Second Reading

Part of Consumer Rights Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative 4:30 pm, 1st July 2014

My Lords, this is an important piece of legislation. The way that consumers buy products, the vendors they buy them from and the way that consumers receive them has all changed immeasurably in the last five years, let alone the last decade. The internet has given consumers unprecedented choice, and that is a wonderful thing. We now have access to an unimaginable number of products, we can buy and exchange goods at any time of the day or night and we can do the weekly food shop on our phones.

I know that the Minister’s intention in bringing the Bill through the House is to improve transparency and clarity for consumers—quite right, too. Anyone who has bought anything online, from airline tickets to sofa cushions, will know that not all websites offer the same information as clearly as others. However, there are certain things that are striking about the global nature of online sales. Purchases are usually very impersonal, with the buyer having no personal contact with the seller—usually to the extent that the buyer does not even know what country the seller is in. Last week, I took the opportunity to purchase a Kindle edition of one of my noble friend Lord Dobbs’s excellent novels, featuring a Conservative MP as the hero. I commend it to other Members of this House. The location of the seller was not abundantly clear until I received an e-mail containing this information. I presumed, therefore, that I had purchased it from Luxembourg. Surely this information should be made clearer to the buyer. I am aware that the consumer contracts regulations 2013, which came into force on 13 June this year, already stipulate that consumers should be made aware from where they are buying their products. The name of the seller is available on the product detail page, but you have to put in a bit of work to find it. I feel that in the spirit of greater transparency and clarity for the consumer, it is perhaps not clear enough.

The Bill will help to improve competition. If consumers are safe in the knowledge that they are protected while shopping online, then they may switch between sites more readily if they spot a good deal elsewhere. Choice and competition are wonderful things that we are right to encourage. In that respect, I believe that it would be beneficial to make clear to shoppers of all products, at all values, by all means, from where they buy their products. Furthermore, it should surely be possible for consumers to choose from where they buy their products—perhaps through a check box, when I was buying my noble friend Lord Dobbs’s book, asking, “Would you prefer to buy this product from Luxembourg or from the UK?”. This would give Governments all the more reason to drop their tax rates in order to compete. This would be a way for the average consumer to express his or her opinion about where they want to do business.

I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and others about the proposed changes to powers of entry for bodies such as trading standards. I sympathise with the Minister, in that investigatory powers are currently scattered in around 60 different pieces of legislation. That surely makes it extremely difficult for businesses and investigators to know their rights. Bringing them all together in one Bill seems sensible, but a 48-hour notice period before trading standards raids does not seem particularly sensible. It merely gives rogue traders the time to cover up whatever it is they are up to. There will be significant costs in serving these notices, too. But overall the Bill is a good indication that the Government understand the need to keep up with the changing nature of the market.

Things are moving on so quickly that existing laws are looking increasingly dated. Consider the Sunday trading laws: most shops have to close their doors on Sundays, whether shoppers and traders like it or not. This is obviously not the case on the internet. In fact, you could browse in a supermarket on a Sunday morning, before they are legally open to sell you the products, and make the purchases with your iPad instead—a ludicrous state of affairs. This is not the legislation to deal with this particular anomaly but it shows the extent to which laws on the high street have not kept up with the digital age. To that end, regulations protecting consumers have to keep up.

As the internet has offered more choice, this Bill does a good job of protecting the consumer as they make those choices. It also helps ensure that there is reasonable redress for those who have been mistreated. For that, the Minister and his team are to be commended.