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.

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

Indeed. “Take that” is the answer we would give on many of these things.

New schedule 1 looks at the cumulative impact of Government policy on households. Currently, among European nations only Estonia has a worse proportion of people struggling to pay their energy bills than the UK. Yet one of the issues that have been debated across the House is the impact of some of the long-term planning on the infrastructure building projects for our energy system in this country and the consequences for energy bills. Indeed, in November last year the National Audit Office published a damning report stating:

“Government and regulators do not know by how much overall expected new investment by the private sector in infrastructure will increase household utility bills and whether bills will be affordable.”

We know that the concept of affordability is contested by some, and we know from the evidence the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave the Public Accounts Committee that it does not even have a target for affordability in relation to water bills. Yet many of us will have seen at first hand in our constituencies how people are struggling with those basic costs of living. We think that the Government should be able to publish an analysis of the impact of their own policies on the cost of living. Paragraph 7 of new schedule 1 asks for such a report to be provided by the Treasury. I am sure that Government Members who support transparency will want to support it.

I will say a little about new clause 2, which concerns implementation. After all, we think that with this framework we are offering the Government a way forward on information and advocacy, but we also recognise that it is no good having rights written on paper if they are not a reality in practice. One of the concerns that came up repeatedly in Committee—many of the Opposition amendments that the Government opposed related to this—is how consumers will actually access rights in practice. When will they know that they have a right to a repeat performance? At what point will the BBC tell us that we have a right to a price reduction because we did not like its commentary?

Those are all questions that the Minister said would be dealt with by the implementation group. It became a mythical beast in our minds, because it will cover so many issues, from point-of-sale information, information on remedies open to consumers, how businesses should be informed of these rights, the length of time before people can get a refund, the time limits people would get on a repair, replacement or repeat performance, or even testing consumers’ understanding of their rights.

Time and again the Minister said that we should leave it to a body of experts, which we believe—we are not entirely sure—includes organisations such as Citizens Advice, Which?, the Trading Standards Institute, the British Retail Consortium and even the Financial Conduct Authority. They are worthy bodies indeed to look at these issues, but we had some concerns in Committee, having seen some of the minutes of their meetings, which are not very frequent. Despite their good works, any the recommendations they make would not be statutory guidance. Therefore, new clause 2 simply states that the recommendations they make about the rules on how the Bill should be implemented should have meaning, that they should have real teeth, that it is no good saying that it would be good for consumers to be informed of their rights if that does not actually happen at the coal face or at the shopping till.

In proposing this first group of new clauses, we are trying to make this Bill what it could be. We are trying to find the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. We are trying to ensure that consumers have access to the information and advice they need to make good choices the first time around. The old model of politics, in which progress depends on centralising these abilities, will no longer work with our communities. The task at hand, we believe, is to give the public more control and more power over their lives to enable them to make the choices that they want to make first time. As it stands, the Bill will leave citizens to navigate services alone, without the resources, either money or skill, to struggle to make them work.

We want to do something different. We want to reform the public sector by devolving power to people, investing in the prevention and co-operation they need to make services work for them, to stand shoulder to shoulder with every consumer and every citizen, not blunting the efforts of those who already fight for services, but enabling more people to give the feedback about the kinds of services we want in the public and private sectors. We believe that new clauses 1, 2, 3 and 5 and new schedule 1 will enable that framework to be put in place, and we hope that the Government will respond positively to the points that we have made as a result.