we should remember that we are talking about products that go inside consumers’ houses and represent a real risk. There is something of a dereliction in the law in terms of what is expected or required in product recall. Under existing legislation and under the Bill, consumers will have their rights asserted and addressed only in respect of faults that they know and identify, not in respect of serious and risky faults that are known to others.
The Electrical Safety Council also says that for many of the products on which it is running a recall check there is no traceable manufacturer. Many products are supplied under the names of other brands, so the actual manufacturer is unknown. Recalls are made according to codenames, so even if people have accessed any of that information they will still not be sure whether they have the product. There is such diversity in sales and distribution chains—hon. Members have made significant points about supply chains—that the issue arises of whether the standards we set on product recalls are tight enough. Only this month an article in The Guardian highlighted the risks and dangers of unsafe products and the incidences of fires in homes. We should heed those warnings and listen to bodies such as the Electrical Safety Council, and consider whether there is more we can do in the proposed legislation to address that significant gap.
I raised the effectiveness of electrical product recalls in a written question to the Minister. She replied:
“Liability and responsibility for unsafe products lie with the manufacturer or the importer placing them on the European market. Local authority Trading Standards services in Great Britain and district councils in Northern Ireland are responsible for enforcement. They have powers to order a recall, but rarely use them. The majority of recalls are undertaken by industry on a voluntary basis to address their obligations. Recall actions are expensive and often complex; manufacturers work with the enforcement authority to tailor the action to the product and the specific circumstances.
The electrical products industry monitors the impact of these actions to continually improve their effectiveness. I fully support their efforts and consequently have not undertaken my own assessment of the effectiveness of electrical product recalls. However, my officials are keeping this under review.”—[Hansard, 7 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 190-1W.]
I ask the Minister to listen to what the Electrical Safety Council is telling us. Legislators, Ministers and the Department need to pay attention to this issue and I hope that the Bill will be amended to make good the gap. It seems strange that we are talking about time limits on repairs and refunds when people identify a fault and that we are talking about people being identified and being eligible for rights as a result of a collective action that they may not have been party to themselves. That is right and good, but it is odd that we are not showing care—as consumers and as people who should expect health and safety standards from products that we have brought into our own homes—in relation to product recalls, especially those that have taken place on the basis of an identified danger or risk.
I join many hon. Members who are currently signing early-day motions and doing other things to highlight the injustice of differential charges for paying by direct debit or by other means, and the penalties that appear to be imposed. It is one thing for people to understand that discounts are made available to those opting out of receiving bills by post or by any method that has overheads, but many people believe that many utilities are now charging a standard rate for those on direct debit and a penalty rate for those who pay by other means. This is a concern to all hon. Members, including many who welcome the Bill, but it will not be mitigated by it. I hope that that gap will be taken care of in Committee.
I congratulate the shadow Minister on the points she made, which we fully endorse, underlining the need for tighter consumer protection. This subject involves myriad issues often arising out of constituency concerns.
I am pleased that the Bill is before the House. Like everyone in the Chamber, I am often contacted on the need for tighter legislation and greater rights for consumers and others. Staff in my advice centre regularly refer cases to the Consumer Council, and sometimes they have to contact the council themselves to ensure that it pushes a matter strongly. It does not always do that, so we have to underline what we are asking it to do. Sometimes it tells us that the legislation is not strong enough and it is important to address that.
My hon. Friend mentions constituents and the Consumer Council. Like other hon. Members, I am sure, I often receive complaints about the process and bureaucracy of exchanging goods. I think, in particular, about older folk, who have a paper trail to keep, and who sometimes are not good at it. It would be good if that could be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that matter to the House’s attention. I think that every speaker has underlined that issue, and many have spoken on behalf of elderly constituents who find it difficult to return goods. I have had people in my office complaining about particular retailers, but in true British form, rather than complaining, they say, unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll not be back” to make a complaint. Someone might have lost £100 on a pair of shoes because the heel is too wobbly to walk on, but feel that there is no point in complaining. That underlines the crucial issue that my hon. Friend David Simpson mentioned.
I regularly hear complaints in my office about flights that have been cancelled, about the service and about the fact that prices quoted are often different from the actual prices. These are issues that regularly come to my attention. Many retailers get away with selling substandard merchandise. When somebody brings something back, they simply point to the sign that says, “No sale return”. That is not correct. It does not affect a consumer’s statutory rights. Why does the consumer sometimes have to push so hard to get their rights? Many people are not aware of their rights, and it is my hope that the Bill will clarify consumer rights and make them a little easier to understand and regulate.
