Second Reading

Part of Consumer Rights Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 6:07 pm, 1st July 2014

We still want to make a distinction between consumers and businesses. We think that if we were to cherry pick and bring certain groups in to allow businesses to be included as consumers, that would cause confusion. However, I am very happy to talk to the noble Baroness again about letting agents and the specific point, as I know that she is much exercised by the issue.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Howe, my noble friend Lady Bakewell and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the important issue of the effect that advertising has on children as regards payday loans. First, let me be very clear that consumers will be far better protected under the new FCA regime. Logbook loan providers and other high-risk lenders are required to meet the standards that the FCA expects of them, including making affordability checks. The FCA rules are binding on lenders and the FCA has a wide enforcement tool-kit to take action.

My noble friend Lady Bakewell and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the issue of advertisements. The FCA will not hesitate to ban irresponsible adverts, and it has a strong record of doing so. The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice is reviewing the extent to which payday loan adverts feature on children’s TV. Separately, the Financial Conduct Authority has set out new rules for consumer credit adverts and it has powers to ban misleading adverts which breach its rules.

The noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked about payday loan firms and cold calling. The FCA is committed to ensuring that cold calling by phone or e-mail makes clear the identity of the firm and the purpose of the communication so that the consumer can decide whether to proceed.

I thank my noble friend Lord Borwick, who raised an important point about consumers being made aware of the country in which a seller is based. Under the consumer contracts regulations 2013, traders in distance contracts, such as online sales, must make available information on their geographical address before a consumer buys from them. I have been in correspondence with my noble friend concerning his recent purchases with Amazon. I cannot comment on the experience of the particular transaction that has been raised but I can confirm that obligation, which I hope goes some way to answering his questions.

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones asked about exempting intellectual property contracts from the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. I sympathise with the situation in which some creators find themselves, but we have not yet seen evidence that amending that Act would address the issue. First, we would need substantial quantitative evidence of a problem and, secondly, we would need to be sure that any such amendment would solve that problem without unintended negative consequences.

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones also asked about brand owners protecting themselves against misleading look-alike packaging—an issue that I know we have spoken about in the past—on the grounds of intellectual property infringement and the common law tort of passing off. As he will be aware, my department, BIS, is reviewing the case for granting brand owners a civil right of action against copycat packaging and it is aiming to report in the autumn.

There has been some discussion today about the vital role that trading standards officers have in protecting the public. Issues were raised in this respect by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady King. The Government strongly support the work that trading standards does to protect consumers from rogue traders and scammers. We have better equipped trading standards to take greater responsibility for consumer law enforcement by transferring central government funding to the National Trading Standards Board and Trading Standards in Scotland. Last year, we invested £14.5 million in these bodies to fund co-ordinated enforcement action across the UK.

We also want to develop a better understanding of the impact that trading standards services have on our economy at both the local and national level. Therefore, in partnership with the Trading Standards Institute, we have commissioned a group of academics at the Institute of Local Government Studies in Birmingham to undertake a piece of research on which to build an evidence base on the economic, social and environmental impact of trading standards work, the impact that budget cuts have had on enforcement activity, and the efficiency of trading standards services across England, Scotland and Wales. The project will conclude in the autumn and the outputs will inform future policy considerations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, raised the question of trading standards publishing data. Trading standards will be able to name and shame a business, giving consumers more information to make better purchasing decisions. That is a key element of the new enhanced measures.

The requirement in the Bill for trading standards to provide 48 hours’ notice of a routine inspection was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Crawley, among others. I emphasise that this is about routine inspections; it is not about situations where there is any concern or suspicion that a trader is breaking the law. Other powers in the Bill can be used to check letting agents’ compliance with the duty to display fees. I also want to reassure the House that the powers and safeguards are designed to strike a balance—and it is a balance—between protecting civil liberties, reducing burdens on business and enabling enforcers to tackle rogue traders. Businesses, and particularly small businesses, welcome the requirement for notice. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that,

“booking inspections in advance … will allow the business to make the necessary arrangements … so that everyone gets the most possible from the inspection”.

However, I underline again that we have no intention of weakening the powers of consumer law enforcers to investigate rogue activities. That is why the Bill contains a number of clear exemptions from giving notice, such as where doing so would defeat the purpose of the visit—for example, when investigating the sale of illegal tobacco or the production or transit of fake food. Consumer law enforcers will still have more powers to enter premises than the police.

I turn now to an issue I know exercises a number of noble Lords, which is the right to receive bills in paper format. It has been raised today by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and I know it certainly exercises my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. I have heard the views expressed in this debate, and empowering consumers is a key objective of the Bill. My department is in the process of commissioning research regarding the issues that help and hinder the empowerment of consumers. We aim to use this research to identify the key target groups of consumers in need of greater assistance and the best ways to reach out to them. I can reassure the House that we will consider the comments made today alongside the conclusions from the research and act accordingly if this suggests the need for further thinking. Let me make one thing clear. There is no penalty for choosing paper—instead, people simply do not receive a discount. Choosing paper bills retains an additional service for those who wish not to take a paperless bill discount.