I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 23, after '(1)', insert:
'Subject to the overriding requirement to keep sensitive business information confidential,'.
We move to another clause, but at least some of the arguments are the same. I will therefore keep my comments brief. The point cannot be repeated too often in the relevant parts of the legislation and the arguments have been revisited many times. The CBI speaks for business when it supports the amendment. We hope that it may find favour with the Under-Secretary.
The amendment would make the OFT's provision of information and advice to Ministers or public authorities subject to an overriding requirement to keep sensitive business information confidential. It may hinder the OFT's capacity to advise Government and public authorities and it is also unnecessary. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the clause is aimed at the OFT commenting on general trends and specific legislation, not at specific companies. As I mentioned in my remarks to his hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, specific protection is offered for consumer and competition information as defined under part 9. I therefore regret that although the hon. Gentleman suggested that the amendment was parallel to the others, it is not in the same category. I hope that he will withdraw it in the light of my remarks. If not, I will oppose it.
I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 3, line 32, at end insert:
'(3) It shall also be a function of the OFT to issue guidance to trading standards departments about the use of their powers to obtain Stop Now orders and to ensure that such powers are used consistently.'
Despite our puzzlement about the meaning of the word ''function'', we were still keen to impose another
function on the OFT, and that is it. That is a serious, practical point. One benefit of super complaints–we are not dealing with them now–is that they should prevent different levels of interest in pursuing an abuse being expressed in different parts of the country. The matter can then be dealt with globally as a global concern, if that is not too simplistic a view of the meaning and import.
Some 200 trading standards departments around the country have varying amounts of resources to devote to particular abuses. They have different priorities, which is, in a sense, right. Later in the Bill we will hear the views–about resources and other matters–of the Trading Standards Institute and the Local Government Association, among others. Some attempt has been made to ring-fence some resources for trading standards departments. According to my information, it has not been particularly successful. Resources always have a tendency to be siphoned away into other local government activities even though, with the best will in the world, they are destined for trading standards in other departments. On any view, therefore, we have a big problem of inconsistency between different trading standards departments in different local councils throughout the country.
The OFT should have some overview of how stop now orders are carried out in practice. I do not want to oversell the amendment, but the OFT should have some say in bringing consistency of policy. We shall debate stop now orders in more detail shortly, but it would be worrying for business if some trading standards departments went off like a rocket and handed out stop now orders like bus tickets while others hardly issued them at all. Bringing some consistency is therefore a sensible extra function to heap on the OFT and we hope that it will find favour with the Government.
I support the intention behind the amendment–to improve the consistency of approach in the use of stop now orders. The amendment is designed, as the hon. Gentleman explained, to achieve two objectives. The first is to give the OFT a duty to issue guidance, but it is unnecessary because it already has a duty to issue guidance on stop now orders under the Stop Now Orders Regulations 2001–I appreciate that they are not before us today–and under clause 220, which places it under a duty to issue guidance on the corresponding provisions in part 8. The OFT issued interim draft guidance on stop now orders last year and, after extensive consultation, the final version was published last week. Copies have been made available to members of the Committee.
Secondly, the amendment is designed to place a duty on the OFT to ensure that stop now orders are used consistently. We want enforcers to use the powers in the regulations and part 8 of the Bill consistently. The OFT guidance has the aim of promoting consistency and, to prevent duplicate proceedings, it can direct that enforcers other than community enforcers may not take a case to court if another enforcer is already doing so.
The OFT does not, however, have a general power to direct the activities of trading standards departments, which are, as the hon. Gentleman would accept, obviously part of local authorities. We do not believe it appropriate for the OFT to have such a power in that regard. We expect the OFT to do all it can to support and encourage the consistent use of these powers, but it is not right to place it under a duty to ensure that. For the reasons I explained, it does not have the power to do so.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we support his intention and that much of what he wants the amendment to achieve will be achieved by the Bill and existing regulations. I am hoping to persuade him to withdraw the amendment. If not, I encourage the Committee to oppose it.
I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's explanation. I am delighted to hear that the Government have broadly the same intention, so I accept that a formal amendment is unnecessary. We have now received the stop now orders guidance, which helpfully came out on the day of Second Reading. We are continuing to get our heads round it, but it seems likely that the OFT will pursue some attempts to achieve consistency, whether by holding seminars, issuing press releases or generally keeping in touch with trading standards departments or the Trading Standards Institute, which would also have a role.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
These amendments have a little more meat to them. Clause 7 contains important provisions that empower the OFT to make proposals and give information or advice to Ministers of the Crown or other public authorities. It is difficult to argue against there being a formal interface between the OFT and other bodies. We have heard already about its potential relationship with the Serious Fraud Office, but I hope that there will be slightly less colourful relationships. In the interests of transparency, about which the Under-Secretary has spoken several times, we believed that there should be an attempt to make the process as open as possible, which is why any such advice or information should be published. The hon. Lady may say that there are subjects that are too confidential to be published, in which case I would be more than happy to withdraw the amendment if the Government come back with a more suitable one of their own.
Furthermore, it seemed to us that a Minister who receives a proposal or some advice from the OFT should be obliged to respond within a reasonable amount of time. We would not want a one-way street in which, after careful consideration that is possibly based on a lengthy and extensive investigation, the OFT could come out with proposals or advice that were simply filed away and not pursued. It is important that, as far as possible, such matters are in the public domain and amendment No. 16 would ensure that a response was made to such advice or proposals within six weeks.
I am not dogmatic about the time period. It may seem a short time in some reaches of the civil service and we could make it longer, or perhaps shorter. However, a requirement on the Minister to produce a reasoned response is important, and although it may not be clear from the amendments, it is implicit that any such response to a proposal, advice or information should also be published. I imagine that such proposals, advice or information would be few and far between, but for that reason, they would probably be important to matters of more general significance to the OFT in the carrying out of its various functions.
On that basis, I commend both amendments to the Committee. They are eminently practical, but I will be happy if the Under-Secretary can improve on them in the way that I have suggested.
The amendments would ensure that all the proposals, information and/or advice to Ministers from the OFT are published and that any Minister of the Crown who receives proposals or advice from the OFT should deliver and publish a reasoned response within, as the hon. Gentleman said, six weeks of receipt. I fear that I am not on the same wavelength as the hon. Gentleman on this, because publication of such material would not always be appropriate and, in fact, could harm individual and business interests in some circumstances. It would also not always be appropriate or necessary for the Government to publish a response to each piece of advice or proposal from the OFT. Our intention is that the OFT should advise where laws and regulations create barriers to entry to markets and competition, or channel markets in a particular direction, thereby holding back innovation and progress.
The Government have made a commitment in the competition White Paper to publish a response within 90 days of receiving a report. However, the amendment goes beyond that. It is inflexible and unnecessary; it might harm individual and business interests if we were committed to such wholesale publication. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.