Clause 10

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 17th April 2007.

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The information function

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

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in clause 10, page 6, line 31, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

With this it will be convenientto discuss amendment No. 11, in clause 10, page 6,line 31, leave out from ‘facilitate’ to end of line 32and insert ‘disseminate advice and information to consumers—’.

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

I should like to deal with the two amendments together and with the arguments at the heart of each of them. The amendments seek to ensure that the new National Consumer Council provides the essential information about its activities and functions to all consumers. We debated earlier the need for openness and the vital function of that transparency if the National Consumer Council is to establish itself as a genuine voice and an advocate, as the Minister put it, for consumers.

At present, the clause merely suggests that the Secretary of State may

“facilitate the dissemination...of advice and information”.

That is a well-meaning phrase, but it feels rather generalised and undirected, could be open to interpretation and will fall short of how I suspect most consumers would expect that new body to function. There is also a danger that, unless there is a clear prescriptive intention, the council and its various component parts—we learned earlier that many of the council’s functions will be delegated down through its territorial and other committees—might not ensure that many key consumer issues are disseminated.

Concerns also extend to the dissemination of information about the council and its functions. As I have argued elsewhere, it is vital that not only is the council open in its functions and operation, but is seen to be open. The Minister has been positive in respect of similar amendments, so I should be interested to hear whether he accepts my points and whether, in doing so, he can provide some assurance.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister of State (Trade & Investment), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister of State (Trade & Investment), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The amendment is very similarto amendment No. 44. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, they have both tabled  similar amendments in the Lords during general debate and on Report. I apologise to the Committee if some of the things that I say are similar to what has been said, but I must be consistent in my response to do justice to the amendment.

As we made clear during discussion on amendment No. 44, the new council has been given three statutory core functions, and the amendment relates to the information function. We have a clear expectation that the council will make use of all three functions effectively and transparently. However, the amendment again raises the question of whether we should or will attempt to require the council to undertake all the functions at the same time, or set out its core functions and leave the new body to determine how and when they are exercised according to priority and need and in accordance with its forward work programme.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford raised a fair point, not just intellectually but in practical terms. If we give the council three statutory core functions, what certainty and bottom line will there be? Will it be clear what the three functions are and how they operate? Will someone looking at the work programme be able to say, “Yes, this body is taking seriously all aspects of its functions”? Attached to those functions are two other things: financial resource and human resource. The council must have the capacity to put all three things together transparently.

My point should not be taken in isolation but with all the discussions that we have had on other clauses. They should be pieced together to get the picture. There will be a statutory function, a consultation process for the work programme and consultation and transparency about financial resources and which parts fall to Government and to other appropriate bodies. For those parts that fall to other appropriate bodies, to ensure transparency in the system, those bodies must say how and how effectively those resources are spent, and what their capacity is to meet the budget. The other locks are not just the annual report but the report on how the NCC is carrying out its work programme and its capacity to make determinations when the programme needs to change to meet circumstances.

We have chosen the hon. Gentleman’s second option. We cannot compel the council to discharge the core functions, because the functions do not stand by themselves. We cannot say that the council shall or must provide advice and information without saying to whom and about what it must provide it. The council must make that choice. It goes back in the end to the matter of independence, but independence does not mean an excuse to do nothing, or to turn a blind eye to a blatant injustice for the consumer in the marketplace.

I have no doubts whatever about how we are establishing the NCC. It will bring together the redress schemes and the panoply of other measures in the Bill. The NCC’s whole sense of direction when established will be that of an advocate, with a strong ethos of acting in the consumer’s interest. I am certain that in all circumstances, it will give the consumer the benefit of the doubt on the issues brought before it, whether policy issues or individual or collective complaints needing redress. It is therefore important that we give the council the opportunity to do so, which is why we have chosen this option.

On amendment No. 11, what we are trying to achieve is the creation of a strong body that can influence and bring about change for the better on consumers’ behalf. We are giving it the right to advocate for individuals or collective groups of consumers where something goes wrong, but we also want to give it as a preventive strategy the ability to influence policy outcomes to ensure that the marketplace operates effectively on the consumer’s behalf, and that those who provide goods and services have an ethos and a way of managing their business that protects the consumer’s interests and not just those of their own organisation. It is important that we provide the opportunity to act on behalf of consumers. To achieve that, there will be certain functions and circumstances in relation to which an autonomous approach can be taken. An example is the new council’s powers under clause 17 to prepare and publish

“a report in relation to any matter falling within the scope of its functions.”

However, the new body also needs to be able to work with and through others. A prime example involves the relationship to consumer education. That is an area in which the Office of Fair Trading has a statutory function under section 6 of the Enterprise Act 2002 to

“publish educational materials or carry out other educational activities” and to

“support...such activities or the provision by others of information or advice.”

The new council would be expected to contribute to that process with a view to advocating the consumer interest in the provision of education and information by the OFT or other parties. That is very important. It is an innovation. The council will have not only an influence over its own role and remit, but a specific influence over the remit and role of others who have a duty towards consumers. That is vital and is why we have drafted the function as we have. It permits the council not only to facilitate the dissemination of information and advice by others, but to disseminate information itself. That is vital if the council is to be out there and seen there, marching forward on behalf of consumers. The ability is not just to put information out itself, but to ensure that others do so as well. That is innovation.

Amendment No. 11 would remove the ability of the new council to operate in this fashion, which is why I will resist it. I assume that it will not be accepted. I assume that it was tabled to enable me to give the Committee assurances about what the clause means and the role that we expect the NCC to play in operating the clause in a practical way on behalf of consumers.

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

The Minister and I share a view that this debate is about practicalities as much as it is any form of discussion as to the intellectual essence of what the organisation should be. Clearly, in a legislative process, one challenge is how we ensure that what is written in the Bill is put into practice. As the Minister correctly articulated, that is the purpose of these probing amendments.

I had not considered this before the debate—we all learn something every day—but I accept that the  collaborative approach would be restrained by amendment No. 11. Clearly, that was not its purpose, so I think that the Minister has raised a very good point. There is a strong argument for the council to be able to work in partnership. We see that later in the Bill. It is an important ethos, not least given the increased complexity of issues in the consumer field. Therefore, the Minister has raised an important issue.

However, the essential point, which I wanted to draw from the Minister and which I am glad he has put on the record, is the key word “expectation”. It is the expectation of the Government that the council will ensure that the functions set out in the Bill are implemented. That is the critical part of the process. I am delighted to hear that put on the record and I am therefore only too pleased to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.