Hon. Members have referred to energy suppliers. We have a regulator that controls—or tries to control—prices, but more often than not prices rise faster than inflation.
We feel that the regulator should have more power, so I hope the Bill will give us a regulator that can enforce the issue on energy prices. Every one of us, as elected representatives, will be aware how energy prices affect the households we represent.
I am also concerned about insurance premiums. Ms Ritchie, who is not here, brought this issue to the Chamber a short time ago. I think every Member from Northern Ireland contributed to that debate. It frustrates and angers me, and it certainly angers my constituents, that people advertise insurance premiums on the television that are available anywhere in the UK—Scotland, Wales and England—except, according to the small print, Northern Ireland. I am as British as anyone in Edinburgh, Cardiff or London and I expect to be treated the same, as do my constituents.
The regulatory measure will reduce the effort both consumers and businesses have to make to resolve problems. Consumers will now have the right to get some money back after one failed repair of faulty goods or one faulty replacement, to demand that substandard services are redone or, failing that, to get a price reduction and a repair or replacement of a piece of faulty digital content such as a film or music download, online game or e-book. It is clear that the more we shop online, the more regulation there needs to be in place. After Christmas, the newspapers indicated that there were greater sales online than there have ever been in the past. In my constituency that is an issue as well; the trend is for online shopping.
In my constituency, there is a business called Excel which, to use its own word, is excelling in online sales. It is a prestigious clothes shop in Newtownards that moved into online sales a few years ago. That business has grown and it gives consumer protection. When it sells goods, it has a sale or return policy. That gives the consumer the opportunity to buy a good, which they are doing in increasing numbers. That business has grown greatly. It is now hoping to sell to the Republic of Ireland, another stage of that growing business in my constituency.
There are many sites online that help someone to stand up for their rights but the ordinary person would never think to look those up and would also not think that they were capable of fighting their corner. Many times people do not want to be involved in controversies or to have to complain. The Bill must be easily readable and understandable and I urge the Minister to ensure that anyone of any educational background is able to apply it to their own situation.
Some hon. Members today have spoken about the issue of those who use Google to get an idea of their rights but are then drawn down a road that takes them away from their real consumer rights. That is an issue about which we need to be concerned. We need to stop the exploitation of the vulnerable because most of the people who come to me are vulnerable people who have no knowledge of all the issues involved. I am concerned that those people are sucked into a process that they find difficult to get out of.
Hon. Members have mentioned credit card companies, banks and payday loans, where consumer protection is needed. Many companies now advertise a method to reclaim or redeem unfair charges. That also needs to be monitored because sometimes we wonder what it all means. If someone is phoned and told that they have a chance to claim back money, a financially vulnerable person might respond and disclose details that they should not disclose. We need a consumer rights Bill that protects people from those things.
The Bill proposes a set 30-day time period during which consumers can return faulty goods and get a full refund. At present, consumers can reject goods as faulty within a reasonable period; interpreted by some retailers as 14 days and by others as up to two months. There is diversity among retailers; let us get it correct for everyone so that everyone knows their rights.
In my constituency, a lady left her shoes to be re-heeled. When she came back to the same place to collect them a few days later, as she was told to do, the shoeman had disappeared and the shop was closed for two months. In such cases there should be a method by which the police or local authority has the right to be involved and to enter the shop; it is about consumer protection and consumer rights.
I hope that the Minister will tell us what attention she will pay to all of the issues raised today about the Bill and protecting consumers. All in all, I believe that the Bill seeks to enhance consumer rights. I support it in principle and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am slightly disappointed that my hon. Friend John Woodcock is not still in the Chamber. He said that the debate would be dull, but it has been far from dull. We have heard about the Foreign Secretary’s gym membership habits, about Obi-Wan Kenobi, about the Sith, and about the gestation period for elephants. One Member mentioned Alderaan. We have heard about Monty Python, the Arctic Monkeys, and, at the tail end of the debate, about Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has indeed been an exciting debate.
