Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18th July 2007.

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Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip 3:30 pm, 18th July 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

commons amendments

[The page and line references are to Bill 61 as first printed for the Commons.]

Page 12, line 36, at end insert-

"( ) If the Secretary of State gives such consent, the Secretary of State must publish a notice stating that consent has been given and specifying the reasons for giving consent."

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1. Like all the other substantive amendments being considered today, it relates specifically to Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill and the measures to strengthen consumer advocacy and redress.

Amendment No. 1 relates to Clause 22 and the council's voluntary activities in this part of the Bill. The clause allows the new council to acquire an interest in a company with a view to that body exercising certain functions on its behalf. Following a useful debate in Grand Committee we accepted that it was appropriate for the new council to be able to exercise that power, subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 1 builds on that premise and places an obligation on the Secretary of State to publish the reasons for any such approval given to a request by the new council to acquire an interest in a body corporate.

The amendment is in line with the Government's commitment to transparency and openness in its dealings with the new council, and would ensure that any consent given by the Secretary of State to a proposal by the new council to acquire an interest in a company, and the reasons for the decision, are made publicly available, transparent and open to public scrutiny. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

Photo of Baroness Wilcox Baroness Wilcox Shadow Minister, Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

My Lords, I shall speak to only one amendment in the List. I am delighted to be across the Dispatch Box from the increasingly experienced noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, the new Minister, is not unwell—or, worse, that he is not already bored with the necessary but at times, admittedly, time-consuming process of legislation. I look forward to the noble Lord's presence on the other side of the House in debating Bills to come, and hope that he will come to embrace parliamentary duties with the same vigour and keenness as do his colleagues on the Bench today. I will have to trust that he will read the Minister's remarks on the amendments in the Official Report tomorrow.

Amendment No. 1 was made as an addition to the Bill by my colleague Mark Prisk in another place. It requires that the Secretary of State may publish the reasons for any approval given to a request by the new National Consumer Council to acquire an interest in a body corporate. It is an important amendment that goes right to the heart of the debates of a few months ago, which I am sure noble Lords will not have forgotten.

Overall, the Bill has seen marked improvement in both your Lordships' House and another place. There are three main areas where, I am pleased to say, my party has made improvements: we have improved the accountability of the new National Consumer Council, including ensuring that in its acquisition of any corporate body it is subject to ministerial approval; we have helped consumers by ensuring that best practice in complaints handling is followed; and, thirdly, we have ensured that the new National Consumer Council better reflects the successful operation of the existing council.

On the question of estate agents and supporting consumers, however, the Government have not gone as far as they ought to have done. Her Majesty's Government have brought forward improvements to the redress schemes following Conservative amendments in your Lordships' House, but it is a shame that they have been unwilling to modernise the law, in particular the definition of "estate agency", to reflect how the housing market works today. Nor, regrettably, has there been recognition by Her Majesty's Government that redress for residential lettings should be the same as for house buyers. It is a missed opportunity.

Hot on the heels of the HIPs fiasco, it is clear that the Government will be wary of regulation in the housing market. But unlike Her Majesty's Government's proposals for HIPs, our amendments—to modernise the law, include residential lettings and increase fines for rogue agents—did have the support of the vast majority of the industry and consumers. That amendment was presented in Committee in another place, and the Government accepted the principle in concession to the amendment tabled by my honourable friend there.

I hope that the Minister will, however, consider the terms of the amendment tabled in the Commons and will be able to convey it to the department of the noble Lord, Lord Jones, for deliberation. I would like to register my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for his stewardship of the Bill in your Lordships' House previously. It was constructive and thoughtful, and with his help many positive additions to the Bill were secured. I look forward to seeing the implementation of the Bill and will follow with interest the progress of the new National Consumer Council.

