House of Lords
Tuesday, 30 January 2007.
The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Civil Service: EU Nationals
My Lords, the EC treaty guarantees to workers from each member state the right freely to reside and take up employment in other member states. In the United Kingdom, the European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 and the European Economic Area Act 1993 had the effect of opening up Crown employment to nationals of the European economic area with the exception of those posts requiring special allegiance to the state, which are reserved for UK nationals.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Northern Ireland Office claims that EU legislation requires it to open up the latter posts, requiring special allegiance, to Irish nationals, as agreed at the recent meeting at St Andrews. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is small, with little interchange with the rest of the United Kingdom, but it has nevertheless maintained its ethos and integrity during difficult times. As it now faces a unique challenge in its future political masters, this is not the time for competition from a larger body which does not share the same ethos, particularly on political independence. Nor would such a change be consistent with the Good Friday agreement. Does the Minister not agree that the parachuting-in of Ministers with no organic connection with Northern Ireland society should not now be replaced by parachuting in similarly handicapped Permanent Secretaries with potentially conflicting interests?
My Lords, the Permanent Secretary, for one, would be a reserved post, so there would be no question of “parachuting in”. I recognise the implications for Northern Ireland. What is at stake for the British Civil Service, however, is the ability to tap into the pool of talent represented by those from other countries who have the right to live and work here, and increasing the availability of such people for posts in the Civil Service while recognising that certain posts and functions, such as the Security Service, will necessarily be reserved for British nationals.
My Lords, would it not be a serious mistake to isolate Northern Ireland from Civil Service developments elsewhere? I have always had my doubts about the advantages of the 1922 restrictions limiting access to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The people of Northern Ireland deserve, and are able to get, the best people for the best job, wherever they come from in the UK and the European Union.
My Lords, my noble friend is knowledgeable about Northern Ireland. He will recognise that that kind of thinking led the Prime Minister to say in October that he thought it timely that we regularised the rules on aliens seeking opportunities in the Civil Service, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That is why an Order in Council is being proposed, which will be subject to parliamentary consideration, to give effect to this.
My Lords, I recognise that there is broader issue for the British Civil Service as a whole, but does the Minister accept that we on these Benches welcome the open attitude of Her Majesty’s Government to recruiting to major Whitehall departments nationals from other EU member states, some of whom rise to quite senior positions? There is no question of mixed loyalties. Could not the same open principle be progressively applied to Northern Ireland? It is not just a question of southern Irish nationals, but others from elsewhere in the European Union. We read in the newspapers, for example, that some of the Catholics joining the Police Service of Northern Ireland are Polish.
My Lords, the Order in Council will apply to Northern Ireland as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom. Individuals will be chosen on their merits and will be selected in accordance with the Civil Service rules on selection. We are conscious that 79,000 posts in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs out of 97,000 public service posts in the Civil Service are reserved. That does not make a great deal of sense when we need to fill the posts with people with the requisite talent and ability; and that is why the order is being introduced.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that a massive number of skills are necessary across the Civil Service. At the highest level, the Civil Service examinations are regarded as among the most testing in the country, but at lower levels, different tests are applied. I assure the House that anyone who applies for a Civil Service post will be treated fairly, but he or she will get the post only if they merit it.
My Lords, should we not pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for his enormous contribution to trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland? Is it not a great shame that he was not there to see his efforts come to full fruition? While we are doing that, can we not find it within our hearts to praise the Prime Minister for keeping at this most difficult of tasks?
EU: Mobile Telephones
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have supported the European Commission’s objective of reducing the cost of international mobile roaming phone calls for consumers in Europe. In order to ensure that this objective is achieved, we have worked closely with the European Commission, other member states and the European Parliament. Our aim is to achieve a solution that is beneficial for consumers, will maintain competition and innovation in this important sector, and is practical to implement. We have received considerable support and co-operation from other member states in working towards this goal and look forward to that continuing. We think that an agreement on the regulation is possible before the summer.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he will be well aware, a handful of operators have great power in the European mobile telephone market. Like many other noble Lords who have made calls abroad or called home from abroad, I have been astounded by some of the extortionate charges that appeared on my bill the next month. Do the Government really intend to back this legislative instrument laid down by the Commission, or is the intention to dilute its present form?