The experience of consumers is a litmus test for future economic success. When consumers are confident, they can reward good business practice and respond to innovation. When their treatment is shoddy—as it was in recent notable cases such as those involving unsafe breast implants and payment system failures in the long-drawn-out saga of payment protection insurance—goods and services can become stuck in a cycle of weak demand and low trust. The essential element of a successful economy is the ability to ensure that consumers have that confidence, and to support their role as a primary driver in making markets work effectively—as we heard from Chris Kelly—not just for consumers, but for producers. That in turn helps to lay the foundations for UK businesses to succeed in other markets, throughout the European Union and, indeed, throughout the world.
As a number of Members have observed, the Bill represents a welcome step towards the simplification of a complicated matrix of consumer law and the adoption of an up-to-date approach to the changing world of the consumer in these digital times. It is not difficult to demonstrate the ways in which consumers can suffer detriment. For instance, how would the Minister feel if she went into a hardware store to buy a number of handles for her garden forks and left with four candles? Such incidents should be resolved quickly and efficiently for the benefit of the consumer.
I thank my hon. Friends for their laughter. I cued them up for it earlier.
There must be a number of building blocks for effective consumer confidence. First, there must be a fair framework: a framework of behaviour, expectations and rules that seem to work fairly for both consumers and producers, and which encourage innovation. Secondly, there must be effective enforcement. The rules governing any exchange between consumer and producer must be enforced so that persistent malpractice does not take place in the industry or any sectors of it. Thirdly, there must be trusted advice. When people want advice or support that they can trust, it must be easy for them to find it. Fourthly, there must be simple means of redress: when things go wrong, they must be put right without difficulty.
The United Kingdom has a record of good practice in all those respects, and the Bill will improve the position further. However, although it does a good job in relation to, for example, the fair framework, Ministers appear to be ignoring other critical pieces of the jigsaw such as enforcement, advice and funding. Let me give two examples relating to enforcement. First, the changes in consumer protection provision that the Government have introduced since 2010 have been muddled, and have created uncertainty and confusion on the consumer landscape. They abolished Consumer Focus and transferred some of its resources and responsibilities to Citizens Advice, but then they did not really know what to do with Consumer Focus, so they came up with the wonderful idea of rebranding it as Consumer Futures, so that it could do pretty much the same job as it had been doing before.
Secondly—this was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Marsden—the Government slashed local authority funds. That has had a significant impact on trading standards, making it harder for consumers to uphold their rights and seek redress. Aggregate trading standards funding has dropped from £245 million to approximately £142 million since 2010. Hundreds of jobs have been lost in a brain drain that is estimated to amount to 15% of the total work force.
Trading standards are at the forefront of the upholding and enforcement of consumer rights, but, as the Public Accounts Committee commented last year,
“there is a creation of trading standards deserts” owing to funding gaps. The Government now want to remove the ability of trading standards officers to make unannounced inspections. In response to that part of the Bill, the Trading Standards Institute, which has done so much wonderful work in this area, said that it
“would urge the Government to refrain from removing the power of trading standards officers to enter premises unannounced. It is an essential tool for them to use and it is vital that when complaints are made, councils can investigate and tackle the problem immediately.”
Those are just two examples of areas in which the Bill is deficient in relation to the four pillars by which we will measure its effectiveness.
I should like to comment on some of the contributions that have been made to the debate this afternoon, starting with that of the Secretary of State for Business,
Innovation and Skills. We all read his comments last night about the wrong type of growth; today, he was slightly more contrite and demonstrated a more positive attitude towards the Bill. He mentioned the importance of the European Union in relation to competition policy, and talked about the clauses in the Bill that would allow collective actions on competition issues. It would be good, however, if the Government could examine an extension to the policy on collective redress. May I point the Secretary of State to the consumer investigation that the shadow Business team completed last year, which has been published on the team’s website? That could give him some ideas on the kind of collective redress arrangements that we would all like to see, and that many Members have mentioned today.
The Secretary of State was absolutely right to pay tribute to the work of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which has strengthened the Bill and will continue to do so. The contribution from my hon. Friend Mr Bailey highlighted some of the issues that the Government should be looking at, and I also pay tribute to the other members of the Committee for the work that they have done so far to make the Bill better.
