My Lords, I have no doubt in saying that the Bill before your Lordships today is the most important piece of legislation, and certainly the most welcome, since the early 1970s, when the Office of Fair Trading was set up. I am really moved to see on the Front Bench to my right the person who was the original and first Secretary of State for Consumer Affairs in the House of Commons in our history. I am very grateful that he is attending the debate this afternoon.
The Government are to be very warmly congratulated not only on the production of the Bill but on their generosity in terms of the time that has been given to the proceedings in other places—I have read the reports of them all. In particular, the introduction of expert witnesses into the Committee proceedings in the other place and the presence of legislative screening and monitoring were of very great benefit and will continue to be so.
The Bill has been warmly welcomed by all consumer organisations, some of whose comments I will refer to in a few moments. Certainly none of the Bills that I was responsible for introducing in the late 1970s and early 1980s is alive today. They are as dead as dodos. That is because today a majority of consumers still do not know their rights or how to pursue those rights. That became very clear when the expert witnesses contributed to the Committee stage in the other place. From their very wide experience, they said that approximately 75% of all consumers still have no idea of their rights, and if we are not very careful indeed, that will be the case when this Bill is enacted.
I knew that that was a problem but I failed completely. I introduced consumer information packs into schools. I managed to get the money from our then Government to do so, although that was not easy. I taught some of the information in various schools and found that the children were very interested—they got the point immediately. They said things such as, “My mother has bought a knife that says it’s very sharp but it doesn’t cut anything”. I was able to ask them, “Do you think that it was fit for purpose?”. That was a perfect example, but it is not as easy as that. I am afraid that getting into people’s minds exactly what they may be able to do is much more complicated.
I know of all the consultations that have taken place about what remedies will be best. My view is that a clear presentation of the new rights in the Bill and of the responsibilities involved must be shown at the point of sale—not after the sale, not in later contracts and not in anything else. That must be the principal object throughout the Bill or the success that I believe it richly deserves will be greatly diluted. Just as important will be easy access to advice and support when things have gone wrong and people know they have gone wrong. My noble friend must have been as disturbed as I was to read that some local authorities are now cutting funding to trading standards in their areas. The workforce which is being asked to do more and more work will be reduced in number at a time when it will be expected to do more as a result of this Bill. I was shocked to find out that already in some areas trading standards offices can be approached only online. You can imagine where that would have left me. This cannot be allowed to happen and would clearly undermine the success of the Bill.
I hope I have established that a key factor is very thorough infrastructure in all areas from the beginning to ensure that the benefits that consumers deserve are delivered. We are very blessed in this country with a large number of very highly respected consumer organisations whose opinions have been expressed widely. In particular there is our excellent National Consumer Federation, which represents the views of all the other consumer bodies in the country and therefore is possibly one of the most important witnesses to the Bill. One aspect of its charter, which I particularly welcome, is crucial and overdue. It is the need to define much more clearly the role of the regulators. The regulators are powerful and are one of the most fundamental bodies representing the interests of consumers due to the nature of the markets we are talking about.
However, sometimes one gets the impression that when regulators have delivered their ruling involving perhaps a huge £1 million fine to the delinquent company they are interested in all the things they have found out—and want above all else to punish the firm so it should be a lesson—but they do not really look at the consumer role in these situations. For example, with the billions in fines, surely there is a case to be made for consumers being given a rebate of their fees so that they are the recipients of the benefits that should be coming from the regulators. I think the National Consumer Federation has put this very clearly and has said among other things that it does not think that regulators always ask the right questions and that if they consulted consumers more about their experiences it might alter the balance and be more attractive. Certainly I hope it would result in some cases of refunds being made to the customers who have been so badly hurt.
What I welcome very much in the Bill is rather unusual. My friends will be surprised to hear me say that I welcome the new EU directive which seeks to cover, for the first time, consumers who make purchases online. I did not know that they were not covered. If I did not know that, I think I would be shocked and horrified if I tried to calculate how many other consumers in the country are unaware that they are not covered. It is very good that the directive will be implemented earlier, which I hope my noble friend will confirm, and that eventually it will be incorporated into the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, will be aware of another crucial EU directive. The last that he and I heard about it was in a debate on the financial industries. The Minister said that the Government were actively pursuing negotiations on the directive, which, at last, half-heartedly agrees that the cost of a loan can be displayed below the AER, which no one understands. I challenge anyone who understands it to stand up and explain what it is. I would be delighted to give them the time. It will allow the money cost to be displayed but only if it is in smaller print than the AER. I hope that the Government will hasten to conclude their negotiations on that matter, which will at least bring a small help to consumers.
Clearly, a good deal is to be done in Committee. I am not yet a “professional oldie” but I am well on the way. I therefore hope that I will be forgiven if I say that I do not propose to play an active part in those proceedings—that may be welcomed by many— as I realise how out of date I am. Towards the conclusion of the deliberations in the other place and after a request from a Member, the Minister, the excellent Jenny Willott, who did so well throughout, said:
The Member wanted reassurance that the HFEA would be covered. When we got to that, I knew the time had come for me to assume a back seat. Things have obviously gone too fast for me in this area. As I recall, there was a friendly reply. I warmly welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Government. I wish the Bill the speedy and successful outcome that it deserves.