My Lords, we support the development of this regulation and hope, as I said, to have agreement by June. The proposals, which we support, are anticipated to cut the cost of mobile roaming calls by about 40 to 60 per cent. We are proposing a package that includes a wholesale cap on prices, a consumer protection tariff and an average retail target.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the rapid expansion of low-cost Voice over Internet Protocol services will automatically force phone companies to reduce costs because they are provided free over the internet using both computers and, increasingly, mobile phones? Without any interference from the EU, that will happen.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House has just begun an inquiry into mobile phone international charges and hopes to report before Easter? Will he therefore talk to the business managers and seek to ensure that there is a debate in this House before the European Parliament votes? That is not normally the situation with debates on Select Committee reports, which normally occur after the horse has bolted.
My Lords, I declare an interest in the same inquiry and the same sub-committee. Will the Minister renew the Government’s congratulations to the European Commission? After it announced this investigation into roaming charges, three companies are abolishing the charges and two more are substantially reducing them. The Commission has now announced a drive against excessive bank charges on cards and accounts and to ordinary customers. Will the Government act in the same way with the Commission on the bank inquiry as well?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a 40 to 60 per cent reduction in charges is much too little? My last bill was £7.50 for downloading just 1 megabyte, which is nothing these days. Surely the Government need to do much more to get charges down to a competitive rate.
My Lords, that is what we are currently discussing in negotiating the reductions. We need to ensure that the industry remains competitive, and there is a wide range of tariffs to give consumers a choice, but of course we want to achieve the best result we can.
My Lords, on a day on which Mr Sarkozy is campaigning for the French elections among 300,000 French citizens and voters in London, and when we already have perhaps the same number of British citizens living or owning homes in France, is it not time to pay much more attention to reducing the cost of all these types of cross-border transactions?
London: Congestion Charge
My Lords, implementation of the central London congestion charging scheme, including any extension to the scheme, and associated monitoring are matters for Transport for London and the mayor. The department continues to monitor with interest the impact of the scheme and its development.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree—following the departmental scrutiny to which he referred, I hope that he does—that one aspect of the congestion charge remains unjust? That is the arrangement by which those of us who pay in advance and then for perfectly good reasons sometimes do not enter the congestion charge area have no means of getting a refund or even of transferring the payment to another day. Some people, especially those who pay weekly in advance, suffer seriously from that difficulty. Will the Minister draw that matter to the attention of the mayor?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that Transport for London has already said that congestion will increase with the increase in the zone and that there will not be adequate recompense from the extension to the congestion zone? In view of that, what is the Minister's view of road pricing in general and specifically in central London?
My Lords, I am slightly surprised by the noble Baroness's comments on the impact of the western extension. The data presented to us suggest that congestion in the area will fall by about 15 to 20 per cent and that traffic will be reduced by about 13 to 17 per cent, so there will be the beneficial impact of reduced CO2 emissions, particulate emissions and nitrous oxide emissions. On those grounds, the scheme is clearly beneficial. I do not accept at all the noble Baroness's presumptions.
My Lords, what progress are the Government making generally on road pricing, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred, and, in particular, lorry use charging, especially for foreign lorries, which pay nothing to use our roads? The state of repair of those lorries is awful. The latest VOSA report shows that 42.7 per cent of lorries with trailers stopped by VOSA were unroadworthy. That scandal should be tackled.
My Lords, I certainly accept the noble Lord’s concern; the department is giving it close attention. The noble Lord followed up what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said about national road pricing schemes. We continue to monitor how congestion charging is working. We believe that a national road pricing scheme would be a very significant move forward, but we gain valuable practical experience from local schemes and want to continue monitoring those before we make any further policy developments in that area.
