House of Commons
Monday 19 March 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Criminal Justice System
The review was published in July last year and set out a clear timetable for delivery. The majority of the things that we said we would do by December were completed on time, and we are making good progress towards meeting our April commitments. We will publish a further update shortly.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. For the purposes of the review, will he look at the effective work being undertaken against crime and antisocial behaviour in Blaen-y-Maes in my constituency and incorporate that good practice into the review? That represents good progress, not the “hug a hoodie” culture that the Opposition are talking about.
I fully understand what my hon. Friend is saying. I am pleased about the work that goes on in Wales and in her constituency, where she recently made a visit to see it. The work that is going on between the Welsh Assembly, local government and local communities in support of the police is to be commended. We are looking into what can be done in terms of antisocial behaviour orders and community sentencing to ensure that our communities feel a lot safer.
When the Minister reviews the criminal justice system, will he be very chary about coming forward with any more substantive Bills? The Criminal Justice Act 2003 has proved singularly indigestible. Might I suggest that he spends more time in the Home Office in implementation and enforcement instead of on the process of legislation?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is well known for his involvement in these issues, so we take into consideration what he says to us. He will know, however, that the 2003 Act was important in ensuring that protecting the public is our first priority. The Home Secretary has been reviewing all the actions that were taking place in the Home Office. We look at legislation in the context of how appropriate it is not only in defeating crime but in ensuring that the public are protected.
May I urge my hon. Friend not to listen to the views recently expressed by Lord Woolf on sentencing for people convicted of murder? Most people in my constituency tell me that sentences are not long enough, and they do not find credible the idea that people should be let out even earlier. If we want the public to co-operate with the police and to play their part in tackling crime, they must feel that once people are convicted, they are properly punished.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, who is clear, as I am, that the public must be protected from people who need to serve the sentences for the crimes for which they are responsible and that the public would expect them to serve. This is a robust debate. It is important that we consider these issues in the context of ensuring that the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. They will not understand if they are not protected from people who commit heinous crimes and are not in prison for the period that they should be.
The Minister referred to the importance of the public having confidence in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor said this weekend that for that to happen, clarity in sentencing is required. I entirely agree. Does the Minister believe that there is a problem in trying to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system given that, for instance, life sentences now average about 11 years in custody and that 53 so-called lifers who were sentenced in 2000 have already been released? Does not he think that it is time to review all this, to abandon some of the doublespeak that surrounds sentencing, and to apply life sentences only in cases where the courts believe that they should be applied and that is to the most serious offenders who should remain in prison for the rest of their lives?
It is important that the courts decide on sentences; that is why we have the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is made up of the judiciary with Home Office representatives as observers. In the 2003 Act, we ensured that dangerous criminals—people who were a danger to society—had indeterminate sentences. We must ensure that that continues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would share my view that it is important that the public can have confidence in knowing that dangerous criminals will be in prison. That was not the case before the 2003 Act.
Under the Government’s vision of simple, speedy summary justice, the police issued 146,000 penalty notices for disorder last year, including to serial shoplifters. The offenders do not receive a criminal record, the tickets involve no admission of guilt and only about half are paid before court action. How many of those so-called “offences brought to justice” are enforced? How can they possibly count as sanction detections when there is no real sanction?
The hon. Gentleman wants it both ways. He wants the police to have the flexibility to deal with situations on the ground in our communities but then argues about bureaucracy in the police service. He cannot have it both ways. We are pleased with the simple, speedy, fast and fair system that we are putting in place. Fixed penalties play their part in that.
Since we published three reform plans in July last year, I have taken several steps to ensure that joined-up services throughout the Department are improved. They include end-to-end processes for offender management, against which the Opposition voted, end-to-end improvement of the surveillance of asylum applications and, from next month, the establishment of the national policing improvement agency. The Department’s reform programmes are also making several changes to structures, processes and ways of working that will improve co-ordination further.
Given that the Home Secretary’s predecessor essentially lost his job because of failures in co-ordination between the immigration and nationality directorate and the Prison Service—even now, I have heard of a case of a foreign prisoner who was released rather than deported because of co-ordination failures—does he believe that progress has been satisfactory and that it would be better served by having the two services in two separate Departments?
The non sequitur in the question is that the failings to which the hon. Gentleman referred are a perfect illustration of why being in one Department is no guarantee of good co-ordination. The function of co-ordinating and improving co-ordination is essential, whether it is within a Department or between Departments.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are improving the National Offender Management Service. We brought proposals for that before the House. We are improving policing by rolling out neighbourhood policing. We are also improving the immigration and nationality directorate—we publish plans and key indicators for that. We are reviewing counter-terrorism, among many other matters, as well as the Home Office plan. We are making progress on all those matters and we will report publicly on them. However, whatever configuration is used for those units, co-ordination in a Department and between Departments is essential.
On 22 June 2004, I raised in an Adjournment debate the case of my constituent James Bishop, who was killed by a Chinese national, Mr. Yin. Due to lack of co-ordination at IND, he was removed before being prosecuted fully for the offence. I appreciate that the Home Secretary will not have the answer today, but will he write to me to confirm that the promises made during that debate have been fulfilled and that the co-ordination of such cases has been improved?
Under the Government, the immigration and nationality directorate has presided over a substantial increase in net migration of up 185,000 in 2005—the last year for which we have figures. Is any other part of the Home Office co-ordinating that figure with the demands of migration on housing infrastructure and the implications for population density, or does it remain the case that the Government see “no obvious upper limit” to migration, to use the words of the Home Secretary’s predecessor?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is precisely the reason for the need to reconfigure and improve our services in the Home Office. Three of the main issues, among many others with which we deal—international migration, international crime and international terrorism—have grown exponentially in the past decade and a half. We therefore need to undertake improvements and consider reconfiguration to concentrate on managing migration, countering international terrorism and coping with international crime. As part of that, we proposed a migration advisory commission, which would examine independently—and offer independent advice on—a range of issues related to the optimum amount of immigration. That would mean consideration of wider issues than purely and narrowly defined economic matters.
Why does the Home Secretary believe that turning one dysfunctional Department into two dysfunctional Departments will improve matters for the public as opposed to separating the Home Secretary from responsibility for the shameful state of our overcrowded prisons and the early release of dangerous offenders?
I do not think that the Home Office has been dysfunctional in all its aspects. For instance, in the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency, there are something like 257 more police officers than there were under the previous Conservative Government, as well as 155 police community support officers. If he looks at the crime statistics for Harborough, he will see that there has been a 5 per cent. fall in burglary and a 25 per cent. fall in the theft of motor vehicles. In terms of reducing crime and putting more police on the streets, the Home Office has been a damned sight more functional than ever it was under the Conservatives. Having said that, we are facing mass migration on a scale hitherto unprecedented globally, international terrorism at a level that was not even contemplated a decade ago, and the international crime associated with both, and it is therefore right that we should consider the reconfiguration of our efforts to deal with them. When the facts change, we change our views and our structures. That is what sensible people do.
I can assure the Home Secretary that there are not 247 police officers in the Harborough constituency—far from it. Does he not think that the public have a right to expect from Home Office Ministers some strategic political leadership and managerial competence on prisons, violent crime, drug crime, early release from custody of serious criminals, immigration and asylum, border controls, and getting rather more than one in 58 police officers on to the beat? Instead, over the past 10 years, we have had to put up with a flood of repealed or incompetent legislation, and incompetent, disjointed, headline-grabbing schemes that have had no substance or that have been cancelled or replaced within weeks. Instead of spending time in bars co-ordinating their diaries with lobbyists, should not Ministers be spending their time working for the public and dealing with the mess that they have made—
The hon. and learned Gentleman, who is infamous for stooping low, never surprises us by his capacity to go even lower. Is he complaining that we have a record number of police on our streets, or that we have seen a 35 per cent. reduction in the crime rate? Is he complaining that we have campaigned ceaselessly on a whole range of antisocial behaviours, or that we have put more resources than ever into fighting crime? Or will he admit that, on every single occasion, he and his colleagues have voted against the money, the resources and the energies involved? We do not need to take lectures from a party whose Government doubled crime, when we have cut it by a third.
The most recent published crime figures show that the strategy is working. Recorded acquisitive crime, to which drug-related crime makes a substantial contribution, has fallen by 20 per cent. since the onset of the drug interventions programme, which is now getting on average more than 3,000 drug misusing offenders into drug treatment each month. The Home Office is carrying out an ongoing research programme to look at the effectiveness of individual programme components.
Given that the Minister’s own Department’s report in 2005 on determining the effectiveness of drug treatment interventions concluded that
“there is strong evidence that the most effective interventions to reduce drug-related crime are therapeutic communities”,
why are there so few residential rehabilitation centres, particularly for young people, and why are only 18 prisons offering intensive therapeutic programmes?
We have made considerable resources available to the drugs sector to ensure that services are available, whatever the needs of the individuals concerned. We have introduced the drug interventions programme to ensure that people who commit a trigger offence in the DIP areas can be tested on arrest; those who commit such offences in other areas can be tested on charge. Others might come into the system through the health sector. GPs will then allocate them to services as appropriate. I cannot see the hon. Gentleman objecting to the significant increases in budgets; this year, we have invested £1.5 billion in drug-related services in this country. That is a huge increase, compared with the situation a few years ago.
Does my hon. Friend agree that detection is important in combating drug-related crime? Will he join me in congratulating the Wiltshire constabulary, which has detected and shut down crack houses and cannabis farms in Swindon? Does he also agree that local, neighbourhood policing is extremely important for detecting low-level drug pushers and other young people who get involved in drug-related crime?
Since the introduction of the drugs intervention programme more than 69,000 drug-misusing offenders have entered treatment, and many will be treated in Swindon and elsewhere in Wiltshire. The Government’s drugs strategy has succeeded because it is about bringing people treatment not just through the criminal justice system, but through the health service and through self-referral. All that is now working, not only in Swindon but across the country.
Given the link between drug-related crime and drug-infested prisons, does it worry the Minister that at a prison that I visited, often the only penalty imposed on visitors discovered carrying drugs on their way to meet a prisoner was not to be allowed to make a contact visit to that prisoner? When will the Government get tough on drugs in prisons?
The Government are already getting tough on drugs in prisons. The Offender Management Bill, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) has just steered through the House, contains a range of measures to deal with some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
I have already given figures relating to the increase in investment in drug treatment outside prisons. Let me add that in 1996-97, £7.2 million was spent on drug treatment in prisons. In 2006-07, £77.3 million was spent on it—974 per cent. more. Of course, we must ensure that there is good management and that the system is made more effective, and we will do that.
Operation Tarion, conducted throughout south Wales, has—along with a taskforce of police throughout Wales— achieved the highest-ever cocaine haul in the area, resulting in many arrests, and police in Bridgend F division have also made a number of drug arrests recently. Successful policing can actually reduce the anxiety of people who observe the prevalence of drugs in their communities. How can we reassure the public when the police succeed in making such high-level arrests?
At a strategic national and international level the Serious and Organised Crime Agency is responsible for the seizure of cocaine and other drugs, but we also have neighbourhood policing. The interaction of police at local level is extremely important. If we are to overcome local anxiety about drugs, the police must engage with local communities—as they do in the best neighbourhood models—and explain to them what they are doing. People across the country tell me that they do not worry when the police take action over dealers in the street; what worries them is dealers’ being seen to act with impunity. When the police take action, as they have in my hon. Friend’s constituency in south Wales and elsewhere, we should get behind them, because people want to see the dealers where they should be—in prison.
In the courts where I sit, every class A drug addict defendant began his or her life on cannabis. Does the Minister accept that cannabis in its current form is much stronger than it used to be, and is deeply damaging to young and vulnerable people? If he does, will he send a message to the courts and the police to take cannabis much more seriously, and will he raise its classification from C to B to signal our worry about the problem?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue. I think the message we must send is that cannabis remains an illegal drug which causes immense harm to communities. We know that skunk causes a particular problem. Recognising that, the Government recently issued a series of television and other advertisements under the title “Brain Store” in an attempt to show young people, in particular, the link between cannabis and mental illness. There will be a continuing debate about drug classification, but I think the message we should send today is that cannabis remains a dangerous drug and is illegal.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Northamptonshire police on their effective programme of crack house closures, especially in the town centre, where they have dealt with a great many drug-related crime problems? Does he agree, however, that the programme would be much more effective if there were cross-party consensus, particularly involving the Liberal Democrat Opposition?
The power to close crack houses was introduced by this Government. As my hon. Friend says, that was opposed by the Liberal Democrats. It is an important tool that the police have available to them to tackle drug-related crime.
The Government drugs strategy is simple. We want to see tough enforcement of the law. There has to be a real clampdown on people who deal in drugs in our communities. Alongside that we want to see education for our children and for others in society, and an expansion in and more effective use of treatment. As I say, we need to have not an either/or policy, but an all-inclusive policy.
Prisons (Drug Use)
To tackle drug use in custody, the National Offender Management Service has in place a comprehensive drug strategy. The strategy's three key aims are to reduce the amount of illicit drugs getting in by using a co-ordinated range of supply-reduction measures; to reduce the demand for drugs through delivery of effective drug treatment; and to strengthen through-care links with the community, helping to ensure timely continuity of care for drug users on release. While NOMS remains committed to doing more, the drug strategy is already making significant progress, with drug use—as measured by random mandatory drug testing—down from 24.4 per cent. in 1996-97 to 10.3 per cent. in 2004-05, a reduction of 58 per cent.
I thank the Minister for that encyclopaedic answer. I am sure that he will appreciate the seriousness with which Kirkham prison in my constituency takes fighting drug and alcohol addiction by prisoners. He will be aware of the use that it has made of the counselling, advice, referral, assessment and throughcare—or CARAT—programme. The integrated drug treatment service now beckons. Kirkham wishes to adopt that because it wants to do better in countering recidivism. When can Kirkham expect that particular facility to be made available to it?
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his involvement in all aspects of Kirkham’s work. It has a proud record in dealing with drug treatment. He will recognise the improvement that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), talked about: the increase in the drug treatment budget of 974 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman made the point about the integrated drug treatment service, which is additional funding. It is going into up to 45 of our prisons. At the moment it is mainly concerned with the first 28 days of custody, and it is more likely to be rolled out in remand prisons because that is where the biggest problem is seen to be. I take his point that we need to look at prisoners who are on release—most of the prisoners in Kirkham are shortly to be released. We will do that through the National Offender Management Service. I do not charge him personally, but the Opposition voted against the Offender Management Bill. It is important that actions from that Bill are initiated to ensure that we deal with offenders. The release of offenders with drug and other problems is an important matter. We will look at the issue that he raised. Clearly, there is an issue about people coming out of prison with a drug habit.
My constituents would like to know from the Minister why £749,000 was paid in compensation to prisoners in an out-of-court settlement, plus costs, for the messing up, of their detoxification programme. Either the Government should have resisted those claims, or we need to be told what went wrong. It is unacceptable that taxpayers' money should be squandered in that way.
