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Grand Committee

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

Grand Committee

Monday, 18 December 2006.

The Committee met at half-past three.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo) in the Chair.]

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]

(First Day)

Should there be a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume 10 minutes thereafter.

Clause 1 [The National Consumer Council and its territorial committees]:

Page 1, line 8, after “a” insert “decision-making”

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak to a rather large grouping. I think that all the amendments are in my name and basically cover the same issue.

Although I was unable to speak at length on Second Reading, I mentioned that I was concerned about the expression “territorial committee”. In Part 1, we are dealing with something that will be called the National Consumer Council, and territorial committees apparently to be set up in Wales and Scotland. I will speak only to those amendments that are substantive and not consequential in this long group. The point of my amendments is to reassert the principle of devolution.

The new Scottish Consumer Council and Welsh Consumer Council—the bodies that were—are defined in the Bill as territorial committees of the new National Consumer Council. The Bill defines the remit of those committees as being: the,

“provision of advice and information”,

to the new NCC about “consumer matters” affecting Scotland or Wales respectively;

“the provision of advice to the Council about the exercise of the Council’s functions in so far as they affect”,

Scotland or Wales respectively; and,

“such other purposes as the Council may determine”.

That is not in any measure satisfactory. At present, the Welsh Consumer Council and, as I understand it, the Scottish Consumer Council—my noble friend may wish to speak on that matter—respond directly to Welsh and Scottish Ministers. It seems an odd retreat of the Government from devolution that they now wish to make those bodies subservient to a National Consumer Council and only to offer advice.

The aim of Amendment No. 3 is to ensure that the core functions of the council—representation, information and research—are properly delegated to those bodies now called territorial committees, slightly offensively, in respect of council activities in the areas that they cover. Clause 1(4) allows but does not require the new NCC to delegate functions to the new territorial committees. However, that provides no safeguard for the future. The wording that I suggest is very simple. It is used in the Equality Act to describe the relationship between the UK Commission for Equality and Human Rights and its committees in Scotland and Wales.

Amendment No. 4 concerns the relationship between the National Consumer Council and its—regrettably, I use the term again—territorial committees. The point of the amendment is to ensure that, before the National Consumer Council exercises one of its functions in a way that may affect an area covered by a territorial committee, the matter must be discussed with the territorial committee in question. That seems absolutely essential. Again, the wording is taken from the Equality Act 2006, and I believe—

Perhaps I may make a point. The sound system seems to have gone to hell. The noble Lord speaks softly and we are finding it extremely difficult to hear him.

If the Committee agrees, I think that we should try to sort this out before we proceed; otherwise, the Hansard writers will find it very difficult to hear us.

I am happy to sit down, although, in my 20 years of experience in this House, I am used to moving amendments on my feet. After spending a lot of money on the Moses Room, I do not see why we cannot get this right.

The Clerk tells me that the microphones can be put into a higher position. It may be better if Members of the Committee do that when they are speaking standing. If, with that improvement, the sound is still not good enough, we will have to adjourn the Committee to resolve the problem.

I do not want to start again. Can everyone hear me now? I apologise for being inaudible in the first place.

I move on to Amendment No. 13A, which is the substantive amendment in my name. The wording again tracks that of the Equality Act, and the aim of the amendment is to ensure that the functions of the new National Consumer Council are delegated to the territorial committees in respect of council activity in the areas that they cover. That seems to me to be a perfectly simple matter, but at the moment it is not in the Bill.

If the Committee will allow me and because I do not wish to try its patience, I shall move on quickly to Amendment No. 13B on funding. The Bill is silent on the proportion of funding that will flow to the new territorial committees in Scotland and in Wales. It gives no safeguard for the future and, in theory, it could mean that the new territorial committees could be starved of funding and thus unable to deliver their remit. The amendment would ensure that Scottish and Welsh consumers received a secure, sustainable and sufficient flow of funding to enable them to work effectively in their own territorial areas.

Amendment No. 36 addresses the question of who reports to whom. It would ensure that the Scottish territorial committee, whatever it is to be called, reports to the Scottish Parliament and that the Welsh territorial committee, whatever it may be called, responds to the National Assembly for Wales. That is really very simple, but Clause 4(7) requires the new National Consumer Council, rather than any new Scottish Consumer Council territorial committee, to send a copy of its forward work programme to Scottish and Welsh Ministers respectively. This provision represents a step back not just from devolution, but from what we have at the moment. The Scottish Consumer Council and Welsh Consumer Council produce their own forward work programmes and deal directly with Scottish and Welsh Ministers respectively. I understand that Clause 1(4)(c) allows the new NCC to delegate other functions to Scotland and Wales, but that is not a requirement and there is no safeguard.

I shall speak to one more amendment, Amendment No. 37—I am sorry to try the patience of the Committee—which would ensure that the Scottish and Welsh committees were required to produce for each financial year their own annual reports on the progress of the project described in their respective forward work programmes for that year, to do so separately from the formal annual report produced by the National Consumer Council, and to send a copy of that report to Scottish and Welsh Ministers respectively. Clause 6(3) requires the new NCC, rather than the new Scottish or Welsh councils or territorial committees, to send a copy of its annual report to Scottish and Welsh Ministers. I would like the Committee to pause on that thought for a moment and, again, to think about the nature of devolution. If something is to do with devolution, people operating in Wales should respond to Welsh Ministers directly on it, and people operating in Scotland, as I am sure my noble friend Lord O’Neill will say, should operate and report directly to Scottish Ministers on it. That is devolution.

I apologise for taking too much of the Committee’s time and for being inaudible at the outset, but these amendments are important. They go to the heart of devolution. I hope that the Minister will indicate that the Government are not resiling on devolution and that we can change the Bill accordingly. I beg to move.

I inform my noble friend that one of the functions of Committees of this nature—it will be done in one of the other amendments with great concision—is that “may” should often be replaced by “shall”. While the amendments do not put it quite in that fashion, we have to take account of the rather narrow view of the nature of devolved responsibility that is being presented by the Government.

In many respects, what we see, as my noble friend Lord Williams has just pointed out, is a number of options opening up, but the soft option is always the one that is being accepted; that is, that the National Consumer Council will eventually, in its wisdom, be able to do certain things. That is very much the product of the metrocentrism of Victoria Street. We have the DTI muddling on, not actually appreciating that we have had a devolution settlement in the United Kingdom since 1999, when the Parliament and the Assembly were established, or indeed since the referenda of 1997. I stress that they are now part of the British political firmament; they are mature institutions. I have to say as a Scot that I am a wee bit less than satisfied with certain aspects of the performance of my colleagues in Holyrood, but I will be working very hard when it comes to the elections in May, and before that, to ensure that many of my Labour Party colleagues are able to form the majority of the Scottish Government.

The point I really want to get across is that we have in the United Kingdom, and we have always had—this was one of the arguments for devolution—a number of institutions that were quasi-Scottish, quasi-Welsh and quasi-Northern Irish, but they were answerable at the end of the day to no one. We would like to see a new balance being struck which takes account of the integrity of the Parliaments and the capacity of the Parliament and the Assembly to pass legislation that will impinge on and affect the working of the National Consumer Council, because the character will be Scottish and Welsh. It seems sensible to give the Scottish and Welsh representative bodies the opportunity to establish accountability with the Westminster Parliament and the National Consumer Council.

I do not wish to detain the Committee at length, because my noble friend has gone through this in some detail. We are trying to establish that the National Consumer Council has to have UK responsibility. Equally, it does not have to—grudgingly or otherwise, and I do not think it would be grudgingly—grant powers to Scotland and Wales. They are entitled to have them under the devolution settlement. Indeed, it is appropriate that they have them because in certain areas Wales, and probably to a greater degree Scotland, will have the opportunity through the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to pass legislation on the consumer councils of the two. I do not like the expression “territorial committees”. I would be quite happy, as I said at Second Reading, to have Yorkshire, north-east and north-west committees established as and when appropriate. At the moment, I do not think it is particularly appropriate to designate committees or councils that will be operating within the purview of devolved Administrations as simple territorial committees. It is important that we grant them their due status.

Secondly, it is important that they are properly funded and that this funding is appropriately ring-fenced. It will doubtless be the product of arm-wrestling between the comparative Administrations. Equally, however, there have to be areas in which it is appropriate to look at the UK as a whole. Therefore, it is appropriate that the National Consumer Council should be required to investigate on a United Kingdom basis issues that are appropriate to the United Kingdom, but have arisen from a regional or national concern. We have to establish in statute the responsibility of the National Consumer Council to follow up issues raised by the Welsh or Scottish councils.

It is equally important that appropriate reports are timeously presented because often people can dig deep, look hard and forget. We want accountability and want reports to be published. We must also ensure that we have appropriate funding for these committees. Therefore, it ought to be established in statute that there is no get-out clause. We are not legislating for Government A or Government B or in perpetuity, but it is important that when we talk about functions and capabilities, we also talk about resource. It may well be that it is the responsibility of the National Consumer Council to appoint appropriate people to sit on these committees, but after the committees are established in that way, they are entitled to have appropriate funding, subject to public scrutiny, whether by the Scottish and Welsh bodies or the Public Accounts Committee.

This group of amendments covers most of the appropriate areas. At this stage, the Government may not be inclined to accept them. I am a new boy in this House, but I am sufficiently realistic to know never to push matters too hard because that would deny us the opportunity of coming back to them at a later stage. There is always more rejoicing in heaven over a sinner that repenteth, and I would like to think that the Government will look afresh at this.

In discussions with the Minister and his officials, I got the impression that there is a lack of appreciation of, but not necessarily hostility to, the nature of the devolution settlement. There are Parliaments of the United Kingdom in Scotland and London and there is an Assembly in Wales. There are bodies with differing responsibilities that touch the lives of people who live in those places. They should be given appropriate consideration. At the moment, the DTI, in sponsoring this legislation, is guilty—I use that word without too much consideration—of a kind of metrocentrist insensitivity and believes that what operates in the interests of Victoria Street operates for the interests of the whole UK. That is not appropriate. We must recognise that we have moved on from that. I would dearly like to think that, at an appropriate time, we will give proper accountability and status to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Were we to get that, that Assembly would sit alongside the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament and have appropriate rights and responsibilities. The Government have taken their eye off the ball. I am disappointed that a Secretary of State who is a Scot who played such a distinguished part in the campaign for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament allowed his department to have made a faux pas of this nature. As I say, we could change it.

These may not be the best amendments, but, let us face it, the good should not be the enemy of the best. If it does not disagree and accepts the force of our argument, it is up to the department at a later stage to table amendments that can do this job. At the moment, there is a big gap which will cause a lot of difficulty for a lot of people, not least those candidates who, in May, will stand in elections in Wales and Scotland on behalf of the party that the Minister, my noble friend Lord Williams and I are proud to be members of.

For the benefit of Hansard, I should say that there is a deliberate mistake in my Amendment No. 5. Where it reads,

“the Committee must take it into account”,

it should say,

“the Council must take into account”.

No doubt, that has been spotted already.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has opened the batting on this discussion with an energetic set of amendments. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, has given us a long and, perhaps I may say, a passionate intervention for this stage. I was interested to hear what they said—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. While I do not agree with the majority of his amendments, they highlight, as I hope does my Amendment No. 5, the lack of clarity in the Bill on the proposed functions of the regional committees of the National Consumer Council. The noble Lord’s earlier amendments would effectively split up the NCC into three bodies—one each for England, Scotland and Wales. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s views on such a move. We on these Benches could not endorse such a move. While independence is a vital ingredient of the NCC, the interests of consumers must be addressed as holistically as possible. I believe that the NCC stands stronger united, especially given the vast volume of the new responsibilities it will be expected to undertake.

Amendment No. 5 seeks to clarify the Government’s vision for the role of the committee. The amendment would ensure that when a territorial committee was established and made representations to the new National Consumer Council, the NCC would have to take those representations into account. I do not wish to railroad the NCC’s research processes, yet I am concerned that under Clause 1(4)(c) the NCC has the power to delegate its functions to the Scottish and Welsh consumer councils, but there is no reciprocal function. If functions are to be delegated, it is in the interests of the consumer and the execution of thorough research into consumer affairs that the very highest level of communication is maintained between the branches of the new NCC. From the outset, I must make it clear that I believe strongly in the continued independence of the National Consumer Council. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get this merger right. We will do everything that we can from this side to assist the Government in doing that.

I shall speak later to amendments that I have tabled on cost and the extent to which the Secretary of State can influence the running and functions of the NCC, which are related matters. But it is so important to get the internal structure right. It is vital to retain the adaptability of the NCC to address the rapidly changing demands of our consumer world. My fear is that new powers to delegate functions to the regional committees could result in a one-way system. Previously, functions have been delegated, but on a project-by-project basis. It is important not to over-plan for the NCC. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, rightly illustrated at Second Reading, there is a healthy relationship between the regional branches of the NCC and the central base.

I am concerned that the independence of the NCC will be threatened by the new funding arrangements in which the Secretary of State will be recouping the costs of the NCC through regulation, according to paragraph 26 of the Explanatory Notes. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the funding arrangement will not tie the NCC to the wishes of industry, nor to the wishes of government. I should also be interested to know how closely related the funding of the NCC will be to its functions. It is important to have separation in order to maintain the NCC’s invaluable impartiality. In the light of these concerns, I would be grateful if the Minister could inform Members of the Committee how he envisages the relationship between the NCC and the regional committees will develop under the provision in this Bill.