My Lords, as Mr Livingstone has ignored the representations made by Wandsworth Borough Council about the added congestion, the great inconvenience and serious environmental damage that will be caused as traffic from the west is forced to travel several extra miles to cross the river at Chelsea Bridge, have the Government any powers to intervene to prevent that and many other wholly avoidable consequences of an ill thought-out scheme?
My Lords, I know that the party opposite takes exception to the development of congestion charging. It made lots of allegations about the potential impact when the scheme was introduced back in 2003. Many of those attacks have not been found to be absolutely accurate. We think that the scheme is working extremely well and look forward to watching carefully how the extension works.
My Lords, one of the benefits of the congestion charge has been a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the road, which has major environmental benefits. The Department for Transport seems lacking in its promotion of things to do with bicycles, although Transport for London has done a great deal of work. What are the Government doing to educate the Department for Transport in the benefits of bicycling?
My Lords, I thought it was now a given that people were very keen to get on their bike and travel in central London. The Leader of the Opposition is very keen on cycling, as are we. I like cycling; lots of people cycle in Brighton. So, yes, we are very enthusiastic about cycling; we are pleased to see that it is more widespread.
My Lords, did the Minister see the No. 10 website this morning and the number of people who have signed the petition against road pricing, which now stands at 610,000? Will the Government take some notice of that petition, and if not, why not?
My Lords, I look at the No. 10 website from time to time. I always find it an instructive, learning experience. I am aware of the petition to which the noble Lord has referred, but I think we have to look at the bigger picture. Clearly there have been many benefits, not least the increased use of public transport and a reduction in pollution in central London as a result of congestion charging. As I said, we shall continue to monitor and support the scheme as it is.
My Lords, the Minister has not really answered the point made by my noble friend Lady Hanham. The Government announced earlier that they would introduce an enabling Bill on road charging, which somehow seems to have got lost. The Minister might like to comment on that. Surely if they did have such a Bill, it might be better to abandon congestion charging in London and go ahead with road charging, which would levy variable charges in various parts. As the Government are so keen on those charges for London, it would be better to have variable charging according to congestion in that area. Perhaps the Minister could comment properly rather than give an evasive answer.
My Lords, I have not been evasive; I have tried to provide as much policy information as possible. Clearly we have a policy disagreement here. The noble Lord and his party dislike the congestion charge. We think it is working well, and we continue to support the mayor and his efforts.
My Lords, when my noble friend is next in conversation with the Mayor of London, which clearly he needs to be as a result of this exchange, could he ask him how many people will become exempt from paying the congestion charge as a result of the extension of the congestion charge area? It would also be very interesting to know, although I doubt the information is available, how many of those people drive the so-called Chelsea tractors.
Taxation: Air Passenger Duty
My Lords, we have counsel’s opinion that, unless and until Parliament actually approves the air passenger duty increases retrospectively, there is no obligation on the airlines to pay. It is therefore unsurprising that passengers are confused about whether they will have to pay the extra tax if the airlines ask for it. Will the Minister give clear advice from the Government to airline passengers when they turn up to fly from Thursday morning onwards? Should they pay the tax or not?
My Lords, it is the airlines which will pay the tax. They must decide whether to absorb the tax or to charge passengers. Is the requirement legal? Of course it is. Anti-avoidance measures that deal with illegality generally follow this form—namely, there is an announcement with immediate effect—otherwise they would not be effective. Other measures similar to the airline passenger duty have also been announced. Last year, the oil companies were subject to an additional tax in exactly the measure applied to the airlines.
My Lords, my noble friend is well versed on taxation and will recognise that it can produce a dual benefit. It can increase resources for deployment on public transport and other environmentally worthy measures. It can also reduce demand because of the price increase. We estimate that by 2010, 0.75 million tonnes of carbon per year will have been reduced through the air passenger duty.
My Lords, this Government intend, as one of their crucial strategies for dealing with climate change, to increase the use of public transport. We will invest the resources available from APD in environmental measures and in increasing public transport. In the three years since 2004, we have increased in real terms expenditure on public transport by 4.5 per cent.