Photo of Lord Razzall Lord Razzall Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

My Lords, I am slightly surprised at the tone the noble Baroness took regarding the noble Lord, Lord Jones, because I would have assumed that she would be delighted that he had been replaced as a potential Tory candidate for London by Boris Johnson. I hope that these attacks on the Minister—the well known Liberal Democrat—will now cease.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, is dealing with these matters and I suspect that he will be dealing with them with his usual competence for some time to come. I am particularly surprised by the noble Baroness's remarks, as, having read Hansard from another place, I think that Amendment No. 1 seems exactly what her colleague proposed there. That was supported by the Liberal Democrats, and I support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for their support for the amendment. You haven't got a Jones but you've got an Evans, is all I can say. We will read with care the points that the noble Baroness feels ought to be passed on to the department.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Page 26, line 3, leave out "may make regulations prescribing" and insert "must by regulations prescribe"

Page 26, line 14, at end insert-

"(5A) If a date is prescribed in relation to a regulator for the purposes of this subsection, from that date subsection (1) has effect in relation to that regulator as if, in that subsection, for "must" there were substituted "may".

(5B) In subsection (5A) "prescribed" means prescribed by order made by the Secretary of State under this section.

(5C) Before prescribing a date in relation to a regulator for the purposes of subsection (5A), the Secretary of State must consult-

(a) the regulator,(b) the Council, and (c) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate."

Page 26, line 28, leave out paragraph (a) and insert-

"(a) set out the standards the regulator proposes to prescribe,"

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 2 to 4.

This group of amendments relates to the complaint-handling standards provisions in the Bill, an issue that was debated extensively during the passage of the Bill through this House previously. The debate that occurred centred quite rightly on how best to ensure that regulated providers in the electricity, gas and postal services sector have in place and operate appropriate and effective internal complaints-handling procedures.

This is particularly important because, under the new arrangements for consumer representation being introduced as a result of the provisions in the Bill, there will no longer be a sector-specific consumer body with a complaint-handling function for the energy and postal services sector; therefore, regulated providers in these sectors will be required to take full and proper responsibility for handling their own complaints. The measures in the Bill are about empowering and protecting the consumer, and we need to have the right incentives in place to achieve this objective.

The amendments would require regulators to make regulations prescribing standards for complaint-handling. This is the clearest and most certain way to ensure that consumer complaints will be dealt with to an approved standard by regulated providers in these sectors. Regulators have an important role to play here; they are best placed to determine what is appropriate and necessary for their sector; therefore, they must have a degree of flexibility in determining what standards are set, to which complaints they apply and how these standards should be enforced.

Amendment No. 3 is included in this group to allow for future changes to the energy and postal services markets. It provides for the Secretary of State to make an order prescribing a date on which the duty on regulators to prescribe complaint-handling standards will change to a power to prescribe such standards. Before making the order, the Secretary of State must consult the regulator, the new council and other persons as appropriate. The amendment is required to allow for future changes in the energy and postal services market which may make the requirement for regulators to prescribe complaint-handling standards obsolete. Any decision by the Secretary of State to remove the duty will be informed by the representations made to the consultation and, in particular, the views of the regulator on the continuing need, or otherwise, of the standards. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 2 to 4.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

Photo of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Conservative

My Lords, although I was absent for a great deal of the Bill's Committee stage, I have read the proceedings in great detail. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Wilcox on the way in which she handled matters and the benefits that she, with others, achieved in Committee, particularly that of best practice in handling consumer complaints, which is reinforced by these amendments.

I am a little cynical, although hopeful, that this will be effective, given that Ofcom took so very long to do anything about continual gambling on terrestrial television. Moreover, on the back of telephone bills, it says something like, "If you have any complaints, you may write to us and expect a reply within 12 weeks. If you don't get a reply in 12 weeks, please write again". That is why I am cynical.

I share my noble friend's concern that we have not progressed with protecting consumers in the ever-changing housing market. I hope that, if and when problems arise, we shall know where to point the finger when consumers are not adequately protected.

Finally, I, too, wish the new National Consumer Council every success. It has a very big job on its hands, which I am sure it will do very well. It will be very different from the NCC of which my noble friend and I were chairmen, but I have every confidence in its ability to meet the challenges of the future.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Page 26, line 35, at end insert-

"( ) The requirements of subsection (1) may be satisfied by action taken before the commencement of this section or the passing of this Act."

