Clause 19

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 19th April 2007.

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Advice, information and guidance

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment

No. 54, in clause 19, page 11, line 13, after ‘consumers’, insert

‘or is otherwise in the public interest’.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

The clause is all about advice, information and guidance. Amendment No. 54 seeks to widen the ability of the NCC to issue advice or guidance on any matter affecting the interests of consumers or

“otherwise in the public interest”.

We feel that it would be appalling if the NCC held information that was in the public interest but, because of the narrowness of the definition, was not able to publish. We have already discussed Postwatch, which the Minister said was not a social policy think-tank. The challenge is how narrowly one defines the interests of consumers. It is a probing amendment. We are asking the Government whether the clause is a bit too limiting. It could be argued that anything could be defined as being in the public interest. We are seeking a bit of clarity about how the Minister defines what is in the interests of consumers and how that differs from the public interest.

Amendment No. 55 would convert another “may” to “shall”. We are not seeking to employ a scattergun approach, but we think that it is important for this particular measure to read:

The Council shall publish advice or information about consumer matters if it appears to the Council that its publication would promote the interests of consumers.”

I should like to turn that on its head and ask the Minister where the harm is in strengthening “may” to “shall”. Is the purpose of the measure to provide the NCC with a get-out clause if it is under pressure from the Government to cut costs?

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I referred earlier in the week, possibly injudiciously, to being seduced by the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench colleague, but I must say that the hon. Lady makes a similar capture of my emotions on this occasion. She makes a powerful case, but does she not accept that for the council to publish advice or information, it must produce that advice or information anyway? If it produces it, surely it will not decide not to publish it. Is she not  talking about dissemination rather than publication? If the NCC calls in a piece of work and produces it, it will not then sit on it. Inevitably, it will publish it.

Will she not also consider that the advantage of “may” is that it provides for all the issues of commercial confidentiality, sub judice and cases that might be continuing? Will she not break the habits of a lifetime and trust the Government and the National Consumer Council on this occasion?

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I take his point, but on one hand, he is discussing the semantics of whether publication is the same as dissemination, and on the other, he is saying that the NCC will automatically publish. I refer back to my original question. If we replace “may” with “shall”, it will remove a fear in the minds of some of us who might be slightly sceptical about an automatic requirement or the idea that we can always trust the Government. If we had “shall” there, we would not feel that the measure could be used as an excuse for a cost-cutting exercise.

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

The amendments relate to the powers of the new council to publish advice or information about consumer matters and its discretion in deciding on publication. As drafted, the Bill allows the new council to publish advice or information about consumer matters if it considers that publication will promote the interests of consumers.

Amendment No. 55 would impose a duty on the new council to exercise the power in clause 19(2) to publish advice or information about consumer matters if it appears to the council that its publication would promote the interest of consumers. As drafted, the clause allows the new council to consider whether publication of such advice would be in the interest of consumers before exercising its discretion over publication.

The new council is being established as an independent body. It must surely be allowed to make decisions about allocation of its resources in accordance with its identified priorities. We believe that the discretion is necessary to enable the new council to take action that it considers appropriate in the overall best interests of consumers. We are not aware of any reasons why the new council, having taken a view on the merits of publication, would then not follow that up with the appropriate action.

Amendment No. 54 suggests that the power to publish advice and information about consumer matters should be extended beyond publication where that is considered to be in the interest of consumers, thereby covering occasions that have been identified as

“otherwise in the public interest”.

The amendment falls short of stating what criteria would be used to identify when occasions for the publication of advice or information about consumer matters in the public interest, which is not already promoting the interests of consumers, might arise. The new body is being established as a consumer advocacy body, therefore its remit is to cover issues from a consumer interest angle and it would typically be able to take a view on  the scope of consumer-related issues within its fundamental area of expertise. As a cross-sectoral consumer body, it will be able to cover a wide range of consumer issues.

As it is drafted, the clause sufficiently covers the appropriate scope, which may cover certain issues of public interest from a consumer’s general point of view. There is no reason to extend the focus of the council more widely than its principle remit, which is to work in the interests of consumers. The new council has been given the statutory tools for the job and must be allowed to carry out this function as it sees fit. There is no need for the amendment, so I ask the hon. Lady to ask leave to withdraw it.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 10:00 am, 19th April 2007

The Minister’s definition of what is in the consumer’s interest and what is in the public interest is sufficiently wide to give fair reassurance. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.