My Lords, as I indicated, it is the airlines which are legally obliged to pay the tax. We are aware that the airlines have been concerned about how the tax has been imposed, but I have not yet heard any airline suggest that it would test the matter in court. If any did, there are precedents against it.
My Lords, the Minister has just stated that this tax will reduce the amount of carbon emitted by airlines, but this is on the same day that the second runway has been announced at Stansted. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s policy seems to be to raise revenue for this, but at the same time to increase the number of flights over British airspace?
My Lords, we have to strike a balance. I hear the Liberal Democrats laughing, but do they take seriously this proposition? We have to strike a balance between the necessary growth of the economy and the wishes of the people regarding aviation. There must be a balance between that and pursuing measures which guarantee that Britain fulfils its role in reducing areas of climate change and carbon emissions. The Government are on a strategy to do that. We can certainly see an increase in aviation, which, the noble Lord will understand, makes a very small contribution to emissions: 2.5 per cent of our total emissions. I would expect the Liberal Democrats to recognise that that is relatively small compared with other aspects that we have to tackle. We have to strike a balance between that and the needs of the economy.
My Lords, the noble Lord has been good enough to almost answer my question. Instead of making the airlines a whipping boy, would it not be more sensible to tackle the real causes of CO2, which are carbon fuels, and to try increasingly to make this, like France, an all-electric country? We could have electric trains, and electric heating and lighting, for which we have the technology already. If we were to go nuclear we could reduce CO2 emissions by so much that we would not have to restrict the cheapest and best form of travel of the 21st century by overregulation. There are better ways of tackling climate change than just fiddling on the periphery.
My Lords, tackling aviation is not fiddling on the periphery because aviation emissions are set to increase unless the expansion of air travel is moderated. Of course, air passenger duty will play a small part in that. I agree with the noble Lord that there are other areas vastly more important than aviation, which is why the Government are committed to pursuing strategies that deal with the big sources of emission.
My Lords, I do not disagree with the principle of increasing air passenger duty as a contribution to controlling climate change, but has my noble friend any comment to offer about the letter a number of Members of the House have received from the Association of Independent Tour Operators pointing out that, while the airlines are able to impose a surcharge to meet the increased duty, tour operators are bound by the European Union package travel directive and effectively prevented from doing so? As a result, they are being discriminated against. I declare an interest as the chairman of a consultancy that advises the travel industry.
My Lords, we recognise that there are some difficulties for the tourist industry as a consequence of the tax. British Airways, for example, is absorbing the tax and thus putting itself in the same position as tour operators. For most travel within Europe, which constitutes the vast bulk of travel affected by the tax, the sums involved will not be massive. However, my noble friend has articulated the need to deal with climate change and will recognise that, while the tax is marginal to that, it is nevertheless a contributory factor and sends a signal to people.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, a Statement will be repeated later today. My noble friend Lord Davies will be on his feet again to repeat a Statement on the Casino Advisory Panel report. The Statement will be taken at a convenient time after 5 pm.
Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill
Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.
Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]
Clause 1 [The National Consumer Council and its territorial committees]:
1: Clause 1 , page 2, line 2, at end insert—
“(3A) The territorial committees may exercise, on behalf of the Council, the following functions—
(a) in the case of the Scottish Consumer Council, the Council’s functions under sections 7 to 16, 18 and 20 to 25, so far as they are exercisable in relation to Scotland; (b) in the case of the Welsh Consumer Council, the Council’s functions under those sections, so far as they are exercisable in relation to Wales; (c) in the case of the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee— (i) the Council’s functions under sections 7 to 11, 14 to 16, 18, 20 and 22 to 25 so far as they are exercisable in relation to Northern Ireland, and (ii) the Council’s functions under section 21 so far as they are exercisable in relation to consumer matters which relate to relevant postal services in relation to Northern Ireland. (3B) For the purpose of facilitating or improving co-ordination in relation to the carrying out of its functions, the Council may from time to time—
(a) impose restrictions or conditions on the exercise by a territorial committee of a function by virtue of subsection (3A); (b) give a territorial committee general or specific directions relating to the exercise of a function by virtue of that subsection. (3C) Nothing in subsection (3A) prevents the Council from exercising any of its functions referred to in that subsection.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to speak to the government amendments to Clauses 1 and 37. In so doing I wish to acknowledge the thoughtful and incisive contributions made in Committee by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer and Lady O’Cathain, and my noble friends Lord Williams of Elvel, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, Lord Borrie and Lord Whitty. I am grateful to noble Lords for the constructive way in which they have conducted all our deliberations on the Bill.
