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Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]

Volume 687: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Government are committed to a robust and effective consumer and competition regime, one that is fair to consumers as well as to business. We are committed to strong, effective, competitive markets where firms can constantly challenge one another to offer greater choice, better quality and lower prices to consumers. But consumers themselves have a key part to play. Business needs demanding and confident consumers to encourage higher standards and innovation.

Pressure to retain custom is also a powerful incentive for business to act with integrity and responsibility. That is why we want a consumer regime that is fit for the 21st century. We need to make sure that consumers have the right information to make informed choices. We need to remove the rogue traders and give consumers access to redress so that they feel confident and secure when dealing with business. In a competitive marketplace, it is the companies that give their customers what they want that will thrive.

But we in government must keep thinking about what consumers need, too. What are the Government doing to achieve this? The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill forms part of a wider programme of government reform to empower UK consumers. The Consumer Credit Act, which received Royal Assent earlier this year, represents the biggest overhaul of consumer credit legislation since 1974. It 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 Government will shortly announce their plans to implement the EU unfair commercial practices directive. The UCPD is a powerful tool, 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, the directive will ban 31 types of unfair commercial practices outright, including high-pressure or unreasonably persistent selling methods. The directive also has rules stopping misleading and aggressive practices, and introduces a catch-all duty not to trade unfairly. We will implement the directive by the end of next year, shortly before the provisions of the Bill take effect.

The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill complements both the Consumer Credit Act and the UCPD and will empower consumers yet further. The largest element of the Bill is the Consumer Voice proposals. There has been extensive consultation on Consumer Voice over the last three years. UK consumers now benefit from choice in most of our essential services, thanks to a long-term commitment by the Government to champion open, competitive markets. The aim is to deliver choice and to foster high standards and good value in our key sectors.

The markets for essential services have been progressively liberalised over a long period, and several regulatory regimes have been developed. But there was a common model: licensed companies overseen by an independent economic regulator, and a consumer body with duties in respect of each individual sector. That has led to the current position where we have several sectoral consumer bodies, as well as a National Consumer Council that represents consumer interests across a range of markets.

The National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch have provided a valuable service to consumers. However, key issues around the current system of consumer representation have to be addressed. Consumer representation in the UK is fragmented. We lack a coherent voice for the consumer to speak with expertise and authority in discussions with companies, with government or in Europe. We need a body that is able to compare different markets and focus on areas of real concern. In addition, any consumer who needs advice or assistance must first work out where to go for help. Promoting the existence of consumer bodies has consistently been a problem, as each of the relevant bodies has sought individually to make consumers aware of its services. A sectoral consumer body cannot necessarily look at all aspects of a company’s service. Although the Consumer Action Network offers potential for increased co-operation between consumer bodies, difficulties over exchanging information remain. Different structures prevent resources or facilities from being shared effectively.

To address these issues, we propose to bring together the National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch to form a stronger, more coherent consumer advocate: the new National Consumer Council. This new body will be independent. It will have the stature to engage effectively with government, regulators and industry. It will be able to look across sectors and give advice on the basis of expert and informed analysis. Responsibility and authority to speak for consumers will rest with a single organisation. That will provide a stronger and more effective voice in the ear of policy-makers in the UK and the European Union.

Savings will be achieved by cutting the cost of complaint handling, the consolidation of offices and staff and a reduction in property expenditure. Analysis by KPMG on behalf of the DTI estimates net ongoing savings of about £8.9 million per year, increasing to about £9.5 million per year by around 2015 as redundant property leases come to an end. We also propose to extend the availability of redress for consumers.

Energywatch and Postwatch currently labour under a significant burden of complaints that they can resolve only through persuasion. They have no powers to enforce resolution and cannot provide for redress or compensation. That is the role of a redress scheme, and the creation of new, separate redress services forms part of the provisions of this Bill. The provisions in Part 2 will enable Ministers to require suppliers or service providers in the energy and postal services sectors to belong to redress schemes. This will give consumers confidence that their complaint will be resolved, and there will be access to compensation and redress where warranted. The Bill also offers the potential to include the water sector within this requirement in future, following consultation.

I now come to the provisions relating to estate agents. For most people, buying a place to live is the most expensive purchase they ever make and the process can often be stressful, for buyers and sellers alike. Estate agents play a crucial role in this process. It is vital that the market for estate agency services works well, and that consumers are protected against unfair practices. Consumers need to be confident that estate agents will deal honestly with them. Many estate agents are rightly angry that their reputation is tarnished by a small minority who at best lack professionalism and at worst are dishonest.