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I have some sympathy with his argument, but he will have to ask the courts why they took the decision—[Interruption.] The courts were involved in what the outcome was likely to be in terms of the recommendations of the legal people. He will know that that matter relates to treatments in the 1990s. Those cases were reluctantly settled out of court because we had to minimise the cost to the taxpayer.
May I add to the Minister's three points the need to persuade young offenders in prison of the need to find alternative sources of employment that are at least as remunerative as drug dealing? What success has the Department had in ensuring that young people who leave offenders institutions have legally marketable skills?
Again, I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman raises that point and yet voted against the NOMS Bill, which enabled the voluntary sector which has expertise in reducing offending among young people. We are trying to reduce reoffending by using all the agencies available to us, whether from the public, private or voluntary sector. It is important that we get the message across to young people that reoffending leads to a life of crime. We must cut the reoffending rates and the NOMS Bill is a way to do that, so I look forward to it to receiving more support when it returns to this House.
On a recent visit to Wandsworth prison I was very taken with the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners trust—RAPt—programme. In assessing how well drug programmes work in prisons, will my hon. Friend take into account the support given by prison governors, because it seemed to me that the absolute support for that programme from the governor at Wandsworth—there was a dedicated unit and it was ensured that the programme had all that it needed—contributed greatly to its success?
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who was at the open day at HMP Wandsworth—along with, I understand, many other Members of Parliament, who were impressed by the work of RAPt. Its chief executive is Mike Trace, who used to be the deputy drugs tsar. It offers a 20-week programme and uses a 12-step approach. The exciting news is that 850 prisoners a year stopped using drugs as a result of their engagement with RAPt. We want to encourage such programmes, so we will look with great interest at how the RAPt programme can be rolled out nationally.
The Minister will be aware that access to drugs in prison is a major problem. What assessment has he made of the Holloway scheme, whereby dogs with handlers are used to sniff out drugs among prisoners—and perhaps might even sniff out drugs being brought into prison by visitors? Does he intend to roll-out that scheme across the nation’s prisons?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question, because she is right to highlight that there are now many ingenious ways that drugs are brought into prisons. I am grateful for the work of the Prison Officers Association, prison officers in general and prison governors, who are doing their best to stop that inflow. Tennis balls have been used to get drugs into prison; the balls are bounced over walls. We must ensure that we keep the balance right between stopping the drugs coming into prisons and also allowing visits to take place. The use of sniffer dogs is an option, but we must also look at the ways that telephone calls are monitored and visitors are inspected, to make sure that those who act unscrupulously are found out.
May I refer my hon. Friend to an article written by prisoner Peter Wayne in the current edition of “Druglink”? He has been involved for 30 years in committing petty crime to fund his drug habit. In most of the prisons that he has been in, he has been detoxified—obviously without any result. His latest visit is to Wandsworth prison, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) mentioned. He has been admitted to a drug-free wing where he is involved in a harm reduction programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that harm reduction programmes are more successful in prisons than detoxification?
It is important to have a mixture of all the potential solutions. We know that up to 80 per cent. of offenders have some relationship with a drug problem at some stage in their time inside or outside prison, so we are dealing with a large problem. We have increased the investment in addressing it, but we would like to widen the opportunities to be successful. We have heard about the RAPt programme in Wandsworth, and we are looking at a range of measures that the voluntary sector can bring about. In an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) talked about the need for us all to unite to tackle drugs in prisons. There is an opportunity for us to have a sensible debate about what are the most effective ways to stop drugs being in prisons.
Victim and Witness Support
The Government are firmly committed to rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of victims and witnesses. We have introduced extensive reforms, including a victims’ surcharge to divert money from offenders to victims, a significant increase in resources for Victim Support from £11.7 million in 1997 to £30 million now, 165 new witness care units to provide tailored support during trial, and a code of practice to give victims statutory rights for the first time.
My hon. Friend will be aware that according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office there are some 250 victims of forced marriage a year. In addition, more than 12 million women and 2 million men suffer from domestic violence of one form or another. I know that the Minister will agree with me that one victim of forced marriage or domestic violence is one too many, but what steps are the Government taking to ensure a better co-ordinated response from social services to maximise support for victims and help eradicate those grotesque practices?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and for the work that he does in his constituency and throughout the country raising those issues. He will know that the Government’s national plan for domestic violence covers forced marriages. We have screening in health and social care settings and training for professionals in those sectors and the criminal justice system, so that people are dealt with in a supportive fashion and their cases understood. Since 2005, we have set up 64 specialist domestic violence courts and on 5 March 2007 we announced £2 million for the multi-agency risk assessment conferences.
The Minister will be aware that the victims of human trafficking need a lot of care after they are found. They often need support in safe houses. With the exception of the POPPY project in London, which deals only with adults, we do not have enough of those houses. What is the Government’s position on expanding programmes such as the POPPY project?
It is important that we try to use the full resources available to resettle victims. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is difficult to find accommodation when resettling prisoners, and the situation is similar for the victims of trafficking. It is important that we provide support in a range of areas, including sometimes medical support, and we are working with various Departments and the Local Government Association to see what further support can be offered.
The Minister will know that there is still a long way to go, for example in cases of child abuse. The sad thing that one discovers, in Cheshire at any rate, is that it is only the commitment of one particular female police officer that provides support for very badly damaged families in nightmare situations. Will he look closely at the issue of co-ordinating support services, because families are still being very badly served?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her work in her constituency and beyond on these issues and for raising those important points. What is important is the education of the public and the agencies about those issues to ensure that people fully understand the implications and the impact on people’s lives of what takes place. We are seeing a better level of training and the involvement of the police and those in criminal justice agencies, who are working with social services and health. We cannot be complacent, because we have to do more, and we are trying to do more.
Have we sent guidance to local departments of public prosecution advising them how to keep up to date and inform the victims of crime and witnesses, so that they can be sure that they do not meet the perpetrators walking down the street? Is the guidance robust and is it being applied consistently throughout the UK?
There is national guidance on witness support. The Government have introduced witness support units, and victim care units are being piloted. We recognise the problems with supporting and keeping victims and witnesses informed. What tends to happen is that the act of crime takes place, the criminal justice system takes over and witnesses and victims are left behind in the process. We are working hard on that and I am especially pleased with the work that has been carried out with the Victim Support voluntary organisation, which is trying to bring together its organisation on a national basis to offer support for victims.
I wish to begin by offering my personal condolences and, I am sure, those of the whole House to all the loved ones, relations and family of the recent victims of the tragic and awful knife crimes.
The Government fully recognise the seriousness of the issue of knife crime and have put in place a variety of measures, encompassing legislation, enforcement, education and prevention to address it. We will continue to work in partnership with the police and local communities to get those weapons off our streets.
In supporting the Home Secretary’s condolences, may I remind him that a particularly vicious crime was committed 18 months ago in my constituency? Two teenagers were stabbed to death in Finchampstead and the case is now before the Crown court. At the time and afterwards, with the backing of Ministers, I gave the victims’ families assurances that action would be taken, but in light of the latest dreadful murders over the past few days, I think that they all have the right to feel that we have collectively let them down. What more can we do?
The right hon. Gentleman is right: we need to take action before, as well as during and after, the awful headlines that we have seen. Perhaps I can reassure him and some of his constituents—if not about the terrible recurrence and instance of such awful crimes—about the fact that we have been taking action. Just a few weeks ago on 12 February, for instance, we doubled the maximum sentence for possession of a lethal weapon or knife in a public place without good reason. In a few weeks from now, on 6 April, we will implement the new offence of using someone to mind a weapon; if the weapon is a knife, the maximum sentence will be four years. We had already planned a few weeks after that to give school staff powers to search pupils for weapons. Those are among the range of measures we have introduced.
In addition to the measures we have brought in over the past few months, I can announce to the House two more steps that I hope will assist in combating knife crime. First, I have authorised that, as from next month, data on serious violent offences involving the specific use of knives and sharp instruments will be separately collected so that we can provide a more detailed understanding of the prevalence of the problem than is currently available. Secondly, we will improve facilities to allow the public to play an even greater part in providing the authorities with information on knife and gun crime. I have today spoken with the chief executive of Crimestoppers to see what additional work can be undertaken to encourage the public to report offences, and will shortly have a meeting with the organisation on that subject.
Finally, I have spoken today to Assistant Commissioner Tim Godwin of the Metropolitan police about the specific events of the recent tragedies, and I urge anyone with information about the deaths of Kodjo Yenga or Adam Regis to contact the Metropolitan police. More generally of course, people can provide information about gun or knife crime through the Crimestoppers number, which is 0800 55511.
Last Thursday, two of my constituents, Susan Hale and Sarah Merritt, were found murdered—reportedly stabbed to death—in a flat in the Townhill Park area of Southampton. The man initially sought by the police has been arrested and now, like the victims’ family and friends, we must wait for justice to take its course. However, reports of the incident highlight the fact that not all knife crime has young people as its victims or that they are necessarily the assailants. Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that in the renewed focus on knife crime and knife violence in our society we will look carefully at all the circumstances in which knives are used in crimes of violence so that we have a full picture and can tackle every aspect of those dreadful crimes?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I think that I can give him that assurance. We have more police than ever before, as well as more police community support officers. We will bring in more powers to sentence where it is appropriate, and for longer in particular circumstances. At the end of the day, neither the Government nor the authorities, nor more powers nor more police, can on their own tackle the problem. Unless we empower communities and engage the whole community as partners in the fight against knife and gun crime and other violent crime, and emphasise the role of parental and personal responsibility as well as the police and powers, we shall not achieve our aim of combating those crimes effectively. I agree that there is a need for particular information about a range of circumstances, and I hope that my announcement today about data collection on violent crimes where knives are involved is a step in the right direction.
Although I do not doubt for a moment the Home Secretary’s commitment on this matter, may I ask him for an assurance that, by the time schools return from their Easter holidays, all inner-city schools will be adequately monitored to ensure that pupils do not go to school possessing these weapons? It is deeply disturbing that so many of the apparent perpetrators are of school age.
As I have already said, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern and, as of May, we are giving school staff powers to search pupils for weapons. As I said, those powers and police presence alone will not solve the problem, but they are a necessary part of the solution. May I correct the telephone number that I provided a few moments ago? Crimestoppers is 0800 555 111.
I join the Secretary of State in sending condolences to the families and others affected by these tragic incidents. Will he join me in urging people to redouble their efforts to engage with young people in the community in order to divert them from such crime? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding what the Government have already achieved through youth offending teams, for example, his Department should work with the Department for Communities and Local Government and others to provide further resources to help local communities to come together and tackle this crime? We need to work with young people to stop them getting involved in the first place.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, which is one of the reasons why, before this recent terrible spate of deaths and attacks associated with knife crime, we had a round table meeting that brought together not just the Government and local authorities, but local, voluntary and charitable organisations. We need to go further and involve other Departments—it is a cross-departmental Government issue—particularly the Department for Education and Skills. It is no consolation to any of us to know that the incidence of knife crime, which is in the order of 6 to 7 per cent. of all violent crime, has remained relatively stable. That is a cold statistic, but it conceals within it some of the terrible tragedies that happen when these weapons are used. I am sure that the whole House wants to do everything possible—not just within the Government, but throughout the country in the communities and in local government—to make sure that we combat it.
Kodjo Yenga was tragically murdered on Hammersmith grove in my constituency last week and I would like to put on record my sympathy for the family and my praise for Hammersmith and Fulham police for acting and getting on the scene extremely quickly. Hammersmith and Fulham police and the British Transport police have been very effective in recent months in monitoring and examining the prevalence of knives in Hammersmith centre; there have been a number of metal detector searches at Hammersmith bus station, and so on. The Home Secretary offers a solution of more data collection and more offences, but does he agree that it is time to look again at the regulations behind stop and search, particularly in London? The current practices of stopping and accounting for searches are simply not working. We need far greater prevalence of stop and search in areas such as Hammersmith centre.
May I express, through the hon. Gentleman, our sympathy for the family of Kodjo Yenga, who was so tragically and awfully attacked, and say how sorry we are for what they are undergoing.
We look at everything that can contribute towards a solution. I have not pretended to be offering a solution today, because I do not think that it is within the power of the Government alone to do so. As I said, personal and parental responsibility as well as the local community must be involved. However, there is an obligation on Government to give a lead and provide the powers, the authorities and the assistance to enable the community—in partnership with us—to fight these terrible incidents. We will look at any means necessary to do that.
On the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, we have to be careful to recognise that, in taking some steps, we may with the best of intentions alienate the very communities that we seek to engage in partnership. I do not say that that is an easy question to resolve. The point that he has put to me has been put to me by people from all different backgrounds in the community. In the meantime, however, I think I will concentrate on the measures that I have brought forward today.
My right hon. Friend has had the chance to meet Hackney police and hear from their lips how crime has dropped by 16 per cent. in Hackney. There were nearly 3,000 fewer victims in the past year. However, the number of stabbings rose by a third in the same period and, as other Members have said, 25 per cent. of the victims of stabbing are aged between 15 and 20 years old. That is a big concern for those of us in Hackney with concerns about our young people.
My right hon. Friend has explained all the hard measures that are in place in terms of sentencing, but could he outline what plans the Home Office has to put money into communities to support parents and community groups who are keen to tackle this problem from the inside rather than at the end point when someone has committed a crime and created a victim?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I very much appreciated her assisting me to meet members of the safer neighbourhoods team—police, local councillors and many other local people—who are working in partnership and taking the matter into their own hands as well as their own heads so as to improve the local community. My hon. Friend is right to say that that cannot be done without local partnership and that is why, in answer to the specific question that she raised, I can tell her that, in the last couple of weeks alone, we have announced an additional £500,000 through the Connected fund to be made available to those in local communities who are fighting against the gangs who would use violence of any sort. I can also tell her that, in October, we will raise the age at which someone can purchase a knife from 16 to 18. I therefore hope that we are moving forward both in addressing the problem of young people using these weapons of violence and in assisting those in the community who are trying to combat that.
I join the Home Secretary and other hon. Members in passing the House’s condolences to the families of Adam Regis, Kodjo Yenga, Father Paul Bennett, Keith Platt and other victims of knife violence.
More than 230 knife-related violent crimes are reported every day. Youth Justice Board polling suggests that more than a quarter of all school pupils have carried a knife in the last year and nearly a third of all homicides now involve the use of a sharp instrument, yet Ministers emphasise the view that the terrible tragedies of the past few days are isolated incidents. Although I hear what the Home Secretary has said about the new measures to be brought forward, including those on the use of data and providing more qualitative assessments of the incidents and the information that is available, when will the Government recognise the full impact of the social and family breakdown and drug abuse that underline the causes of these appalling crimes? Is it not time that the Government focused more on the issues that will deliver more order on our streets rather than simply on delivering more laws and legislation?
