New Clause 1 — Independent advocacy: report

Part of Prohibition of Unpaid Internships – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Energy) 2:45 pm, 13th May 2014

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about that specific market. I am also aware, as a result of talking to my constituents, that there is almost an expectation on people working for other retailers to sell these warranties, even if it is not obligatory for consumers to have them. In some cases, they even receive a commission for doing so.

That leads me to my concern about a specific case, in which what was written in the signed document was clear, but the way in which the warranty was described and explained to the consumer certainly was not clear and was very different. In that case, a constituent of mine bought a television set from a high street electrical store. He was told that the additional warranty he took out—on top of the manufacturer’s one—would entitle him to a new set if anything went wrong within the five-year period. His television set broke down during that period, but he found in the small print that he was only entitled to a repair or a replacement, which was exactly the same as the manufacturer’s guarantee. That meant that, on the basis of what he was told in the store, he had paid what for him was a significant amount of money every month for something that was effectively worthless.

Fundamentally, I believe that retailers have a duty to consumers not to sell them products that they know to be worthless, which appears to be the case if a warranty simply duplicates existing rights. Warranties very often apply to electronic goods that are significantly expensive, so we can see how a consumer could easily be persuaded to pay for an expensive warranty scheme that delivers no extra benefit, as the retailer is often probably very well aware. That is an area on which the implementation group should certainly undertake some work. Some provisions in the Bill—for example, clause 30—relate to warranties, but they do not seem to cover that point.

In that case, I took up the issue with both the company and my local trading standards office. The trading standards office was very sympathetic, but the long and short of it is that such practices are entirely legal, and there is nothing it can do other than to advise people to be more aware next time. That will not be much comfort for someone who has spent a significant amount of money on something that does not meet their expectations or provide the protection to which they think they are entitled. I of course understand that this problem is not new—it was raised several times in Committee as well as previously in the House—but the implementation group should be charged with ensuring that it is dealt with, and the new clause presents an opportunity for that to happen.

My new clause also addresses the management of deposits. I tabled it after a local small business approached me about an account held with a telecommunications firm— TalkTalk. As many hon. Members will be aware from their constituents, telecommunications contracts for small businesses often require quite sizeable deposits. My constituent was asked to provide a bond of some £900.

The size of such deposits has been a subject of interest for the regulator. I draw the House’s attention to the outcome of a dispute between Apple Telecom Europe Ltd and BT on the level of security deposit required for services, in which Ofcom stated that it was unwilling to determine what an appropriate deposit might be. In the light of that, it is clear that the regulator is not currently prepared to step into that space, but the size of some deposits places a clear responsibility on policy makers to ensure that the rights of the consumer or service user are protected.

After terminating the contract, two issues arose for my local business: first, TalkTalk was in no hurry to return the deposit; and, secondly, when it did return the deposit, it did so without any interest. On the first point, TalkTalk made it clear that it would hold on to the bond beyond the end of the agreed three-year contract. Effectively, it intended to hold on to the bond or deposit until my constituent ceased to be a customer, at which point the onus was on my constituent to write to TalkTalk to request the return of the money. My sense is that the responsibility in that scenario is the wrong way round. It places all the obligation on the consumer, and all the potential benefit of not meeting the obligation on the retailer. Because the retailer was not required to return a bond in a timely fashion, it is clear that my constituent missed out on substantial interest payments on the £900. Given that such contracts may well be for significant lengths of time and may then be renewed, the money amounts to a significant figure over time, particularly for small businesses; it is far from trivial.

My new clause addresses both concerns by requiring the implementation group to report on the length of time for which a retailer may retain a bond after the termination of a contract and on the payment of interest on the money. It would not be unduly burdensome for the company to be required to place bonds in a separate account, the interest on which could be returned to the consumer at the end of the contracted term. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the significant precedents for interest to be paid on money that is held. For example, solicitors are required to place moneys they hold on trust for a client in separate interest-bearing accounts, as is made clear in the professional code of ethics given in the Solicitors Regulation Authority handbook. Equivalent provisions cover other professions in which businesses hold money on trust—for example, an accountant who holds funds for a client to settle a forthcoming tax bill. Beyond such examples, it is clear that there is a substantial licence for abuse. There have recently been concerns in the energy market about moneys retained from excessive direct debit payments. One of the Minister’s colleagues in another Department described it as unacceptable, and said that something needed to be done about it, and the same case can be made in relation to my concerns.

I am conscious that the guidance and regulation arising from the work of the implementation group will not apply retrospectively, and so will not be of direct benefit to those involved in the two cases that I have outlined. However, their experience carries important lessons for all of us to bear in mind, and their cases might and probably will be repeated along the same lines. For that reason, I implore the Minister to look sympathetically at new clause 4. I hope that she will see that it is about enhancing the rights of consumers who, in many regards, have been and are being given poor advice and are not getting the service that I am sure she and all other hon. Members would expect.

The work of the implementation group will obviously be significant, given the number of times that the Minister has referred to it in Committee, and I am sure that she will mention it again this afternoon. It is important that the implementation group gets on and delivers something, as the many people who have been following the progress of the Bill will expect. The new clause represents just one way in which there is a very clear path for the implementation group to follow in taking some action to benefit consumers and small businesses across the whole of the UK.