Second Reading

Part of Consumer Rights Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour 4:05 pm, 1st July 2014

My Lords, like other speakers, I welcome much of this Bill and I congratulate the Minister on his masterly exposition of its merits. As my noble friend on the Front Bench has already said, in many ways the Bill is a missed opportunity. Legislative time is scarce and precious, and I regret that the Government have not used this unusual opportunity to address some long-standing problems for consumers.

I want to focus on the issue of exploitative marketing calls. When I was a Member of Parliament, this was a recurring problem for my constituents. Vulnerable people, often elderly, were rung up and, without understanding all the implications of their decision, were persuaded to sign up for goods and services that they did not need and could not afford. The measures that offer protection against this are clearly inadequate, as the problem continues to grow and cause distress. The debt charity StepChange, for example, has estimated that 26 million people in this country have been contacted by companies selling high-cost credit. Although much attention has focused on notorious cases, such as this and the peddling of payment protection insurance and accident claims services, the problem goes far wider even than this.

Significant measures to tackle the problem have been proposed in the other place and by non-governmental organisations and such measures would significantly improve protections against abusive practices. For example, the threshold for firms breaking the ban on unsolicited promotional electronic messages should be lowered so that the Information Commissioner would not have to demonstrate damage or distress before issuing an enforcement notice. The requirements for consent to have personal data passed on to other companies should be toughened to make them more explicit. There could be a time limit of, say, a year on such consent. There is even a case for a ban on all such contacts. But the Government have shown no inclination to tackle such abusive marketing practices, despite the widespread demand from consumers and consumer organisations for them to do so.

In March the DCMS said:

“We will be consulting on making a change to the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations … to lower the threshold to remove the need to prove substantial damage or substantial distress. Following the consultation we will look to implement reforms as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

These are long-standing problems and the issues are well understood. There will have been time for that consultation to take place and be digested within Whitehall and for amendments to be produced before the Report stage, if not before the Committee stage. Parliamentary time will allow for it but will the Government? Do they have the political will effectively to tackle this abusive nuisance now and not leave it until the next time we have such a landmark consumer protection Bill?

It is time to put an end to any business model that relies on the exploitation of the vulnerable. This Bill offers a rare opportunity to help to do this. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will seize it.