My Lords, I welcome the Bill but I must repeat what several noble Lords have said, notably my noble friends Lady Hayter and Lord Wills, that it seems to represent something of a missed opportunity. It was described by the shadow Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, Stella Creasy, as,
“a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 28/1/14; col. 780.]
But it seems that we might be at risk of squandering it. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said to the Minister, we should not limit the ambitions of the Bill to consolidating previous law. It really should not be just a compendium of consumer law; it should be an extension of consumer power.
Many areas of the Bill are of great interest and I look forward to deliberations in Committee, particularly on digital goods and the huge changes under way as Britain becomes a digital nation. We are already the country that buys more goods over the internet than any other except the United States. That means there are massive societal changes across the board and those changes will also be felt very keenly in the area of consumer rights.
I want to focus on an area that was touched on by my noble friend Lady Hayter but which we have not dwelt on in this debate so far—the public sector. The Government have belatedly said that the public sector will be included in this Bill and so some of the rights in the Bill will extend to tuition fees, childcare vouchers and personal care budgets. So from now on in these areas, if a service is substandard, parents, patients or students can get a price reduction, a refund or “a repeat performance”. The mind boggles at the prospect of university lecturers providing repeat performances of substandard lectures on, say, Aristotle. Aristotle’s students would have heard him say:
“In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme”.
I guess Aristotle just could not imagine Wonga. And if he was teaching today, his students might ask for a refund, because in our democracy the poor clearly do not have more power than the rich. On the contrary, Aristotle would find it really surprising, as I do, that in our democracy the poor often pay more than the rich for the same product. This counterintuitive fact was demonstrated by Consumer Futures and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, whose research shows that low-income families spend 10 pence in every pound on a poverty premium. Another way of looking at it is that they spend £19 a week extra on average because they pay a higher price for the same product.
Someone who has done more than anyone to expose this poverty premium is my honourable friend Stella Creasy, and I pay fulsome tribute to her groundbreaking work defending consumer rights. However, after following the progress of the Bill in great detail in the other place, she tells me that she still has not received any clear indication from the Government on how this Bill’s provisions will apply to public services. Of course we welcome the Bill’s aims but we need to understand how it will work. Can the Minister let us know which service contracts it will cover? For example, can the Minister let us know if it will cover the licence fee? I would also love to know whether it will cover prescription charges. Even just a hint from the Minister in these areas would be welcome.
I have a very useful briefing note from Unison, which states that it believes in principle that people should have the choice to exercise their consumer rights in public services, but that it must be done in the right way in a collaborative framework. I am sure we would all agree with that, not least because there are already many complaints mechanisms within public services and we will need to be careful that these are not inadvertently undermined or bypassed by the new set of rights. If you read the Unison brief, it becomes readily apparent that this is a vastly complex area. The key point that shines through is that we want to prevent a two-tier complaints system where richer, paying citizens can bring individual litigation that might secure them more favourable rights than others without those means. Can the Minister give us any indication of any impact assessment that might have been carried out in this area?
My noble friend Lady Crawley was right: the Bill has not yet got our pulses racing—we live in hope. However, a lot of the issues it deals with make our blood boil. We are talking about premium charges on telephone helplines that leave you stranded for what feels like hours at a time; nuisance phone calls, which in certain areas have blighted lives; people making profits out of the misery of payday loans; and ticket touts profiting at the expense of genuine fans. Basically, we are talking about being ripped off, either to a small degree or to a degree that ruins your life.
As my noble friend Lady Hayter said, this Bill should balance the current, unequal situation, which too often puts consumers in a weak position. Too often, consumers find themselves powerless on the end of sharp practices. For the last time today—I know that I have quoted her quite extensively—I shall quote the shadow Consumer Affairs Minister, who said:
“The fact that nothing in the Bill is of particular concern tells us everything we need to know about its narrow ambitions”.—[Hansard, Commons, 28/1/14; col. 780.]
I hope that the Minister and the Government will be more ambitious. As Aristotle also said, “Hope is a waking dream”. We all live in hope that the Government will take this once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to end the unfair nightmare that too many consumers face.