Perhaps I may intervene and say a few words about these amendments. I am less fussed than my noble friends Lord Williams of Elvel and Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan about the phrase “territorial committees”. I can see that, if those words stood by themselves, they might appear somewhat insulting, particularly in the light of the devolution achievements of the earlier years of the present Government. But in Clause 1 the phrase is clearly linked and associated with, and defined as, the Welsh Consumer Council and the Scottish Consumer Council. Surely no one can feel insulted by those terms. That is what “territorial committees” means according to Clause 1, and so I am not worried about that.

On the substantive argument of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, in line with the devolution aspects of our constitution I fully agree that there should be a taken-for-granted delegation by the National Consumer Council where the matters at issue involve either Scotland or Wales. What functions is my noble friend Lord Williams talking about? He is talking about the core functions as set out in Clauses 7, 8 and 9, which we shall discuss more fully later.

My only quarrel with my noble friend is that his Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 refer to those functions as “decision-making” ones. As I see it, the function of advising Ministers and proposing policies to them, and certainly the function of research and so on, which the National Consumer Council is given under those clauses as core functions, are only decision-making in the very narrow sense that they are decisions on the policy of the National Consumer Council. However, they are not decision-making so far as concerns the populace because the NCC does not have any executive functions at all.

I am sorry if my noble friend regards this as pernickety. However, while I think that Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are inappropriate and unnecessary, I agree with the substance of his amendments in this grouping—I shall not list them all—for the reasons that both he and my other noble friend Lord O’Neill enunciated.

First, I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading, but my diary on that day was such that I could not be present for either the opening or closing speeches. Secondly, I pass on apologies from my noble friend Lord Razzall, who is unable to be here today.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, raised some very important points on devolution. As the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, correctly said, the decision on whether the amendments in this group are necessary depends to some extent on the small words “may” and “shall”, which we will debate later.

Without doubt, the principles of devolution are extremely important, as are the practicalities. In the Bill, the Government are considering making changes to the Consumer Council for Water, for example. As my noble friend Lord Livsey of Talgarth has often reminded the House, the situation in Wales with regard to water is very different because the water body is effectively a mutual company and the advocacy required there will be very different from that required in England. Indeed, we have not yet debated the difference between advice and advocacy. As we go through the Bill, it will become apparent exactly where these amendments will need to focus. What representation have the Minister and his department had from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament about this? Do they feel that this situation is entirely satisfactory?

The point will no doubt be brought up again as we debate the rest of the Bill that, with regard to something like energy, Scotland, for instance, may face immensely different pressures from England with regard to consumers. That is in the very nature of the energy market.

Some very important points have been raised and it is likely that at the next stage we shall need to see something from the Government Benches or elsewhere that will take the matter forward.

On a matter of clarification, we have talked about territorial committees, but they are in fact the Welsh and Scottish councils. Are they absolutely to mirror the National Consumer Council? I ask that because, as far as I can see, the Welsh and Scottish territorial committees are not involved in water issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned Welsh Water, but I did not think that the Welsh and Scottish territorial committees would be involved in that issue. That leads us on to other points, which I shall bring up when we discuss water.

As on Second Reading, I declare a direct interest as chair of the current National Consumer Council. I shall say something about how the present arrangements operate and how we want to preserve them as far as possible in the expanding National Consumer Council. To that extent, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Williams said about strengthening the devolution provisions of the Bill. I ask Ministers to consider the wording of the Bill, perhaps, rather than to accept all the amendments.

My noble friend Lord O’Neill implied that sometimes the DTI does not “do” devolution. That is because, by and large, most DTI functions, including the consumer function, are not devolved. Therefore, there are issues on which the National Consumer Council gives a GB, UK or even an EU position when it is clear that the territorial committees—or however we find the best way in which to describe them—give advice to the National Consumer Council. So Wales and Scotland, with regard to GB, UK or EU legislation, would give advice and information, as provided under Clause 1.

The two consumer councils also deal with an awful lot of devolved powers, including the whole of the public services, which are almost wholly devolved in Scotland and to a large extent in Wales, and with Scottish law, which is an entirely separate system. Some markets, as the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Cathain and Lady Miller, said, are very different in Scotland and Wales from those in England. So there are areas in which the competence of the Scottish and Welsh councils is the most important issue. It is not simply an issue of advice and information to the national council; it is a matter of those councils having the responsibility for dealing with devolved issues, or issues that are primarily an issue for Scotland or Wales.

I do not know what precise form of words would be best, although my noble friend Lord Williams has made a good fist of it in his amendment. But the Government and the Minister need to accept that there is a problem here with referring simply to “advice and information” to the national council, because it is more than that. Much of the Scottish council’s resources come from the Scottish Executive, because its task involves investigations and research into the Scottish public services and professions. The present form of words does not fully reflect that, so I ask the Minister to accept some of the arguments and to come back later with a form of words that reflects even more strongly the current devolutionary settlement within the pre-devolutionary structure of the NCC and take a way forward that recognises the constitutional position on devolved responsibilities as compared to reserved policy areas.

The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland is by and large responsible for its own area and I would not wish to interfere with that. The only matter dealt with in this Bill with regard to Northern Ireland is postal services, on which the Bill provides for some rationalisation at a later stage.

Will the Minister indicate to the Committee that the Government recognise some of these arguments and that we will come back to this issue with the addition of the form of words proposed by my noble friend Lord Williams or another form that delivers what we are after?

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 to Clause 1, Amendments Nos. 13A and 13B to Schedule 1 and Amendments Nos. 20, 22, 25, 27 and 28, and 32 to 37 to Clause 4, in the name of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and Amendment No. 5 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley.

A number of noble Lords have raised the question of territorial committees and devolved responsibilities. First, consumer matters are not in general devolved in Scotland and Wales. Several Members of the Committee referred to this, including my noble friends Lord Williams of Elvel, Lord Whitty and Lord O’Neill.

The Minister says that consumer matters are not devolved, but we have a Welsh Consumer Council that operates under the present system, and a Scottish Consumer Council, too, both of which are devolved.

That is not my understanding. The fact that they exist does not mean that they are formally devolved.

Can I pursue this matter? Surely the point is that the legislation under which those bodies currently operate was established some considerable time before devolution was introduced, and this is the first opportunity for us to regularise the situation—for want of a better expression—and put them in the appropriate context of a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament.

I am aware of the passions that this issue raises, but if I am to be interrupted after every sentence I do not think that we will get very far. I shall attempt to answer the points raised by my noble friends and other noble Lords.

First, the Welsh Consumer Council is part of the current NCC—so it is not formally separated. On the question of representations made by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, both have been consulted on the proposals and are satisfied with the Bill as drafted.

I move on to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain. Territorial committees can be a mirror image if the council decides to delegate all its functions. We are leaving it to the council to decide those matters, together with the territorial committees. Scottish Water was not included in the Bill, although it may be considered to be included some time in future. The Bill provides that the consumer body for water in England and Wales will be consulted on from 2008.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 establish the Scottish and Welsh consumer councils as decision-making bodies. They prejudge the nature of the functions that the Bill allows the council to delegate to the Scottish and Welsh consumer councils.

Amendment No. 3 removes the power of the new National Consumer Council to add to the power of the territorial committees and establishes that the core functions of the council must be delegated to them. Amendment No. 13A requires the council to delegate core functions to territorial committees and removes its ability to exercise core functions in the areas for which the territorial committees are established. The effect would be to make the Scottish and Welsh consumer councils function separately and independently of the council, at least in the exercise of functions, and prevent the council taking action on a cross-territorial basis, which is the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and my noble friend Lord Borrie. That would represent a serious retrograde step and would compromise the power of the council to speak for consumers generally as the situation demanded on a cross-territorial basis.

I believe that it is important that the new arrangements should promote a clear expression of consumer views and needs. That is best achieved by providing for the new body to take its own decisions on how best to balance the achievement of a clear voice for consumers with the need to take account of differences or of particular conditions that might prevail in Scotland or Wales. There is also a need to provide for flexibility to meet future developments. None of those objectives is best served by providing for three essentially independent consumer organisations.

Amendment No. 4 obliges the council to consult the territorial committees before exercising one of its functions if it considered that persons within the territorial committee’s area would be affected. That could prove to be an onerous provision, which would stifle the council in the exercise of its functions.

Amendment No. 5 provides that the council must take into account advice and information provided by a territorial committee. No provision is made in the Bill about the extent to which the council should take into account advice or information from territorial committees. However, given that the Bill establishes that the territorial committees have a statutory duty to provide that advice and information, it is unnecessary to make further provision about how the council should take it into account. I suggest that a duty to take something into account, no matter how strongly expressed, will not in itself make a significant difference.

Amendment No. 13B requires the council to ensure that the territorial committees receive a sufficient share of resources to enable them to exercise their functions. A number of noble Lords raised the issue of funding, so I shall go into a little more detail. Separate committees, comprising a chair and members, will be appointed to the Scottish and Welsh councils by the Secretary of State, and questions of funding should be left to negotiation between the council and the territorial committees. The proposed additional duty is not required. Funding from industry for the new NCC will be in line with the costs of the council in undertaking functions in those sectors. The overall budget of the new council will be agreed between the DTI and the new body as the budgets of Energywatch, Postwatch and the NCC are now. A question was asked about the funding of the Welsh and Scottish consumer councils. It comes from the National Consumer Council, and the Welsh and Scottish councils have no separate existence. Funding is agreed between the DTI and the NCC. All the main budget comes from the DTI.

Amendments Nos. 20, 22, 25, 27, 28, 32, 33 and 34 all amend the provisions relating to the preparation of forward work programmes by the council by providing for separate forward work programmes to be prepared by each of the territorial committees. The Bill is silent on forward work programmes and territorial committees, but it is open to the council and the new territorial committees to arrange how they go about the preparation of the forward work programme required of the council. It is a matter for the council.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 remove the requirement for the council to send notice of its forward work programme to the Scottish and Welsh Ministers and insert a requirement for the territorial committees to consult separately, and with their appropriate devolved administrations, over individual forward work programmes. It is open to the council to devise with its territorial committees how best to consult on the activities and functions set out in its forward work programme. The amendment is unduly prescriptive.

Amendment No. 37 requires each of the territorial committees to prepare an individual annual report in relation to their individual forward work programmes and to submit these reports to Scottish Ministers or Welsh Ministers, as appropriate. It is for the council to decide what to include in its annual report and how to publish information relating to the activities of territorial committees. For the reasons that I have given, I must resist all these amendments.

Formally, I have to be grateful to my noble friend for his response, but I do not think that he has got the point. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord O’Neill for expressing the Scottish problem, as I expressed the Welsh one. I understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is opposed to this; the Conservatives have very little representation in Wales and even less representation in Scotland, so they have always been opposed to devolution. But the serious point is that the devolution settlement is here to stay, whoever forms whatever Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was constructive on the point. She recognised the issues and I hope that her party will support something along these lines as we move forward to the next stage. My noble friend Lord Borrie criticised some of my wording, quite understandably. I would never pretend that the wording of amendments I produce in Committee is perfect and beyond criticism.

The Minister has set his face against all this. I started by interrupting, but I will not take issue again. Anyone who reads what he said will recognise that there are serious problems with the Government’s position. I ask him to do this Committee one favour and to speak to my noble friend Lord Whitty, who made a powerful intervention on the right lines and who will be responsible in time for some of these issues. If he would speak to my noble friend Lord Whitty, he might understand my points—not necessarily in the words that I have produced, but in the spirit of how I am moving it. Perhaps my noble friend would respond to that?

Yes, I talk to my noble friend Lord Whitty frequently and we have discussed this issue, which is not a state secret. So I am happy to take on board my noble friend’s suggestion.

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Whitty will be able to represent my arguments properly and get a reasonable result for us before we reach the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 to 5 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [The National Consumer Council]:

[Amendment No. 6 had been retabled as Amendment No. 13A.]

[Amendment No. 7 had been retabled as Amendment No. 13B.]

Page 42, line 25, leave out “may” and insert “shall”

The noble Baroness said: This fearsomely long group of amendments explores a single point of principle. For what new purpose will the NCC exist? The Bill does not spell out the principle of the NCC’s primary duty. What “shall” it do and what “may” it do? Nothing in the Bill promotes, campaigns for or protects the interests of consumers through advocacy. I could have proposed an amendment to fill that gap. Instead, I chose to take what the Government have tabled and explore the effect of changing the word “may” to “shall”. At this stage, it is important to examine exactly what the Government think the Bill should achieve. The consumer’s voice needs to be strengthened for a number of reasons, partly because of the enormous changes that are taking place in areas that we shall be discussing, be it mail and post offices, energy or water. Those are all going through some fundamental changes, and I am sure that we will come to them in later clauses.

Without establishing exactly what the NCC’s duties are to be, it is very difficult to be certain that the Bill is taking the right approach. It is not good enough for the DTI simply to bring forward a Bill and say, “Yes, we’ve streamlined; we’ve got rid of some red tape. We’ve done our bit in streamlining”. We intend to ensure that that does not happen.