The Secretary of State said that the digital landscape was hugely complicated; that is certainly an area of the Bill that needs clarity. Concern has been expressed that it is not flexible enough to deal with much of today’s modern technology. He also talked about measures on cross-border enforcement, which we all welcome. When local authorities take the lead on trading standards, there often seems to be a David and Goliath relationship between them and the big corporations that they have to take on. I said earlier that trading standards enforcement across the country has been decimated; we need to do something to replenish those resources.
George Freeman rightly pointed out that this was a consolidation Bill, but it is none the less the responsibility of the House to make it as good as it can possibly be. The Bill Committee will have a huge responsibility in that regard. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the areas of concern, including banking, utilities and the public sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West, the Chair of the powerful and effective Select Committee, highlighted the significant range of issues in the Bill, and the need to respond to changing markets. He mentioned three essential elements—clarity of pricing, clarity of contracts and clarity of redress mechanisms—and said that the Bill needs to be improved in those areas if it is to be the best that we can make it.
I agree with my hon. Friend that further debate is required on the sale of goods provisions, on the right to reject the refund tapering that can apply depending on how long someone has had a product for. I hope that the Bill Committee will examine those issues. My hon. Friend also said that he was looking forward to the debate in Committee on the digital provisions, to ascertain whether the Government had got them right and whether they were flexible enough for our modern economy. He also gave good examples of how complicated the service provision in the Bill would be. I am sure that the Committee will look closely at that.
Adam Afriyie, who is no longer in his place, was right to say that highly competitive markets were good for the economy. He also mentioned small businesses, yet they are not included in the Bill as consumers. The Federation of Small Businesses has asked for that to be remedied, and I hope that that point will be looked at in Committee. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today whether small businesses will be seen as consumers for the purposes of the Bill.
My hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson is a passionate advocate of tackling the abuses in the secondary ticketing market. She mentioned the Monty Python reunion show in her speech. My father-in-law is a massive Monty Python fan, and I decided to try to get some cheap seats for him for Christmas. The tickets went on sale at 9 o’clock on the Monday morning, yet I was able to purchase them on a secondary ticket site before the official site had opened. That shows that there must be something wrong. Those were not really secondary ticket sales, but there must have been some kind of collusion between the promoter of the event and the secondary ticket market. The Bill could be an opportunity to look at some of those things. Although that is a specific issue around secondary ticketing, the overall concept of consumer detriment from secondary sales is something that we should be looking at quite closely.
Laura Sandys, who is sitting in a slightly different place, wants to broaden the debate, and I welcome that. Indeed, that is what my hon. Friend Stella Creasy tried to do. Although this Bill is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness said, quite dry, technical and difficult in terms of the consumer landscape, it does have to be broadened out. Given that this is an opportunity to look at consumer law and the consumer landscape, it is important that we get it right. If the debate can be broadened out to some of those other markets, that is what we should be doing. I was also struck by the idea of a consumer champion to be put in across Departments in Government to ensure that consumers are at the heart of everything that is being done.
My hon. Friend Mr McKenzie was right to concentrate on the sales mechanisms of some industries and companies and on how the Bill should be used to assist consumers, particularly vulnerable ones. We are finding that constituents are increasingly coming to us with problems of nuisance calls and door-to-door selling, especially as they impact on vulnerable consumers and customers.
I was interested in the short contribution by James Wharton. I agree that the law up to now has been deficient in terms of the digital landscape, and I hope that the Bill will be able to do something about that. Perhaps it is late in coming, but we do, none the less, welcome it. I am also pleased that he managed to speak for six minutes without banging on about Europe, which was fantastic.
The hon. Member for Dudley South talked about the importance of getting the Bill right in the digital sphere, but we have spoken about that already. Mark Durkan endorsed the Citizens Advice briefing note—I think we all do—especially with regard to some of the simple steps that it suggests we put in the Bill to make things just that little bit easier.
Finally, Jim Shannon raised a number of issues, particularly around the insurance industry. He mentioned the fact that some insurance premiums are not available in Northern Ireland in the way that they are across the rest of the mainland UK. It is worth emphasising something that he said at the end of his contribution, which is that we need to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable. That should be the cornerstone of this Bill, and I do not think that anybody in the House would disagree with that.
It is also important to look at the competition in markets to give consumers confidence. Last year, Teresa Perchard from Citizens Advice said:
“Consumers have a long memory. When energy companies say ‘trust me’, to consumers, their experience says that they should expect the opposite. Consumers do not feel powerful in many markets.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow looked at some of those markets that the Government must deal with if they do not want the Consumer Rights Bill to be irrelevant. She mentioned energy, pensions, payday loans and banking. Those are just a few of the industries that may be affected by the Bill.