We have considered carefully the points made in respect of the functions to be accorded to the Scottish Consumer Council, the Welsh Consumer Council and the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee. The amendments to Clause 1 are designed to provide the territorial committees with the power to exercise the key functions of the council and to enable the committees to exercise these functions within their relevant territories. In defining the functions to be given to the territorial committees under this amendment, I believe that we have gone further than some noble Lords may have envisaged in Committee where there was a focus on the core functions described in the Bill: the representative function, the research function and the information function, as provided in Clauses 7 to 9. This amendment provides these functions to the Scottish Consumer Council and the Welsh Consumer Council, and in addition provides the committees with the powers of investigation set out in Clauses 10 to 15 inclusive, the power to prepare and publish reports in Clause 16, the function of providing advice, information and guidance in Clause 18, the power to co-operate and give assistance in Clause 20, the power to undertake voluntary activities in Clause 21 and the supplementary powers set out in Clause 22. Information gathering powers in Clauses 23 to 26 are also provided to these territorial committees.
The powers given to the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee also extend to the core functions described in the Bill: the representative function, the research function and the information function as provided in Clauses 7 to 9. In addition, the committee is provided with the powers of investigation in Clauses 10 and 11, the function of referring matters to the Postal Services Commission in Clause 14, the function in Clause 15 of making investigations into public post offices, the power to make reports in Clause 16, the provision of advice, information and guidance contained in Clause 18, the power to co-operate and give assistance in Clause 20 and the supplementary powers and information functions described in Clauses 22 to 25.
The committee will also be able to exercise the functions of the council under Clause 21—voluntary activities—in relation to relevant postal services in Northern Ireland. In addition, the amendments provide for the council to facilitate or improve co-ordination between the council and the Scottish and Welsh Consumer Councils and the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee by imposing restrictions or conditions on the territorial committees’ exercise of functions and giving directions relating to the exercise of any function to the territorial committees.
There are very few instances where the functions of the council are not exercisable by the territorial committees and I should like to take this opportunity to explain to your Lordships’ House why this should be. First, in Clauses 4 to 6 there is an obligation for the council to provide a statutory forward work programme and annual report. It is anticipated that the territorial committees will have a very important role in the production of both the forward work programme and the annual report, which will incorporate their proposed activities and reported activities as appropriate and as agreed with the council. Consequently the statutory requirement would remain unchanged by the amendment.
Secondly, Clause 19 imposes a duty on the council to enter into co-operation agreements with designated bodies, including the Office of Fair Trading, the Financial Services Consumer Panel and the Ofcom Consumer Panel. We do not consider it necessary or desirable to replicate that requirement for each territorial committee because it would be unduly cumbersome to have a multiplicity of co-operation arrangements.
Thirdly, there is a function of the council in Clause 26 to provide information where required to do so by an authorised person. I hope noble Lords will agree that it would be onerous for the person making the request to be required to make the request for information to the council and each of its territorial committees. For that reason we have not provided that function to the territorial committees.
The amendments include a proposal to divide Clause 1 into two clauses for the sake of clarity, which I hope will find favour with noble Lords. Amendment No. 42 represents a consequential change to Clause 37 reflecting the proposed allocation of functions to the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for at least listening to the arguments that my noble friend Lord O’Neill and I put forward in Grand Committee. I am advised that the amendments go at least three-quarters of the way towards what the Welsh Consumer Council wanted. I am informed by my noble friend Lord O’Neill that the Scots take the same view.
