New Clause 1 — Independent advocacy: report

Part of Prohibition of Unpaid Internships – in the House of Commons at 2:05 pm on 13th May 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:05 pm, 13th May 2014

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in the digital review that she is conducting for Labour, which reflects precisely what she is talking about—a strategic approach. That stands in stark contrast to the shambles that we have seen in relation to the project, the tax return data project and some of the amendments that have been tabled to the Deregulation Bill.

This Government talk about data being like oil—a resource that can be exploited to make new industries and potentially huge profit margins. If we are creating it, however, we should also benefit from it. That is why in the new schedule we have set out a framework to enable that. We want to make sure that the British public are firmly in charge of their own data, so that they benefit from those data and how they can be used.

This should happen not just in the private sector, through the midata project, but in the public sector. It is important that we flag that up, not least because when the Bill was originally proposed, and in Committee, the Minister tried to tell us that it had no relevance to the public sector. She told the Committee:

“The purpose of the Bill is to look at the rights that consumers have in their relationships with business; it is not to look at any rights that consumers have when it comes to public services.”––[Official Report, Consumer Rights Public Bill Committee, 11 February 2014; c. 66.]

Only when we questioned her in the Committee did she admit that the provisions of the Bill affect the public sector. That gives us the opportunity to ask how we can ensure that consumers and citizens have access to data to make good choices in both the public and the private sector.

So far the Government have admitted that the provisions cover valuable benefits such as personal health budgets, university tuition fees and child care vouchers. Given the framework that the Government have set out, we think that the licence fee, perhaps controlled parking zones, bus fares and possibly even water and sanitation services—directly provided services that consumers pay for and for which they therefore have a contract with the provider—should also be covered.

There are concerns about access to services in the public sector, which the amendments would address. One in five of us has experienced a problem with public services in the past year, but a third of us who have experienced a problem with the public sector do not complain. We are what the Public Administration Committee has called a nation of “silent sufferers”. “More complaints please!” is the title of its report. That is not what is coming forward from the public.

As we all know, good complaints help to generate feedback. They therefore help to make services in the public and the private sector more responsive. I estimate that two thirds of our casework as MPs is about public service decisions gone wrong. Much of that is to do with what we would recognise in the private sector as information asymmetries—people not knowing what services they are entitled to and therefore getting a raw deal.

New schedule 1, which is inserted by new clause 3, is about the lessons that we can apply from the midata project to information across our lives in both the public and the private sector. We know that sharing data directly with citizens can help reform public services and improve outcomes, but we also recognise that the relationship that people have with the public sector is different from their relationship with the private sector, so regulators should look at how to make it work in both fields. We recognise that we are both providers of public services, as taxpayers, and also users and consumers of public services in our daily lives.

The benefits that come from releasing data in the public and the private sector are manifest. We need a clear framework to make sure that it is not only those with the loudest voices or the largest wallets who are able to access the benefits, whether it is giving patients the information they need on their health care to manage conditions for themselves, improving parent and pupil involvement in schools, or communities designing their own cities. The benefits from this process could be legendary, but the Bill does little to move that debate forward. Our concern is that as currently drafted the Bill could create further inequalities, as those who understand their rights in the public sector are able to use them but those who do not cannot.

Let me explain how we think the issue could be addressed. New schedule 1 is about access to information, allowing people to make the right choice the first time. New clause 1 acknowledges that choice is not enough to guarantee a good outcome. People often need an advocate, an expert or an adviser with whom to work through the options and decide what works for them. New clauses 1 and 5 both introduce a clear commitment to advocacy in the public and the private sectors to help improve the relationship betweens service providers and service users.

In the public sector, advocacy can not only improve outcomes but cut costs. A study in Nottingham showed that 60% of cases that a local advice provider was working with involved public sector decisions made badly the first time. Involving advocates reduced the number of complaints by 30%, reducing the burden on the public sector and improving outcomes for the users of services. It is a win-win scenario. The more challenge there is in the public sector, the more information and the more advocacy in the private sector, the more we can make our markets work better and our services serve our people.

However, it is clear from the work that we have done since the initial conversations in Committee that that approach, ethos and understanding of what the Bill could do for the public sector, how information could make a difference, and how advocacy could be beneficial, has not been progressed in Government discussions. It is worrying to us on the Opposition Benches to discover that having admitted that the Bill will cover sections of the public sector, the Minister has not had talks with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about what that might mean for the licence fee.

Many of us might have watched the Eurovision song contest on Saturday night. Many of us might have had comments about the coverage—some supportive, some negative. Under the Bill, it could be argued that we have a right to a service performed with reasonable care and skill, so if we did not think that Graham Norton was the most erudite host, we could make a complaint. In theory, under the Bill, we would have a right to a repeat performance, a price reduction or a refund. That has huge ramifications for the BBC and for the licence fee, yet no conversations have yet taken place between DCMS and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the matter. We are also told that the Minister has not spoken to Ministers in the Department for Education about how the Bill covers child care tax vouchers, yet she admits that it does. Clearly, the Bill opens up the possibility that some parents will be able to use such rights to challenge the provision of nursery services in their areas, whereas others who do not know their entitlement will not.

We know that the Minister has at least spoken to the Department of Health about how the provisions will affect personal care budgets. She has, apparently, had regular informal contact. Given that many of us know that the silent sufferers are often incredibly vulnerable people, frightened of complaining about a carer because they are frightened of what will happen next, regular informal contact, I would wager, does not cut it when the Bill could transform what happens.

The Minister has, however, spoken to some people in her own Department about tuition fees. Unfortunately, the Minister with responsibility for higher education tells us that no meeting has taken place with external stakeholders about how the Bill will affect tuition fees. That might be because in Committee the Minister was not entirely sure whether students were consumers—having spoken to students about their consumption patterns, I think we can agree that they are when it comes to paying tuition fees. That is why, when the Minister responsible for higher education tells us that there have been no meetings with student representatives, higher education providers and universities on the implications of the Bill, we are rightly worried. The new clauses are needed to put in place a framework to understand those implications.

Many of us may remember some of our university lectures, some positively, some negatively. The fact that we would have the right under the legislation to complain that they had not been prepared or delivered with reasonable care and skill opens that Pandora’s box. That is why the National Union of Students has said that it is concerned about how the Bill is drafted and the possibility that legal redress could be easier and more effective for students with greater resources, whether in terms of finance or access to legal services.