Perhaps the Minister can help me on one point. The word “may” appears in a large number of clauses. I shall run through some of them without, I hope, wearying the Committee. For example, my Amendment No. 8 concerns a provision in the Bill that states that staff appointments “may” be made to the NCC; Amendments Nos. 9 to 12 concern the NCC’s regional committees, which we have just discussed; Amendment No. 13 would ensure that the council “shall” regulate its own procedure; and Amendment No. 44 would strengthen the council’s representative function to ensure that it provides advice, makes proposals and represents. I recommend most strongly the use of the word “shall” in Amendments Nos. 44, 72 and 73, so that the council really “shall” have the representative function and “shall” be concerned with issuing advice, information and guidance in improving standards and promoting the interests of consumers. Surely those functions should not be optional, and I cannot understand why the draftsmen have used the word “may” in those instances. At the very minimum, it should be changed to “shall”.

Amendments Nos. 77, 78, 82 and 84 concern co-operation, giving assistance and voluntary activities, and perhaps those are areas where it would be appropriate to use the word “may”. However, it is incumbent on the Government to establish why they have chosen not to be specific about what the NCC “shall” and “may” do. If they do not set out the principle behind this body at the heart of the Bill, they then have to spell out very precisely what its duties are and what it may consider doing voluntarily. The two little words “may” and “shall” are incredibly important. We cannot get this wrong at this stage. Depending on the Minister’s reply, the Committee may feel that it is appropriate to introduce a principle but, if we fail to draft the Bill more tightly, we shall have failed indeed.

I do not propose to go through the effect of each of the amendments, as that would take a substantial amount of time. I hope that the examples that I have given are sufficiently illustrative for Members of the Committee to take on board my point. I am sure that that is so but, if the Committee would like me to explain any of them further, I shall be pleased to do so. I beg to move.

Certainly, the case has been made for looking at a number of the amendments that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, has spoken about. It seems to me absurd that the National Consumer Council merely “may” appoint staff. The idea that it will not have any staff at all strikes me—and, I hope, my noble friend Lord Whitty—as somewhat extraordinary. Similarly, in relation to its core functions, the idea that the council “may” choose whether to represent the consumer seems to me extremely odd.

However, I disagree with the noble Baroness on just one point—that is, in connection with Amendments Nos. 9 to 12 concerning regional committees. There, I think that the word should be “may”. The National Consumer Council may find it useful to appoint regional committees and there may be some justification for having a committee in one or two parts of the county and not in others, and so on. I do not agree with the noble Baroness on the use of the mandatory word “shall” for the National Consumer Council, in that example.

I shall speak to Amendment No. 45, which relates to the research function, and draw the Committee’s attention to the importance of the research work of Postwatch. Its website states that it represents,

“the interests of the disabled or chronically sick, pensioners, people on low incomes and those who live in rural areas”.

It takes up all manner of problems, from incorrect advice given at post offices to lost letters. It gets involved in local issues such as the closure of post offices or problems with delivery rounds. Its research is impressive: no matter is too small for its scrutiny. For example, it conducted surveys on collection tabs on postboxes on three separate occasions. Staff and members visited hundreds of postboxes, each time reporting to Royal Mail whether there was a collection tab at all and whether the information on it was accurate. The result is a much better service for the consumer than would otherwise have been the case. Other surveys include the testing of the accuracy of advice around the UK on posting three different items; needless to say, the advice varied, which they were able to point out.

Can we be sure that the new NCC will undertake this basic, unglamorous research, which is so important for those who use the postal services from their homes and rely on them to a huge extent? These are often people who do not own a computer and cannot access websites or send attachments with e-mails. How can we be confident that this research will be continued?

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked initially about the functions of the new council. The council is given functions in respect of consumers and consumer matters, rather than having any prescriptive objectives. It is therefore for the council to decide what its objectives will be from time to time. My noble friend Lord Borrie, who has a great deal of knowledge in this area, referred to this point, too—I am grateful for his contribution.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, queried the phrase “may … appoint staff”. My noble friend Lord Borrie referred to it as well. On the face of it, it could be questionable, since any organisation will require staff. “May” is used because this is a power which the council may exercise from time to time. It is not obliged to have any particular number of staff—that was the intention of the drafting. The council will of course require staff, but the Bill is drafted in such a way as not to be prescriptive, to retain maximum flexibility for the council.

Amendment No. 8 would replace the provision that the council “may” appoint staff with the requirement that it “shall” appoint staff. There is no reason to compel the exercise of this function, particularly as the provision is intended to apply where appointments become necessary.

Amendment No. 9 seeks to replace the power for the council to establish regional committees with an obligation to do so. The objective of the Bill is to retain flexibility for the council to establish regional committees, or not in this case, as it sees fit, and to be able to change the committee structure over time in order to meet future needs. Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 replace “may” with “shall” in the relevant parts of the schedule. I do not see a compelling reason to replace these words as they make no effective change.

Amendments Nos. 44, 45, and 49 seek to place a duty on the council to carry out two of the three core functions—the representative function and the research function, referred to by the noble Baroness—and to place a duty on the council in relation to the exercise of the third of the three core functions—the information function. However, this would remove the flexibility of the council—

The noble Lord has just said that Amendments Nos. 44, 45 and 49 would put an obligation on the council, but the Bill does not say that. Under the heading, “The research function”, it states that the council,

“may obtain and keep under review”.

It may or may not. Similarly, under “The information function”, the council,

“may facilitate the dissemination to consumers of advice and information”,

or it may not. What is the DTI up to? It is scurrying around trying to get business. We know perfectly well—at least, we assume—that it is under the axe anyway. We just wonder what this Bill is for. With this sloppy thinking, the sooner it goes the better.

If these “mays” or, by implication, “may nots” affect the size of the council and its work, how can the Government allocate resources at any stage when they do not know what the resources will be?

I hear what the noble Baroness is saying, but, I repeat, the point of the wording is to retain flexibility in the draft Bill.

If the intention is to maintain flexibility and the Government are intent on keeping the word “may” in the Bill, would he consider actively my suggestion that we should have a principle clause to define the exact purpose of the council?

As I said earlier, the council is given functions in respect of consumers and consumer matters. It is for the council to decide on its objectives from time to time and how to implement them. The intention is to give the council as much flexibility as possible in achieving the functions that have been laid down.

The Minister just said “in the draft Bill”. Is this a draft Bill or a Bill? If it is a draft Bill, we are wasting our time. If it is a Bill, it should be at least more clear.

What would happen if the council behaved in a manner which was unsatisfactory to the Government in the areas that we have discussed? Would we need new legislation to tidy this up? No one seems to be opposed to what is being suggested by those who advocate the word “shall”. By the same token, if “shall” is not in the Bill, new legislation will be needed to clear up any mental aberrations that my noble friend Lord Whitty’s successor might commit. As I recall, the last consumer credit legislation was introduced in 1974, so we get a crack at this about every 25 to 30 years. We are dealing with legislation which will probably exist for some time, so we want to get it right first time. Would it not be better for it to be tightly worded, rather than loosely—or perhaps, as those on the Conservative Benches would say, “sloppily”—worded, as it seems to be now?

I do not agree that it is sloppily worded. Perhaps I may comment on the amendments before us and deal with some of the issues which have been raised. If one was too prescriptive and established fixed staff numbers or objectives, one would not give any flexibility to the council to deal with changing circumstances or consumer patterns and other issues that may arise as the council evolves. That is the intention behind the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 44, 45 and 49 would remove the flexibility of the council to concentrate on those functions and activities that it considers would be most effective and beneficial to consumers, given its priorities in the coming year. Clause 4 already places a duty on the council to produce a forward work programme, which will set out the proposed activities of the council over the coming year and must be published and consulted on. It will ensure that the council’s intended use of its core functions will be made public, and that parties are able to make representations about those intentions.

Amendment No. 50 would require the council to investigate complaints made by consumers that appear to it to raise issues of general relevance, or any matter that appears to be related to a problem that affects consumers generally or consumers of a particular description. This is an important power for the council. However, the amendment would remove the discretion of the council to prioritise the cases that it investigates. Where there is a range of issues that could command its attention, the council needs to be able to set its own priorities according to its resources and its forward work programme. That was my earlier point: the council must have the ability to set its own priorities, to work according to the resources that it has and to devise its own forward work programme. We should not be too prescriptive.

Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 relate to Clause 16, which concerns the council’s function to prepare and publish reports in relation to any matters that fall within its scope. These amendments would place a duty on the council to carry out this function. Amendments Nos. 72 and 73 to Clause 18, which covers the “advice, information and guidance” function, would place a duty on the council to issue and publish advice or guidance, and to prepare and publish reports that are along similar lines to those to which I referred earlier in Clause 16. Amendments Nos. 77 to 81 and Amendment No. 86 are along similar lines, as they all replace a power with a duty. These amendments would limit the discretion of the council in carrying out its functions and oblige it to observe these duties. This may not be an appropriate use of its resources in all circumstances.

Amendments Nos. 82 and 84 would have no effect. I must resist them as no material differences result from them. Amendment No. 85 would require the Secretary of State to publish reasons for any approval of the acquisition of an interest in a body corporate. These steps are unnecessary and I do not accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 87 would in effect place a duty on the council to require a person specified in Clause 23(3) to supply it with information. These persons are the Office of Fair Trading, the designated regulators, a person who supplies goods or services in the course of a business carried on by that person, and any other person specified or of a description specified by the Secretary of State. However, in the course of any period, it may not be appropriate for the council to request information from one of the people specified in subsection (3). The current drafting retains flexibility for the council to request information that it requires to carry out its statutory functions from a person specified in subsection (3). I am not therefore convinced that a duty is required in this instance.

Amendment No. 90 would place a duty on the council to publish any notice received from the OFT or a designated regulator setting out their reasons for refusing to supply information to the council. I envisage that the council will generally prefer to publish any notice received to allow public scrutiny of a person’s refusal to supply the council with the information that it requires to carry out its statutory functions. However, the amendment would remove the flexibility of allowing the council to use its discretion if it considered that it was not in the public interest to publish the notice.

Amendment No. 93 would place a duty on the council to apply to the court for a compliance order if a non-regulated supplier refused to provide the council with information. Again, this would remove the council’s discretion to determine whether such action was proportionate, given the content and extent of the information requested and the cost of applying to the court.

Amendment No. 95 would change the word “may” to “shall”—there have been a number of amendments along these lines—but it does not appear to effect a change to the original provision, as the Secretary of State would retain the discretion to make regulations to prescribe descriptions of persons from whom the council may not require information.

For the reasons given, I must resist all these amendments.

For probably the first time in Grand Committee, I am sorry that we cannot vote. I have included some “shalls” here where I would have put “mays”, and the Minister has replied to a few of those, but, on the whole, I am enormously disappointed by his reply. A public body is being established with public money and with clear duties to the public, and I believe that those duties should be spelt out in the Bill.

I have missed enormously the expertise from the Conservative Front Bench—in particular, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who I am sure has strong views on this matter. I hope that between now and Report she will give us the benefit of her thoughts. The Minister said that it is necessary to be flexible—for example, with regard to whether the council appoints staff. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, pointed out—I am grateful to her for her comments—that is clearly ridiculous. The council can be flexible about numbers, with any number between one and 1,000, but surely it cannot be flexible about whether it appoints any staff at all.

In his reply, the Minister failed to spell out the difference between what it is essential that the council does, what it is desirable that it does and what it may do if it has the capacity after doing the essential and the desirable. I am very disappointed that the Minister and his department have not been able to define the difference between “essential”, “desirable” and “possible”. Whatever words they choose, and whether it is the difference between “may”, “must” or “shall”, by Report we shall table amendments specifically along these lines. I am disappointed with the Minister’s reply but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 9 to 13B not moved.]

Page 47, line 29, leave out paragraph 29.

The noble Baroness said: Again, this is a very large group of amendments, which I hope will give the Committee the opportunity to discuss the principle behind the Bill. After the last debate, that is even more important.

Our main concern with the Bill is that it brings energy and postal consumer services under one body. Unless that body has sufficient teeth, the Bill will simply have the effect of muzzling what is currently a very effective voice in championing specific concerns. In saying that, I do not at all denigrate the existing NCC, but the expertise that bodies such as Postwatch and Energywatch currently have will almost certainly be lost to some degree when they come under the NCC. The amendments would prevent this merger taking place until we receive some assurances about how the new regime will affect consumers.

It is important to state that we are not against the continued existence of the National Consumer Council, which does an important and worthwhile job. However, our amendments would prevent an increase in its power and scope, because the current regime serves the interests of consumers well and the DTI has not proved the case for altering it.

Amendments Nos. 14, 96, 97, 98 and 99 and the Question that Schedule 2 stand part of the Bill would delete attempts to amend and annul previous Acts concerning energy and postal consumer services. The Question that Clause 3 stand part of the Bill, along with Amendments Nos. 23, 24, 29, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 61, 62 and 63, relate to the term “designated consumer”. We wish to delete all references to the “designated consumer”, because that is the way in which the Government have chosen to describe those people who will be covered by the Bill and who then have to move to the new regime.

Amendment No. 31 concerns estimates of expenditure under the formal work programme in relation to gas, post and designated consumers, as do Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 29. The Question that Clause 12 stand part of the Bill relates to energy disconnections. I shall reserve specific comments on that matter until we reach Amendment No. 53, because it deserves its own debate. However, the issue should be referred to under this group of amendments to enable Members of the Committee who want to discuss the impact of these provisions as a whole to do so. The Questions that Clauses 13, 14 and 15 stand part of the Bill will give rise to important debate when we come to them.