I have a slight problem with the proposed new subsection (3A) in Amendment No. 1. This allows the national council to impose restrictions or conditions on the exercise of a function by a territorial committee by virtue of subsection (3A). In other words, the national council can at any time more or less pull the plug. I should be grateful if my noble friend, when he winds up, will explore with us exactly what that means.
My Lords, I was not able to take part in the proceedings so far on the Bill but I have read them with interest. The Minister has virtually rewritten this part of the Bill. Why on earth did the Government pay so little attention to the requirements of devolution that they did not do a lot of this in the first place? It seems to be an extraordinary waste of parliamentary time. Nevertheless, it is excellent that he has listened to the arguments and I am sure that everyone will be grateful for it.
My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister knows, in line with the noble Baroness’s comments, there is more joy in this House for one sinner that repenteth. I was worried initially about the clauses on devolution but the discussions the department has had with Welsh and Scottish interests in the mean time have led to a very good solution which largely reflects the practice that has been conducted, informally and without statutory basis, by the National Consumer Council and its Welsh and Scottish counterparts over the past few years. In that sense, the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Williams may be slightly exaggerated. In practice, this reflects how the Welsh council operates now and how an expanded body would operate in the future. It is a very successful conclusion of this part of the Bill.
My Lords, the correspondence I have had with the Scottish Consumer Council representatives “as is” tends to suggest that they are very happy with the outcome of these discussions. It is to the Minister’s credit that he took on board the anxieties of a number of us and the consumer councils in Scotland and Wales. They will now be able to operate effectively with the devolved Assembly and Parliament. How successful these things are will depend on experience, but the constructive approach adopted by the Minister is certainly giving the proposal a fair wind. My colleagues in Scotland are sympathetic to his intentions and objectives.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Whitty and Lord O’Neill for their kind words and to my noble friend Lord Williams for his conditional kind words, saying that we have gone a long way to meeting the points he raised in Committee.
New subsection (3A), which my noble friend Lord Williams mentioned, is about co-ordinating issues and consumer representation that transcend national boundaries. There is no attempt to rule from the centre, as it were. Individual councils will have the full role that is intended in the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, the department has been in contact with the consumer councils in Scotland and Wales, and they have supported these amendments fully.
To respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, we have moved on these points, but then that just shows that Members of the Grand Committee were doing their job. They made their points; we took them on board and brought forward these amendments as a result.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
2: Clause 1, page 2, leave out line 3 and insert—
“(4) A territorial committee also has the following purposes—”
3: Clause 1, Divide Clause 1 into two clauses, the first (Establishment of the National Consumer Council and its territorial committees) to consist of subsections (1) to (3) and (5) and the second (The territorial committees) to consist of subsections (3A) to (4)
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 2 [“Consumer” and “consumer matters”]:
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 25, at end insert—
“( ) a “consumer” includes a person who purchases, uses or receives goods or services for the purpose of their own business;”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I return to this amendment following Committee, in part because I am still not wholly satisfied with the Minister’s answer, and in part because I believe that getting sole traders and small businesses involved in the context of the National Consumer Council will be a huge challenge. That challenge should be addressed by the provisions of the Bill.
It is important to remember that our existing legislation has not normally treated sole traders and small businesses as consumers. The Federation of Small Businesses raised its concerns in 2002 in its response to the European Commission’s Green Paper on consumer protection regarding the then forthcoming unfair commercial practices directive. It raised many detailed objections to the directive, the main theme of which was that the Green Paper failed to understand the pressures faced by small businesses, and that it overestimated their capacity. It stated that,
“we are frightened that failure to include small businesses within the EU definition will lead to the removal of these protections at the national level”.
Small businesses rely on postal services and, especially, on energy provision. Where they are let down by their providers, their whole businesses can be threatened. Energywatch and the Federation of Small Businesses have launched a campaign to get better treatment of small businesses as consumers. I am concerned that if small businesses are not specified as consumers, they will be neglected.
The Minister’s response to the amendment in Committee did not quite answer the point. He merely stated:
“The definition of consumer in the Bill deliberately does not exclude any class of consumer”.—[Official Report, 18/12/06; col. GC170.]