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I am cautioning him. It is one thing to understand the complexity of causation and another thing to provide an alibi for it. There is no excuse for using knives or guns to inflict such terrible damage on anyone.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman talks about the incidents not being isolated, but I have not in any way attempted to minimise the situation. I have said that it is no consolation even to know that the level of knife-associated violence is stable. However, we should not brand the large majority of young people as associated with this. They are the potential victims, not the perpetrators. No one is threatened as much as young people. Furthermore, it is not just young people or black people who are threatened; people of all ages are threatened when there is an acceptance of this situation.
I am the first to accept that this is a complex situation, but, if one looks at addressing the underlying causes—if they are deemed to be, in part, poverty, lack of education, family background, unemployment and deprivation—what the Government have done in every one of those fields stands far better comparison than anything the hon. Gentleman’s Government ever did in the almost 20 years that they were in power.
Immigration and Nationality Directorate
Not only did we hit our target for 2006, removing a record number of illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers, but we have now published proposals to back our immigration service with extra powers, extra resources, new identity technology, and concerted action not just across the Home Office, but across public services as a whole.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. While we are on the subject of Home Office reorganisation, does he recall the evidence given by Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migrationwatch UK, to the Committee considering the UK Borders Bill, on which my hon. Friend and I both sit? On Tuesday last week, Sir Andrew Green said that a reorganisation to create a single border force, as proposed by the Opposition, is the “last thing” that should happen at this juncture—
The Minister’s original response was unbelievably complacent. Will he confirm that, according to the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, there are 1,300 foreign criminals who have served their sentence and whom the Department has failed to deport? They are either still in prison or in immigration removal centres. Two of those removal centres have recently been smashed up—one of them only last week—precisely because of the presence of hardened criminals. When are we going to see some practical results from the review instead of the non-stop stream of meaningless management-speak that has so far been the only outcome?
It is not entirely clear what the hon. Gentleman proposes. I assume—in fact, this is the only conclusion that I can draw—that he thinks that we should let those people out while their cases are reviewed and while they drag their cases through the asylum and immigration tribunal. It is true that the measures that we propose in the UK Borders Bill will allow us to expedite their deportation and I look forward to the support of the Opposition. The real step backwards would be to cancel ID cards, as the hon. Gentleman proposes. They are precisely what Andrew Green spoke in favour of in the evidence given to the UK Borders Bill Committee. He added his voice to the voices of not only Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, but Sir Ian Blair, Lord Stevens and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The hon. Gentleman is increasingly setting himself up as the Luddite of law enforcement.
In the review of the Department, will the Minister look at how long things take? Does he share my shock at the fact that he can be within his published deadlines and yet more than half of the applications decided take more than 70 working days? That is because of the long deadlines for uncharged applications and because 10 per cent. of charged applications can take more than 70 working days. Will he speed those figures up?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. There are plans, which we set out in the IND review, for exactly the kind of acceleration that she is looking for. However, where detailed checks need to be made as part of someone’s application, it is right for immigration officers to do those checks so that we can be clear that we are giving the right entitlements to the right people.
The hon. Gentleman sent me a helpful letter after I wrote to him about temporary admission. Does he agree that far too many people are not reporting back after they have been granted temporary admission and that, in fact, the rules relating to people who are granted temporary admission need to be tightened up considerably? Does he think that if there is any doubt at all in the minds of immigration officers, these people should be detained?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. As he knows, I tried to write as detailed and thorough a response to him as possible, and I apologise for the slight injection of a delay that resulted. It is important that we keep those who apply for leave in this country under the closest possible review. Part of that involves ensuring that we have the systems to count people in and count people out of the country. We said something else last July: when there are people seeking asylum in this country, we should ensure that they are subject to electronic monitoring, or, when necessary, tagging. I hope that we will be able to hit that target, as we promised, in April.
The review of IND will inevitably concentrate on issues relating to the three important announcements made in the past 12 months on the points-based migration system and the creation of the shortage occupation lists and the migration advisory committee. Will the Minister either give us a brief outline of the situation regarding those three important matters, or tell the House that he will come back soon to make a fuller statement on them?
I am grateful for that question. Last year we did indeed set out proposals for a migration advisory committee that would advise us on where in the economy migration would make sense and where it would not. I am delighted that the response to the consultation that we undertook showed that the proposal was overwhelmingly popular—this is another example of a popular Home Office measure. We will soon be able to bring forward the response to that consultation and the practical measures that will follow.
National Identity Card Scheme
The Identity and Passport Service is opening 69 new local offices, starting later this year, to meet in person and interview first-time passport applicants. Interviews are intended to deter and detect fraudulent passport applications.
We are told that the seductively named enrolment centres are, inter alia, essential to meet International Civil Aviation Organisation biometric passport requirements, but surely they could be met without the need for imposed attendance by digitising existing normal passport photographs. Is there not a risk that far from being the centrepiece of efforts to combat terrorism, illegal immigration, identity theft and benefit fraud, the centres could eventually help to create a hackable electronic leviathan containing 60 million detailed dossiers that could prove irresistible to international gangs of counterfeiters?
The majority of attempted frauds that are detected at present involve first-time adult applicants for passports. It is thus important that we take appropriate measures now to tackle that identity fraud. Although it might be a little inconvenient, asking people to travel something like 20 miles to a 20-minute interview to protect their identity is reasonable—it is certainly seen as reasonable in all our research.
My hon. Friend will know that as we move forward into 2009, we will, further to protect people’s identities, have to introduce the fingerprint biometric on the passport to ensure that our passports do not become second-class documents. Having 69 locations at which people can easily enrol their biometrics and have their biographical interview will thus make a big difference to how straightforward people will find the process and will enable us to protect people’s identities, which is seen as reasonable by the majority of people in this country.
Modernising Medical Careers
In the written ministerial statements of 7 and 13 March, I set out the Department of Health’s plan for an immediate review of the first round of the new national recruitment and selection process for doctors in postgraduate training. As part of the modernising medical careers reforms of postgraduate medical training, new specialty training programmes will be introduced in August 2007.
To support implementation, a new national recruitment and selection process was introduced earlier this year, facilitated by the online medical training application services. That process sets out national recruitment and selection criteria and documentation and standards, thus replacing the countless local application processes that had previously been in place. The new arrangements were developed with the help of the medical royal colleges, trainee doctors and others. We will continue to work with them to ensure that trainee doctors are properly supported and fairly treated, and that the NHS is able to train and recruit the best doctors for the future.
Doctors have been applying for their preferred specialty training programme since 22 January and interviews have already begun. A large number of posts will not be filled in the first round and we have stressed to those interviewing in round 1 that they should not appoint unless they are absolutely satisfied with the calibre of candidates. It is clear that there have been concerns about the selection process, and that the process as a whole has created a high degree of insecurity amongst applicants, and, indeed, more widely in the profession. We therefore commissioned an immediate review to establish what had gone well and what needed to be improved to create greater confidence in the process.
The review is independent. It is being led by Professor Neil Douglas, vice-president of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Members of the review group include representatives of the royal colleges, the British Medical Association, the four United Kingdom health Departments and employers. The review group has considered a wide range of evidence and listened carefully to the concerns of the profession and NHS employers. As a result, the review group has agreed, and the Department is implementing, immediate action, but the group will also continue its work throughout March.
The review group decided that round 1 should continue, with a number of changes to strengthen implementation at every level. All eligible applicants for level 3 and 4 specialty training will be guaranteed an interview for their first or second choice of training post. All applicants at ST1—specialty training level 1—who have not been shortlisted for any interviews will have their applications reviewed and may be offered an interview in round 1. If not, they will be offered career guidance and support to enter round 2. All applicants for ST2 who have not been shortlisted for interview will be offered a face-to-face review with a trained medical adviser to determine whether they meet the shortlisting criteria. Those who meet the criteria may also be offered an interview in round 1. Those who are not selected for interview will be offered support to enter round 2.
As a result of those changes, agreed and asked for by the review group, we expect more than 5,000 more doctors to be interviewed in round 1. We will also publish on the MMC and MTAS websites details of competition ratios by specialty and entry level to help applicants to consider their options for the second round, together with further advice and information for candidates. In addition, further significant changes will be made to the application form and the scoring system to improve selection in the second round. The revised approach will be tested and agreed with the royal colleges, junior doctors, postgraduate deans and employers. I am very grateful to Professor Douglas and his colleagues for their continuing work on the review group. We will publish the group's final report once it is completed.
Having dragged the Secretary of State here to make a statement, I am truly sorry that it fails to answer most of the key questions. Before I reach those questions, however, let me ask the right hon. Lady why neither she nor any other Labour Minister took the trouble on Saturday morning to join 12,000 junior doctors who were marching because of their concerns about the arrangements. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I went, and we listened. Had the Secretary of State come, she would know why the process has been such a shambles. Those junior doctors would have told her, from their personal experience, how years of training, clinical experience and academic achievement are being thrown away. They would have told her how they want real training, not a dumbed-down system in which they go down from 21,000 hours of training to only 6,000 hours. Why did the Secretary of State not just listen as junior doctors related their experiences?
Let me ask the Secretary of State these questions. First, how many applications have been made and how many training posts—real training posts—will actually be available in England? Secondly, will the review group that she talks about really be independent? Junior doctors need to know that they will have additional representatives on the review group. Indeed, will she appoint to the review group some of the consultants who have decided that they cannot proceed with the interview process as it is, so that they are represented on the review group, too? That would be advisable. Will she promise that the consultants who do the interviewing and shortlisting will be able to see the full application, not just parts of it, and that applicants can send a full CV to those who are doing the shortlisting?
The Department and the review group seem to be carrying on with an absurd scoring system. How can applicants’ clinical experience, academic achievements and references be treated as so unimportant in decisions on appointments to training posts? Who designed this crass process of application by anecdote rather than by achievement? I have an example of the scoring system before me. Has the Secretary of State ever read one? How can she justify relevant academic and research experience being worth a maximum of nine points out of 45? A PhD is worth one point, but composing a 150-word answer to a question about how the applicant has coped with stress is worth up to four points. Why do the Government not want the best training posts to go to the best doctors?
If it is clear that the system cannot deliver a fair outcome to thousands of highly qualified doctors, who will be left without good training posts, will the Secretary of State abandon the online system and revert to a conventional application and interview process? If it is deemed necessary by the review group, will she sanction extra training posts by reclassifying staff or trust-grade posts? Will she explicitly repeat the assurance that her former Minister, Lord Warner, gave just three months ago, that
“Doctors in training in England should consequently be pretty confident about securing a training post.”?
I have received hundreds of letters and e-mails from distressed and angry junior doctors, and 12,000 of them marched on Saturday. They are the future of our medical profession, and if we want a consultant-led specialist-delivered service in the future, we will need them. As it is, we risk losing them; we will lose some from the profession, and many others to Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Instead of sticking her head in the sand, will the Secretary of State promise doctors that modernising medical careers will be changed? Finally, will she just say sorry to them?
The hon. Gentleman referred to modernising medical careers as being dumbed-down, but it is nothing of the kind. Modernising medical careers is the outcome of years of work by the medical royal colleges—[Interruption.] I realise that Opposition Members are not in the least bit interested in the views of the medical royal colleges, but they play an important part in the training of our future doctors. Modernising medical careers is the outcome of work by the medical royal colleges, postgraduate deans, the British Medical Association, junior doctors and other key partners, including NHS employers across the country.
If the hon. Gentleman really thinks, as he seems to, that the new system is a disaster compared to the old, perhaps he needs to listen to Dr. Simon Eccles, a consultant at Homerton University hospital, and a former chairman—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Dr. Simon Eccles, the former chairman of the BMA junior doctors committee—[Interruption.] I said that he was the former chairman; the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) should listen. Dr. Eccles said:
“We mustn’t forget how bad the old system was. I would be given four hundred and fifty CVs to shortlist for twelve places, so…my hospital would send out some four hundred and twenty rejection letters twice a year. Nobody protested and marched through the streets of Hackney because it only happened in a staggered process.”
He described how consultants would decide who to shortlist by simply dividing the piles into two and tossing a coin. One was the lucky pile, and would make the shortlist; the other one did not. That was scarcely—[Interruption.] I am simply quoting a former chairman of the BMA junior doctors committee, referring to some of the reasons why the old system needed replacing.
Both the BMA and the royal colleges have representatives of their junior doctor members on the review group. It has always been the case under the new system that when applications are submitted, the full CV and portfolio can be, and generally are, attached. There was confusion about the interpretation of guidance from the independent Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board—PMETB—but I am glad to say that that guidance has been clarified. On the issue of MTAS, let me quote the independent PMETB:
“The substance of the application was determined by UK Postgraduate Deans…A similar system has been operating successfully in the USA for over half a century.”
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, however, believes that we should go back to the old non-computerised system, under which junior doctors had to fill in a different application, with different information and using a different format, for every post around the country for which they wanted to apply. It was a completely absurd system.
On the question of numbers, there are just over 32,000 eligible applicants for the available places on training programmes—those figures apply to the UK as a whole—and the number of training posts is about 23,000. May I stress the fact that in many regions, as the postgraduate deans have confirmed, the system is working well, as it is for GP applicants? However, that is not the case everywhere, which is precisely why we set up the independent review group, why we brought in the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the BMA, and why every one of their recommendations has been accepted and is now being implemented. Finally, the hon. Gentleman is keen to ask us to spend even more money than we have already invested in the national health service, but he is not willing to vote for that extra investment. His party’s economic policy would mean cuts of billions of pounds in the national health service in one year alone.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that both the MMC and the MTAS schemes were quality assessed and assured by experts in the field, which is why they were introduced? There was a process to bring them into line with current thinking, both in Europe and in this country.
My hon. Friend is right. A great deal of development work, quality assurance and so on went into the MTAS process and, more broadly, into modernising medical careers. There have been real problems this year, as I said in my statement, which is why we are working with the review group to sort them out and learn further lessons for round 2, and for next year.
Given the shambles, let me begin on a charitable note. The Government have clearly and openly acknowledged the shortcomings in the recruitment system, yet the BMA stated last year that the system was badly organised, did not draw out people’s expertise and would not cope with demand. Was it those shortcomings that the Government had in mind, and do they regret not agreeing with the BMA and failing to act earlier? Do they agree with the Royal College of Physicians that the system was rushed? Do they agree with the royal colleges that CVs should be taken into account, and that previous achievement should not be neglected in application forms? Where else does that happen? Do they agree with Jo Hilborne, chair of the BMA training committee, that junior doctors do receive careers guidance early enough? Do they regret their failure to listen, having scored such an unnecessary own goal?
Turning to other matters, why did the website crash, and how often did it crash? Was that another IT systems failure or another example of lack of anticipation by the Government? Who is responsible for it, and were any warnings given by IT providers? Does it not bode ill for “Connecting for Health”, if and when it is ever up and running? What assessment has been made of the likely destiny of unsuccessful applicants, even under the reformed system? Are 8,000 people to be rendered jobless in this country, and how would that affect future training programmes? How many people in total can expect hospital posts? Finally, on an issue of principle on which there is more than one perspective, do the Government agree with the royal colleges that it was a mistake to take statutory training responsibility away from them, and will that, as well as the fate of our young doctors, fall within the remit of Professor Douglas’s review?