The Office of Fair Trading recognised these issues in its study of the estate agency market published in March 2004. It found that the market was generally competitive and in most cases worked well for consumers, but 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 a failure to pass on offers to sellers or to declare a personal interest in a property. In its report, the OFT made a number of recommendations to bring the Estate Agents Act 1979 up to date with modern enforcement practices. The OFT was keen to ensure a basic level of protection and to promote quality of service and redress.

The Government published their response to the OFT report in July 2004. They went further than the OFT and stated that they wanted to make membership of a redress scheme mandatory for all UK estate agents. We amended the Housing Act 2004 to ensure that complaints relating to home information packs could be addressed through redress schemes.

The Bill goes further. It will fulfil our promise that any private individual with a legitimate complaint against an estate agent should have access to redress. It also implements a number of other recommendations in the OFT report. It will improve the audit trail for transactions by requiring estate agents to make and keep records—including records of offer letters—for a period of six years. The Bill will give the OFT and local authority trading standards officers powers to go into premises and inspect records in a wider range of circumstances. This will enable them to investigate all breaches of the 1979 Act, not just criminal offences.

The Bill will also expand the circumstances in which the OFT can consider the fitness of an estate agent to practise and, if necessary, take regulatory action against them. The OFT can already ban estate agents when they have been convicted of a specified criminal offence. The Bill will allow the OFT to ban an estate agent where there is sufficient evidence that an offence has been committed, even if there is no conviction. Furthermore, the OFT will also be able to ban an estate agent where an enforcement order under the Enterprise Act 2002 or a statutory undertaking has been breached. These changes are needed to bring the 1979 Act in line with modern enforcement practice, where civil or informal action is generally used as a cost-effective and proportionate alternative to criminal prosecution.

Part 4 includes provisions on doorstep selling. In September 2002, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux—now Citizens Advice—published a report, Door to Door, which looked at a wide range of goods and services sold on the doorstep, and addressed problems that had been reported to its offices. The report was submitted to the Office of Fair Trading as a super-complaint within the terms of the Enterprise Act 2002.

In November 2002, the OFT confirmed that it would investigate doorstep selling. Its report, which included seven recommendations for improving consumer protection, was published in May 2004. In response, the Government launched a public consultation and on 7 September this year they published their response. As part of that response, they decided to introduce primary legislation to ensure that all consumers have the safety net of a cooling-off period for all doorstep sales, whether the visit is solicited or not.

Consumers will be protected if they are subjected to high-pressure selling and subsequently change their minds. Removing the distinction between solicited and unsolicited visits will make the law simpler and clearer for the consumer, businesses and enforcement agencies. 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 do not need to spend time establishing whether their visit is solicited or unsolicited.

We welcome the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and intend to accept both its recommendations in relation to this Bill. We are seeking the relevant clearances and will table government amendments shortly.

I hope that your Lordships’ House will join me in supporting these provisions. The Bill equips enforcers to get rid of dishonest estate agents. It gives consumers a strong champion to fight their corner, and it gives them the rights and redress that they deserve. I look forward with great anticipation to hearing noble Lords’ contributions to this important debate.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Truscott.)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, especially as it is my first legislative task in my new role as shadow spokesperson on DTI matters. I congratulate the Minister on his new post and welcome him to his place in what is a first for us both. I am sure that he will join me in welcoming in the European Union another first: the recent appointment of a dedicated commissioner for consumer protection, Mrs Meglena Kuneva of Bulgaria. I am sure we all look forward to meeting and listening to her.

I declare an interest as the former chair of the National Consumer Council, as the current president of the National Federation of Consumer Groups and the vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute. I am delighted to open the batting under this brief in a field with which I am familiar.

We had the opportunity to debate the Bill in your Lordships' House a week ago today, albeit with a lighter touch. I am pleased to have the opportunity to spend a little more time reflecting on its provisions and implications.

As we have heard, the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill exists as a result of a DTI White Paper, A Fair Deal for All—Extending Competitive Markets: Empowered Consumers, Successful Business, the OFT’s two-year report on estate agency, and various DTI consultations. I shall address the three main areas of the Bill: the merger of the NCC, Postwatch, Energywatch, the Irish postal services committee and the Welsh and Scottish consumer councils; the new provisions for solicited sales; and the proposed amendments to the 1979 Act.