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 5.

The amendment relates to Clauses 44 and 47 and the new redress and complaints-handling provision to be introduced in the energy and postal services sector and, potentially, in the water sector, after consultation in 2008. These aspects of the new framework for consumer representation and redress are an important part of the new arrangements introduced by the Bill. A direct consequence of the new provisions is that regulated providers in the energy and postal services sectors—and potentially water, after consultation in 2008—will be required to take full and proper responsibility for handling complaints from consumers of their services.

As an incentive for industry to take complaint-handling seriously, the Bill requires regulators to make regulations prescribing standards for complaint-handling that will be binding on regulated providers in these sectors.

Where a regulated service provider has not been able to resolve a complaint to the satisfaction of the consumer, the availability of redress schemes will ensure that consumers will benefit from the certainty of a complaint's resolution and the award of compensation where appropriate.

These measures are about empowering and protecting the consumer, and we are working closely with representatives of the key organisations concerned to ensure that we achieve a smooth transition to the new framework which maximises benefits to consumers and minimises the uncertainty for staff in the existing organisations.

We expect that the new sectoral redress schemes will be established by industry and approved by the relevant regulators. In parallel, regulators will also be considering how best to introduce the new standards for complaints-handling. We are discussing with both industry and industry representatives how best to make the transition to the new arrangements. From these discussions, it is clear that we face an intricate and challenging timetable to deliver the different aspects of this new structure, and that work on the detailed aspects of implementing these provisions needs to start now, even prior to Royal Assent. Therefore, we want to be able to make a start with building on the important background preparatory work which has taken place to facilitate the swift and successful introduction of these measures.

The intention behind the amendments is simple: to clarify expressly the status of certain actions, such as consultations and other procedural actions, and to provide that, where they are carried out prior to Royal Assent and commencement, they satisfy the requirements of the Bill as set out in Clauses 44(1) and 47(4).

In view of the time constraints on the implementation timetable, the amendments will enable us to make progress with implementation activities prior to the commencement of the relevant sections of the Bill, and provide the assurance that these actions will satisfy the obligations in the Bill specifically in these two areas. This will save a great deal of time later on in the process and assist with the swift introduction of these measures in due course. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 5.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 45, page 26, line 37, leave out "where standards are" and insert "in relation to standards"

Clause 47, page 27, line 31, at end insert-

"( ) The requirements of subsection (4) may be satisfied by consultation undertaken before the commencement of this section or the passing of this Act."

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip 3:45 pm, 18th July 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 6 and 7.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 67, page 41, line 18, leave out subsection (2)

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 8.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Schedule 1, page 53, line 7, leave out from "(b)" to "before" and insert "send a copy of the certified statement and the Comptroller and Auditor General's report to the Secretary of State, who shall lay them"

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 9.

This is a minor technical amendment, which simply makes the department, rather than the Comptroller and Auditor General, responsible for laying the new council's accounts before Parliament.

Paragraph 32 of Schedule 1 places a requirement on the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine, certify and report on each statement of accounts received from the new National Consumer Council. Prior to this amendment, the Comptroller and Auditor General would have been required to lay a copy of each statement and the report before Parliament.

In discussions between the department and the National Audit Office it has been suggested that the requirement to lay copies of audited accounts and associated reports before Parliament should be the responsibility of the department rather than the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Under the amendment, the Comptroller and Auditor General will still be required to examine, certify and report on each statement of accounts received from the new council before sending a copy of the certified accounts and of the report to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will then be responsible for laying copies of the report before Parliament.Precedent has been set for this revised arrangement by other newly created bodies; for example, for Natural England, in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, and for the Olympic Delivery Agency, in the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006. The Secretary of State is responsible for laying the accounts of those two bodies. This amendment would bring the position of the new council into line with that of the other newly created bodies. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 9.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Schedule 5, page 61, line 16, leave out "where standards are" and insert "in relation to standards"

Page 61, line 32, leave out "where standards are" and insert "in relation to standards"

Page 62, line 11, leave out "where standards are" and insert "in relation to standards"

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 10 to 12.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.