On the last point, as I have already indicated, there has been widespread consultation and agreement about the need to introduce modernising medical careers. The problems that have arisen with implementation this year do not in any way undermine support for the principles and the organisation of MMC.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of introduction being rushed, but work on modernising medical careers and on its implementation has gone on since about 2003. That could not possibly be described as rushed. A great deal of work was done, especially in the second half of last year, to ensure that the systems were as robust as they could be, and that implementation was properly prepared for. What has happened is that, particularly in some parts of the country, and particularly for some specialties, there have been significantly more applications than was predicted. We certainly need, at an appropriate point, to learn the lessons from that for future years.
My understanding is that it is not true to say that the MTAS IT system crashed, although because of the volume of applications there were undoubtedly delays at various stages in accepting them. Although the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) did not refer to it, I have heard others suggest that some candidates’ applications were lost in the process—and I understand that that too is untrue.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be 8,000 jobless doctors. There will be nothing of the kind. Of the 32,300 eligible applicants, the vast majority—over 29,000—are already working in the NHS, on foundation programmes, in other training places or in other medical posts in the NHS. Those doctors will continue to be needed, so the shroud-waving about unemployed doctors is absurd.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire need to recognise that because of our Government’s investment in the NHS, and because we are training more doctors—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not like to hear it, but because we are training more doctors than ever before, competition for consultant training places is greater than ever before. We need to ensure that those candidates, our future doctors, are given all the support they need as they go through an increasingly competitive and inevitably stressful process, and that is precisely what we are doing.
Will the Secretary of State allow me to emphasise how inadequate the previous system was? Did not she receive, as I did, complaints from women doctors and black doctors that they did not get a fair look-in for training opportunities, and that they felt that the old system was run as an old boy network? And can she give an undertaking to one junior doctor who e-mailed me: will a majority of the review panel be composed of people who did not set up the original scheme?
My right hon. Friend makes extremely important points about the old system. There is no doubt that the old system depended a great deal more on who candidates knew, not what they knew. The result was a great deal of discrimination within the system, which could never be properly addressed or corrected because it was invisible. That is one of the many reasons why modernising medical careers is such an improvement on the old system. It is fair, it is transparent and it sets the same criteria, the same interviewing processes and so on, right across the country. That never happened in the completely devolved and shambolic system that was used previously. On the review group, it is essential that we have not only the representatives of the junior doctors, but the representatives of the medical royal colleges, as they are responsible both for the training and for the development of the specialist curricula for which the doctors are competing.
Does the Minister not realise that the new scheme is likely to lead to serious managerial problems in many of our hospitals, which will lead to a diminution of care and an extended waiting list?
No, I do not accept that. Hospitals will benefit from a much better, much more thorough training system that will get rid of the old system—in which, as a former chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges described it, senior house officers were a kind of lost tribe filling in time between properly structured and assessed training. There is no doubt at all that the improvements in training that will come with modernising medical careers will be good for doctors and good for patients.
The House accepts that the old system was unsatisfactory and that a lot of work has gone into the new system, but it has left junior doctors genuinely in uproar. Some of them contacted me this morning to ask me to put this to the Secretary of State: given that the implementation of the new system appears to be fatally flawed, is it right to continue to allocate jobs before the review gives its final report at the end of the month?
Whether round 1 should be delayed or scrapped was one of the first issues that the review group considered at its first meeting, and it has come back to it since. The review group has been clear that round 1 should continue, because otherwise the interviews of thousands of junior doctors would be completely disrupted and hospitals could well find themselves in August without the junior doctors they need in place to continue operating. For that reason, the review group recommended, and we accepted, that round 1 should continue but with the immediate changes that it recommended, and we have made, to ensure that the system works properly, that it is fair to junior doctors, and that it enables the NHS to get the best doctors for all the places that it is seeking to fill.
Can the Secretary of State explain how going ahead with the first part of the stage 1 interviews and appointments can be fair if the other doctors who are now excluded but will be brought in later are being considered on a different basis? Will she take up the suggestion that she use the MTAS system to carry out a ballot of all the doctors in training to ask them what they think would be fair, and whether it would be better to stop and start again on an equal basis, or to continue on this unequal basis? Will she please get her people to talk to the directors of medical education and ask them to nominate the people who they know should have been interviewed but have not, just to show what has so clearly gone off course?
In a sense, the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions have already been considered by the review group, which has received evidence and listened to representations from a very wide range of people. For instance, 84 per cent. of the most junior of the junior doctors—the ST2 junior doctors who have completed the two-year foundation programme—have already been given a round 1 interview. The remainder are having their applications reassessed, and many will, as a result, also be given a round 1 interview. However, the review group has been very clear—and I support it in this—that the way to proceed is to make immediate changes so that round 1 operates better and more fairly, as it is already doing in other specialisms and in some parts of the country, and then, if necessary, to make further changes for round 2 so that lessons from round 1 are learned. As I stressed earlier, we have made it clear to those making the appointments that they should not appoint from round 1 unless they are absolutely satisfied with the calibre of candidates—although several of the postgraduate teams who are already involved in those round 1 interviews say that they are delighted with the calibre of candidates, and where they are considering making appointments, they are finding it even easier to do so than in the past.
I am concerned about the impact that the bad publicity about this scheme could have on the new medical schools, particularly the Hull York medical school. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend offer me?
There was enormous public and student welcome for the creation of the new medical schools and the additional medical places that we have been able to create as a result of the investment that we have made. It is important that we restore confidence, where that has been damaged, in the whole process of recruitment for consultant training, and that is exactly what we are doing with the help of the review group. When we publish its final report, we will be able to see what additional changes are needed to ensure that next year’s process works without the difficulties that we have encountered in this first year.
We are still waiting for two things: first, an apology from the Secretary of State and, secondly, an unambiguous answer to the question that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) asked about quality assurance, which is one of the safeguards available to anyone who introduces new systems, however much they are needed. Will she give an unambiguous answer? Have the final MMC and MTAS systems been subject to formal quality assurance—yes or no?
Will the Secretary of State put herself in the position of one of those extremely anxious junior doctors? Where does she think that she would be today if the Prime Minister had not been able to take into account her previous achievements before he appointed her?
It is precisely because I put myself in the position of a junior doctor, who had worked incredibly hard and found himself or herself without the interview for which they had longed or for the specialty to which they were committed, that I was so determined to sort out the matter. That is why the minute that the scale of the problem became clear, we sat down with the academy, colleagues from the medical royal colleges and the BMA and asked them to lead an independent review process. We are now making the changes that will ensure that junior doctors can have genuine confidence in the process, which is a great deal better than the old system of medical training, that they will be treated fairly and, above all, that the NHS can appoint the best people for the large number of jobs that are now available.
Mr. Goodare of Poynton in my constituency is currently a senior house officer in anaesthetics. He and his mother have contacted me, and both were in London on Saturday for the march and demonstration. What assurance can the Secretary of State give my constituent, who is a highly trained and motivated young man, that he will have a job next year? She has admitted that there has been a problem. The simple thing for her to do is apologise and give an assurance that people who are so worried and can help the health service have a job.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, more doctors and other professionals are employed in the NHS now than ever before. However, the NHS has never been able to guarantee employment, especially not in the specialty or place of an individual’s choice to every individual who comes through medical training. We have increased the number of medical trainees to such an extent that competition is even greater. Given the hon. Gentleman’s description of his constituent, I am sure that he will have not only a fair hearing in the training and assessment system that is being improved, but every chance of success.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State did not give my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) a more comprehensive reply. Like me, he will have received at the weekend an e-mail from a senior clinician at Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It made the point that, as of July, only two out of 22 anaesthetists—senior house officers—will be available. That will have a massive impact on clinical care, especially on epidurals for pregnant women and other issues related to pregnancy. When will the Secretary of State apologise for that likely state of affairs, admit that the Department got it wrong and move on?
It is a matter for each hospital to ensure that it employs the right number of people with the right specialist skills to offer a safe service to pregnant women or any other patient. I am sure that the hospital to which the hon. Gentleman refers and every other hospital will continue to do that.
Earlier, the Secretary of State failed—inadvertently, I am sure—to answer a question. May I therefore be helpful and ask it again? How can we have any faith in a system that awards one point for a PhD yet four points for dealing with stress?
As I said when I cited the independent Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board, the scoring system and the whole process for applications was developed by the postgraduate deans, working with the Department and other partners. It is not up to Ministers to determine the number of points that should be awarded for different aspects of what is inevitably a complex system. The review group will be able to consider that as it examines other aspects of the system. If it wants to recommend changes, we will, of course, take that seriously.
The Secretary of State began her review when the scale of the problem became known to her, but the scale of the problem was pretty clear on 13 October to the junior doctors committee representative from the BMA who, in my presence, made quite clear to junior doctors at East Surrey hospital the scale of the disaster that was about to happen and made it clear that the BMA’s junior doctors’ representatives were begging the Department of Health to postpone this process. The parliamentary questions that I have tabled on this matter have resulted in answers of the most stunning complacency. I have now been told of a further issue that will arise out of this virtual nationalisation of junior doctors beginning their new jobs. Apparently, between 1 and 3 August, almost every junior doctor and registrar will be involved in induction training in hospitals up and down the country, leaving only consultants available to provide doctor cover. Is the Secretary of State aware of this potential problem, and is she going to do anything to avert it before it happens?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the summer of last year—and, if I remember correctly, in 2005 as well—we were told that we were about to have thousands of unemployed doctors all over the country. Of course, that was not the case, any more than it will be this year. We are looking at what will happen in August, but the immediate priority is to ensure that we sort out the changes that need to be made for round 1 and round 2 to ensure that this first year—which was bound to be a transitional year—of appointments to the new consultant training system continues in a way that will be fair to everyone and that restores the confidence of junior doctors.
Horton general hospital in Banbury is possibly going to lose 24/7 paediatric cover and, as a consequence, consultant-led obstetrics because, we are told, there are insufficient junior paediatricians to go round. What this saga seems to demonstrate is that there are more qualified junior doctors than there are posts. Will the Secretary of State give the people of my constituency an assurance that any paediatricians who want training posts at the end of this exercise can go to Horton general hospital, where, for the past 75 years or so, we have had consultant-led obstetrics and, ever since Barbara Castle initiated a public inquiry, consultant-led 24/7 paediatric cover?
It is entirely a matter for the hospital and for the NHS in each region to decide how many training places should be made available and in what specialties. I would never seek to dictate that from the Department of Health. How and where services are most safely and appropriately provided is also a matter on which decisions need to be made locally by the local NHS, in full consultation with the public.
I, too, was contacted today by a junior house doctor, who specifically wanted me to ask the Secretary of State whether she was aware that, under the new system, a surgeon will have only about 25 per cent. of the number of training hours that they currently receive. Would the Secretary of State be happy to be operated on by such a surgeon?
On that, and on other relevant matters, it is more relevant to listen to the views of the Royal College of Surgeons, which has been closely involved throughout the development of the modernising medical careers programme. The programme is designed to replace a rather disorganised old system with one that focuses clearly on the competences and the level of ability that doctors need as they progress through their specialty training towards becoming a consultant.
It is not only junior doctors who are missing out—first-class hospitals such as St. Richard’s cannot get the best doctors to train. My constituents will therefore not get the treatment they would otherwise be able to obtain. This is an absolute shambles. Cannot the Secretary of State see the scale of it? Will she now, as numerous people have asked, just say sorry?
The hon. Gentleman should have listened to the review group. We published a further statement from it last Friday, which I have just repeated in my statement. The changes that we have already agreed for round 1 mean that junior doctors who did not get an interview, or did not get an interview for their first or second choice of specialty, will now have their applications reviewed, in some cases through a face-to-face interview. Where appropriate—depending, of course, on whether they meet the selection criteria—they will then be added to the interview process. In addition to the very fine young junior doctors who have already been given interviews in round 1, including 84 per cent. of the second-year foundation training programme graduates, more doctors—we estimate that there will be more than 5,000—will be given round 1 training interviews. That will not only ensure fairness to them, but will enable the NHS to choose from the best candidates for all jobs.
Apart from the misery that is being caused to thousands of junior doctors and their families, this is another NHS information technology project failure. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much the MTAS system has cost to date, and will she consider inviting the National Audit Office to inform her and the House whether it has been value for money?
I am astonished to hear the Secretary of State continuing to defend the system when she should be apologising for it. I met about 20 junior doctors from Bournemouth hospital at the weekend. They said that the online system was a joke, that proper training was being jeopardised, and that come 1 August thousands of able doctors would be made redundant. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet those doctors so that she can hear their views directly, and does she agree that of all the cock-ups that the Government have caused in the NHS, this has to take the biscuit?
I am glad to say that I have the opportunity to meet junior doctors and other NHS staff all the time, and will continue to do so.
As soon as it became clear that the new system was not working properly, I sat down with the royal colleges and the BMA and established an independent review group. We are acting on its recommendations, and I think that that is the right way in which to proceed.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has been following the discussion. He assumes that thousands of doctors will be out of work, but the applicants—more than 29,000—who are currently working in the NHS will continue to be needed in the service, whether they have moved on to run-through training programmes or are working in staff and other NHS jobs. Those jobs will continue to be needed, because those doctors are at the heart of the NHS.
One question that has been asked repeatedly this afternoon remains unanswered. I will repeat it, for the sake of good order, and I hope that the Secretary of State will answer it. Will she say sorry?
As I have said, the system was not working as well as it should have been, and as soon as that became clear—and because of the distress being caused to so many junior doctors—we established an independent review group. We have already made changes in the system, which have been communicated to the junior doctors both directly and through the websites. Further changes are now being made, and will continue to be made.
I only hope that the hon. Gentleman and other Members, while complaining—perfectly reasonably—about problems, will acknowledge that we are sorting those problems out. I also hope that they will, just occasionally, give credit for the real progress that has been made.
Orders of the Day
Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: First Progress Report, HC 263, and the letter from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the Chairman of the Committee, dated 12th March 2007.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I have been involved in consumer affairs in the House for more than 20 years, and I feel passionate about the issues. I am proud that under the present Government the country is seeing the biggest overhaul of consumer protection for the past 20 years. The Bill is part of that story. We want to empower consumers—to give them a strong voice and access to redress when things go wrong. We also want to ensure that rogue businesses have nowhere to hide. The Bill embodies the Government’s commitment to a fair deal for consumers, and that is why I am delighted to present the Bill to the House today.
The Government have an impressive track record in competition and consumer policy, but we are not complacent. Our goal is to have the best competition and consumer regime in the world by 2008.
