The clause provides for the territorial committees to exercise virtually all the functions of the new council on its behalf in relation to the territory for which each is established. In the case of Northern Ireland the functions of the territorial committee will be confined to postal service matters, because the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland already covers the consumer interest in other markets.
In addition, the clause provides for co-ordination between the committees and the new council in relation to the carrying out of the council’s functions by allowing the council to impose restrictions or conditions on the exercise of functions by the territorial committees. The new council may also give general or specific directions to the territorial committees on the exercise of any function by the committees. The committees will also have other functions, including the provision of advice to the new council about consumer matters in the relevant area or the exercise of its functions to the extent that they affect that area, and any other purposes that the new council determines under its powers.
I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the character and scope of the clause. As he said, its powers and functions reflect the debate in another place, where the Government tabled some amendments that shifted important functions to the devolved territorial committees. Indeed, on Report, the noble Lord Truscott, speaking on behalf of the Government, said:
“There are very few instances where the functions of the council are not exercisable by the territorial committees”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 January 2007; Vol. 689,c. 133.]
The Minister in effect confirmed that in his opening remarks.
The interesting point is that, in one sense, the argument in favour of a sectoral merger into a unified body to deal with all consumer matters has nowbeen dissipated by the establishment of territorial committees, notably in Scotland and Wales. As we have heard, many of the council’s functions and roles will not be exercised by the council per se, but by those committees. Clearly the committees will—quite understandably—develop their own views, and perhaps their own procedures and approach to issues, not least to reflect the fact that there is, for example, a different legal system in Scotland. No doubt, the territorial committees’ views, approaches and procedures will start to diverge. Does the Minister recognise that the change made to the Bill in another place is of great significance to the operation of the council? What is the Government’s view of that potential for divergence? Do the Government regard that as positive and good; do they take a neutral view; or will they be concerned if that divergence grows too far?
Does the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry intend to interact with the territorial committees, or will it ultimately be a matter for the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland? What role, if any, does he envisage the devolved assemblies having in relation to the territorial committees? I recognise that there could be many positive strengths to the provision, but what is important is that the character of the Bill, since it was first published in another place, has changed in quite important respects. It would be helpful to know what the Government’s view is on that matter.
We welcome the clause. The remit of the territorial committees appears to have been greatly strengthened from what was originally proposed in another place. We are very pleased about that, but we make the point that the word used in the clause is “may”. Although the territorial committees may be able to exercise these functions, there is no compulsion for them to do that. At least we welcome that fact that they could be reasonably expected to exercise those functions, and for that we are grateful to the Government.
The hon. Lady has outlined the Government’s comfort zone in this respect. We must remember that there will be a national work programme that we expect the new council to be able to reflect across the country.
To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, the clause reflects the Government’s amendments on Report in the House of Lords specifically to provide functions to territorial committees on the face of the Bill. The original draft provided the new council with discretion to delegate functions to territorial committees. The new draft has been warmly welcomed by the Scottish and Welsh consumer councils. The Government are relaxed; we do not say that there is any threat to the efficient working on behalf of the consumer and we are not exercised at all by the fact that these changes have been made and accepted in the Lords after debate.
That is a matter for the Secretaries of State and for the devolved assemblies. There would be consultation, and arrangements for communication, but ultimately, the new NCC will be responsible for the work programme, and it will be accountable as outlined in the Bill.
In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s question on divergence of territorial committees, the new council’s powers will ensure coherence and co-ordination. As reflected by our acceptance and tabling of amendments, we believe that it is important that there are territorial committees for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Bill deals with consumer issues, which are not in general devolved. Accountability remains with the national body and with the Secretary of State.