While I am in favour of any plans to improve consumer understanding and create a more transparent system of complaint and redress, I am concerned by the Government’s proposed method of doing it. One needs only to point to Natural England as an example of the creation of a non-departmental public body from previously independent bodies—it is now over-budget and understaffed—to feel some trepidation at the proposals before us. We are already being lobbied by single-issue and consumer groups which are expressing anxiety about the new body, Consumer Voice.

During its 31 years of existence, the NCC has been a low-cost guerrilla force for consumer affairs. It is vital that such a body, funded by and yet independent of government, is not turned into a large, process-led home for government policy. The National Consumer Council has always been consumer driven. It has driven improvements in consumer affairs worldwide. Since its establishment by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, when she was on the Labour Benches in another place, it has provided the benchmark for consumer protection. It has been largely left alone by successive governments of every hue.

So I was concerned to read in paragraph 2.108 on page 31 of the regulatory impact assessment that as a result of the merger there is,

“a concern that the particular circumstances of individual sectors will be overlooked, particularly where a broadly based body tries to adopt general policies”.

Given that Her Majesty's Government are clearly aware of the potential pitfalls of a broad merger such as this, can the Minister inform noble Lords how plans for the new consumer voice are going to be set to safeguard the National Consumer Council’s precious independence and independent policy development? Indeed, the NCC has raised concerns about the proposed merger. It is concerned about the precise function of the devolved elements of the new NCC and how those bodies will operate in devolved institutions. Can the Minister shed some light on that? In its briefing to me, the NCC has been keen to ensure that advocacy, redress and advice should be provided by specialist organisations. Can the Minister, in the light of the regulatory impact assessment’s concerns, assure noble Lords that that vital specialist advice will not be lost?

It is vital that this merger is not merely treated as a cost-cutting exercise. I was concerned to read in the regulatory impact assessment that the DTI hopes to make savings on the complaints procedures by cutting complaints. It is a common myth of the public sector that complaints are a negative component of consumer relations. In fact, the opposite is true: complaints systems are the most effective representation of the needs and wishes of consumers. Companies such as Marks & Spencer or Tesco, which measure their footfall and measure the number of complaints that they get against that footfall, value them highly as they are the route to improving customer service and the quality of the product. I hope that the Minister can reassure noble Lords that cost-cutting will not be a priority over consumer service.

The Conservative Party wholly supports increasing consumer confidence and capability. We believe that that is best achieved by working hand in hand with good business. Through sharing responsibility, customers and provider relationships are strengthened and we on these Benches would welcome any Government’s commitment to make Britain the best country in the world for consumers by 2008, as this Government have done. On present form, that seems unlikely; our British consumers are dangerously in debt; the figure stands today at more than £1 trillion. Why have the Government not taken notice of those warning signals? In addition, 56 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men admit to Christmas debt caused by poor financial planning and, in the first three months of this year, there were as many insolvencies in this country as there were in the whole of 1997. Yet the Government seem to be oblivious, and we have heard of no engagement with this state of affairs from their Benches. Something is going very wrong, and we are a long way off this Government’s commitment. We are in debt and we are going the wrong way.

On estate agents, it is important to face the facts. Last Monday, the Minister stated that 21 per cent of sellers and 23 per cent of buyers experienced problems with their estate agents. However, a different set of figures is much higher; a Which? survey showed that 70 per cent of consumers believe that agents give misleading information about properties and 90 per cent believed that their estate agents cannot usually be trusted. That paints a very different picture and a very bad one; it is very important to get these facts right. It is important because approximately 1.8 million people buy or sell a house every year. As the Minister has said, for most people it is the largest transaction that they will ever make, and there is a fantastic opportunity in this Bill to improve confidence for the consumer.

There is a real distrust surrounding estate agents. I wonder why, given that 70 per cent of all estate agents are already signed up to voluntary regulation and have codes of practice and qualifications under the NAEA and the RICS. There is real ambition within the industry to raise standards and, therefore, its reputation. The NAEA and the RICS warmly welcome the creation of a statutory ombudsman and redress scheme. I, as do the trade bodies, wish the scheme great success.

