Clause 1

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 17th April 2007.

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Establishment of the National Consumer Council and its territorial committees

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

I add my welcome to you as our co-Chairman, Mr. Weir. I am sure that we shall benefit from your guidance and stewardship. This relatively straightforward clause establishes a new statutory corporate body—the National Consumer Council—and requires it to establish and maintain territorial committees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to be known formally as the Scottish Consumer Council, the Welsh Consumer Council and the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee respectively. The names of the national and Welsh consumer councils are also provided in the Welsh language. The clause introduces schedule 1, which makes further provision in relation to the council and its territorial committees.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

As the Minister said, the clause establishes in statute the new NCC and the new territorial committees. I shall consider their remit in clause 2 in more detail.

I will not revisit the principle of the proposal—the merging of various utility consumer organisations—which we debated on Second Reading. However, I want to explore the Government’s intentions towards the new council and its potential remit, now and in the future.

The Government consultation prior to the Bill addressed the issue of what were then termed regulated industries, not just gas, water and electricity, and included the entire communications industry and consideration of financial services. However, the Bill reflects a narrower interpretation, perhaps understandably, as it seeks to merge into the council only those bodies that we would naturally recognise as utilities: gas, water, electricity and, in this case, postal services. Furthermore, it acknowledges the timing problems for the waterindustry vis-Ã -vis the pricing review. The upshot is that it will not seek to incorporate either the financial services or the Ofcom consumer panels into the new council.

However, part 1 of schedule 1 on page 42 enables the Secretary of State to appoint members of the financial services panel and Ofcom to the council, despite the Government agreeing that at present it has “no plans” to incorporate such organisations into the council. The Government thus recognise the potential need for a wider remit.

That leads me to consider how the council might develop in the coming years. A regulated industry covers many things; hon. Members on both sidesof the Committee can think of a number of different industries that do not immediately and currently fall within the purview of the Bill. As such, a regulated industry could therefore mean many more things than we are debating and my concern is how the council might develop when it is established in primary legislation.

For example, many of my constituents, and, I suspect, those of Labour Members, want increasedand strengthened consumer representation in the railway industry, which is regulated, and they will have complaints about pricing, servicing and so on. Is it the Government’s view, therefore, that the new council could or should extend the remit to bodies or sectors beyond those named in the Bill? Does the Minister envisage other regulated industries being included in the future, and, if so, which industries?

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

The hon. Gentleman is on a fishing expedition to identify future Government plans, which I am not in a position to identify for him, other than those for water, which was widely discussed on Second Reading and which will be incorporated in prospective consultation next year. At present there are no plans; we will fully explore some of the issues that he raised in later clauses.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Mr. Weir, this is the first time that I have encountered a ministerial double act, and, for the sake of clarity, I ask which Minister has responsibility for each part of the Bill and who will reply to the debate on the relevant clauses.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for that information as our discussions develop. As he said, we have two Ministers present with responsibility for different aspects of the Bill and responsibility within the Department for different aspects of policy. However, there is blurring at the edges on some issues. Therefore, we may well get a double act in response at some point during the course of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 10:45 am, 17th April 2007

The Minister perhaps unintentionally implied that this was what he described as merely a fishing expedition, but the purpose of the Committee is to explore how far the legislation could extend. So, I suspect that he may regret those remarks and I hope that he will have the courtesy to reconsider them.

I want to know exactly what he would rule out. For example, would the Government never include the railway? I do not oppose inclusions, I just want to make sure that the Government’s intentions are crystal clear.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

Forgive me, but I am not an angler and was not in any way disparaging the fishing community or fishing as an activity. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford was correct, the mechanism is entirely appropriate for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill, as well as future plans and so on. I can only repeat the answer that I started earlier, that the sectors in the Bill are the ones being dealt with. Future Governments may have plans for other services to be incorporated. We have mentioned that, subject to the consultation next year, water may be incorporated in due course, but at this point there are no further concrete plans.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

Simply, should the new council extend its remit beyond those industries currently in the Bill?

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Employment Relations & Postal Services)

I apologize to the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Weir, but I am not in a position to rule anything in or out other than what I have already said. The Bill deals with the services and arrangements as outlined; we have said that water may well be incorporated; there is nothing further for the Government to say now.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.