Sticking up for consumers does not mean bashing legitimate business. Indeed, we have a responsibility to businesses to get rid of the rogues. Honest, well run businesses should not be undercut by competitors who rip off consumers. Often, the reputations of many responsible firms are tarnished by the actions of the irresponsible few.
Government have a key role to play. Consumers need to have, first, the right information to spot a good deal; secondly, the knowledge to tell when they are being ripped off; and thirdly, we need to give enforcers the power to catch the rip-off merchants. Those are the principles driving the Bill.
Before I speak about the Bill in detail, I want to explain how it fits with other changes that the Government are making to empower consumers. The Consumer Credit Act 2006, which received Royal Assent last March, greatly improves consumer rights and redress in relation to borrowing money. The Act also introduces major changes to the licensing of consumer credit businesses, and new powers to drive dishonest traders out of the market.
The unfair commercial practices directive is another powerful tool. It is designed to tackle the rogue traders and unfair business practices that target the most vulnerable people in society and damage the reputation of honest firms by association. Once implemented, that directive will ban 31 types of unfair commercial practices outright, including high-pressure or unreasonably persistent selling methods. It will tackle unfair sales ploys such as prize draw scams, including phone-in prize draw scams; bogus closing down sales; sellers who refuse to leave a customer's home until a contract is signed; and traders who prey on elderly people's fears about personal security to sell them burglar alarms. The directive also introduces a catch-all “duty” not to trade unfairly. Currently, a practice would be examined against prescriptive legislation, which unfair traders can try to avoid. The general duty will be able to catch all unfair practices that might affect consumers.
I wonder whether the catch-all provision would cover the practice that a number of disabled people experience where there is an advert for an electronic buggy or bed with a phone number. When they phone up asking for a brochure, one arrives that has no prices. If they ask what the price is, they are not told. Instead, a salesman calls and what happens thereafter is pressured sales. Will that kind of sales technique be outlawed under those provisions?
I can confirm that that is the case. As I get into my speech, hon. Members will see that the Bill covers issues relating to solicited or unsolicited sales. That is important. I think that there is all-party support in that respect.
Together with this Bill, those measures form a comprehensive package that will empower consumers more than ever before. As I said, I have been involved in consumer affairs for over 20 years. The Bill is an effective refurbishment of measures introduced over that period.
The Bill represents an important step forward in consumer protection. It contains a range of important provisions that will create a new, stronger, more coherent consumer advocacy body to represent consumers across all markets; introduce availability of redress for consumers in the energy, postal services and estate agency sectors; and improve regulation of estate agents and doorstep selling.
The Bill has already benefited from full and thorough debate in another place. Some valuable changes have been made to it as a result. I shall outline some of those changes as I describe in more detail the content of the Bill itself.
Will the Minister clarify one issue of detail on the name of the new consumer advocacy body that is created by the Bill? The Bill describes it throughout as the National Consumer Council. The phrase “consumer voice” has been used extensively by Ministers. Will he clarify whether that phrase is still in current usage?
It will be the National Consumer Council. As I get into my speech, the hon. Gentleman will see what the process is. If he wants to intervene on me again, he may by all means do so.
I apologise. I just lost the plot there—[Interruption.] I thought that that would get a chuckle. I lost my place in my speech.
As well as creating a new, stronger and more coherent advocacy body, we will introduce the availability of redress schemes and improve the regulation of estate agents and doorstep selling. The Bill has already benefited from having been debated in another place, and further issues might arise in Committee. The Bill was dealt with in another place in a non-controversial and non-partisan way, and I will give serious consideration to suggestions offered in that spirit for improving the Bill—but, obviously, I will not give serious consideration to matters raised simply for partisan reasons.
The consumer voice provisions form the largest part of the Bill. They will bring together the existing National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch to form a strong and powerful consumer advocate: the new National Consumer Council. The Bill also allows for the Consumer Council for Water to be brought inside the new National Consumer Council tent in the future, after public consultation.
Some critics of those proposals have raised concerns about loss of expertise and loss of independence. Some have even suggested that the Government are creating this new body in order to silence criticism of Government action, on post offices in particular. Let me say now that our objective in bringing these bodies together is to create not a mouse too meek to challenge us, but a lion who will, I hope, roar on behalf of consumers. We do not want to weaken consumer representation, but to strengthen it. We do not want to lose valued expertise, but to build on it and make sure that all sectors benefit from it. A strong rope is made from intertwining different strands together. That is why we will create the new National Consumer Council.
Markets for essential services such as energy, post and water have been liberalised one by one over a period of time. As a result, we now have several sectoral consumer bodies, as well as the National Consumer Council. The National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch have provided a valuable service to consumers until now, but there are key issues to be addressed. Consumer representation is fragmented. Consumers are confused about where to go for help. Lessons are not being shared between sectors. Resources and information can be shared more effectively.
It is now time for change. The new National Consumer Council will be a strong and independent advocate for the consumer. It will speak with expertise and authority in discussions with companies, with Government and in Europe. It will be able to look across sectors, and to give advice on the basis of expert and informed analysis, and it will draw on all its skills and expertise to tackle the biggest problems in the areas of most concern.
The Minister talks about the new body being an advocate for consumers. Does he mean that it will be so in a general sense by advocating the needs of consumers, or does he envisage it taking up specific issues? I know that changes have been made in the Lords in respect of some energy consumer issues, but there is still concern that vulnerable people might not get their cases dealt with quickly unless someone acts as their advocate.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that its role will be both general and particular, and that it will have a role specifically to tackle issues to do with vulnerable consumers, in terms of dealing with their initial problems and complaints and in assisting them through the process—all the way through, if necessary—of getting redress for their personal circumstances. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the proposed legislation will do that.
Consumers will know when to turn for help and who they can turn to for help. Consumer Direct will act as a first port of call, dealing with simple complaints and inquiries, or referring consumers on to redress schemes if the company in question fails to resolve the problem. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made in that regard. Even at the stage of the first port of call with the company, the most vulnerable consumers will be assisted. When they make contact with Consumer Direct, they will not simply be told, “Well, go away and see what you can do, and then come back to us if the situation has not been resolved.” We will provide an end-to-end service.
Let me be clear: we have big ambitions for the new National Consumer Council that I am confident this House will share. Our challenge is to take the best of the current organisations—their knowledge, their independence, their ability to act quickly—and to build that into something even better: a champion fighter that is able to protect consumers and that is admired for its expertise, trusted for its advice and feared by those who would rip off consumers.
I should at this stage report that we had an informative and thorough debate in another place. As a result of listening to concerns raised, the Government laid a number of amendments. In particular, there were concerns about the position of the Scottish and Welsh Consumer Councils. It has always been our intention that those bodies should undertake the same key functions as the new National Consumer Council. We laid a number of amendments in another place to clarify the role of the Scottish and Welsh Consumer Councils, and to ensure that they are provided with the power to exercise the same key functions within their relevant territories, except for a very few instances where it is necessary for the new National Consumer Council to maintain a co-ordinating role.
The Bill also extends the availability of redress for consumers in the energy and postal sectors. Energywatch and Postwatch currently labour under a significant burden of complaints. However, they can seek to resolve these complaints only through persuasion. They have no powers to enforce resolution and cannot provide for redress or compensation.
The Minister says that he has great hopes for the National Consumer Council. Will it be structured in such a way that other industries can be incorporated at a later stage and is that his intention?
That is a fair question. I have already indicated in consultation that the next sector that I would like to see join is water. We do intend to build on this start over time, but if changes are to be made, they will have to be made by consultation. That is critical.
Part 2 of the Bill will, for the first time, give consumers guaranteed access to redress schemes that have the teeth to enforce their awards. The Bill will enable Ministers to require suppliers or service providers in the energy and postal services sectors to belong to redress schemes. That will give consumers not only confidence that their complaint will be resolved but access to compensation and redress where that is warranted.
The redress provisions in the Bill have been strengthened by changes resulting from discussion in the other place. Gas transporters and electricity distributors have been brought within the scope of the redress schemes. We have also made it absolutely clear that the new national consumer council can investigate complaints relating to threatened disconnection of gas or electricity supplies as well as actual disconnection. That also relates to the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) about vulnerable consumers. Furthermore, the new national consumer council can investigate complaints from consumers who use prepayment meters, where disconnection arises as a result of a failure in the prepayment system. Those changes provide yet further protection for consumers, especially the most vulnerable consumers in our society.
As I understand it, the energy sector already has a redress scheme, and the energy supply ombudsman already exists. However, there is no such ombudsman for the postal sector, which is a major concern for consumer bodies and businesses. When will there be a postal services ombudsman?
I will come back to that point, but the hon. Gentleman may rest assured that for the first time ever each of the sectors in the Bill will have comprehensive redress schemes, which will be consistent with each other. That is the whole purpose of the Bill, as I was trying to get across, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
Estate agents play a crucial role in the home buying and selling process. For most consumers, buying a home is the most critical and the most expensive purchase that they ever make. I speak from personal experience when I say that it can be shattering to the nerves on occasion. It is vital that the estate agency market works well and that consumers are protected against unfair practices. Consumers need to be confident that estate agents will deal honestly with them; and many estate agents are rightly angry that their reputation is tarnished by a small and unscrupulous minority.
The Office of Fair Trading recognised those issues in its study of the estate agency market published in March 2004. The OFT found that the market was generally competitive. However, it also found that a significant number of consumers were not happy with the service that they received. Some consumers simply received poor service with estate agents turning up late for appointments, for example, or not returning keys on time. But other complaints were more serious, such as failure to pass on offers to sellers or failure to declare a personal interest in a property. The OFT therefore made a number of recommendations to put that right.
The Government accepted the OFT’s recommendations in July 2004. In fact, in the area of redress, the Government went even further than the OFT and promised to make membership of a redress scheme mandatory for all UK estate agents. We fulfilled that promise in part by amending the Housing Act 2004. As a result, complaints against estate agents relating to home information packs in England and Wales will now be addressed through redress schemes.
The order requiring estate agents to belong to a redress scheme for the purposes of HIPs was laid on 1 March, and estate agents have until 1 June to sign up to an approved scheme. But this Bill goes further. It will fulfil our promise that a private individual with a complaint against an estate agent should have access to redress. Estate agents could face costly pay-outs and possible loss of livelihood if they do not abide by the law and generally accepted voluntary codes of conduct in the industry. I am confident that we will see higher standards as a result. Our intention is that this should come into force in April 2008.
At the same time as providing redress for consumers the Bill also tightens the current negative licensing regime. First, the Bill will improve the audit trail for transactions by requiring estate agents to make and keep records, including records of offer letters, for six years. Secondly, it will give the OFT and local authority trading standards officers powers to go into premises and inspect records in a wide range of circumstances. That will enable them to investigate not just criminal offences but all breaches of the law and of undertakings given to enforcers. Finally, the Bill will expand the circumstances in which the OFT can consider the fitness of an estate agent to practise, and if necessary it can take regulatory action against them.
At present the OFT can ban an estate agent only when they have been convicted of specified criminal offences. The Bill will allow the OFT to ban an estate agent when there is sufficient evidence that an offence has been committed, even if there is no conviction. That will ensure that the OFT can consider the fitness of estate agents, for example, where another regulator has taken enforcement action against them but they have not been taken to court. Furthermore, the OFT will also be able to ban an estate agent when an enforcement order or a statutory undertaking under the Enterprise Act 2002 has been breached.
Those changes are needed to bring the Estate Agents Act 1979 into line with modern enforcement practice. The Government wholeheartedly support the efforts of the National Association of Estate Agents and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to raise standards through training. Any good estate agent should have knowledge of the legislation governing estate agents, just as any professional should be aware of the legal obligations relevant to their industry. However, the OFT found that in the majority of cases where it took action against an estate agent the root cause was lack of integrity or honesty—not lack of knowledge of the law.
What the Bill does is more sophisticated than positive licensing: the estate agents provisions will mean that a consumer dealing with an estate agent anywhere in the UK knows that there is somewhere they can go to seek redress. Any estate agent who does not belong to a redress scheme will now face being fined and banned as a result. More evidence and audit trails will make it easier for enforcers to deal with rogue agents and remove them from the marketplace. At the same time, other measures strengthen the current regime and give enforcers the powers they need to take action against rogue agents. Ultimately, that approach will serve consumers better.
Finally on this issue, I shall comment on the concerns raised about the fact that letting agents and others are not included in the Bill. Lettings and new build are important sectors of the property market, and the Government are committed to ensuring that consumers are not disadvantaged in those areas. However, the Bill implements the recommendations made in the OFT report on the estate agency market. The report did not look at lettings agents, property developers or any other property professionals, so we do not yet have a clear evidence base for extending the redress provisions to those sectors.
Secondly, the Bill amends the Estate Agents Act 1979, which has a specific definition of estate agency work. Changing the definition would require a lengthy and careful examination of the consequences for the whole Act. However, the Government are committed to looking at the whole property market and, on the basis of proper research and evidence, to consider what more needs to be done. At my prompting, as Minister with responsibilities for consumers, the Government will conduct a review of the property sector, including looking at redress for lettings and new build. Ministers will consider carefully the conclusions of that work and decide the next steps that should be taken. I hope that is seen as a positive response to the comments made in another place.
Part 4 contains provisions relating to doorstep selling that will give consumers the right to change their mind, whether they asked for the sales visit or not. This part of the Bill has a long history, going back to 2002 when Citizens Advice submitted its report, “Door to Door”, to the OFT as a super-complaint. The OFT subsequently made a number of recommendations for improving consumer protection in that area. As part of the Government’s response to the OFT report, published last September, we decided to introduce primary legislation to enable us to make regulations, so that consumers who ask salespeople into their home will also have cooling-off rights for doorstep sales; at present, they apply only when a salesperson turns up uninvited.
Breaking down the distinction between solicited and unsolicited visits will make the law simpler and clearer for the consumer, business and enforcement agencies alike. Businesses will be able to work with one contract for both solicited and unsolicited visits, reducing ongoing costs in the production of contracts and training of sales staff. The simpler rules will ensure that businesses will not generally need to spend time establishing whether their visit is solicited or unsolicited. The provisions are particularly important for vulnerable consumers who—having invited a salesperson into their home—can feel pressured into buying something they do not want or need. Together with the unfair commercial practices directive, the measure sends a clear message that businesses that lack integrity and feed on fear will not be tolerated.
The Government are committed to a robust and effective consumer and competition regime—one that is fair to consumers as well as to business. First, the Bill creates a new National Consumer Council—a powerful advocate for consumers. Secondly, it gives consumers the rights to redress that they deserve. Thirdly, it demonstrates our commitment to getting rid of rogue estate agents. Fourthly, for the first time, it tackles effectively rogue doorstep sales persons. I look forward to hearing the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members to the debate on this important Bill. I commend it to the House.
I thank the Minister for talking us through the main points of the Bill, which Conservative Members broadly welcome. As he said, it is important for consumers, it merges key consumer bodies and it makes a serious attempt to give consumers greater rights when buying or selling their house.