Finally, let me turn to my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore who brings experience to this debate through the Scottish Consumer Council. She highlighted the sensible approaches in the Citizens Advice briefing, one of which must be about giving information to consumers when they are purchasing goods through stores or online. I have often been met, when reaching the till in a store, with a nice sign that says that my statutory rights are not affected. I know that that is a statutory requirement, but it is completely beyond me what it means. If we turn over till receipts from many organisations, we would find a whole plethora of legislation that a Philadelphia lawyer would find difficult to pick through never mind someone who just wants to return a pair of shoes that are either too large, too small or not to their liking. There is something in that Citizens Advice briefing that I hope the Committee will look at when it takes through this Bill. For example, there might be some simple proposals to ensure that information for consumers is clear.
There is also a substantial body of evidence that shows that businesses are not aware of the rules. Will the Minister address that in her response? What will the Government do to ensure that there is a wide understanding of the new rules among businesses as well as consumers? Yet again, the Business Innovation and Skills Committee deserves a considerable amount of credit for its detailed analysis in that particular area.
Finally, will the Minister seriously consider the research that has been mentioned, commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses, on treating small businesses as consumers? I know that that is incredibly difficult and complex, but they are a huge pillar of the economy and much of the detriment goes not only from businesses to consumers but from businesses to businesses—indeed, the detriment tends to go from large businesses and Government Departments to small businesses. We should consider that in Committee.
Healthy, fair and competitive markets and effective methods for information sharing across providers are vital to building an economy that works for both consumers and businesses. Well-informed consumers make better customers for businesses, improved markets make better businesses for customers, and better informed citizens get better outcomes when redress is required. We will support the Bill on Second Reading but encourage the Government to improve it in Committee to ensure that the opportunity is not lost truly to make a step change to consumer rights in this country.
This has been a wide-ranging debate with many useful and, on occasion, entertaining contributions from Members of all parties. I thank Members for their considered views.
I agree with Mr Bailey that this is an important area of work. When something goes wrong for a consumer, it can be devastating, as he said. The Bill will provide remedies for consumers with a wide range of problems, from a broken toaster to a dodgy kitchen installation and for things worth from a few quid to thousands of pounds. The wide range of matters encompassed by the Bill shows how complex an area this is.
I shall try to address as many of the points that have been raised as I can, but as a number of Members have said, we will have further opportunities to discuss the detail in Committee. Contrary to what the Opposition have argued, the Bill will provide a substantial improvement to consumers’ rights, remedies and protections. It is true that it consolidates the current law, which, as a number of Members have said, is spread across eight pieces of legislation and more than 60 sets of regulations. It also brings in major new rights for consumers, however, particularly in digital goods and services, although they have been completely overlooked by some Opposition Members.
It is important to note that the Bill has widespread support among consumer and business groups. The economic benefit is estimated to be more than £4 billion over 10 years. It is more than just minor tinkering, as some Members have suggested; it is an important piece of legislation.
I found the speech made by Stella Creasy rather disappointing. She seems not to have read the Bill in detail as she seems to have rather a poor grasp of what it does and does not do. She barely mentioned much of what is in the Bill and I hope that she has a chance to read it in detail before Committee.
I am proud that the Government are taking such important action to improve the rights of consumers, when the previous Labour Government did very little over 13 years. For example, as a number of Members mentioned today, the issue of cowboy builders was raised repeatedly during the previous Parliament but no action was taken. The coalition Government are doing something for consumers rather than just carping from the sidelines.
As I said, the hon. Member for Walthamstow did not talk about a lot of the issues in the Bill. She laid out an extremely long wish list of things that she wanted to add to the Bill rather than engaging with what was already there. I appreciate that this is the sort of Bill that many people spot gaps in and want to add to, but there is more to it than that.
