Clause 47 - POWER OF OFT TO REQUIRE ACCESS TO PREMISES

Consumer Credit Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 27 January 2005.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:00, 27 January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 35, in clause 47, page 38, line 27, at end insert—

'(7A) It shall be the duty of the OFT to take all reasonable steps to ensure that its own officers, or those of the enforcement agency, shall, when entering and while on the premises by virtue of this section, at all times behave in a reasonable and professional manner.'.

I assure the Minister that I shall not press the amendment to a Division, as it, too, is a probing amendment. However, it is a continuation of my concern about the OFT. Clause 47 gives the OFT power to require access to premises; clause 48 gives the OFT power of entry to premises under warrant. That is quite an extension of the OFT's powers. They are, I suppose, similar to the powers of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise; its considerable powers are familiar to any businessman. Perhaps they are required; I do not know.

Amendment No.35 requires the OFT to ensure that anyone entering premises, either as their own agent or as agents of other enforcement authorities, should behave in a proper and professional manner. That is not an unreasonable requirement. It is a probing amendment because there are many requirements on business and on licensees to co-operate. I am, however, concerned about the powers granted to the OFT. I ask the Minister to address not merely the amendment, but also to give the Committee an explanation of what supervision he envisages for the OFT when it has such powers of entry. It will concern licensees greatly.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs)

Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury for moving the amendment; I accept that it is a probing amendment. I do not wish to underline too much his concerns about the OFT, but I should set out how the OFT should behave when exercising its new powers under the Act.

The hon. Gentleman is of the view that nobody can control the OFT. The OFT is an independent regulatory body established under the Enterprise Act 2002 and is fully accountable to Parliament, reporting annually to the Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry and appearing before relevant parliamentary committees. Indeed, several meetings take place between OFT officials, DTI officials and Ministers.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

In replying to my hon. Friend, I would appreciate it if the Minister would tell us why this power is being sought. Why can the OFT not rely on other powers, including the power of discovery, in order to produce documents at an appropriate stage? Why have representations been made specifically requiring such an increase in the OFT's powers?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs)

I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman asks those questions. As I have said, the OFT already has many powers under the Enterprise Act 2002, but I can reassure the Committee that the Bill contains the appropriate checks and balances required to regulate the   behaviour of OFT officers and those acting on the OFT's behalf.

First, under clause 50, anything done by an enforcement officer acting on behalf of the OFT will be treated as if it had been done by an officer of the OFT. Secondly, a licensee would have grounds for appeal in the highly and, I hope, unlikely event of an officer behaving in anything other than a reasonable and professional manner. A licensee might be able to appeal against a decision if the OFT sought to use evidence in an unreasonable and unprofessional manner. Thirdly, officers of the OFT, like all public servants, are bound to act reasonably and professionally at all times. If they do not, they can be reported to the parliamentary ombudsman. Administrative law imposes a general duty on public bodies to act reasonably.

In addition to those checks and balances, I would like to provide further reassurance to hon. Members. The OFT has similar powers of access to premises under cartel investigations and, despite having no specific legislative duty, OFT officers have behaved responsibly and professionally when conducting visits for these investigations. There is no reason to believe that OFT officers will act any differently when conducting licensing visits. Therefore, together with all the checks and balances already in place, the amendment—which I accept is a probing amendment—is unnecessary.

It is important for the OFT to have those powers. I was asked why we are giving people the power to enter business premises at all. In some cases fitness can be assessed most effectively and efficiently by an enforcement officer visiting the premises of a licensee and gaining access. The powers already exist under the Enterprise Act 2002, and we are looking into the licensing regime. Safeguards are in place—a variety of checks and balances already exist.

Hon. Members have put on record their concerns, which I am sure the OFT will take into consideration in how it operates. I hope that those assurances have reassured the hon. Gentleman, and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.