I pay tribute at the outset to the work done in the other place by my noble Friend Baroness Wilcox and others whose efforts have already significantly improved the Bill. We firmly believe in consumer choice and in the accessibility of information to enable people to exercise that choice. That is best achieved through a spirit of shared responsibility with the Government, businesses and consumers all working together. That, of course, is not always the reality and when businesses fall short of their responsibilities, it is important that consumers have the means available to obtain timely and efficient redress. It is on the basis of those principles that we approach the Bill today.
We support much of what the Bill does, but have several specific concerns, some of which the Minister referred to earlier. One of its principal features is the amalgamation of Energywatch, Postwatch and, in time, the Consumer Council for Water within a new statutory national consumer council. The Government argue that it is designed to strengthen and streamline consumer representation. However, the Government’s record has given rise to concern that the implementation of those changes may mean that consumers are, in fact, disadvantaged by these proposals.
There is, for example, increasing disquiet about how and when the Consumer Council for Water will be merged into the new regime. The next water industry price review, which will fix limits for water companies’ charging systems, is due to be completed in 2009. The period leading up to that date will therefore be a busy one for the Consumer Council for Water, yet it is just the period in which the Government want to begin abolishing it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise if I misrepresent what he has said. I recognise the point that he makes, as I have already met representatives of that body and suggested that I would be happy to bring forward the review if it would help in dealing with the other matters that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am now waiting for a response.
That is not in the Bill at the moment, but I welcome and appreciate the Minister’s constructive response. If it is amended in Committee along the lines that he described, that would make for good progress and we would be happy to follow that line with him.
The last couple of minutes seem to have been more effective than the entire proceedings of Public Bill Committees, so we are making progress. I am grateful to the Minister. I do not know whether I am going to achieve quite as much with my next point, but I am going to try.
The timing of the abolition of Postwatch is also unfortunate, to say the least. At just the time that the Government are making deep cuts in the post office network, they are planning to mire the postal consumer watchdog in a transition process, too. Surely there is a danger of giving less focus to consumers at just the time that they most need the representation that Postwatch can offer.
I have tried diligently to make use of Postwatch, whose motives are tremendous, but for several years it has been completely overwhelmed and unable to respond within a reasonable time scale. Actually, the best watchdogs are consumers themselves: the people in receipt of the letters––or not, as the case may be.
I have to respond to my next-door neighbour in London. Extensive work has been done in co-ordinating with the body concerned. It is engaged at the very highest level—at every level—on a fortnightly basis with the planning and implementation process. Perhaps it should spend more time on that rather than sending out reports to MPs about fears that are absolutely groundless.
I think many may disagree with what the Minister says about groundless fears. There are serious concerns about the entire future of the Post Office. Postwatch and successor bodies will be responsible for elements of consumer representation and we want to make sure that the mechanisms for that are of the highest possible quality.
Let me just ask the House whether bigger means stronger. Conservative Members are concerned about the skills and experience that have been built up in Postwatch and Energywatch. Those bodies know the detailed issues in their sectors and have experienced people working for them. Perhaps the Minister will now have to concentrate on how he will ensure that those valuable skills are transferred intact to the new body. For example, will the new body retain separate sectoral specialists? Can he assure the House that it will carry at least the same weight and reputation as the existing sectoral bodies that have worked hard to get name recognition?
We are in the fortunate position that the Minister replying to the debate is responsible for post offices, so I would like to reinforce my hon. Friend’s point. Postwatch has learned from the problems of the urban reinvention programme and has become a sufficiently more effective body. It has a big contribution to make to the current round of post office closures planned by the Government, so it is a great shame that it will be abolished at this precise moment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To many, there is a suspicion, on which they need reassurance, that the decision to create the new body was motivated not by a desire to improve consumer representation but simply as a drive to cut costs. My hon. Friend asked the Minister earlier about the name of the new body. I did not quite understand the answer; it came out as a bit of a jumble and appeared to us all as a bit of a Prescottism. I am confused, so perhaps the Minister can clarify what its name will be.
That does clarify the matter, so I am grateful to the Minister. However, in the course of his earlier answer, he used, perhaps by accident, the word “voice”. However, we now know what the answer is, and that is fine.
Our second area of specific concern is the lack of provision relating to internal complaint handling procedures. We differ from the Government over how best to ensure that complaints are dealt with quickly and effectively. Redress schemes are at the heart of the Bill, yet they are the last resort of the unhappy consumer. The first port of call is, and should be, the company from which the goods and services were purchased. Effective complaints procedures at this stage would have the effect of ensuring that more complaints were resolved at their outset. It would reduce the burden on the new NCC and make for better satisfied consumers too. Good internal complaints procedures are the best way to protect and empower consumers, and yet there is precious little about that in the Bill.
Existing redress schemes vary greatly from granting immediate access to insisting on a three-month wait before the consumer can invoke the services of the ombudsman. Three months is a long time to wait for a consumer and that creates an opportunity for supplier companies to avoid resolving complaints quickly, knowing that the process for the consumer may simply turn out to be too long and drawn out for them to bother pursuing things further. Conservative Members believe that companies should have in place effective internal complaints procedures to deal with consumers quickly and efficiently. The best way to make that happen is to insist that internal complaints procedures that reflect best practice are a fundamental requirement for the membership of any approved redress scheme for which the Bill provides.
This is not re-inventing the wheel—a similar model already successfully works in the financial services sector. The Financial Services Authority requires that membership of the Financial Ombudsmen Service is dependent on an organisation having an appropriate and effective internal complaint-handling function. We hope that a similar system can be replicated. I am glad to see the Minister nodding. That is good news, if that is what is going to happen.
Initially, the Government made only a small concession towards this approach when the issue was raised in the other place. The phrase that they introduced into clause 49 was a tad vague. They required regulators only to
“have regard to…such principles as…the…generally accepted principles of best practice”.
Of course, that is welcome, but, to my mind, it does not really go far enough. Effective internal complaint handling is central to the aims of the Bill. It should be a prerequisite of redress scheme membership and that should be included in the Bill. Redress schemes are being provided to catch the worst failings of their member companies, but it must be preferable for the redress schemes to be proactive about preventing failures in the first place.
Our third area of disquiet concerns the independence of the new national consumer council. The Government have said that they want the new NCC to be independent and for the relationship between the NCC and the Government to be transparent and accountable. That is a proper aim, but I fear that the text of the Bill reveals a rather different approach. Clauses 17 to 19 concern reports and advice that the NCC may produce on consumer matters. In each of the circumstances described in the Bill, there is discretion as to whether the reports are made publicly available. When the NCC itself determines that the report shall be produced, it has the discretion to publish. However, when the Government ask the NCC to report on specific matters, it is the Secretary of State who chooses whether the public ever get to see what the NCC has to say. This is a serious matter of public accountability and of transparency for the consumer. The NCC will receive public funding, but the reports that it provides to the Government are not necessarily—so it seems—to be made available to the taxpayers who fund them.
We believe that all reports produced by the NCC should automatically be made available to the public. That need not raise a cost issue, as has been claimed, because the documents could simply be made available on the NCC’s website. A Minister in another place, arguing against that suggestion, claimed that not all such reports would be “of interest to consumers”. However, I fail to see how reports from a public body set up to look after consumers’ interests would not be of interest and relevant to consumers. Work that one out, Madam Deputy Speaker. I cannot and I do not know who can.
It seems that the Government wish to use the NCC for their own purposes, or at least that could be the perception. The fact that the NCC will not have the right to publish its own reports goes to the heart of the question whether the relationship between the Government and the NCC is sufficiently transparent. On this side of the House, we believe that it is essential that all such reports are published to ensure that the NCC is genuinely independent. For years, the NCC has been funded by the Government but has been unhindered in choosing for itself the focus of the work it undertakes and then reporting on that as it wished. I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that this is a better way to continue in the interests of empowered consumers.
Our fourth, and perhaps most serious, area of concern relates to estate agents. For the vast majority of people, buying a house is the single largest financial commitment they ever make. It is therefore right that the Government have sought to tackle the problem of rogue estate agents. We welcome the steps taken in the Bill to ensure that estate agents are members of an approved redress scheme and to give more powers to the Office of Fair Trading to take action, where appropriate, against estate agents. We are concerned, however, that in both those regards, the provisions do not cover all house sales. The Minister referred to this matter a moment ago, but we will have to explore it further in Committee. The Government cannot hide behind the supposed complications that follow amending an existing piece of legislation. It seems a grave omission that new homes sold directly by the developer and houses bought and sold off-plan are not covered. After all, that still involves the purchase of a house. It seems illogical that the Government should take a positive step regarding estate agents and yet not extend the same provisions to cover all house sales.
I am also worried that the penalties set for estate agents will be too low. For example, the penalty for not joining a redress scheme will be only £1,000—I think that the amount was raised from £500 to £1,000 in another place. However, given that the average fee charged by estate agents is approximately three times that—£3,000—the penalty does not seem an adequate deterrent. We thus intend to table amendments in Committee that would raise the penalties for that and other rogue practices up to even £10,000.
The third flaw in this part of the Bill, and the probably single biggest omission in the Bill, is the lack of any reference to the lettings and residential property management markets. There has been rapid growth in that sector over recent years. Indeed, since the Estate Agents Act 1979 was passed, the proportion of the housing stock that is let has increased by a third. Letting not only accounts for a significant proportion of the housing market, but provides a sizeable chunk of the work undertaken by businesses that would call themselves estate agents. That alone should be reason enough for lettings and residential property management work to be included in the definition of estate agency. However, if we add in the fact that consumers in the lettings market are likely to be less able than others to afford professional advice and advocacy, it becomes all the more important that protection should be afforded to them.
In another place, the Government argued that fully updating the 1979 Act so that it would to cover lettings and residential property management would be too complex. Despite what the Minister for Trade said in his speech, we still find that totally and utterly unconvincing. The Government further argued that the Office of Fair Trading report on the estate agency market did not cover lettings—the Minister referred to that today. That was, of course, the Government’s omission, and I hope they will not in this House rely on that same omission as a justification for disadvantaging a whole group of consumers.
The redress scheme model that is at the heart of the Bill is a simple enough idea and it is a good one. Conservative Members see no reason at all why the Government could not extend the areas of work covered by redress schemes to include lettings and residential property management. That would be a step in the right direction, but we would urge the Government to go further. They could, and should, use the Bill to update the 1979 Act so that it would cover lettings and, more generally, to make it better reflect a property market that has changed a great deal in the past 28 years. The House might not get an opportunity to examine estate agency again for another 28 years, so surely this is the right time to act.
Although the Bill is somewhat flimsy, it is not a bad Bill, and there are aims in it that are to be commended, especially the provision of a basic redress scheme for home buyers. Our concerns are about the strength and independence of the new national consumer council and the regulation of estate agents in all their activities. In Committee, we will table amendments to ensure that the NCC is free to publish its reports, to increase the penalties for rogue estate agents, and to extend protection to all house purchases, including those bought off-plan, and the lettings market. In the spirit of what we have seen this afternoon, I hope that the Government will work constructively with us on those issues so that we can make a little more of this well-intentioned Bill. As it stands, the Government risk missing a golden opportunity to modernise the 1979 Act and to bring better protection to home buyers and tenants. The Bill should also give more power, protection and representation to consumers, especially those in vulnerable groups, so my colleagues and I look forward to working with the Government to achieve that.
I hope that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) will forgive me if I do not follow up in detail everything that he said. I was slightly surprised, given his Scottish surname, that he seemed to have great difficulty understanding something that we understood perfectly: the accent of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who showed wisdom and good judgment as he made his speech. In case my right hon. Friend gets a wee bit worried, I have some questions to ask before I finish my speech.
The main thrust of both the Bill and my right hon. Friend’s speech to outline the Government’s objectives is extremely welcome. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, some parts of the Bill do not apply to Scotland—for example, we deal differently with estate agents and some would say we had the wisdom not to privatise water—so I hope that I shall be forgiven for dealing only with those parts of the Bill that I genuinely believe are important to my constituents.
I welcome the fact that the Bill is designed to streamline consumer advocacy. As my remarks will demonstrate, I want to see more consumer advocacy. I also welcome the creation of a body working on behalf of consumers that will have the teeth to stand up to suppliers across the industries covered by the Bill and, indeed, to Governments when it takes the view that that is necessary. However, it seems to me vital to ensure that the responsibilities now carried out by organisations such as Postwatch and Energywatch are not lost along the way—an important point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith).
In particular, I shall deal—[Interruption.]—not with telecommunications, which seem to be playing a part in our debate, but with the energy industry. The House will understand the reasons why. My constituents have strong views on what has been happening—or not happening—recently to gas and electricity prices. My Lanarkshire colleagues and I have been pursuing these matters since last June, because we are genuinely concerned. Wholesale prices have been falling, but the consumer is not getting the benefit. Some changes have occurred in recent weeks, but they do not go far enough. My interest in the Bill is centred mainly on whether, given the problems in the energy sector in particular, consumers have the protection that I believe they are entitled to expect and that this House might be expected to endorse. I worry that customers are not being given a fair deal in energy and, to be honest, I am looking for further assurances that the Bill leaves room for customers to be made more aware of advocacy than they seem to be today.
I am particularly concerned about two areas: first, the system for dealing with complaints when they are made and as quickly as possible after they are made; and, secondly, the collation of information on the standards of companies’ responses to complaints. My understanding—if it is wrong, I am sure that the Minister for Consumer Affairs and Competition Policy, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will correct me— is that responsibility for handling complaints, which are currently dealt with fairly comprehensively by Energywatch, will be split between the new NCC, an expanded Consumer Direct helpline and a new focus on suppliers dealing with complaints effectively themselves. I welcome the greater efficiency that that will bring, but I believe that loopholes remain that need to be tightened up; the debate today and in Committee will give us the opportunity to do that. Later, I shall return to the concept of suppliers regulating their complaints system themselves, but my main worry is that certain types of complaint will fall between the posts of Consumer Direct and the new council.
We Members of Parliament all receive representations; we seek to deal with them ourselves, if we can, and then we try to get the help that we think ought to be provided by the bodies that we are discussing today. Although many people outside the House support the Government’s objectives, as I do, they, like me, have questions. As I think hon. Members are aware, Help the Aged gave an example of a particular case to which we can all relate. An elderly lady found that she had a very large bill; clearly, there had been a mistake, and it was not her fault. She contacted Energywatch, which was able to help. As I understand it, under the new system, no one could offer that help immediately, as Energywatch was able to do. The lady was so worried that she was prepared to pay and deal with the problems later, but she would probably have had even greater problems if she had tried to get a solution on her own. That is the kind of issue that the Minister for Consumer Affairs and Competition Policy will want to take on board; I know that he is as committed to consumers as all other hon. Members involved in the debate are.
The Bill’s huge benefit is that it makes more provision for the new NCC to deal with vulnerable consumers. That is a comprehensive description of many people who have genuine problems, including people with disabilities. People who, for various reasons, are unable to express themselves may find themselves with problems, and they are entitled to the help that society wants to provide.