However, we remain concerned that redress will not adequately deter malpractice. I was concerned in my reading of the Bill that in reality redress will be a mere safety net and will not act as a deterrent. Noble Lords will be well aware that England does not have a positive licensing scheme for estate agents. Anyone can set up as an estate agent without any proven experience or aptitude. It is important that the redress scheme is tied closely to existing regulations. In light of that, the extension of the powers of the OFT in holding estate agents to account under a redress scheme is a welcome addition, but I am anxious that it may not go far enough.

There are certain caveats in the Bill that I am concerned about. In new Section 23A, to be added to the 1979 Act under Schedule 6 to this Bill, it will be possible for the Secretary of State to limit not only the types of complaint that may be made under a redress scheme, but the type of people who can make a complaint. I was as surprised to read this as I was to discover in the Explanatory Notes that a redress order,

“may apply to all who engage in estate agency work, or only to specified descriptions of them, and may exclude certain types of estate agency work”.

I understood that the Bill would apply to all consumers in the estate agency market. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure myself and other noble Lords that the Bill will do more than provide a smokescreen for an industry that is in serious need of a standard redress system. I should be grateful if the Minister could describe in detail what form a redress scheme will take. Is it likely that there will be more than one scheme? If so, how will consumers be reassured that both schemes are of the same high standard? I understand that the OFT will have the power to create a redress scheme without the approval of the Secretary of State, and that the Secretary of State will have the power to create his own scheme which will not need approval from the OFT.

I am concerned about how consistency between the two potential schemes will be achieved so that they are transparent and inspire confidence in consumers seeking redress. It would be ironic were this Bill to champion transparency at the first point of contact with consumers, in Consumer Direct, only to create confusion in the very system that is set to provide redress for consumers where the initial stages fail to help.

On solicited sales, “doorstep selling”, while the new provision for solicited sales, introducing a cooling-off period equating to the consumer rights for unsolicited sales, is the right direction of travel, I have concerns about the implications for small off-premises traders such as plumbers and electricians and the possible impact on consumers. Can the Minister reassure me that a new cooling-off period for all solicited sales will not result in, for example, a plumber refusing to fix a broken boiler until the cooling-off period has been completed to avoid the consequences of a customer changing their mind? If this were to happen, how ironic it would be that we had supported a Bill that sought to improve consumer service in the watchdogs, but had worsened it on the ground.

While there is much that is positive about the Bill, I remain cautious about the detail of many of these proposals pending answers from the Minister on structuring, costs and the detail of transition proposals in the following stages of the Bill. These Benches are committed to creating confident consumers. Where we believe that the Bill will achieve that, we will certainly support it.

My Lords, I commend the Bill to noble Lords and very much welcome the positive remarks that have just been delivered by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, particularly with regard to the estate agents redress scheme, which will cover estate agents generally rather than some two-thirds of them. I also welcome her positive remarks about the National Consumer Council. It has not always been thus from the Conservative Party. Soon after the Conservative Party, under Mr Edward Heath, was elected in 1970, it carried out its pledge to abolish the then Consumer Council, which had been set up less than eight years earlier. That was an unfortunate destructive act, because the Consumer Council had established itself as an authoritative and considered voice for the consumer, whose interests were so often neglected and ignored by other interests, represented by the CBI, the trade unions and the Government.

The Labour Party opposed the abolition of the Consumer Council, and one of its first acts on resuming power in 1974 was to create the present National Consumer Council, as the noble Baroness has recognised, to look after the interest of consumers in general and—I emphasise this point because it was emphasised at the time—the interests of less affluent consumers in particular. The first chairman was later a Member of this House, who is sadly now deceased; Lord Young of Dartington. When the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, became Prime Minister, she allowed the National Consumer Council to continue. Mind you, she did abolish the Price Commission, which also protected consumers, but the National Consumer Council continued. Two of its later chairmen now grace the Conservative Benches in this House; the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who has just spoken, and the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who will speak next. The former Labour Minister, my noble friend Lord Whitty, who will be speaking later in the debate, is the current chairman.

The 30-plus years of the National Consumer Council have been years of outstanding, productive effort in making the case so often for stronger consumer protection in many fields, and making that case on the basis of through research. That has always been regarded as essential. This Bill has to take account of the fact that a number of industries have been privatised or deregulated, and various specialised, particular consumer representational bodies have been created. It makes sense in the Bill—although the noble Baroness has raised some perfectly pertinent questions about ensuring that no little bit gets lost sight of when they are merged—that Energywatch, Postwatch and others should be merged with the National Consumer Council.