The later amendments in the group also deal with the term “designated consumer”. Will enforcement by the regulator substantially change the current regime? Even with the aid of the Explanatory Notes, I was not clear about what the Bill did in that regard. It is important to understand it. The amendments probe exactly what it is that the DTI is seeking to achieve in the Bill. I beg to move.

I was under the impression that we spent some time about two weeks ago discussing much of what is included in these amendments and the purpose of the Bill. My understanding was that the purpose, certainly in respect of the amalgamation of Postwatch and Energywatch, and the establishment of the various institutions under the umbrella of the National Consumer Council, is to integrate the functions and create a smoother and more easily accessible form of consumer access. Concerns were then expressed, but, having accepted that principle, albeit because we do not divide on Second Reading in this House, we do not need to go round the track again.

If there is a defect in this Bill it is that it does not go far enough. We should take into account the fact that Ofcom, the transport consumer councils and other bodies are not included. They should be included, because if we are arguing for a central focal point for consumer concerns, it would be better to have a single number and a single place to call. Anyone who uses call centres these days knows only too well that the first number is only the first of many that you have to deal with, and you are then offered a choice of X, Y and Z. So if we had a straightforward 0800 number—although I know that the Minister is not in a position to offer that—you could go to a place that deals that with energy, gas, electricity, telecoms, television, cable television and so on. Relatively quickly, you would have a fairly straightforward way in which to contact people.

I am not opposed to an integrated consumer complaints system. I repeat my belief that if there is a criticism of this Bill it is that it does not go far enough and that post, energy and water are not enough. But I realise that the political reality is that the other departments, financial services and the Treasury, as I said of the Treasury earlier, give up nothing, and that they will probably hang about as some sort of predatory presence. If the DTI is to be dismembered, they will go around picking up any bones and scraps that they can get their teeth into. But that is for another day and time.

In large measure, this group of amendments is not really probing. It is going back to the debate that we had two weeks ago, and I am not sure that we really need it. I hope that the noble Baroness, who has made a number of very useful contributions, will set aside this last one so that we can move on to something worth while. There is a lot of meat on this legislation, and we could usefully use the Government’s proposals to advance the interests of consumers. Although I am not totally uncritical of the Bill, as most Members of the Committee will appreciate, I none the less believe that it is something we should give good wind to.

I listened very intently the noble Lord’s remarks. Unfortunately I was unable to take part on Second Reading, but the purpose of the Grand Committee is to look at the Bill clause by clause, in view of what was said in that debate, and to see whether there are glaring omissions or mistakes or too much laxity or control. That is the purpose of the amendments. It is all very well for the noble Lord to say that it is like ringing a call centre; if people had to deal with these matters through call centres, it would be like having a huge basket of goodies. Can you imagine how many of them would persevere right through to the end? I reckon it would be something like 1 per cent.

It is unfair of the noble Lord to say that we have been around this course once and that now we are just picking at it. We are not picking at it; we want a National Consumer Council; the consumer is king and must be supported. But an awful lot is done that is wrong in the consumer field, and we want to make the best possible Bill for the protection of the consumer. When you have something as woolly as this, you have to try to tidy it up, and that is the purpose of our interventions.

I support my noble friend Lady O’Cathain. I, too, apologise for being unable to participate on Second Reading.

We have to be clear about the function of the Committee stage of a Bill, and it is playing a bit fast and loose with it to say that because a Second Reading has taken place we have bought into the principles. It is for the Minister to justify every detail of this Bill; that is why we have a Committee stage. One amendment that we are dealing with, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, relates to Clause 3 and designated consumers. It will be important to probe whether the provisions are appropriate.

As other Members of the Committee have said, we are all very much minded to ensure that the National Consumer Council works well, has appropriate powers that are clearly delineated and that the right designated consumers are listed in the Bill. I am not at all clear that they are. I hear what has been said about the need for an umbrella organisation, but first and foremost the question must be asked about whether we are convinced that the consumer will be better served. It may well be the case; I wait for the Minister to assure me on that, on Postwatch and on Energywatch.

My concern is water; I had the privilege of chairing a sub-committee of the Science and Technology Select Committee, where we did a report on water management in the United Kingdom at a time when the Consumer Council for Water was just starting out, having succeeded WaterVoice. We were impressed by the start that it made; we are fairly sure that it is counterproductive to pull up an organism and inspect the roots too often. I would have thought that good practice would require that you gave an organisation such as this one at least five years to settle down, particularly as we are coming to the next stage of reviewing water prices.

I am simply giving notice, since it will come up later, that I for one will need persuading on the detail of the Bill. I am not prepared to be told that because we have had a Second Reading whole clauses are naturally and inevitably appropriate. I hope the Minister will assure me that Clause 3 should stand part of the Bill.

On a very small point, the description “designated consumer” often comes up in the Bill. We all basically understand what it means, but it is probably unnecessarily exclusive. I would prefer “priority consumer”, because that is what is meant by “designated consumer”. Other consumers should not be left out of this provision altogether. There should be a further description in these clauses, so that it could be a priority to deal with priority consumers, but not excluding all other consumers.

I declare my interest again. The amendments go to the heart of the Bill. I am not objecting to discussing them here, but were they to be accepted, much of the institutional change introduced by the Bill would then fall. Therefore, the case for integrating Energywatch, Postwatch and possibly the Consumer Council for Water into one organisation needs to be made. I am sure the Minister will make it.

My take on this is that when those industries were privatised, it was clearly necessary to establish a regulator for them to protect the interests of the consumer. Those regulators will continue to exist and continue to exert their powers. At the same time, it was felt necessary to establish either within those regulators or separately, or subsequently separately, a consumer organisation. As time has gone on, it has become clear that the consumer anxieties, apart from those that reflect a not completely free market, are very similar to consumer anxieties and detriment elsewhere. The treatment by a utility company of its consumers in misleading billing, misleading advertising, overcharging, failure to describe a service, or failure to maintain a service is not actually that dissimilar to the failures of a bank, a builder or, with due respect to another Bill before the House, a lawyer.

Therefore, there are generic issues relating to consumer detriment, consumer anxiety, and the way in which consumer views are taken into account when we are furthering legislation and regulation of those industries. It is therefore quite important that we have a single organisation that is able to deal with that. At the other end of the scale, there are consumer queries about every sort of supply of service or product, which probably, as my noble friend Lord O’Neill has said, would be better served by having a single point of call rather than a whole range of different numbers to contact about different services.

Because the National Consumer Council and the new National Consumer Council in this legislation have a particular responsibility for vulnerable consumers, it is important that we make it as easy as possible for the more vulnerable consumers to make contact about basic information. That will be done by an extension—as I understand the DTI’s proposals—of Consumer Direct. The new National Consumer Council will bring together all those generic concerns of consumers in one advocacy body, which will cover the water front. I agree with my noble friend Lord O’Neill that it would be better if it covered the whole water front and not 80 per cent, but we have 80 per cent, with water possibly coming in at a later stage.

It is important that that organisation has a full view of all the concerns of consumers and is able to transfer expertise from one area, which has perhaps been developed in relation to financial services, into an area such as utility provision, provision of energy or provision of postal services. At present, the advocacy or policy role of Energywatch and of Postwatch is relatively limited and very focused. Those areas that require continuing attention continue to be reflected in the Bill—for example, the number of post offices, which is a matter of acute concern at the moment—would become the issue of concern for the new National Consumer Council quite explicitly, and it would have at least as powerful a role in that respect as Postwatch currently has. It would bring to bear a wider range of consumer expertise to deal with that problem. For example, rural post offices are part of a broader problem of the decline of services, both private and public, in rural areas more generally. Put in that context, there may be a more creative solution than simply the issue of how many rural post offices maintain in existence.

As far as the issue of designated consumers is concerned, however, it is important that the consumers of postal services and energy services do not lose any rights in this transfer, either into the complaints issue or into their representation in policy-making. Therefore the issue is not just priority consumers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, has just said, but the fact that they already have some statutory protection that needs to be carried into this, so that they do not lose out. Maybe “designated” is not a particularly helpful term, but it is important that they are clearly identified and that their rights under current legislation are transferred into the new organisation.

I shall speak to the amendments relating to Energywatch and Postwatch. First, my noble friends Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan and Lord Whitty, who has great knowledge in this area, raised the issue of an integrated consumer body. A number of noble Lords have asked why a consumer body cannot do more, and why we have not incorporated more consumer-representative groups in the Bill. That issue was raised on Second Reading, but I will go over it briefly again.

We undertook a consultation with groups such as the Financial Services Consumer Panel and the Ofcom Consumer Panel. However, the majority of responses to the consultation said that the role of these panels was different from that of statutory consumer bodies, being primarily regulator-facing rather than consumer-facing. There were other groups, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned the water sector, where the consumer representation function has only recently been reformed. It was viewed as unwise at such a stage to incorporate the water sector. A similar view was held on the rail sector, which has just had its consumer representation reformed as well. It was inappropriate to incorporate them at this stage. The Air Transport Users Council is part of the sectoral regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority; it is not actually a separate consumer representation body. However, we do not rule out any further developments or any of the sectors being incorporated at a later stage. At this stage, after extensive consultation, it was felt that it was not appropriate to incorporate them.

I shall go through one or two points that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raised the method of enforcement by the regulator. Enforcement in the energy sector is currently the same as that provided for in the Bill. Currently, in the postal services sector the court enforces a provision of information to the sectoral consumer body.

The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, raised the point about designated consumers and vulnerable consumers. Designated consumers are those in sectors that require special attention in view of the market. They may or may not be a priority at any time, hence the description “designated”. The council will have functions in relation to vulnerable consumers. That is in Clause 11. The council will also have functions in relation to energy disconnections and it is felt important that vulnerable consumers should be covered by the Bill.

I shall turn to the main points on Energywatch and Postwatch. The intention behind the amendments is to remove those consumer bodies from the scope of the Bill. In effect, the result would be to create a new consumer council from the existing National Consumer Council only, which would not be able to require information from the sectoral regulators to carry out its functions. The new body is intended to be stronger than the sum of its parts—an assurance that I can give to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and to my noble friend Lord Whitty. The idea is to produce a strong consumer advocate for consumers in all sectors. Achieving that aim would create a powerful consumer advocate, able to address consumer issues that frequently exist across sectors of the economy. The new body would have the critical mass to engage effectively with the Government, regulators and industry sectors on the basis of expert and informed analysis, with the benefit of being able to draw on experience and expertise from a number of sectors. Responsibility and authority to speak for consumers would rest with a single organisation, thus providing a stronger and more effective policy voice in the UK and EU. Therefore, the Committee will understand that I cannot accept these amendments. I believe that Clauses 3, 12, 24 and 29 and Schedules 2 and 3 should stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36 contains provisions that enable the Secretary of State to extend the functions of the council if he considers that it is in the interests of consumers or in the interests of a particular description of consumer. That is subject to the proviso that such additional functions must be connected to an existing or former function of the council. It provides flexibility in expansion of functions if that becomes necessary in the future. The Bill provides for prior consultation. The clause does not permit provision to be made which would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. If a provision is made under that clause it would fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales. The provision may be made only with the consent of the Assembly.

Clause 37 provides that the Secretary of State may make an order removing the functions of the council in respect of Northern Ireland, provided he is satisfied that arrangements are in place for another body to exercise the functions which were exercised by the council under the Bill in relation to Northern Ireland. That refers to the proposal under the Bill that only postal services in Northern Ireland will be covered. That is intended to provide flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. The clause provides for the Secretary of State to consult the council and such other persons as he considers appropriate before making an order under the clause.

Amendment No. 142 deals with Clause 59 and concerns the matter of applying the Statutory Instruments Act 1946 in respect of regulations made by regulators under Clauses 42 or 45. The amendment refers to the removal of the subsection from the Bill. However, the intention is to provide that the Statutory Instruments Act 1946 should apply to such regulations made by regulators under Clauses 42 or 45. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

Similarly, Amendment No. 144 is necessary to ensure that regulations made under Clauses 42 or 45 are recognised as having the same status as regulations made by regulators included in the Documentary Evidence Act 1868 for the purposes proving certain documents. Amendment No. 147 has the effect of removing certain specified orders related to designated consumers, the designation of the Consumer Council for Water, conferral of additional functions on the council and removal of the council's functions in relation to Northern Ireland from the list of orders and regulations to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That would make them subject to the negative resolution procedure, but given the importance of their effect, I think they should be debated in Parliament. For the reasons that I have given, I must resist all the amendments and that Clauses 3, 12, 24, 29, 36 and 37 and Schedules 2 and 3 should not stand part of the Bill.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I look forward to debating at greater length with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, in view of his expertise on water. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his intervention when talking about designated consumers. He said that the Bill covered 80 per cent of the water front. It might do that in strict terms, but consumers would not see it as covering anything like 80 per cent because Ofcom, transport and financial services are not included. Mayor Bloomberg of New York attributed his election with such a whopping majority to the fact that he invented not 911—not an emergency service number—but 311, which can be rung for any public service. If the Bill had some ambition, instead of just drawing together what is possible at the moment, while maintaining the flexibility of which the Minister has spoken so eloquently, and if it had some teeth, it would make sense to consumers.