On a positive note, I welcome the provisions on disconnections. The cases of which I have been made aware have been, without exception, absolutely repugnant, and I am glad that there is a drive by the Government to make sure that the problem is reduced considerably, if not removed altogether. It is important that Consumer Direct staff have the necessary training to identify and deal tactfully with vulnerable customers, as existing organisations clearly do. That is a key area, and the expertise built up by staff and existing organisations must not simply be lost along the way.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He discussed the issue of overcharging by a supplier; he is correct that, in the list in clause 13, there is no provision that the new NCC can apply to deal with overcharging, and I am surprised by that. Furthermore, the clause deals exclusively with electricity and gas, but some of the most worrying cases in my constituency have involved overcharging for water. There is no provision at all in the Bill that covers the special issues relating to water supply. He puts his finger on an important point, and I hope that the Minister will address his concerns in detail when he winds up.
I welcome that intervention. Later, I hope to discuss Ofgem, because there are many lessons to be learned. I will give my reasons for saying that at the appropriate time. The hon. Gentleman undoubtedly has a point, and when we had a debate on the same issue in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, that point was rightly raised several times.
I am concerned that the new NCC will not have sufficient resources to deal with all the cases involving vulnerable consumers that emerge, and I would like reassurance on that point. Will the new NCC have the capability to help all those who genuinely fall into that category? Some estimate that people in that category account for about 21,000 cases a year.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about vulnerable customers and disconnection. The clause on disconnection requires the new body to take up the consumer’s case and advocate on their behalf. The clauses on vulnerable consumers enable it to do so, but do not necessarily require it to do so. If it does not have the resources, it may set a high threshold for the vulnerable customers whom it agrees to help.
The hon. Gentleman is on to something but, as I hope to explain, I do not believe that it is enough to introduce legislation to enable public bodies to do things. They must show that they are willing to show their teeth, and I shall go on to discuss Ofgem, because I am not persuaded that that has always been the case. As citizens advice bureaux have pointed out, there should be a duty with regard to vulnerable customers, just as there is in terms of disconnections. Voluntary organisations and Help the Aged have argued for the need not just for empowerment but for clarity in legislation so that people, especially consumers, know what they are entitled to expect.
It is expected that the shortfall will be reduced or eliminated by suppliers providing better standards of complaint handling, but we are giving a great deal of weight to suppliers’ opinions and their commitment or otherwise. I am enormously worried that those standards have been left entirely to the regulator’s discretion, so we must monitor that and see how effectively the regulator uses—or does not use—its powers. Ofgem has made its views abundantly clear to me personally—that is not to mention all the debates that we have had, the correspondence and so on—in a meeting about energy prices, in which it said that it regarded its role as one in which it was fully committed to the free market, so it was reluctant to intervene. I do not regard that as acting in consumers’ defence—people expect more than that.
My hon. Friend, who is Member of Parliament for Coventry, South and comes from the fine town of Coatbridge—moreover, he was in the same class at school as me—makes a particularly logical point, which I welcome.
Ofgem’s remit is a serious matter, and I know that the House agrees. In the past, wholesale prices have fallen and, again and again, consumers expected to benefit from reductions in retail prices, but that simply did not happen. Ofgem and similar bodies should be subject to a remit that includes the social effect—perhaps we should deal with that in later debates. I am not sure that they take that view themselves, but how can they deliver to the consumer, if they do not bear social effects in mind? We cannot ignore those effects in our constituencies, as people come to our surgeries who are unable to meet their bills. We cannot ignore them, when we know that people with prepayment meters are asked to pay far more than the average consumer and, indeed, ourselves. We cannot ignore those back payments, but, seemingly, the people whom we believe to be responsible say that they are powerless to deal with the problem. Lest it be thought that I am being unfair, Mr. Alistair Buchan, who was very courteous when I met him, told the House of Lords Select Committee on Regulators in February that consumer representation was Ofgem’s “Achilles heel”. I agree that that appears to be the case. If it is, we must try to put it right, and the Bill is a wonderful vehicle with which to do that.
I mentioned energy prices. Ofgem issued a statement on Hogmanay—my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South will explain to those who are perhaps not in tune that that is 31 December—that if, after a very lengthy period, the power companies failed to pass on to consumers the reduction in wholesale prices, they might be accused of having “jam on their fingers”. I think the situation called for something much stronger than a statement about “Jam on their fingers”. There was no problem in terms of the power companies’ responsibility to their shareholders or to present or past executives, but where, where, where was the commitment to the consumer? No answer was given to that on Hogmanay or on new year’s day. Consistent with the excellent objectives of the Bill, we need to clarify that.
I shall be slightly less helpful to the right hon. Gentleman this time. It is important to record that many of us feel that Ofgem does a very good job in regulating the energy sector. It understands the problems of energy companies that bought forward in the market and therefore cannot reduce prices as wholesale prices fall. I am totally confident that Ofgem has a firm grip of the situation and as those wholesale prices fall, it will ensure that prices to consumers also come down, as they are now doing.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion. He has put it on record and I am sure his constituents will form their view of what he said, just as my constituents will form their view on what I have said.
Given all that I have said and the fact that we have not reached agreement that the standards of complaint procedure should be written into the Bill—I think there is still the possibility of persuasion on that—I have little hope, unlike the hon. Gentleman, that that can be dealt with voluntarily.
If so, why do the Opposition believe there is a need for the Bill? As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the Labour party was elected on a mandate to seek to protect consumers and that we would not be party to rip-offs, nor will we be. Despite the questions that I have put, which I hope are seen in a positive light, I am delighted that the Government accept their responsibilities. On that, I say very well done indeed.
If the Bill is to be effective, there must be a duty, rather than a power. We must publicly set out the standards that we expect where we think that that applies. If we do not do so now, I fear that the provision in the Bill for the Secretary of State to intervene will be used far sooner than expected. Then, perhaps, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
Without Energywatch to push and probe, I fear that standards of complaint procedure will rapidly deteriorate. Alistair Buchan intimated as much to me when I met him—that there would be a void which Ofgem can and should fill. The question is whether that would be enough. We must make sure that in the Bill Ofgem is compelled, not invited, to do so.
Another gap in the new arrangements involves the collating of evidence surrounding complaints. Energywatch has done a fine job of using its own experience and data to identify trends and solve problems. As we all acknowledge, it has made progress on disconnections, billing and so on, which would not have been identified as problems without that outside pressure. The new NCC will have the far greater power to identify problems across sectors, and I welcome that, but it will be hampered in its efforts if the data are not available to it in the first place. I spent months, as have colleagues in Lanarkshire and elsewhere, attempting to get assorted figures concerning the energy sector from companies, and indeed from Ofgem, and I can assure the House that it was no easy job. Our colleagues in Committee will therefore have to give a great deal of thought to that.
The NCC will be aided by provisions in the Bill on demanding such data. I welcome those provisions, which are absolutely essential. However, the information on a lot of relevant material is not recorded, and we must consider that as well. The Bill must include provision to demand that suppliers keep better records of customers’ complaints, and Ofgem must ensure that they are reliable and completely transparent. That is why I have made the plea to it, and regarding it, about the kind of accountability that I thought we had all taken as agreed. Some issues affected by the Bill go beyond being resolved by competition or regulation, and we must explicitly set them out now; otherwise, they will fall by the wayside, to the extreme detriment of consumers.
All that said, the Bill represents tremendous progress. The debate in another place was extremely well informed, and I have every reason to believe that the same will apply as the Bill makes its way through this House and that we can improve on its excellent objectives. If we do that, the House will be responding to the needs, the rights and, in many cases, the cries of consumers. That is our responsibility today and the reason why I am extremely pleased to say that I shall be supporting the Bill.
Let me start by picking up what the Minister said at the beginning of his speech about the unfair commercial practices directive and how it will work with the Bill to create a stronger framework for consumers and consumer protection. He then did something that can be fatal, and provided a list of examples of items that he thought would be covered by the directive. One was missing, and I would like to put it on the record. The Irish Government have interpreted aspects of the directive as an opportunity to tackle the practice of companies charging extra to people who pay by some mechanism other than direct debit, even though those people are typically the most vulnerable—for example, those who do not have bank accounts that allow them to use direct debit, or who are trying to keep very close control of their finances. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity that the directive provides, along with the Bill, and working with the new national consumer council, to take on that issue and add it to the Minister’s list.
Let me join the Minister and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in congratulating the other place on its work on the Bill. I should like to mention Lord Razzall, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer and Lord Lee of Trafford, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. The Earl of Caithness, for the Conservatives, produced some interesting amendments, the most important of which, unfortunately, was not passed, but should be revisited by this House.
We all have a common goal: the better protection of consumers and better regulation of estate agencies. Much of the purpose of the Bill is to seek economies and efficiencies in delivering that protection and regulation. It is absolutely key, however, that protections are not diluted in the restructuring of the consumer watchdog agencies, and that protections for estate agencies are adequate to the task rather than directed by resource availability. Much of that work will be taken up in Committee, but let me use this opportunity to raise a few framework questions.
First, let me deal with consumer protection. We all understand that a new national consumer council will initially replace the current National Consumer Council, Postwatch and Energywatch, and that the Bill also provides for abolishing the Consumer Council for Water and the transfer of its functions.
I am not making a partisan comment when I say that, despite earlier ambitions to include rail, air, telecoms and even financial services, the body with which we are presented is much narrower than the original concept. It appears that the new body largely comprises elements associated with the Department of Trade and Industry, with water possibly joining later. The goal of one seamless structure to deal with all consumer protection remains way ahead of us. We will need to examine it in future.
Given that we do not have a single overarching body, it becomes relevant to ask questions about the individual pieces that have been identified as forming part of the new national consumer council. The Minister for Trade knows that the Consumer Council for Water was set up only in October 2005, and that its work during the last drought was driven by its ability to have a regional focus in England itself as well as throughout the UK. The new NCC structure does not necessarily accommodate that. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton outlined, a price review is due in 2009 and there will be consultation on the water franchise directive in December 2008.
The Minister for Trade suggested—and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton appeared to agree with him—that a review to accelerate the inclusion of the water body might be a way round the various aspects of the timetable. If such agreement has been building between Labour and Conservative Front Benchers, I disagree with them. Surely the best resolution to the problem is delay, so as to include the Consumer Council for Water in 2011 rather than accelerating the process, given the important role that it has to play. It should engage in responding to the water franchise directive immediately, not after 2008.
There is no collusion between Front Benchers on the matter. I gave the House a genuine insight into a meeting that I held to try to discuss the way forward. The hon. Lady’s speech is a typical Liberal Democrat response. She starts by criticising us for not including all the regulators in the Bill, but less than 30 seconds later, she criticises us for including one.
I feel strongly that delay is the best mechanism for ensuring that water is protected for the consumer. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton appeared to be enthusiastic about the Minister’s proposal.
On timing, Postwatch comes immediately to mind. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will shortly provide the results of the consultation on the compulsory closure of 2,500 Post Office branches. I understand that in the other place, the Government gave assurances that the Bill provides for the new NCC to investigate any matters relating to the number and location of public post offices. However, the Bill uses the word “may” and avoids “shall”. The notion of going through a minimum of 2,500 Post Office branch closures with a consumer body that only “may” consider the matter, and is not required to do so, is discouraging. I hope that in Committee the Government will reconsider the idea of using the word “shall” instead of “may”.
I am sure that the hon. Lady has examined the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade points out to me that clause 16, entitled “Investigations relating to public post offices”, states that “the Council may investigate”. It therefore has a role.
I repeat that the use of the word “may” is the cause of our concern, and the Minister has just confirmed that I have read the clause correctly. It is extremely important that there be representation on this issue, and I ask the Government to look at the matter again.
Perhaps I am on the Minister’s side on this question. When the clause says “may”, it means “has the power to”; therefore the council can investigate. This is not a question of the council investigating if the Minister lets it; it will be empowered to do so.
The reason why clause 16 is in the Bill is to give absolute certainty, because in the past, these have been grace and favour arrangements involving the Post Office. The Bill sets out the provisions with absolutely clarity for the first time, and I give the hon. Lady that assurance. That is the whole purpose of clause 16.
I thank the Minister. We are now moving forward. In the House of Lords we were unable to obtain that assurance, so I am pleased to have heard that from him today.
The Minister will also be aware that there are resources contingent on providing that scope and level of review. A devolved structure has worked for Postwatch in carrying out such a review. We have no guarantee as to how the different regions of England will find a way of being adequately represented and heard, because post office branches are a local issue. Dealing with what happens in one community, compared with another, requires a great deal of local sensitivity. It would be helpful for our constituents up and down the country if they understood how the new body will deal with that set of issues.
The turmoil among staff should not be underestimated. When a major process of sweeping post office closures on this scale is under way, it is not always clear whether the minds of the staff will always be on the task in hand, of protecting consumers. They might instead be thinking about their future, about where their office may be, or about whether to stay with the organisation or look for another job. That is a serious set of concerns, and it is an argument for a delay in bringing Postwatch into the new body.
There is also the potential for loss of expertise. We have no assurance that the people who have built up the necessary expertise in this area will not decide, perhaps even for a simple reason such as the location of their new headquarters, to move on in their careers. This is not the time for that kind of change.
There are issues of implementation, but that is all that they are. They are not issues of principle. Surely the Liberal Democrats are not saying that they want us to remove this measure from the Bill, as that would disbar the people who use postal services in their millions from having redress if mistakes are made. That is a ludicrous position to take. It is one thing to say that we need to ensure that the implementation of the provisions is effective and that there is proper consultation—which there is; these people are part of the fortnightly and monthly meetings on the implementation strategy, as of right—but it is quite another thing to say that we should not include the measures in the Bill, leaving the users of postal services with no redress until such time as another Bill is introduced. The Liberal Democrats are adopting a nonsensical position.
Again, I disagree with the Minister. Access to redress does not appear to be contingent on introducing all the watchdogs in phase 1. There are mechanisms to deal with this issue. I must stress that implementation matters, as the Government must surely have learned across a wide variety of public services. Yes, the policy needs to be correct, as do the strategy and the framework, but as far as the consumer is concerned, implementation is everything.
We are talking about 2,500 post office closures, but those are just the compulsory closures. We have not yet discussed the number of voluntary closures that might take place, particularly as Government business shifts away from the Post Office, making it less attractive for quite a number of postmistresses and postmasters to continue in their business. Presumably, they will be replaced by some kind of outreach service, and there will be sets of issues around all of that. The timing is particularly awful.
I want to come to the hon. Lady’s aid—partly, at least, as she seems to be being attacked from both sides of the House. If the Government were to declare now where the headquarters of the new organisation is to be—and if it were to be in London—that would give some certainty to the many Postwatch staff who are concerned about the disruption that might be caused to their personal lives, so that their expertise might be retained by the new organisation. That expertise could then be used to advise on the post office closure programme if the Government decided to proceed with rapid implementation.