I was rather astonished, however, not by what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said today, but what she said a week ago, on 27 November. I see no basis for the noble Baroness asserting in the debate on the gracious Speech that the National Consumer Council is now set to be “another government mouthpiece”. I hope that she will reconsider that point, because it is far from the mark. The National Consumer Council will continue to be, and is intended to be, independent. Anything else would be of no use to Her Majesty’s Government—whether Labour, Conservative or any other. I have noticed over the years that the National Consumer Council has overlapped somewhat with the Office of Fair Trading in giving information, advice and education to consumers. Both it and the DTI have been engaged in Consumer Direct, the valuable telephone and online consumer advice service. It does not matter too much if there is some overlap of that kind.

High-pressure salesmanship has plagued consumers in various ways for many years. A deterrent against high-pressure salesmanship on the doorstep and in your own home has been the statutory cooling-off period, which gives the right to cancel contracts. But that right has not been available if the consumer has expressly requested or solicited the visit. Therefore, I welcome Clause 58 of the Bill, which extends consumer rights to cancel when home visits have been solicited by the consumer. Surely, that is right. Whenever a consumer is visited at home, there is a risk of undue pressure to sign up to some sales proposition simply to get rid of the persistent and, no doubt, endlessly talking salesman. After all, you can hardly walk out of your own home like you can from a shop.

It must be the lawyer in me that points out that the additional consumer protection in Clause 58 comes under the heading “Miscellaneous and general”. I suggest to the Minister that some of us might consider what other matters might be put into that part of the Bill. The Minister will recall that earlier this year, when the final touches were being put on the Bill, a most unfortunate incident took place that has been rippling for many weeks—the collapse of Farepak. That company had taken some £40 million in small amounts from less affluent consumers who sought to save to buy Christmas presents. It was suggested that the company should have been required by law to ring-fence those consumer savings instead of being able to misuse those savings on all sort of extraneous premises.

I am thinking of solicitors’ client accounts. I am also thinking of estate agents—given that they will receive a lot of knocking in this Bill—whose must hold deposits in separate accounts. It is not unknown that such a law should be required. At Second Reading, I confine myself to asking whether the Minister has considered, or whether he will consider, a new legal requirement on such saving schemes to protect consumer money. Would not Part 4 of the Bill be an appropriate vehicle?

Part 3, to amend the Estate Agents Act 1979, is one of the most important parts of the Bill. Clause 52 requires all estate agents to participate in a redress scheme. The 1979 Act was passed into law when I was Director-General of Fair Trading, and my office was given the power to ban estate agents from acting in the manner to which I have referred in certain circumstances. It is a type of negative licensing system and has frequently been used when, for example, an estate agent is convicted of defrauding customers by stealing deposits paid on a house purchase. There are already broad powers to ban estate agents who are considered to be unfit to practise, but I welcome the extended powers in this Bill.

The Office of Fair Trading’s local agents are the trading standards officers in local authority departments. The Bill gives them additional powers which no doubt some lawyers in the Liberal Democrat Party will want to watch with great care. On the face of it, such provisions would make the banning powers under the Estate Agents Act more useful.

Many estate agents have belonged to a redress scheme administered by the Ombudsman for Estate Agents and his staff, who work under the supervision of its council. The current chairman is the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold, who sits on the Opposition Benches, although she is not in her place today. I was a member of the council for the estate agents’ ombudsman in its early years in the 1990s, under the chairmanship of someone from our Benches—the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. The Ombudsman for Estate Agents has done the immensely useful job of investigating complaints and granting—at any rate modest—compensation where appropriate. In theory, the compensation can be up to a maximum of £25,000 but I do not think that it has reached anywhere near that figure in any case. Unfortunately, a large number of estate agents—roughly one third of the total—have declined to join and the Government’s proposals are intended to fill that obvious deficiency. The Government know that only too well, because it is the basis for the changes in the Bill. The Bill does not specify that estate agents must join the present Ombudsman for Estate Agents scheme but if that scheme’s record, constitution and so on pass muster—or might do so with change—it may become the approved scheme for the Office of Fair Trading and the Secretary of State. Having a number of schemes competing, no doubt, to provide the best service for customers, would seem a rather odd system of adjudication in this country. I do not think that it occurs in ombudsman schemes in insurance, banking and so on.

There is much to commend in the Bill. The House will, when we are in Committee, fulfil its usual and useful role of making detailed improvements.