The Minister spoke of the Secretary of State being able to bring in other matters, which might give hope to consumers that, at some point in the future, the Bill will be rationalised to bring everything together. As the Bill stands, it will be very confusing to consumers. At any one time one may be a consumer, a designated consumer and a vulnerable designated consumer or any one of those. The body to which one relates may or may not be covered by the Bill and I do not think it will be clear whether one goes to Consumer Direct or the NCC or what the rules are. Much needs to be clarified, not just for us. Most importantly, by the time the Bill has gone through Parliament, consumers must be absolutely clear about the duties of the body and where they stand in relation to the various authorities and regulators and so on and what their roles are. At the moment it is quite confusing. I look forward to exploring it in more detail during the passage of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [“Consumer” and “consumer matters”]:

Page 2, line 18, at end insert “, or

“( ) a person resident in the United Kingdom, who purchases, uses or receives, outside of the United Kingdom, goods or services which are supplied in the course of a business carried out by the person supplying or seeking to supply them.”

The noble Lord said: The amendment is straightforward. We have legislation that provides a degree of protection for consumers when they make transactions emanating from the United Kingdom, most likely by means of the internet, although it could just as easily be done by telephone. We have a situation at the moment where the pound-dollar exchange rate is something like 2:1.

When I came through Edinburgh Airport this morning—taking rather longer than I would have anticipated because the temperature fell below zero which, in an age of global warming, is something of a surprise to the airport authorities, who had made no provision for the de-icing of planes—there was rather a large queue of people waiting to travel to the United States. A number of those people will be going there for Christmas, and a number will be going for what can only be called last-minute shopping. They will be getting into Newark, taking the fast train to Penn station, dashing across the road into shops such as Macy’s, and doing all the things that sensible shoppers do—of course in line with the customs regulations when they return to the United Kingdom. Those people will be making purchases and doing deals, and they will return to the United Kingdom to find that maybe not all their bargains were as attractive as they thought when they laid down their credit cards or, sadly, perhaps even paid dollars. This clause is trying to take account of transactions made outwith the United Kingdom by British citizens and afford them a degree of protection that they might not be able to access going to the authorities in Manhattan or elsewhere outside the United Kingdom.

Caveat emptor is a principle that many of us have learnt to live with, sometimes uneasily, but sometimes when we go abroad we are the victims of rather more systematic difficulties. One thinks of the people who go on holiday who, albeit foolhardily, enter into the purchase of timeshare accommodation and the like, without very much protection. They are not afforded any degree of protection at the moment in UK legislation. Those people may in many respects be hapless consumers, but none the less it is incumbent on us, when we are looking at legislation that is seeking to reassert the rights of the consumer, to afford them a degree of protection that, frankly, we have not been able to provide in the past, partly because legislation of this nature does not come up all that frequently. I made that point earlier.

One of the problems that we have in the UK is that our system of legislation is not always that responsive to changes, so we only get such an opportunity once every 10 or 15 years. I remember dealing with matters, for example, relating to mental health, I think in 1983. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, will remember that. It was about that time just before the 1983 election that legislation on mental health was going through both Houses. It transpires about once every 25 years. Legislation relating to consumers often comes up as frequently as that. There was the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

This idea has slipped through the net. We now have vast numbers of our population travelling abroad, entering into financial transactions and making purchases and not always having an understanding of the consumer protection legislation of the country in question. You could say that they should do that and hell mend them if they do not. It is necessary for us to have a national consumer body that is capable to act where appropriate. We are not saying that every tuppence-ha’penny transaction should be taken up and that people should be cosseted and protected at every turn. We know that there are unscrupulous dealers, property developers and the like who fleece a number of our citizens who are less sharp than they ought to be. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that the National Consumer Council should have sufficient powers to deal with matters of this nature and take up the problem on behalf of British citizens, not necessarily in every case—I stress that—but where there could be the equivalent of a class action. Therefore, an amendment of this nature could well be necessary. Does the Bill cover this issue? If a British tourist—albeit somewhat hapless—going abroad enters into a transaction that is not sensible, is he or she entitled to any degree of advocacy, if not protection? If it becomes apparent that there is an element of doubt about this, the National Consumer Council should be given the powers to take this up with the appropriate authority in the appropriate country.

A number of people go abroad who, frankly, almost deserve to get taken apart. However, the fact that they are not the sharpest tools in the box does not deny them the right to a degree of advocacy and protection. To what other body can they look than the National Consumer Council? If a number of cases come up at a particular time and a systematic mis-selling of goods abroad does not attract the attention of the consumer bodies in the European Union, let us say, it would not be inappropriate for the National Consumer Council to take up cudgels on people’s behalf. Doing so would afford a degree of protection. We should not encourage people to enter into foolhardy transactions, but the vast numbers of our citizens who travel abroad regularly and, probably for the worst of reasons, enter into these kinds of deals, should be afforded a degree not necessarily of protection but of representation. That is what we are asking for, and it would not be inappropriate for the National Consumer Council to be given that responsibility. I beg to move.

I hope that the Minister will not accept the amendment. It is quite ridiculous. I wish that all the consumers in this country had the faintest idea of their rights and obligations and what the laws are in this country, let alone in many others. It has long been my quest to educate consumers and tell them what their rights and obligations are so that they can avoid the disasters that sometimes befall them. But the amendment proposes that we should try and protect them against foreign laws which are binding in foreign countries and that we should intervene. I am quite sure that even the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who is second to none in his expertise in these matters, could not tell you what the law on consumer rights is in various countries. If we move even remotely into this area, we will be wasting a great deal of time and money which would neither be justified nor in the fundamental interests of consumers in this country.

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 16, 17, 18 and 19 in this group. Amendment No. 16 is a probing amendment, intended to clarify the exact definition of a consumer. The Bill differentiates between an existing consumer and a future consumer. While it is clear what an existing consumer is, I should be grateful if the Minister could inform us whether use of the term “future consumer” suggests that part of the National Consumer Council’s remit will be to target people who may become consumers in certain markets in the future. If that is so, I shall be interested to know whether the National Consumer Council, in its new proximity to the Government, will be given access to sensitive information to aid its research. This is an important point. Certain government departments have access to sensitive information such as the marked electoral register, the ID cards register and other databases, such as those containing credit history. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State’s powers to bestow functions and allowances are widely set. I am sure the Minister will be able to reassure me categorically that access to sensitive information will not be increased as a result of the NCC’s new status.

Amendment No. 17 is intended to ensure tha sole traders and small businesses are considered consumers for the purposes of the NCC. Smaller ventures are not only consumers in the traditional sense of their being private individuals, but are also consumers within a far wider business food chain. It is important that they are recognised as such in the Bill. A classic case in point would be where a small business or sole trader loses electricity, or is set to lose electricity, and due to its status as a business, not a consumer, suffers serious losses as a result of not being able to use Consumer Voice as an advocate with energy companies to prevent disconnection.

Amendment No. 18 is a probing amendment that would delete the reference to “goods” in the definition of “consumer materials”. I should be grateful for some clarification from the Minister. First, does the phrasing that,

“‘goods’ includes land or an interest in land”,

mean that “goods” refers to nothing else in this context? Secondly, it is my understanding that a reference to “land” at this point in the Bill is at odds with the definition of “goods” in the Sale of Goods Act 1979. Will the Minister inform noble Lords of the genesis of that definition? I should also be interested to know whether the inclusion of,

“land or an interest in land”,

which I take to mean a financial interest, in the context of consumer affairs, could result in double redress being awarded to an individual who has problems with exchanges of land, as they could be awarded redress as a consumer in Part 2 and under the estate agency scheme in Part 3.

Amendment No. 19 is another probing amendment intended to tease out the definition of “received goods”. I am curious to know whether that could refer to loans taken out on the doorstep. Among the most expensive loans in the country are those sold to consumers in their own homes. While I welcome the new provisions to equalise solicited and unsolicited sales rights in Part 4, they do not apply to financial loans. I believe the serious problem of personal debt in this country is occasion enough to warrant inclusion in the NCC’s list of relevant consumer areas, and indeed to warrant heightened consumer education and protection with regard to solicited and unsolicited sale of services.

I have some comments on Amendment No. 15, tabled by my noble friend Lord O’Neill, and Amendment No. 17, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. On my noble friend’s amendment, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, that he is well aware that the Bill is not creating individual consumer rights, legal rights or anything of the sort. It does not seek to give consumers in this country rights that they do not otherwise have against suppliers in the United States or elsewhere. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that he is saying consumers in this country have a body called the National Consumer Council, which is there to protect the interests of consumers generally, give advice to Ministers and consumers, conduct research and so on. In the course of giving advice to British consumers, to extend a restraining arm to those who might otherwise go wild on the continent of Europe or in New York in doing their shopping and who do not take sufficient care of their own interests would seem to be perfectly reasonable among the other advisory and warning sounds that the NCC might make.

I do not think my noble friend’s amendment is needed, because although the consumer, as distinct from the supplier, has to be in this country, the definition of “consumer” and “supplier” in Clause 2 does not restrict itself to a supplier who is within Great Britain. It says: “a person who purchases” and so on,

“in Great Britain, goods or services which are supplied in the course of a business”.

It does not say where the supplier has to be. That could cover the problem my noble friend Lord O’Neill is concerned about.

With regard to Amendment No. 17, I know the business background and experience of the noble Baroness, and I was not surprised when she said she was mainly concerned with sole partnerships, small businesses and so on that do not have vast legal departments such as major business firms like ICI may have, and therefore may know the law about the buying and selling of goods and services no better than what I might call the ordinary, private consumer. She makes a fair point. Due to the way she has drafted the amendment, however, the “consumer” includes a person who purchases and so on for the purposes of their own business. In law, the word “person” includes not just natural persons but corporate persons. Therefore, when ICI is buying either machinery or an expensive car for the chief executive, it is a consumer. I hope that my noble friend Lord Whitty, as the person running the National Consumer Council, does not want the NCC to be spending time on the concerns of businesses that no doubt have their own lawyers and legal departments at their beck and call.

My noble friend Lord Borrie has just made most of the points I intended to make. The point of this group of amendments is flexibility for the new National Consumer Council. I would like the Government’s view on whether an amendment such as that in the name of my noble friend Lord O’Neill is necessary. The new council would need the flexibility, but not the requirement, to intervene in areas like the misleading selling of timeshare. If the present provisions do not allow for that, we need something like my noble friend’s amendment.

Likewise, the present National Consumer Council has a responsibility for future consumers as well as current consumers, and does not really require a lot of definition. It is part of the long-run policy focus. We will come on to the issue of sustainability under a later amendment. I hope the Minister can assure the noble Baroness that this does not imply access to any sensitive information. My understanding is that that is not implied at all, and that this is simply what its predecessor bodies have been doing anyway.

On the issue of business, I agree entirely with the point made by my noble friend Lord Borrie, who put it very well. Small businesses that are effectively equivalent to domestic and individual consumers need a champion, but the clause as it is currently phrased would give a wider range of responsibility to businesses in general, which I do not think is the intention of the Bill. I hope the Minister will allow the new organisation a bit of flexibility here over what is a small business that needs such protection, and what is not.

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 15 in the name of my noble friend Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, and to Amendments Nos. 16, 17, 18 and 19 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley. I am also grateful for the erudite contributions of my noble friends Lord Borrie and Lord Whitty.

I shall begin with the points made by my noble friend Lord O’Neill. The Bill raises the question of consumer protection but is focused on vulnerable consumers. A new consumer protection regulation provides for co-operation between consumer protection bodies across the EU, and we are in the process of implementing it, so work is going on internationally. However, the proposed new council is a statutory body, and we must be careful not to give it statutory responsibilities that it is unable to discharge effectively, particularly in other jurisdictions. If the council tried to get its writ to run on Park Avenue in Manhattan or in the bazaars of Istanbul, it would find it difficult. However, I understand the point that the noble Lord is raising.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned that the definition of “goods” includes,

“land or an interest in land”.

Land is included as, otherwise, the meaning of “goods” would be moveable goods. The definition takes the ordinary meaning of goods and adds “interest in land”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and my noble friend Lord Whitty raised the issue of sensitive information. Clause 27 gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations prescribing exemptions, but the intention is that all information will be used reasonably and sensibly.

Other amendments change the definition of “consumer” in Clause 2. Amendment No. 15 extends the definition of consumer to include a UK resident who purchases, uses or receives goods or services outside the United Kingdom. The definition in the Bill already includes goods or services purchased, used or received in Great Britain, irrespective of the origin of those goods or services. In the case of goods or services purchased in Great Britain, the definition covers the consumer, irrespective of where the goods or services are supplied or received. The proposed additional definition would expand the functions and duties of the council beyond the United Kingdom into areas where the council would not be able to exercise its functions effectively. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, on that—and there is always room on our Benches if she wishes to cross the Floor.

Amendment No. 16 excludes future consumers from the definition of consumer—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. The council should be able to address the position of future consumers and to research and detect trends and developments in markets in order to facilitate the empowerment of consumers. We should not restrict the scope of the new body to markets as they operate today.

Amendment No. 17 includes in the definition of consumer,

“a person who purchases, uses or receives goods or services for the purpose of their own business”.

This amendment is not necessary. The definition of consumer in the Bill deliberately does not exclude any class of consumer, which means that the council will be able to focus on the areas of greatest consumer detriment.

Amendment No. 19 adds to the definition of “receives” by stating that it includes,

“purchasing of goods or services”.

The definition of consumer already includes a person who purchases, uses or receives goods or services, and we do not consider that the amendment adds substance to that definition.

