Clause 20

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 19th April 2007.

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Duty to enter into co-operation arrangements

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

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in clause 20, page 11, line 37, at end insert—

‘(2A) Prior to making an appointment under subsection (2)(d), the Secretary of State must consult such persons as would be affected by such an appointment.’.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment

No. 19, in clause 20, page 12, line 3, leave out ‘As soon as practicable’ and insert ‘No later than six months’.

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

The clause provides for a duty to enter into co-operative arrangements on the part of the council. Subsection (1) says:

“It is the duty of the Council and each designated body to enter into cooperation arrangements under this section.”

A designated body is defined in various ways, including, under subsection (2)(d),

“a person designated by the Secretary of State by order for the purposes of this section.”

Amendment No. 18, which is a probing amendment, is intended to help us understand more clearly the scope of the measure and the Government’s intentions in that area. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify exactly how the Government intend to appoint such persons, so we can understand that the process will be above board. I hope that he will give us some assurances on that.

Amendment No. 19, which is another probing amendment, relates to subsection (4). It seeks a little bit more clarity about how the Government intend to approach the publication of their memorandum setting out what they have done. At the moment, the subsection says that that should be done as soon as is practicable, but we seek to amend it to include a timetable of six months, not because six months is necessarily an instant panacea or a perfect period of time, but to be clear as to  whether the Government think that it is adequate, or too long or short a time, and what they expect will be appropriate. On that basis, I move the amendment and look forward to the Minister’s reply.

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

I have just a couple of brief comments. We Liberal Democrats were slightly mystified, in respect of the purpose of amendment No. 18, as to why the person would not be consulted. We should like clarification from the Minister. Surely, there would be a memorandum of understanding for anyone with whom the NCC was going to have co-operation. We are not clear about why the provision in question would be necessary.

On amendment No. 19, we think that the idea of having some sort of time backstop could be quite helpful and we would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments—not necessarily on the six months, but on having a time backstop in itself.

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

Clause 20 requires the council and the designated bodies that are referred to in this clause—namely, the Office of Fair Trading, the Financial Services Authority’s Consumer Panel, and the Consumer Panel of the Office of Communications—to enter into co-operation arrangements, and it includes provisions relating to such arrangements. The Secretary of State can require other bodies to enter into co-operation arrangements by designating them by order.

Amendment No. 18 appears to be based on a misunderstanding of clause 20(2). These co-operation arrangements are not about making appointments to the new council; they are about specifying which bodies the council must work with in the exercise of its functions, and are intended to encourage effective communication channels, collaborative working, and to provide an effective interface between the council and others where functions and responsibilities coincide or overlap.

The word “person” in clause 20(2)(d) is used in all legislation—and certainly in this legislation—as shorthand for individuals and persons, corporate or unincorporated. The word has that meaning throughout the Bill. During the debate at our first sitting, the Minister for Trade explained that the definition of “consumer” as a person who uses or receives goods or services includes persons corporate or unincorporated.

Over time, it may be necessary to consider widening the co-operation arrangements to include other bodies, and, in such circumstances, the Secretary of State may designate others, such as other consumer bodies, to be subject to these provisions. It is envisaged that such decisions would be taken after appropriate consultation, and entry into new co-operation arrangements would happen as a consequence. I hope that that explanation clarifies that point.

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

In this context, I understand exactly the point that the Minister is making. He is confirming that it is anticipated that, in almost every instance, the Government will have in mind a corporate body or an entity, rather than an individual.

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

Indeed, I can give that confirmation. It may be an individual, but it may be an office holder. In that regard, it will be person who is a  single individual, but we are talking about persons corporate or unincorporated.

Amendment No. 19 also relates to clause 20 and to the requirement for the council and a designated body to prepare a memorandum setting out the co-operation arrangements between them as soon as is practicable after agreement is reached on the arrangements. Amendment No. 19 changes that so that a memorandum has to be prepared no later than six months after agreement is reached on co-operation arrangements. We see no reason why the new council and a designated body would not prepare a memorandum of agreement and send a copy of it to the Secretary of State at the earliest possible opportunity. The Secretary of State would certainly want to know the reasons for any delay. The imposition, or opportunity, of a time limit would give the wrong impression of how the process should work. Any time limit specified could end up being seen as a target, and could result in the memorandum being sent to the Secretary of State later and not sooner. Therefore, we cannot accept amendments Nos. 18 and 19, and we request that the movers consider their withdrawal.

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

The Minister has just satisfactorily answered amendment No. 18. I am not entirely confident that he has answered amendment No. 19, although he has demonstrated that the Government would expect a reply within six months. However, as the amendment says “No later than six months”, the argument that this would somehow be regarded as the target date—

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

Given that these co-operation arrangements are being negotiated, common sense suggests that signing a memorandum of understanding would be the last thing to be done. Therefore, there is an expectation that almost the first thing to be done after signing it would be to send a copy to the Secretary of State. That is why we are saying that six months does not really make sense. We think that it will be a great deal sooner. I know that the intent is genuine but “as soon as practicable” is more appropriate.

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

The Minister is being helpful, and I fully understand that. I said at the outset that this is a probing amendment, and so I do not intend to press it to the vote. My intention is to ensure that the arrangements are clear, and are understood by the parties who have to be engaged in them—and, indeed, by those of us who must then seek to ensure that subsequent scrutiny is appropriate.

In his earlier remarks, the Minister said that he would expect—as any Secretary of State would—a memorandum to be delivered as soon as possible. That is an important point. I am grateful to the Minister for his deliberations. However, on that basis, I am not entirely convinced, although I am encouraged, if I can put it that way. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.