I agree that the turmoil and uncertainty will make everything worse. I have been part of organisations that have undergone drastic change—I must confess that that was in the banking sector—and I know that it is unwise to underestimate the impact of such changes on both morale and performance.
Let me now raise the issue of Energywatch, which was discussed so articulately by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and—I hate this long constituency name! Perhaps Coatbridge will do.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He spoke of the issues surrounding the abolition of Energywatch. In principle we can envisage its becoming part of the new body, but there are questions to be asked about timing and implementation. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there has been strong evidence of “sticky fingers” as energy suppliers have seen wholesale prices decline, and have delayed lowering their prices to the domestic consumer asymmetrically in terms of the point at which they raised them when wholesale prices rose.
There are questions to be asked about smart metering, and about the effectiveness of consumer switching at a time of volatile pricing. We need to discuss the key role that Energywatch has played in promoting energy efficiency and dealing with issues of sustainability at a time when we are all concerned about climate change. We need to be certain that those activities and strengths will not be lost. The Government must appreciate what a difficult period we are experiencing when introducing changes such as this.
Like the rest of my party, I strongly support the redress structures that the Bill foresees. I also support the ombudsman system, which builds on the previous energy ombudsman system. However, the scope of redress is left largely to the discretion of the Secretary of State. There is little in the Bill about the operation of the system, and we have a number of questions to ask about issues such as the principle of multiple competitive ombudsmen. We have all observed on examination boards the preference of providers to seek the friendliest arbiter. Multiple ombudsmen pose the risk of a race to the bottom, and a race to be the most sympathetic.
What concerns me most about the transferring of watchdog bodies to the new national consumer council is the potential loss—indeed, the recognised loss—of the advocacy provided by the current system. Postwatch has had difficulty in the past—although recently it has got its act together and become something of an effective advocate—but I do not think anyone would argue that Energywatch is anything other than an effective advocate. The new council will not pursue individual investigations except in relation to a narrowly defined group of the most vulnerable people. We would like a much clearer definition of “vulnerable”—a definition of those included in that group, and preferably an expansion of the definition.
The Minister said that he wished the new body to be the lion that would roar, not the mouse that would squeak. That, too, prompts a series of concerns. As the Minister implied, for most people Consumer Direct will act simply as a traffic light system. People will telephone it, and will be given a number on which to contact, for instance, the complaints office of their energy supplier. They will pursue the matter for three months, and if they do not get anywhere they can hope for a deadlock letter from the supplier. They will then have an opportunity to fill up many forms and consult the ombudsman. The industry is undoubtedly attracted to that structure, because it hopes that many consumers will abandon the process out of frustration.
Energywatch has been diligent in pursuing the issues of the individual consumer. If we look at its record, we will see that it recovered £6.7 million in compensation and bill reductions for domestic consumers in 2005 and 2006. The average award for a domestic consumer with a billing complaint—that accounts for two thirds of complaints—was £168. That is serious money. It had in-depth contact with over 220,000 consumers, and 62,000 complaints merited detailed investigation with the energy companies because they could not be easily resolved. It reduced disconnections of vulnerable customers from 26,000 four years ago to 3,000 today, which is remarkable.
I have personal experience of many of the difficulties of dealing with the utilities. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am quite recently widowed. I have had to change the name on many of my utility accounts. I have also moved. When I mention those factors to the energy suppliers, and we meet them when they are out lobbying, they immediately turn very pale and the standard response is, “Oh, my God.” Trying to deal with the customer service arm of many of those utilities is dire. If I had not been working on this speech over the weekend, I would have been trying to compare quite a number of bills; I think that I am being sent them for the wrong property. Over and over again, I have talked to one consumer after another—and this is a difficult and complex process.
I note, for example, that, in late 2005 British Gas migrated millions of its customers to a new account and billing system. There were significant problems, and Energywatch received over 6,000 complaints in just six months. To this day, customers are still having the same problems with British Gas, including not being able to get through to the call centre. British Gas has said that it will not reach “business as usual” until mid-2007. However, it was kind enough to provide a briefing on the Bill. It is delighted with the new structure because it
“believes that the existing measures that energy suppliers have in place to manage complaints are sufficient”.
There is complacency among suppliers and pleasure in getting the new structure, because they believe that it will finally get that nuisance called Energywatch off their backs.
I understand the importance of having a code of conduct as part of becoming a member of a redress scheme, which would require energy suppliers and any other providers to have a proper complaints resolution scheme in place. All that will be important, and I hope that it can be strengthened in Committee, but I make the following point to the Minister: the new national consumer council should have the powers, and if necessary be assured that it could get the resources, to step back into the advocacy role if the new scheme does not provide the level of service and the resolution that customers have finally begun to achieve after many years of not being able to get their complaints appropriately dealt with. It seems that that is a relatively risky new step. We are taking a chance that the providers, the energy suppliers and others will step up to the level of service that they have been prodded into by groups such as Energywatch and Postwatch. There should be a plan B for dealing with the situation if that is not accomplished.
I am also concerned about businesses. I know that the Minister in the other place gave an assurance that the definition of customers includes businesses. Obviously, in the past the various watchdog bodies have had a specific specialised focus on small businesses. The Minister will be aware that the Federation of Small Businesses is concerned that that same focus may not be shared by the new NCC. Indeed, there is a lack of clarity about the focus of the new NCC, what its culture will be, how intensively it will chase down different issues, and how it will manage its priorities. There is little discussion about that, other than our being told “Trust me” that those who are in charge—Lord Whitty and others—are people of integrity and will do a good job. That is not an adequate answer.
Could we at least get some clarity on the funding of the NCC? Historically, the energy supply industry has provided the funding for the energy watchdog, and the Post Office for Postwatch. That money is now to be merged into the new NCC, and the Department of Trade and Industry has arranged for the funds to be provided to the NCC itself. However, it is unclear whether that will continue to be the arrangement over the long term, particularly if the NCC decides to focus much of its energies outside the traditional sectors. We must have some clarity about that.
In terms of the publishing of reports, consumer confidence will be essential. Information must be made available to the public. That is the case not only because the taxpayer will largely have paid for the reports, but because the idea that an issue that affects consumers should be kept away from consumers, and that reports that might reveal areas of concern should not be fully disclosed, is completely unacceptable in this day and age. The public disclosure of all reports is essential.
I now turn to measures to do with estate agents, which account for a major proportion of the Bill. We welcome the proposals to require estate agents to join a redress scheme and to keep the necessary records, and many of the other innovations that the Bill would introduce. The proposals are not particularly radical, but they represent an improvement on the situation in the past. However, I wish to raise again the concern about the idea of multiple ombudsman schemes; there is a fear that the industry will tend to head for the body that will give it the easiest time, and there could be a race to the bottom.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that what matters is the standards that must be applied to such schemes, and that if there is a common set of standards, whether there are two or three redress or ombudsman schemes is, frankly, neither here nor there?
I hope that a multiple scheme system would operate like that, but I am concerned. Because the schemes will make their money from the number of customers they attract, when so much is a matter of interpretation and so many issues are subjective there will be a great temptation to weaken schemes, rather than to strengthen them.
The Minister has spoken about one of our most fundamental concerns—the fact that the Bill does not cover the lettings industry, which is worth £12 billion. Although he implied that that would be dealt with in a sort of phase 2, I ask that some work be done now so that at least the principle of including lettings is added to the Bill. Delay in such an area would be unfair to consumers. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made the point that people who rent are more likely than those who buy to be vulnerable and to have difficulties in taking on the system; that underscores the importance of getting action on lettings.
Shelter conducted an interesting case study that showed that some people were charged as much as £300 in fees for the simplest lettings processes, which is completely out of kilter with the amount of work involved. The Bill would give no opportunity for redress in such circumstances. I do not understand, either, why the definition of what is an estate agent or what is estate agency work cannot be adapted to include developers who sell their own properties, whether they sell them off-plan or after they have been built. That is a huge loophole.
As was mentioned often by those who spoke on behalf of my party in the other place, it is completely unacceptable to have a maximum penalty of only £1,000 for operating outside the scheme. We recognise that that has been increased from £500, but we will continue to seek an upward adjustment. The average estate agency commission on a single sale is more than £3,000; that should be the minimum fine for a first offence, rising to a far higher sum if there are future offences. We have suggested the sum of £10,000, which, interestingly, I also heard being suggested today.
The redress scheme does not include any capacity to monitor what is going on in the industry. That will continue to be the responsibility of consumers at large, Which? or the BBC. That raises in my mind questions about the Government’s approach to having negative licensing, rather than positive as well as negative licensing. The fact that almost anyone can set up as an estate agent without a single qualification for the job is to me, and I believe, to most consumers—both purchasers and sellers—completely unacceptable.
Consumer dissatisfaction with estate agents is high. The Office of Fair Trading report, having first said that nine out of 10 people buying or selling a home used an estate agent, goes on to say that around a quarter of them were dissatisfied—a high level of dissatisfaction. However, few of those people made a formal complaint to the OFT. That is a difficult and challenging process and people do not have the time to do it. They want to get the business over and done with. The industry does not have many fans. It has done its own research and found that only one person in 10 thought that one could usually trust an estate agent.
In 2005 the voluntary ombudsman scheme, to which only two thirds of agents belong, received a whopping 6,000 complaints. Anyone who saw BBC1’s “Whistleblower” programme in March 2006 will have heard about a whole culture of dirty tricks. For most people a house purchase is the largest investment they will ever make. For many it is their retirement nest egg, and a purchase that they will make very few times in their lives. Many people make a purchase in a new part of the country, in an area that they do not know and where they have few points of reference. In such circumstances no one would dream of using an unqualified solicitor and expecting them to provide the necessary paperwork for a house purchase. However, we do expect people to employ a possibly unqualified estate agent, and that seems unacceptable to me.
A redress scheme is all well and good, but surely it would be better to prevent the problem with proper training and qualifications for estate agents. Indeed, the National Association of Estate Agents and Which?—two different sides of the coin—both support that approach. We would not need to invent the qualifications as there is an NVQ level 3, introduced three years ago, which would be an adequate qualification. I mentioned the Earl of Caithness at the beginning of my speech, but his small attempt to amend section 22 of the Estate Agents Act 1979, which sets out standards of competence for estate agents, was defeated.
I lived for many years in the US, where every estate agent has to be licensed. It is not a barrier to competition, but having bought and sold houses in both countries, I can say that the level of service available in the US, where I had a qualified and licensed agent, was a world away from the quality of service in the UK. I hear similar reports from almost everybody to whom I talk. Therefore, I ask the Government to reconsider that issue.
I hope that, as they have suggested, the Government have an open mind on many of the potential improvements that could be made to the Bill. We all want quality protection for consumers. None of us wants to waste money, but bad practice is costly to the consumer, the economy and the taxpayer. Let us not make a false economy. I hope that in the next phases of the Bill’s passage we can add many provisions that will strengthen consumer protection and make it more effective.
I shall be brief. I welcome the Bill. It will greatly strengthen consumer protection and make it more transparent and accessible to the public, which is devoutly to be welcomed. However, an opportunity is being missed. This Bill is a useful legislative vehicle of a kind, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) pointed out, that does not come along very often—perhaps every 25 or 30 years. It would be wise to make the most of it.
I am in a curious position today. I little thought when I entered Parliament that I would end up speaking with the backing of estate agents—not an element of society with whom I normally associate —but the National Association of Estate Agents will, I think, endorse my brief remarks on the regulation, or licensing, of estate agents, in particular of letting agents.
The buy-to-let and private rental sectors have mushroomed in recent years and are particularly prevalent in my constituency. For that reason, I am glad that the Government’s new national tenancy deposit scheme is starting up, as it will be important. It will, for instance, save thousands of my constituents from being—literally—robbed of their deposits by unscrupulous letting agents. Money is being withheld for no genuine reason. Of course, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) pointed out, that is not the only way in which unscrupulous letting agents fleece vulnerable tenants. By definition, people in the private rented sector are more vulnerable; they cannot obtain mortgages and do not have the income to get on to the property ladder, so they are at the mercy of letting agents who have all sorts of ways of charging wholly unreasonable fees. In fact some of the activities I have come across can only be described as scandalous.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade has for the moment set his face against positive licensing, but will he reconsider that position during the passage of the Bill through the House? It seems to me that although the redress schemes are welcome and necessary and should be used, far fewer people would have to resort to them if estate agents were licensed. There would then be a reasonable expectation of minimum standards of professional competence and integrity, and a code of conduct would inhibit cowboy elements. There would thus be fewer transgressions that caused members of the public to have recourse to the redress scheme.
Given that in most surveys estate agents and MPs are lumped together at the bottom of the league table as the most disreputable people, and that from the evidence in the national newspapers further regulation and codes of conduct have not seemed to do any good in politics, why does he think they will do any good in estate agency?
I have to take exception to the hon. Gentleman’s latter point. I accept his point about the popularity of politicians and estate agents, although I think we just about shade estate agents—at least I hope so; I should be bitterly disappointed to think that we were classed at exactly the same level. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that sensible regulation cannot work. Good, reasonably light-touch regulation—it does not need to have knobs on—could be overseen by a body such as the NAEA itself. An annual licence fee will not make a big hole in the enormous turnover of estate agents, given that the sale of just one property can produce a fee of £3,000. If licensing promotes justice for tenants and property buyers it is well worth doing.
My right hon. Friend the Minister said that he was unwilling to move to regulate letting agents because of the lack of an adequate evidence base. Will he consider incorporating in the Bill enabling clauses to provide that in one year, or a maximum of two years, there should be such an evidence base? The Government would then be able to act rapidly and implement a scheme of regulation without having to wait another 20 years for a slot in the Queen’s Speech. That is the main wish—not gripe—I want to put to my right hon. Friend. I ask him to consider it seriously, as it could make an enormous improvement and make a good, well-intentioned Bill even better.
It is not my intention to spend much time discussing the parts of the Bill that deal with estate agents. However, the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) prompts me to bring forward some remarks I had intended to make later in my speech.
I am indebted to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has enabled me to draw some definitive conclusions about the relative popularity of estate agents and Members of Parliament. I have good news for the hon. Gentleman: we do indeed shade estate agents. The survey states:
“These cards show different types of people. Please put them on this board to show which you would generally trust to tell the truth and which you wouldn’t.”
The answers showed that family doctors scored 93 per cent.; “your local MP” scored 48 per cent.; MPs in general scored 29 per cent.; estate agents scored 24 per cent. and journalists on newspapers such as The Sun, The Mirror or the Daily Star scored 9 per cent. But where are Ministers? Their score is 23 per cent.—1 per cent. lower than the estate agents they aspire to regulate in the Bill. Perhaps we should have a Bill to deal with Ministers—not in this Government, but Governments in general—rather than the Bill we are considering. There is a certain irony in the ranking.