My Lords, when I looked at the speakers list, I saw that I was fortunate enough to be the last speaker before the Statement. I then saw that I was to follow the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who is the great acknowledged expert in this field. That was one of the very good reasons why I reappointed him to the job of Director-General of Fair Trading when I was Minister of State.

I am also very grateful to the noble Lord for straying into the political area. I was not going to do so but he has provoked me. The Conservative Government whom he criticised were the first to create a Minister of State and a whole department of consumer affairs; they also introduced the Fair Trading Act 1973 and the first Consumer Credit Bill, which was carried on by other Governments. I subsequently introduced, as Minister of State, the Competition Act, which he supported. Well, well, well, my Lords—we now have a major consumer Bill from this Government, who over the past nine or so years have downgraded ministerial responsibility for consumer affairs from the level of Minister of State to that of Parliamentary Under-Secretary, then to Parliamentary Under-Secretary with mixed responsibilities, and then to having no ministerial person responsible at all. They filleted the Office of Fair Trading, they desiccated the NCC and they condensed the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I suppose that a deathbed conversion is always welcome.

When news of the Farepak disaster broke—here I definitely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Borrie—there was no officially designated consumer affairs Minister in the Government to comment. It fell to Back-Bench MPs and eventually the Chancellor to ask people, as he usually does, to put their hands in their pockets to help people, which they very generously did. I therefore hope that, in Committee, we will find it possible to take steps in Part 4 to regulate the industry. Christmas clubs are very popular; I am not sure that they are the best form of saving for consumers but they certainly need to be regulated.

So we now have, after nearly nine years, a Bill that appears to cobble together a vast range of new duties and powers for a new NCC, the implementation of which will not be helped by the vagueness of some of the drafting, and which will certainly be very costly—as it will have to be if it is to function properly—despite other savings that may be made.

Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said, my main concern is to support what my noble friend Lady Wilcox said about the independence of the new NCC and other bodies which may criss-cross around and in front of it. I, my predecessors and my immediate successor, my noble friend the very notable Lady Wilcox, who was an excellent chairman of the NCC, were completely free to investigate whatever we wanted, and we could report and publish our findings without submitting them to the Government. Indeed, I remember the publication of two particularly controversial reports when I was chairman of the NCC. In one, we published the fact that British consumers were at a great disadvantage as a result of the CAP; in another, we called for greater access to justice for consumers. That has subsequently been dealt with under legislation by this Government, for which I commend them.

I turn to the subject of the new NCC’s new functions relating to utilities and the Post Office. I am not as unduly concerned as others that they are to come under the same body so long as the NCC is given the manpower and resources for all the new functions, which will be vast and costly. Without them, the task could be overwhelming and could not be carried out correctly. I particularly welcome the NCC’s new role of giving advice and pursuing redress in certain defined cases, limited though they are by their definition. Both as a Minister and a chairman of the NCC, one of my major concerns was the lack of this kind of provision across the board. As already illustrated, as a result of CABs harnessing the information that they were gaining on doorstep selling, there are now welcome provisions in the Bill to help to deal with that practice. They have come about because of complaints which have been gathered and analysed, and that is why I should like to see something far greater across the board than the provisions that are limited to the utilities.

When I was a Minister, I wanted to introduce an across-the-board scheme of this kind. I was frustrated in that ambition because the cost would have been prohibitive. Perhaps tragedies such as Farepak would have been avoided if greater counselling, advice or gathering of evidence had been available. In my experience, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland was free to carry out such functions and it did so very successfully. I am not sure why it has been left out of the Bill, and perhaps the Minister will let us know.

Another of my objectives as Minister was to simplify the law so that consumers knew what their obligations and rights were. To that end, I produced the consumer education pack for schools, which was circulated throughout the system. I took a number of the classes myself and they proved popular and informative, as well as being very cost-effective. Therefore, I am sad that there is no mention in the Bill of a responsibility to carry that forward.

Finally, I wish the NCC very good luck, especially in dealing with British Gas and Post Office complaints. It will need it. It will also need time and patience and, as I have said before, resources.

I am sure that a very interesting Committee stage awaits us. I shall not comment on the estate agents part of the Bill because that area of consumer affairs was never within my remit in the department. Nevertheless, I welcome many clauses in the Bill, which, again, will have to be studied very carefully. No doubt the Minister will enlighten us and help us further in this matter at later stages of the Bill. I hope that by the time he has to oversee the implementation of the Bill, he will have become Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, as this important responsibility warrants.