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 Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 2:45 pm, 13th May 2014

We have had quite a wide-ranging debate, which has been the case during many of the discussions on the Bill, because it covers so many issues. It is telling that the Opposition have tabled very few amendments; today, we are mainly discussing new clauses that attempt to add provisions to the Bill.

I want first to pause for a moment to reflect on the Bill, which has generally been accepted across the House as a good piece of legislation. It will benefit consumers—all consumers—and by setting out key consumer rights in one place, it will empower consumers. As we discussed several times in Committee, well-informed and confident consumers can experiment and shop around, which drives innovation, boosts competition and creates growth. The entire suite of consumer law reforms are estimated to be worth more than £4 billion to the UK economy over 10 years. Including the impact on consumers, business and the public sector, the Bill will generate £1.5 billion and the associated secondary legislation will generate more than £2.7 billion of benefit.

Some public services will attract rights and remedies under the Bill, as we discussed at length in Committee. That will be the case if there is a contract between the consumer and a public body for the provision of products that are within its scope, because the definition of a trader is wide enough to capture the activities of any Department and local or public authority. Consumers of public services provided under a contract will therefore benefit from clearer rights, clearer remedies and, ultimately, better outcomes. I think that we would probably all agree that that is a good thing.

What we are not doing—in a moment, I will explain why it is right and proper not to do it—is to change which public services are covered by consumer law. Public services that are currently subject to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 and the Sale of Goods Act 1979 will be covered by the Bill. I will now turn to public services that are not covered by its provisions because such services are not provided under contract to a consumer. They include most NHS care, state-funded education and law enforcement services.

Let me be very clear: those consumers are nevertheless protected, and in a way that will often provide more tailored, specific and appropriate safeguards, designed to fit the particular service. Many of the tailored regimes already incorporate just the sort of protections that Opposition Members are pressing for—independent advocacy, regular reporting and established ombudsman schemes. In some cases, the protections already in place are similar to those provided by the Bill. For example, the rights that are consolidated in the NHS constitution are very similar to those in general consumer law, but are tailored for the provision of health care.

Where the protections are not similar, consumers benefit from even greater protection. Several sectors have well-established alternative dispute resolution services. For example, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the local government ombudsman and the housing ombudsman play an important role as key, respected arbiters for complaints about care, treatment or choice in public services.

The Government share the desire of Stella Creasy to improve consumer input into the delivery of public services. We are committed to further improving how the public sector uses complaints and feedback to improve service provision. In October last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy announced two further pieces of work to do just that. The first follows his recognition that UK Governments have not made nearly enough use of complaints as a tool for identifying systemic problems. He has set up a review of how Government Departments, agencies and public services can use patterns of complaints to improve the services that they offer.

The recent Public Administration Committee report on citizens and public services raises some very interesting issues, as well as revisiting some that have been looked at before, about how complaints could be used as tools to drive change for the good. We will consider carefully whether the approach that the Committee recommends is right for consumers and the public, and will focus on what might be the practical and delivery considerations of its ideas.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy will take a wider look at the role and powers of the public sector ombudsmen, and consider the case for a single public sector ombudsman. The Government are grateful to the Public Administration Committee for its inquiry on that issue. That report, alongside the Committee’s recent report on complaints, will be a valuable contribution to the Government’s ongoing consideration of the ombudsman landscape and complaint handling. On both those matters, my right hon. Friend will report to the Prime Minister in the summer. The Government will respond to the Committee’s reports in due course.

We prioritise making sure that consumers know their rights. That means all consumers, whether of public or private services and whether public services are provided under contract or under a tailored regime. Consumers of public services have access to advice, information and advocacy from Government-funded channels such as Citizens Advice and gov.uk. There are other bodies, such as Age UK, that act as consumer advocates, especially for more vulnerable consumers.

The Citizens Advice remit covers benefits, housing, employment, debt and money, consumer, tax, discrimination, health care and wider individual legal problems, as well as other issues. It has a very broad remit. It is right that consumers have a central source of advice and, if necessary, can be signposted to other help, where it is needed.