Hon. Members raised a number of issues that they want included in the Bill, including banking, utilities, telecoms and ticket touting. At the risk of disappointing them, I do not propose to go into much detail on those issues as they do not fall within the remit of the Bill. Although I have sympathy for many of today’s speakers and with a lot of the issues, many are issues for other Ministers and Departments to tackle.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow and a number of others mentioned concerns about consumers having access to their own data. We agreed that that information can be key to empowering consumers to take well-informed action. The hon. Lady mentioned midata and the voluntary approach the Government have taken to it has already had success, with all the major energy companies now providing midata downloads so that their customers can access their data in a consistent and machine readable format. My Department is reviewing progress on the voluntary programme and we wrote to chief executives of companies about that in November. The review, which will be completed in March, will help us to decide whether to use the power in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to require companies to release the data they hold on consumers, but we hope that the voluntary approach will make progress. There is progress and I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that.
Members on both sides of the House expressed concern about lookalike websites. As they will know, misleading information and advertising has long been the subject of consumer protection legislation, which was substantially updated and extended in 2008. Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, it is illegal for a trader to mislead consumers to the extent that the average consumer is likely to make a decision that they would not otherwise make. That is slightly wordy, but it includes giving a false impression of cost, such as charging for something that would otherwise be free. That encompasses the example given by the hon. Member for Walthamstow of fake HMRC websites. We accept that there is a problem, but further legislation is not required. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to public enforcers to draw the issue of copycat websites to their attention and to ensure that the law is enforced appropriately.
If the law is there to deal with this problem, why is it still happening? A constituent contacted me about this only the other day. He was not uneducated or stupid in any way, but he was taken in by one of these websites. What should he do?
If the hon. Lady would listen, I just said that the Department has written to public enforcers to ask them to enforce the law properly. The problem is clearly still happening, and we are all aware of instances of it. Recently, there were reports about the issue on the radio, particularly about the fake HMRC websites. There are lots of things that are illegal that still go on until there is a crackdown. This is one such thing, and we are doing what we can to encourage public enforcers to take action to close down websites that are clearly in breach of the law.
On a technical point, the issue of devolution was raised by a number of Members from Northern Ireland, and I should like to clarify the situation. The issues covered in the Bill are reserved to Westminster with regard to Scotland and Wales, but they are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The devolved Administrations in all three nations were consulted throughout the drafting process, and both Cardiff and Edinburgh are perfectly satisfied with the measures and are happy for them to be implemented across England, Wales and Scotland. I completely agree with Jim Shannon that we are all part of one country and that it is important to be consistent across it. I am glad to be able to tell him that the Northern Ireland Assembly has agreed to a legislative competence order so that the Bill will apply across the board to the whole of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There will be consistency in the application of all the measures to the whole of the UK.
Will the hon. Lady clarify something? I think I heard her say that some of the issues raised by hon. Members did not fall within the remit of the Bill, including the point that I made about the secondary market in controlling ticket touts. Am I correct in thinking that she is not going to respond to any of my points?
Some of the issues that the hon. Lady raised related to unfair contract terms, which I shall come on to in a minute. Many other issues relating to banking legislation and the regulation of energy markets do not fall within the remit of the Bill, and they are the responsibility of other Departments. However, I shall come on to the points that she made about ticket touting.
As George Freeman said, many good businesses already offer enhanced rights to their customers. The Bill will help them, because it will create a level playing field, and it will help us to have fair competition. Adam Afriyie made it clear that the Bill will bring significant benefits to businesses, saving them time and money, and helping them to provide a better service to customers. It will also make the market more competitive, which helps everyone.
On the specific matters raised, the hon. Member for West Bromwich West mentioned the issue of deductions for use when a product is returned to the trader. As he said, we accepted some of his Committee’s recommendations, and it is vital that we begin the debate by recognising the fact that current legislation allows for a deduction for use whenever the customer exercises their second-tier right to reject. The Bill strengthens that by saying that a deduction for use cannot be made until after the first six months from purchase with a limited exception. As a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny, ably led by the hon. Gentleman, we decided to tighten and limit that exception even further. It is important to maintain the ability to deduct for use, but to ensure that there is a fair balance between the rights of consumers and the pressures on business.