For the reasons I have given, I must resist these amendments.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. It did not go as far as I wanted but, when we have had time to read and reflect on what we have said, there may be some opportunity for finding common ground. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 16 to 19 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Forward work programmes]:

[Amendment No. 20 not moved.]

Page 3, line 14, leave out “before each financial year publish” and insert “publish biannually”

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 26, 42 and 43. These amendments alter the Bill in two respects but seek to achieve a common aim. The arrangements for the merger are in need of clarification. Amendment No. 26 is a probing amendment and, if it were accepted, it would alter the remit of the forward work programme so that only measurable objectives could be included. The amendment is tabled in a spirit of common sense, as unquantifiable elements would do little to provide a forward-looking programme. It seems sensible to plan for work that is possible to define in advance and to leave a margin of time and funding to adapt to unforeseen demands on the National Consumer Council. Can the Minister clarify what he envisages the report will produce and how those who read it will use it?

The NCC already has to produce an annual report—the remit of which the Secretary of State has the power to direct—that informs the Government and Parliament of what it has achieved in the year. There is huge scope for the Secretary of State to intervene on the policy side of the NCC, and I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what directions he anticipates the Secretary of State will give to the NCC under Clause 6.

Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 go to the heart of our concerns about the proposed merger of Postwatch, Energywatch and the NCC. Noble Lords will know that the watchdog organisations provide a highly technical complaints service. While many companies prove unable to interrogate their own customer services systems, the watchdogs are invaluable in providing insight and resolution on complex complaints matters. Complaints provide the most transparent feedback from the consumer. The NCC will not be a direct service provider, and I wish Consumer Direct every success in that respect. However, it is vital that the NCC maintains its accuracy and standard of research and that it provides insight into complaints.

The amendments in this group widen and extend the NCC’s accountability and take its remit in the right direction. The NCC must have enough flexibility in its planning to meet the changing challenges in the consumer world, but its remit must be strong enough to ensure that, in its new position as a non-departmental public body with funding from the taxpayer, it provides the insight and research that will make it, as it is now, a real champion for consumer affairs. I beg to move.

I support Amendments Nos. 42 and 43. If the consumer council is to be a powerful advocate—which we all want it to be, and I am sure it will be—one of its most important roles will be gathering and disseminating information, particularly about the frequency of complaints, because that is where any practice that needs to be dealt with swiftly or that needs to be publicised or even legislated against will come to light. Therefore, unless there is a clear duty on the NCC to carry out that function—which is one of its most important functions—then one of the main purposes of the Bill will not be fulfilled.

I support these amendments. Complaints are important indicators of where problems lie. The number of complaints—and even of inquiries, because an inquiry might not always be a complaint—gives a clear indication of where consumers are experiencing problems. That enables policy-makers and others to get a clearer idea of what is happening in the market so far as consumers are concerned. This is a practical suggestion.

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 26, 42 and 43 tabled in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and I am grateful for the constructive approach of the noble Lord.

Amendment No. 26 requires the council to include the measurable objectives of a project in any forward work programme. That appears to exclude objectives which are not measured and which would represent an undue constraint on the transparency and flexibility of the forward work programme. I take it that the underlying intention is to promote measurable objectives for projects that the council proposes to undertake. I am happy to support the broad thrust of that argument but I do not agree with the amendment.

Amendment No. 42 adds to the obligations of the council in respect of the annual report and requires it to include details of the most frequent complaints from consumers about post and energy. It also requires the new NCC to include recommendations to regulated energy and post companies to change their practices. The council has a general information function under Clause 9—referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes—which allows it to facilitate information provision to consumers. Under Clause 44, it has an obligation to publish information on levels of compliance by an energy or postal services company with any complaint-handling standards set by the regulator. An obligation on the council to set out information for consumers in its annual report may not be the most appropriate way of providing consumers with that information or information on its recommendations to regulated post and energy companies on their practices. We should leave it to the council to decide how best to bring such information to the attention of consumers.

Amendment No. 43 adds an obligation on the council to include in its annual report an account of its fulfilment of its duty to arrange for the annual report to be published. That appears unnecessary. For those reasons, I must resist these amendments.

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes for their support, particularly on Amendments No. 42 and 43. I thank the Minister for his response and look forward to future discussions on these subjects. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 22 to 29 not moved.]

Page 3, line 33, at end insert-

“( ) Expenditure incurred under subsection (3) must not exceed such amount as may be prescribed in regulations.”

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 30 sets a cap on the spending of the new National Consumer Council. I have already noted my concern that the new funding arrangements for the NCC could diminish its independence, and running parallel to that point is my concern at the potential for spiralling costs of the NCC.

I am grateful to the Minister for his correspondence following Second Reading. It was useful to receive such a well prepared summary of the points raised and to have some insight into Ministers’ thinking in advance of today. Can the Minister indicate how costs will be kept under control, given that, in his words:

“What the Bill does not do is specify that there should be any particular number or location for any regional committees”?

I agree with the Minister that there needs to be flexibility within the NCC, but that should not come at the expense of sound structure and sensible spending.

Indeed, I was surprised to read a few pages on in the Minister’s letter that costs-savings are expected from,

“the reduction in the regional office network”.

That seems to be at odds with the fact that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the establishment of many offices. I will be grateful if the Minister will inform the Committee whether he envisages more regional offices and greater spending or fewer offices and cost-savings. Whatever answer the Minister gives, it is clear that funding forecasts on this merger cannot be as stable as the Government claim. My amendment ensures that the National Consumer Council would operate within a strict budget and maintain its current low-cost status.

Has the Minister considered the likely cost implications of migrating complaints handling away from Energywatch and Postwatch to companies? While I believe strongly that complaints are one of the most effective consumer tests for companies, I am concerned that the sudden new burden of the complaints procedure will result in slower complaints handling and a worse deal for the consumer. What is more, tying the funding of the redress scheme to a per- complaint basis, as suggested in paragraph 2.56 of the regulatory impact assessment, could lead to Catch-22 funding, where a slow complaints system reduces the value of a redress system dependent on complaints for revenue. I shall be grateful if the Minister can say, in figures and percentages, how much revenue he expects complaints to produce. I also hope that he can confirm the precise function of Clause 4(3)(b). Does he anticipate expenditure by the NCC on designated consumers and, if so, what kind of expenditure does he envisage?

There seems to be very little consistency in the Bill and the regulatory impact assessment. There are far too many loose ends for me to feel confident in the efficiency and sustainability of the merger of the NCC and the other bodies. My amendment ensures that there is a clear strategy for the merger and subsequent maintenance of the new NCC. I hope the Minister will agree that it is essential that there is a constant factor in this equation and that, while the NCC needs to remain flexible, as will the level of charging by the regulator through licences, it is important that that is not accompanied by a blank cheque of taxpayers’ money. I beg to move.

I support my noble friend Lady Wilcox because she has her finger on the pulse of these issues and knows exactly where the costs fall. On the basis that the new National Consumer Council will have greater powers and responsibilities than the current council, why is the budget not going to be increased? Is there going to be a bigger budget?

Amendment No. 30 provides for regulations to limit the expenditure that the council can make for its forward work programme. Its budget would be discussed between the department and the council. It is normal practice to provide indicative budgets for three years ahead to aid planning and provide certainty. Making regulations to limit the expenditure would be too onerous and, in the circumstances, unnecessary, so I do not support the amendment.

The noble Baroness made a point about permission to close regional offices. Paragraph 27 of Schedule 1 provides that:

“The Council must maintain an office in each of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales”,


“The Council may, with the approval of the Secretary of State, establish additional offices in the United Kingdom”.

The number of offices can be expanded, but proposals to close offices must go before the Secretary of State.

The assumed cost of the redress scheme was estimated on complaint levels in 2005-06, and the figures in the RIA are based on our best estimates of the assumed income from complaints. The idea is that the core savings will come from the consolidation of Energywatch and Postwatch. The industries in those sectors will continue to be responsible for the costs of the complaints and the operation of their sectors, so in future they will have funding responsibility for Energywatch and Postwatch, as they do currently. It is not envisaged that that will lead to increased costs. I will write to the noble Baroness on her other points.

The Minister is saying that, if Energywatch and Postwatch are taken on, there will be no increase in costs. Is that right? Maybe I am not hearing correctly.

I said that Energywatch and Postwatch deal with the complaints in their sectors. They will continue to deal with those complaints in the new structure, and the respective industries that currently fund Postwatch and Energywatch will continue to fund dealing with those consumer issues in the new consumer body. The proportion of funding will remain the same.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lady O’Cathain. As we have gone on, I have tried to note the answers that I have been given. I am still unsure whether there is enough certainty of direction in what the Minister said about reductions in office networks somewhere and possibly establishment of offices somewhere else. It seems awfully wide—a little too wide for me to be comfortable with. I will read carefully what he said. I asked a lot of questions, and I did not expect him to be able to answer every one of them while he was on his feet, no matter how fast his team moved behind him, so I am aware that he will write to me with some of the answers and, for that, I thank him. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 31 to 37 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [General provision about functions]:

Page 4, line 20, leave out “have regard to” and insert “implement”

The noble Lord said: I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 41, which are intended simply to ensure that the NCC’s functions are tightened up. Amendment No. 38 would ensure that the NCC would indeed carry out the work promised in its forward work programme. Quite apart from the justification of the cost of producing such a document, it is important that the NCC, where it pledges to carry out work, does so, within reason, so that its functions are transparent to the consumer public. Amendment No. 39 tightens up the duty under subsection (6) so that one of the NCC’s main functions is to operate with the most efficient use of resources. The NCC is historically an efficient and, effectively, low-cost organisation; it would be a shame and a wasted opportunity if that was allowed to change and a further burden was placed on the taxpayer and industry.

Amendment No. 41 ensures that the NCC will have to act with regard to achieving “sustainable development”. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will remember the term well from the debates during the passage of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Now is not the time to debate the meaning of the term. Perhaps we shall come to it in more detail on Report. Section 2 of the Act states that Natural England, another non-departmental public body created by this Government, has a general purpose to contribute to sustainable development. It therefore makes sense that there is a read-across in this Bill. Indeed, many vulnerable consumers will be those living in rural and inner-city areas, places that are in need of very varied but equally important sustainable regeneration.

I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, have tabled a similar amendment, and I am pleased to see that we are moving in the same direction on this matter. I beg to move.

At last, the Minister will welcome an amendment because I am sure that he cannot possibly reject Amendment No. 39. It will be a great relief to him to know that he is going to be able to endorse the concept that the council must use its resources in the most efficient and economic way. I simply cannot believe the Minister would disagree with that.

As the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, said, we support Amendments Nos. 38 and 39. I, too, hope the Minister will welcome them because it would be inconceivable to have a clause about a forward work plan that may or may not be implemented. There would be very little point in drawing it up unless it was implemented. Indeed, in other publicly-funded bodies, such as local government, there would be plenty of inspectors from all over the place—not least from the Audit Commission—making sure that the body had implemented its forward work plan to the letter. I am not sure who will inspect the NCC to ensure that it has implemented its work plan, but perhaps the Minister will tell me.

Amendment No. 38 places a direct requirement on the council to adhere rigidly to the work set out in its forward work programme. I agree that it is important for the council to undertake a work programme that has been subject to public scrutiny and consultation. However, the amendment would require the council to implement the programme in full and could potentially affect the flexibility of the council to respond to unforeseen changes in priorities that may arise after the forward work programme is published, which could not therefore be captured in that programme, about which it would be necessary or highly beneficial for consumers for the council to make representations on their behalf. It is therefore feasible that, with finite time and resources, the council would legitimately be unable to implement the forward work programme in its entirety.

Amendment No. 39 would create a duty on the council to use its resources in the most efficient and economic way. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, but, in our view, it would place too onerous a burden on the council to demonstrate compliance with the duty. I am not convinced that it is required because the chief executive of the new council will be designated as the accounting officer and, as such, will be required to ensure that all funds are used economically, efficiently and effectively. Further, the National Audit Office will also be able to review the efficiency with which the new body uses its resources to ensure that those requirements are being met.

Amendment No. 41 seeks to amend the new council’s objective in relation to sustainable development. As drafted, the clause clearly places a duty on the council without placing too onerous a burden on it. I am therefore not convinced that the duty as drafted needs to change to make it less onerous in this instance.

For the reasons I have given I must resist all of these amendments.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and my noble friend Lord Selborne for their kind support. I also thank the Minister for his response. I am not sure that I agree with him, but we will all have a chance to consider this in some depth before we come back to it on Report. I urge him to do so. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Page 4, line 37, leave out from “must” to second “to” in line 38 and insert “develop policies and discharge its duties so that it contributes”

The noble Baroness said: I am glad that the Conservative Front-Benchers also regard the clause on sustainability as a complete fudge. They have reworded it concisely. My amendment would give it a few more teeth. The clause says:

“The Council must have regard to the desirability of acting in the manner best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development”

I am sure that the Minister will say that it is designed to achieve, in the phrase of the afternoon, the greatest flexibility. However, if energy comes within the purview of the council, as the Bill proposes, this phrase will be much more important than the Minister has perhaps thought.

The public are, rightly, consistently asked to do more to conserve energy because of climate change considerations. It is one of the biggest issues of the moment, and the public are taking an interest in what they can do beyond buying properly labelled white goods or insulating their loft. Some of the work of Energywatch is relevant here, such as talking to Ofcom about smart metering. The consumer could be put in charge in a very visual way of the amount of energy that they use. Those who decided to go into microgeneration would be able to sell to the grid. The council will need a clear overview of exactly what is stopping or frustrating consumers and making them complain in their efforts to mitigate the effects of their actions on climate change.

