New Clause 1 — Independent advocacy: report

Part of Prohibition of Unpaid Internships – in the House of Commons at 3:00 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 3:00 pm, 13th May 2014

Obviously, I cannot comment on the situation in Croydon because I do not know the details. However, the Government are committed to freedom of information and, in a moment, I will talk about the access to data and information that we are supporting in the private and public sectors.

We fully recognise that sometimes more intensive support is needed, above and beyond the advice that is given by Citizens Advice. That is why the patient advice and liaison service offers confidential advice, support and information on health-related matters. There are already independent third-party adjudicators in the public sector, for example at HMRC. Those systems exist to support consumers, often the most vulnerable, in making a complaint and having their voice heard.

There is a serious danger that mandating others to provide a service that overlaps what is in place will confuse, rather than strengthen, the landscape. We need to continue to make public services more responsive to end users, not dilute the central role of Citizens Advice and hinder its ability to act as a key advice agency by creating bureaucracy. We all share the vision of public services provided to a high standard, where consumer feedback and consumer choice work to push up standards. However, we do not need to bring them all within the ambit of the Bill to achieve that.

The transparency of data in the public sector, which has been raised by hon. Members, is a priority for the Government. In many areas, transparency is much more advanced in the public sector than in the private sector. Consumers of public services have access to a wealth of data, such as crime statistics and educational standards. Those all work to empower consumers, promote choice and accountability, and, ultimately, raise standards.

Let me make it clear that the Government support the principle that the public should have access to the data that are held on them. That is in line with our open data policies and activities, and with the approach that we are taking to the negotiations on the European data protection regulations. We embrace the principle that where social benefits can be obtained from anonymised data sets—so-called “big data”—that should be supported. That is why, alongside the midata programme, which is concerned with commercially held data, we are exploring how the data that are held on individuals by Departments might be made available to those individuals in a useful way. That work is in its early stages, but it is designed to address just the sort of issues that we have been discussing today.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, we have been reviewing the progress with the voluntary approach that has been taken to the midata programme so far. I plan to announce the results of the review shortly, but in the meantime I can report that there was an encouraging development in March. In the personal current accounts sector, which was raised by Damian Hinds, we have secured a commitment from the big banks to provide customers’ transaction records—their midata—as downloadable files with a consistent format. That has been called for by Which? and the comparison sites. It is encouraging that by the end of the year the vast majority of current account holders in the UK will have access to their midata files. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman on the points that he has raised.

We are working with all the parties involved to ensure that tools are available to use those files. We are confident that this approach will help consumers to compare more easily what is on offer in terms of price and service. As was highlighted by the hon. Member for East Hampshire, there is clearly a lot more to be done to encourage consumers to switch. We hope that by providing the information and working with comparison sites, we can ensure that that happens more often.

Our central objective is that the Bill should deliver rights that are much easier for consumers to understand and use. It is a vast improvement in terms of the simplicity of the language and the consistency of approach. However, we recognise that traders need to know their forthcoming responsibilities in good time before the Bill comes into force, and consumers need practical guidance with real-life examples of how the legislation works. Achieving that quality of communication is a significant challenge and requires planning, which we have been doing.

As hon. Members have highlighted and as we discussed many times in Committee, we have been working with an implementation group to develop appropriate guidance and effective channels of communication. The group is making progress and we will publish a timetable later this year setting out when the parts of the work will be done. We intend to have guidance for businesses available soon after Royal Assent, and it will be available for consumers when the legislation comes into force to ensure that people are able to access and understand their rights.