Sammy Wilson raised the issue of time- limiting the period available for repairing products, as did another hon. Member. A number of factors will be beyond the control of the trader and a fixed time limit may impose a significant burden on them. When providing a repair the trader must carry out a number of actions, including taking delivery of the goods, diagnosing the faults, and perhaps sending the goods away for repair or ordering in parts. Similarly, the trader may have to order in a replacement. We are concerned that imposing a time limit may lead to a reduction in the quality of the repairs, which may in turn lead to a loss of faith in the repairs, and ultimately to an increase in the number of goods being rejected. We do not want to see that, so we do not propose to lay down a specific time limit in legislation because it could be counter-productive to the interests of consumers.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of digital content. For the first time, the Bill introduces consumer rights for digital content. We are one of the first countries in the world to legislate in this area. I hope that as well as benefiting consumers, this will help to give this sector of the economy a competitive edge in the future. Such an important and rapidly growing industry needs to be governed by a clear and effective consumer framework. Many consumers assume that they have rights at the moment and are confused and concerned when they find out that they do not. We heard from a number of Members about the scale of this. During the last year, 16 million consumers have had a problem with downloaded material. I accept that, where possible, we should align the digital regime with goods and services to make it as clear and simple as possible for consumers, but we should do that only where it makes sense, and we need to ensure that we neither over nor under-regulate this important sector to ensure that it can grow.
Another issue that was raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West concerned the outcome-based quality standard for services. The Bill reflects the current position, which, as he knows, requires services to be undertaken with reasonable care and skill. As part of the consultation ahead of the Bill, the Government asked for comments on additional proposals to move the services regime closer to the regime for goods by introducing an outcome-based quality standard for certain services, but the responses that we received gave a wide range of views, including contradictory views on whether an outcome-based standard would be easier to understand. While in some cases, such as repair or certain installation services, it may be quite simple, in other cases a view on the quality of a service is subjective, and therefore much harder to determine.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the issue is complicated and difficult. I completely understand where he and his Committee are coming from, but the Government feel that the evidence does not fully support the conclusion that they came to and we have decided to stick with the current legal position requiring reasonable care and skill rather than introducing an outcomes-based quality standard. The current system is understood and it seems easier to apply, rather than introducing a new system that could be complicated and subjective, particularly as there are strong views on either side.
I hesitate to have a mini-debate, but the difficulty is that under the reasonable care and skill provision, anybody who felt that they had a case to bring against a service provider would have no other course of action but a recourse to law. It is extremely difficult for them to prove that if they are not professionally qualified in the service that has been provided for them.
An outcomes-based approach would at least give clarity and strengthen consumer rights because they would know that if they took action they had a much better chance of winning.
Because the services sector is so incredibly broad and varied, what is the case in one area would not necessarily be the case in another. For example, I like the way my hair has been cut, but someone else might not have the same view. That is much more subjective and difficult to identify, whereas whether or not it has been cut with due care and attention is a totally different matter. It is clearly a difficult issue, and one to which I am sure we will return in Committee, because there are strong arguments on both sides. It is a matter of weighing up the evidence and deciding which side to come down on. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer; either is a possible outcome.
Alternative dispute resolution and an ombudsman service were mentioned. I believe that we must first consult on how to implement the alternative dispute resolution directive, which the Select Committee mentioned in its pre-legislative scrutiny. Having a single consumer ombudsman is one of several options that we are considering, but it would not be appropriate to legislate for that until after we have properly consulted and decided which avenue to pursue and how to pursue it. We intend to publish a consultation document shortly, and I look forward to hearing people’s views on what approach we should be taking and on having a single consumer ombudsman, but this Bill is not the vehicle for that.
I would like to clarify a point made about collective redress. The hon. Member for Windsor mentioned the right of small businesses to participate in collective redress. The proposals in the Bill on competition-based measures and collective action will be available to consumers and small businesses in the specific area of the competition tribunal. On the broader issue of whether small businesses should be eligible to access more of the rights in this legislation, I understand that research by the Federation of Small Businesses will be produced fairly shortly. I am interested to see the case it makes. I am fairly sympathetic to the idea, but I do not think that this legislation is the place to introduce it, because it is specifically about business-to-consumer relationships, not business-to-business or consumer-to-consumer relationships. We want to maintain that clarity. However, this is an issue that will come up again, so I look forward to reading the FSB research.
The unfair terms legislation relates to a very complex area of law. The Bill will make it easier for businesses to apply the law in practice while ensuring that consumers are not tripped up by the small print. The Government agree that consumers should be protected from terms that allow traders to make unilateral changes to a contract, and the so-called grey list of potentially unfair terms already includes terms that permit the trader unilaterally to alter the characteristics of a consumer contract. Through the Bill, we are protecting consumers from terms that are not made prominent and are left in the small print, because they can be considered for fairness by the court. We think that will address many of the problems that have occurred.