I accept that my amendment may well be imperfect, and I hope that the Government’s experienced draftsmen will be able to come up with something far more definite, but unless Clause 5(8) is worded more definitely, it will not be sufficient to enable the council to act strongly. One of my questions for the Minister is whether it is as strong as the duty currently laid on the NCC or other bodies. This seems to be a much lesser duty compared to that which we put on Ofwat or that introduced in the Energy Act, because of all the weasel words such as “must have regard to”, “desirability” and “acting in the manner”. I do not mind whether the Government prefer the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, or my amendment, but either would have more teeth than what is in the Bill. I beg to move.

In view of the Minister’s response to my amendment on this matter, I can do no more than express my support for this amendment.

I strongly support the amendment. I hope that the Government accept it or come up with something equally strong. The NCC and Energywatch have put a lot of effort into ensuring that sustainability is part of their policy. For example, there was a joint statement last week on the need to promote green tariffs and to avoid misleading or unclear advice to consumers on them. Consumers are often blamed for failing to adopt sustainable policies. It must be part of the remit of the new organisation to ensure that it is easier for consumers to make sustainable choices and to ensure other changes that make it more likely that consumers will make sustainable choices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and I have sat through a lot of institutional change in government over the past few years. This is one of the weakest formulations on sustainability, including the provisions in the Water Act, which among other things established the Consumer Council for Water and gave it a sustainability objective. There are other forms of words in legislation that the Government could adopt if they do not like the noble Baroness’s words. I seriously hope that they will do so later in the passage of the Bill.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who has much more experience than me on the Floor of the House at grappling with these difficult concepts of sustainable development. The situation is similar to the debate on the powers of Natural England. There is surely an obligation on the NCC to do more than have regard. Surely there is an element of promotion and championing. I know that those ideas are difficult to formulate without being too draconian, but an organisation that exists to represent the consumer on energy—and perhaps on water, although I hope not—and other such issues should surely go much further. I hope that the Minister will follow the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and will go back and read some of the debates as well as some of the final Acts that determined the role of sustainable development in other organisations. We can do better than this.

Policies on sustainability, which the noble Baroness has raised, are clearly very important. We should bear in mind that the old NCC was not a statutory body, so it had no statutory obligations. The new NCC will be a statutory body, so it will have statutory obligations. The aim of the amendment is to strengthen the new council’s objective on sustainable development. However, the clause already clearly places a duty on the council, without placing too onerous a burden on the new body. Although I am not convinced that the current drafting needs to change to make the duty either less onerous or stronger, I am certainly willing to go away and look at it.

I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment. I am especially grateful to the Minister, who has recognised that this is a very important issue. I respectfully suggest that the burden probably needs to be fairly onerous if the council is to be able to speak for consumers on what they can do about climate change. I know that the Government think that this is the most important issue of our time and is likely to continue to be so. I look forward to what the Government will bring back. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 41 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Annual report]:

[Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [The representative function]:

[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [The research function]:

[Amendment No. 45 not moved.]

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [The information function]:

Page 6, line 13, leave out “may” and insert “must”

The noble Baroness said: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 46 and 48. This is a straightforward group of amendments that would ensure greater transparency in the operations of the National Consumer Council. It is important that the shift in status of the council in its transformation into a non-departmental public body is matched by transparency with regard to communication with the public.

Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 go hand in hand, to ensure that the National Consumer Council keeps the public informed about its composition and its functions, consumer matters in general and other matters that can be prescribed by the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 46 would make such communication a duty, while Amendment No. 48 strengthens the direction under the clause. Currently, Clause 9 states that the National Consumer Council must,

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

All that the duty I propose would require is a regularly updated website. Therefore, I do not see the need for such a wide drafting of the duty. The principle behind the amendments—it is a guiding principle for many of the proposed amendments from these Benches—is that the NCC in its new role performs its functions as transparently to the public as it does to the Secretary of State. I beg to move.

I support my noble friend. We are back to the type of amendment that we had at the beginning of the afternoon about “shall” and “must”. This one is certainly “must”. For the avoidance of all doubt, it is imperative that the council should be strongly focused on what it has to do.

I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and Amendment No. 47, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall. First, on Amendments Nos. 46 and 47, the amendments seek to place a duty on the council to carry out its information function. However, this would remove the flexibility of the council to concentrate on the other core functions in Clauses 7 and 8 if it considers that this will be most effective and beneficial to consumers, given the priorities of the council over the coming year.

Amendment No. 48 also seeks to amend the information function of the council. The amendment would limit the carrying out of the function to disseminate information and advice to the council. As drafted, the function permits the council not only to disseminate information but to facilitate the dissemination of information and advice by others, as it will be a strong consumer advocate with cross-sectoral expertise. I consider this to be an important function to assign to the new council, and one that will be beneficial to consumers in terms of the quality of information and advice that may be received from the council and others. For the reasons I have given, I must resist the amendments.

I do not like the answer; but it is the answer I have been given. There is nothing more that I can say at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 47 to 49 not moved.]

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [General powers of investigation]:

[Amendment No. 50 not moved.]

Page 6, line 33, at end insert “and provide an account of how its resources were used in an efficient way”

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 51 and 52 are intended to encourage the best use of resources by the NCC. Clause 10, detailing the NCC’s powers of investigation, is currently widely drawn, while the Bill is silent on the issue of prudent expenditure of resources. Non-departmental public bodies are not inexpensive. My amendment would ensure that while the NCC would have the leeway to explore issues that were of interest to it, it would have to have regard to the efficient use of resources. I hope that this would prevent the doubling up of work or research in the NCC, and in particular between regional committees.

Amendment No. 52 is a probing amendment intended to elicit the definition of “a novel issue”. I enjoy finding a light-hearted phrase in legislation, but I wonder whether the inclusion of “a novel issue” would exclude the definition of some issues that are not particularly novel. I am sure the Minister can clarify that point and clarify the legal meaning of that phrase. I beg to move.

Amendment No. 51 would require the council to provide an account of how efficiently its resources were used when carrying out an investigation into any matter. However, I am not convinced that this is required, given that Part 5 of Schedule 1 already sets out the requirements of the council in relation to its accounts. Schedule 1 places a duty on the council to keep proper accounts and to prepare in respect of each financial year a statement of accounts. A copy of this statement must be given to the Secretary of State and to the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The Comptroller and Auditor-General must in turn examine and report on the accounts of the council. That report and a copy of the statement of accounts must be laid before Parliament. I cannot therefore accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 52 relates to the general powers of investigation of the council. Clause 10 is not intended to permit the council to investigate individual complaints. It is limited to those complaints that are set out in Clauses 11 and 12. Clause 10 essentially provides the council with another source of information about consumer matters, where it considers that complaint from a consumer has a more general relevance that applies to the market as a whole and therefore to all consumers within that market. For the council to be an effective advocate for consumers across all markets, it is important that it can obtain information about matters that concern consumers the most and result in the greatest consumer detriment. Clause 10 represents one of the ways in which the council will be able to obtain such information. For the reasons given, I must resist the amendments.

The Minister omitted to define “novel”, as requested by my noble friend Lord De Mauley. With all the definitions that will be needed, and flexibility in one area and strangulation in another, the Bill will be nothing more than a gravy train for lawyers.

I will have to write to the noble Lord about “novel”, because the drafting was done by parliamentary counsel. As I am not a QC, it is probably safer that I do not answer at this point.

I thank the Minister for his response. Amendment No. 51 is much more specific than the accounting to which he referred. I thank him also for his response to Amendment No. 52, and my noble friend Lady O’Cathain for her intervention. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 52 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Investigation of complaints made by vulnerable designated consumers]:

Page 7, line 1, after “vulnerable” insert “or otherwise disadvantaged”

The noble Baroness said: These amendments deal with consumers who in the terms of the Bill are “vulnerable”. Amendment No. 53 is a probing amendment to discover whether the Government still define “vulnerable” as it is defined in previous statute. If so, where is it so defined, and exactly what is the definition of “vulnerable”?

There is a presumption against the disconnection of water, which has led to many debates in your Lordships’ House about the “can’t pays” and the “won’t pays” and what is to happen to them. While no sympathy is felt for the “won’t pays”, the “can’t pays”, and those who truly fall into the category of “vulnerable”, whether because they are elderly, ill, mentally or physically disabled, or have a large number of young children, might make them vulnerable. The first amendment is simply designed for the Government to put on the record who they regard as vulnerable. If there is an official definition, my amendment seeks to explore whether it is wide enough and suggests inserting the words “or otherwise disadvantaged”.

Amendment No. 65 raises the question of who will do the urgent advocacy work that Energywatch undertakes on disconnection. Of course, people can have energy supplies disconnected. Energywatch has many files and has done huge amounts of work for people who were about to be disconnected, did not know where to turn and turned to Energywatch, which examined the case. I wish to put one example from Energywatch on the record for the Committee, so that Members know what I am talking about. A customer, who fell into debt with her gas account and was unable to repay was disconnected by her supplier. She was registered disabled and was in hospital when the supply was cut off. Her 15 year-old daughter was alone in the house without heating and hot water for nearly a month. The consumer was discharged from hospital to a cold house. Prior to the disconnection, her supplier had gone to court to obtain a warrant. The consumer was ordered to pay £22 a week by the court, despite receiving only £98 a week in benefits. Energywatch took up her case with the company, which eventually agreed to reconnect her supply and allowed her to pay her debt through the Fuel Direct scheme. Energywatch continued to negotiate on her behalf. Now she pays £2.80 a week towards her debt and £7.10 a week for gas, a payment level she is able to manage on her income.

That example illustrates two points about which I am concerned. If the new arrangements come into being, who will be the advocate in the immediate term with a customer, for example, who returns from hospital to a cold house? Will the same body continue to take the case to a satisfactory conclusion both for the consumer and the supplier, which would get its debt paid off? Getting this right is particularly important, which is why I have tabled this amendment. I beg to move.

This debate is important. After Second Reading, my noble friend sent a number of us a very helpful letter in which he covered some of these points. But it would be useful to get them on the record in public, because some of the points that the noble Baroness has raised are of significance. On vulnerable consumers, we are not concerned about only those who are formally disconnected, we are also concerned about this grey area of self-disconnection. There is nothing more disturbing than the self-congratulatory approach of the energy retailers when they say that they no longer disconnect anything like the horrendous numbers that a number of us used to have to contend with in days gone by. Now it is a rather more subtle process. It is self-disconnection by people who get themselves into financial difficulties, cannot cope and, by any stretch of the imagination, are vulnerable. Those individuals have got to be afforded a degree of protection as well. They very often fall through the net of concern that the electricity and gas retailers have. I use the word “net” advisedly, because it is not a blanket that will catch everyone. Too many people fall through it.

I would like to think that the definition of “vulnerability” will be a little sharper than in the past. The “discreet poor” are people who do not admit that they are in difficulties. But, with a wee bit of effort, energy retailers could go some way to discovering who they are and do something about them. These very often are people who only get in touch with Energywatch or Citizens Advice in the most fierce of extremis. They will need to know that there is a new revamped body. Electricity and gas bills should state clearly the easiest telephone numbers for these people to use for making contact. Therefore, in the context of this debate, it would be useful for “vulnerability” to be defined broadly and precisely. Vulnerable people are not just the folk who get switched off or who are in difficulty, they are also people who very quickly—for the best and, sometimes, the worst of reasons—get themselves into financial difficulties. We must try to help them as well. Sometimes, they are not on the books of the social services, the housing department or anyone else as being poor payers. It would be useful to have clear guidance as early as possible on the issue of vulnerability.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, for their contributions. Energywatch has obvious expertise and experience in dealing with very vulnerable customers, which was shown in the Energywatch example that was read out. Will that experience and expertise in dealing with these people be easily translated into the new NCC, if there is to be this great body? This concerns really vulnerable people. The life-threatening situation of not having gas and electricity is matched only by not having water, which is also life threatening when not readily available. Those of us who are able to pay our energy and water bills do not give too much thought to this discreet body of people. I fear the sensitivity of that group of people; as the noble Lord said, they do not want to admit that they are in this situation. A case involving a 15 year-old girl living for a month without heat or hot water was mentioned. Is it possible to put that experience and expertise into an organisation which has never had dealings on that level? Obviously, it may have dealt with vulnerable customers who have fallen into debt, but these cases are life-threatening. This is probably the wrong time to interject, but we have to be very mindful of whether the Government are right to put Energywatch in this organisation.

I acknowledge and empathise with the case given by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, which is food for thought. I agree absolutely with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, that these issues are of great concern. The role of Energywatch in dealing with disconnections will be transferred to the new NCC. A clear objective of the new council is that it will retain the expertise from the current body. The work that goes on now in Energywatch and Postwatch will be transferred to the new body.

As regards the vulnerable consumer and the points raised by my noble friend Lord O’Neill, which I take on board, this is a new statute with a new definition. The definition does not have to be interpreted in the light of previous definitions, although they may be helpful. The words have their ordinary meaning. We want to leave it to the council to interpret what is meant by “vulnerable consumer”; there is no legalistic framework. Amendment No. 53 would add after the word “vulnerable” in Clause 11 the words “or otherwise disadvantaged”. I recognise the intention behind the amendment, but I consider that the term “vulnerable” provides the necessary flexibility for the council to interpret such cases in accordance with changing circumstances and developing views on how to define those in greatest need in society.