To respond to one of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, under recent regulations implementing the EU consumer rights directive, traders cannot hide costs; they must make all charges and costs clear up front before the consumer buys. That will come into force in June 2014. We have already taken action to tackle hidden costs and do not believe that we need to legislate on it further.
As the hon. Member for West Bromwich West said, we also looked at proposals to make it harder for businesses to change terms, even when they are flagged to consumers as liable to change in certain circumstances, but we believe that could make businesses less likely to offer consumers good deals and bargains for fear of not being able to be flexible in future and to respond to changes outside their control. Our concern is that consumers would ultimately lose out, which clearly we do not want to see. That is why we have not gone ahead with those proposals.
Mrs Hodgson talked about the charges added by ticketing authorities. That will be covered by the provisions on unfair terms. If consumers are subject to extra charges that are hidden, that would be covered by the measures in the Bill. We have also legislated to prevent companies from charging more to process a credit card payment than it actually costs them, so that should offer customers further protection. I am sure that we will debate that further in Committee.
My hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd raised the important issue of funding for those who tackle breaches of consumer law, and that was also mentioned by Ian Murray. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, BIS is providing additional funding of about £13 million through the National Trading Standards Board for enforcement to tackle national issues, which is separate from the budget for local issues. It will ensure better co-ordination across local authority borders and improved intelligence-gathering.
Ultimately, the provision of local trading standards services, which I know is the concern, is a matter for individual local authorities, but by supporting the National Trading Standards Board we are working to help trading standards services make better use of their money and co-ordinate better across borders. We are also helping trading standards officers to make more efficient use of their time by introducing 48 hours’ notice for routine inspections, which was welcomed by Chris Kelly. Businesses, especially small ones, welcome the requirement for notice, because it means that they can ensure the right people are present and that the paperwork is ready, which saves time for both businesses and trading standards officers.
We do not believe that the measure will reduce the ability of enforcers to tackle rogue traders and breaches of consumer law as it applies only to routine visits. Trading standards officers can still turn up unannounced if they feel that providing notice would defeat the purpose of the visit or if they suspect a breach or an imminent risk to public health and safety. The introduction of notice only for routine visits will help trading standards to operate more effectively and efficiently, and save time and effort for both trading standards and small businesses.
Sheila Gilmore raised the issue of collective action, as well as the cost to consumers of taking individual action. The Bill will tackle that by giving public enforcers more flexibility to seek redress on behalf of consumers, so it will substantially improve the likelihood of consumers being able to get redress without having a court case, which is better for everybody, both consumers and businesses.
We are allowing for the business and the enforcer to reach agreement without the need to go to court, although the option to seek a court order will be available if agreement cannot be reached. The Bill will also allow for more flexible options to get the right solutions—for example, agreeing new delivery times for overdue goods, which might be more appropriate for the customer, or putting in place a better complaints system and joining an ombudsman service, as well as financial recompense. There is therefore a broad range of things that businesses could agree with enforcers to find a way forward. We want a system that is flexible enough to provide the most appropriate redress for consumers, and we believe that that is the right way to do so.
A couple of hon. Members mentioned the need to let people know about their rights and asked what we are doing to let them know about the changes. We have established an implementation group with members from the business community, consumer groups and the enforcement community. It is helping us to put together a strategy to ensure that consumers and businesses know about their rights and the changes that will be made by the Bill.
I completely agree with hon. Members who highlighted that information is absolutely key. The whole point of the Bill is to make legislation so much simpler that consumers will be much more able to understand their rights and to act when they feel that they have not been given the service or quality of goods they deserve. That is very important to us, and we are making sure that it runs alongside our work in the House.
The Bill will improve clarity and reduce the complexity of consumer law for both businesses and consumers. It will reduce the cost and time spent by both parties in resolving disputes, and it will lead to happier consumers and more successful businesses. The consumer law framework will be made fit for purpose in the 21st century by the introduction of a new category of digital content, and it will encourage consumers to shop around and take a risk on new businesses, helping our burgeoning digital industry to grow and to create wealth and jobs. The reforms will also build on and enhance the success of the current consumer and competition law enforcement regimes, making markets fairer and clearer. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.