Also under Clause 11, Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would place the council under a duty, rather than providing a power, to investigate a complaint by a designated consumer and to provide advice and make representations where it appeared to the council that it was appropriate to do so. This would be onerous because the council might decide that the complaint could be dealt with more effectively by another party under Clauses 13 or 14, for example.

Amendment No. 65 to Clause 12 would expand the list of complaints by consumers to be assisted by the council in circumstances involving a disconnection of premises from the supply of electricity or gas. I am sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment, referred to eloquently by the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord O’Neill, and we will need to consider what can be done about this issue. However, for the time being, for the reasons I have given, I must resist the amendments.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, for their contributions to this debate. I am left wondering whether guidance is needed on the word “vulnerable” and whether the Government are going to define it in the Bill. I can understand why they might not want to do so but this matter could be subject to a requirement for the Minister to issue guidance. Perhaps I may leave that thought with him and we shall see whether he is minded to introduce such a provision on Report. If not, perhaps we will bring forward an amendment.

On the other issue, the Minister made me feel slightly more worried. Consumers would fear that they would go to the NCC with an acute or ongoing problem and then, as the Minister said, they might be covered by Clause 13, which is headed “Reference of matters to the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”. But that is exactly what consumers do not want—they do not want to ring one number and be passed to another body. You explain your case and then they hum and haw over it and say, “Well, actually, I think that’s for the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”. The strength of Energywatch is that it takes the case and deals with it. If passing this legislation means that consumers will receive a lesser service in which there is more buck-passing, we shall definitely be doing them a disservice. However, I shall read carefully what the Minister said and, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 54 to 63 not moved.]

Page 7, line 23, at end insert-

“( ) Where it appears to the Council to be appropriate to do so, the Council may enter into arrangements with other persons in order to exercise the power conferred by subsection (4).”

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 66, 69 and 71 in my name. When I looked at this matter, my mind went back to Christmas 1980, when I returned to Scotland with a virginal copy of the Education (Scotland) Bill. My job was to fillet it and produce amendments for Committee with the express intention of keeping the Government as far away as possible from securing the legislation. In those days, new Front-Benchers had to undergo a kind of D101 course, which said, “When you see ‘may’, put in ‘shall’; when you see ‘three months’, put in ‘six months’; when you see such and such, change it”. I am almost embarrassed at the way in which I am introducing these amendments today because, in many instances, I am repeating what I did 26 years ago, and I feel that I should be doing something better with my time.

The fact is that these amendments have some express purpose, which is not particularly irrelevant or a waste of the Committee’s time. Amendments Nos. 64 and 69 afford to the National Consumer Council a degree of flexibility that the legislation as drafted appears not to; that is, to find the best way to fulfil and deliver the functions. It affords the National Consumer Council the opportunity to subcontract some of the responsibilities to other bodies. Perhaps I should declare an interest as the president of Energy Action Scotland and the vice-president of National Energy Action, which are two bodies that are engaged in the fuel poverty lobby and which conduct, in their own ways, a great deal of research, the kind of research that is sometimes subcontracted by government and other bodies. There are specialist bodies that have a rather narrower focus than the NCC, and the NCC might well need some form of specialist advice, particularly in other areas, such as public inquiries and consumer complaints.

Amendments Nos. 70 and 71 are of a slightly different order. We have been trying to impose burdens on the NCC today. This is a kind of softening of the obligation in the sense that in proposing the amendment it is not reasonable in every instance for the NCC to be required by the Government to do things. It should not be the creature of the Government. It is intended, as I understand it from the legislation, to be an arm’s-length satellite body. As a consequence, I am not sure that it necessarily should be required or demanded by the Government to produce reports. A polite asking rather than a demand might be appropriate in this instance. Having said that, if we are going to have a relationship between the Government and the NCC for research purposes, there is nothing more frustrating for bodies such as the NCC to produce erudite, well thought-out, clearly expounded reports and then discover that they lie gathering dust in government departments, and that what will be a late summer becomes an early autumn becomes a “just before Christmas” type of publication.

Having been for some 10 years the chairman of a Select Committee, one of the consolations that I had was that maybe the Government would not always agree with what we said, but they had to respond to it within something like six to eight weeks, or we would create hell and they would be rather embarrassed. Therefore, if the Secretary of State asks the NCC to produce a report, there ought to be a duty to publish it within a reasonable timescale. That is the burden of Amendment No. 71.

We have these four amendments, two affording a degree of flexibility to the NCC and the other two enabling it to have a perhaps slightly less onerous relationship with the Secretary of State; but at the same time not letting the Secretary of State off the hook when reports have been asked for, agreed to and produced and then we find that there is problem with publication. I would like to think that the Minister will be able to tell us that such a thought would be so far from the Government’s mind—certainly in relation to the last amendment—that it is unnecessary, but some of us, through bitter experience perhaps, have more than an iota of cynicism on these matters. Unless it is written down and the hands are nailed to the table, we are not convinced that they will necessarily produce the reports that an independent body such as the NCC would perhaps produce in all honesty, but might cause the Government a bit of embarrassment to publish. So we think this amendment is necessary. The amendments are both flexible towards the National Consumer Council and requiring the Government to assist the NCC as well. I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively. I beg to move.

Not for the first time today, my amendments are grouped with those of the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill. I shall speak to Amendment No. 83 and oppose the Questions that Clauses 20, 21 and 22 stand part of the Bill. This group of amendments contains both probing amendments and amendments which would make a valuable, substantive change to the functions of the National Consumer Council.

I read Clauses 20, 21 and 22 with some trepidation. While the principle of each clause seems positive, a closer reading of their provisions gives rise to concern. Clause 20 gives the National Consumer Council the power to “co-operate … and give assistance”, while Clause 21 allows it to undertake “voluntary activities”. I cannot see why providing for the NCC to undertake voluntary activities should preclude it from co-operating and giving assistance. I would have thought that the one includes the other. In the light of the wide-ranging provisions of Clause 21, will the Minister explain why it is necessary to include Clause 20?

Perhaps his explanation will touch on the real purpose of Clause 21. It is entitled “Voluntary activities”, yet the Explanatory Notes state:

“This clause is intended to enable the Council to undertake paid work or other work for other persons”.

Clause 21 enables the NCC to,

“make such charges as it thinks fit in respect of anything done in exercise of its powers under this section”—

which is to say that the National Consumer Council can charge anybody for providing advice or assistance, research work undertaken—or, most interestingly to me,

“in the exploitation of commercial opportunities arising from the activities it carries on in the exercise of its functions”.

The clause stand part Questions are probing. I would not wish to curtail the healthy engagement of the NCC in business or prevent it making useful alliances with private businesses. Where private investment can lessen the use of public funding or where industry can sustain the NCC's work, providing it with an invaluable insight into the needs and wishes of consumers, I should be glad to see that arrangement working effectively. However, the wording of Clause 21 is alarming. In the context of the Government's record to date on appointments made to the Big Lottery Fund, as my noble friend Lord De Mauley illustrated earlier, and the possibility of using NDPBs as a useful arm of government for publicity, I am concerned that Clause 21(3) will be too wide. Under it, the NCC will be permitted to spend,

“such sums as it considers reasonable in the exploitation of commercial opportunities'.

While it is important that the National Consumer Council is able to retain independence and autonomy of management, subsection (3) seems to provide an opportunity for extensive spending on advertising. I am concerned that such a close alliance with both government and the commercial world could change the NCC's current, non-partisan perspective. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister were to put on record exactly what the two clauses are intended to achieve and how they will contribute to the NCC’s new status or maintain its current standards.

Amendment No. 83 provides a more detailed suggestion of how the actions of the NCC under Clause 21 could be more accountable. It would ensure that where the NCC proposed to acquire an interest in an existing body corporate, the Secretary of State would have to give his or her approval.

It is important to recognise the implications of transforming a once-independent body into one associated with the Government. I do not wish to curtail the independence of the NCC—I do not believe that this amendment would do that—but I wish to highlight the importance of ensuring that the functions of a body which is funded, even if in part, by the taxpayer and formally associated with the Government are transparent.

Clause 22 stand part probes how the NCC’s assets will be managed. The Explanatory Notes inform us that the properties of Postwatch and Energywatch will be able to be transferred to the NCC, and that the NCC will not be able to acquire new properties without the consent of the Secretary of State. Will the National Consumer Council have to petition the Secretary of State in order to change office buildings or expand and will the status of the new NCC’s assets be available as public information? Clause 22(1) states that the National Consumer Council,

“may do anything (other than borrow money) which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the exercise of any of its functions”.

Will the Minister expand on what is meant by the NCC’s doing “anything” in the carrying out of its functions?

I am grateful to Members of the Committee for their patience in the debate so far. I am sorry to have taken so long on this amendment. It is important to clarify these matters at this stage. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to how that will inform the amendments which, I may bring back on Report.

The noble Lord raised some very interesting points on these amendments. We have entered the territory of what really is independence and what needs to be approved by the Secretary of State, who has quite some say in the tone of the National Consumer Council under Schedule 1 because he appoints the chairman. Therefore, no doubt he will be assured of the probity of the person he is appointing and, presumably, his or her judgement. How people are appointed and the terms of their reappointments, and so on, has a lot of bearing on a number of these so-called independent bodies, some of which are a lot more independent than others. The NCC, under the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is probably very independent, knowing how independent-minded he is. Nevertheless, this needs further explanation from the Government. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for putting down her amendment.

Amendment Nos. 64 and 66, in the name of my noble friend Lord O’Neill, would permit the council—where it considered it appropriate—to enter arrangements with other persons to exercise certain powers in the investigation of complaints. Clause 20 provides the council with powers to make arrangements to co-operate with and give assistance to any person if that will facilitate the exercise of its own functions. The amendments are therefore not required.

The amendments to Clauses 17 to 22 relate to the other functions of the council. These amendments fall into two distinct parts. One category relates to the council’s powers and how they affect the way in which it carries out its functions; another category relates to the Secretary of State’s interactions with the council. On the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, the whole point of the new NCC is that it will be at arm’s length from the Government and therefore independent from it. The second category of amendments includes Amendments Nos. 69 and 71. In practice, it is likely that the Secretary of State will work closely with the council and, hence, these amendments will have no material effect.

Clause 19 requires the council to enter into co-operation agreements with certain named parties, and it provides power for the Secretary of State to make an order to designate additional parties for that purpose.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, spoke about Clause 20. It is important that this clause stands part of the Bill because it allows the council to co-operate with, or give assistance to, others in the course of exercising its own functions. It enables the council to co-operate with bodies of its own choosing outside the category of designated bodies with which it must enter into co-operation arrangements under Clause 19. The council would be able to take a view on which bodies it needed to work closely with in relation to progressing its functions. The nature, frequency and extent of co-operation would be a matter for the parties concerned, pitched at the right level to fit in with the pursuit of the council’s own interests and the assistance that it can offer others.

Likewise, Clause 21 provides the council with the power to carry out commissioned work in any areas where it has skill, experience or expertise. This clause must stand part of the Bill because it enables the council to give advice or assistance to others and be paid for providing that service. I hope that the noble Baroness is in favour of that principle. This provision is intended to give the council the power to participate in voluntary activities of its own choosing and to receive remuneration for the services provided. Amendment No. 83 would require the prior approval of the Secretary of State before the council could acquire an interest in a body corporate for the purposes of exercising functions of the council under Clause 21. I do not consider these steps to be necessary and therefore am unable to accept the amendment. I should also mention that the annual report and accounts and so on of the NCC will be published and audited.

Clause 22 provides the council with the supplementary powers that it needs in exercising its functions, and this clause must stand part of the Bill. It gives the council the power to do whatever is needed, apart from borrowing money, in the interest of performing its functions. For example, it enables the council to enter into general contracts for administration and other related issues. Amendment No. 86 would therefore have no effect. For the reasons I have given, I resist the amendments and stress that Clauses 20, 21, and 22 should stand part of the Bill.

The amendments in my name are of a probing nature. I am not wholly satisfied with everything that the Minister has said but, as it is getting near to Christmas, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment, although other noble Lords may pick them up at a later stage. I thank the Minister for his response and I welcome the support given by colleagues in the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Investigation of complaints relating to disconnection of gas or electricity]:

[Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

We have not dealt with Amendment No. 69, which I understand will not be moved. I was given to understand indirectly that we were going to close at Amendment No. 69 because there were no other amendments to be moved in this group. There were some clauses to speak to but no amendments. Perhaps someone could clarify the position for the Chair.

Perhaps I can do that. I think that we were intending to stop immediately prior to the group starting with Amendment No. 70. I am not sure whether that includes the two clauses.

I apologise for that. I was told that we were going to stop but there has obviously been a misunderstanding. I shall now speak to Clause—

I apologise; it is completely my fault. We were due to stop after Amendment No. 69. Perhaps if we are there—

I am sorry. We have not reached Amendment No. 69; we have just dealt with Clause 12. According to the groupings list, we still have to deal with Clauses 13 to 15; Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 will probably not be moved; then there is Clause 16 and Amendment No. 69, which will not be moved. Are we taking those clauses and amendments or are we finishing at the end of Clause 12?

I think that this may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Tuesday 9 January 2007 at 3.30 pm.