Yet I am sure he will acknowledge that merely omitting a reference to sole traders and small businesses as not themselves covered by the Bill does not endorse them as consumers. The implication of what he said is that he is concerned about specifically including them on grounds that to do so would beg the question of who else must then be specified. But who else would need to be specified?
We have the perfect opportunity to clarify in the Bill the inclusive nature of the NCC. It is vital that sole traders and small businesses are aware that they are considered entirely valid users of Consumer Direct. We highlighted in Committee how important it is for small business and sole traders to correct problems such as energy disconnection as soon as possible for the sake of their businesses and livelihoods.
I hope that the Minister will accept the principle behind the amendment. If he cannot accept it in its present form, I hope that he will come back at Third Reading with a form of words, perhaps with an enabling definition, which would make this clear to both the NCC and the sole-trader and small-business consumer. I beg to move.
My Lords, I question the usefulness and desirability of the amendment. Indeed, I am rather surprised that the Opposition have brought it forward again on Report in more or less the same form as it was in Grand Committee. When the amendment was moved in Grand Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, she said, as did the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, today, that it was intended to ensure that sole traders and small businesses are considered consumers for the purposes of the National Consumer Council. However, even at a glance, it can be seen that the amendment is not confined to sole traders and small businesses; it is wide enough to cover the largest of corporations, whether they are ICI or Tesco, buying things for their own business.
I am surprised that noble Lords on the Opposition Front Bench, which today includes the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is a distinguished former chairman of the NCC, consider that the National Consumer Council should spend any of its time looking after the interests of our major corporations, which are surely well capable of looking after themselves through their adequate legal staff and so on. I wonder whether their intention to assist small businesses and sole traders is helpfully improved by the broad wording of the amendment.
Clause 2 defines “consumer” as,
“a person who purchases, uses or receives, in Great Britain, goods or services”.
We all know that in law a “person” includes bodies corporate or corporate persons so, whether a small business is a partnership or incorporated as a company, it is a consumer when it purchases goods. The disadvantage of the amendment is that including especially words to demonstrate that businesses are consumers as well would encourage the National Consumer Council to consider their needs in buying goods and services as at least equal to those of the man or woman in the street purchasing goods in all the manifold ways available to us. That is not an appropriate function for the NCC.
Many small businesses, although they are far less able to help themselves than a major corporation, belong to trade associations. One very often hears them talking on the radio and elsewhere on the interests of small businesses, whereas the ordinary man or woman in the street does not have, as an ordinary consumer, any such trade association except for any voluntary bodies that they may join, such as Which?, the Consumers’ Association or the National Consumer Council.
This is an unnecessary and undesirable amendment, and I hope that it is not pursued to a Division.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a sole trader and member of the Federation of Small Businesses. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for raising this point, although we have not added our names to the amendment, for some of the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, such as reservations about the size of the business and so on.
Between Committee and Report a problem I have had as a sole trader has arisen—quite fortuitously, in the light of this debate, as it has put into sharp focus the sort of problems that occur. Over a year ago I started my small business, and it took a year for the electricity supplier to resolve who was the electricity supplier, because although we had applied very clearly to a supplier, the bill had not been switched to our account. When we finally got a bill after 14 months, it was large enough to put a business under.
The Federation of Small Businesses is very helpful in such situations in giving advice across the board, but how the NCC will work with such organisations is crucial. Very small businesses are as vulnerable as individual consumers. Very often, a sole person working in a business is pushed for time to sort out such thorny problems. The noble Lord has raised an important issue, and it would be useful if the Minister could explain how he envisages the provisions working for smaller businesses.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for affording us the opportunity to debate this important issue. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Borrie for his expert analysis. I shall refer later to some of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I am mindful of the significant expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, in this field, as a former chair of the National Consumer Council, and I shall try to address the issues that she raised, to which the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley referred.
The amendment affords me the opening to explain the scope of the role of the new council in representing consumers’ interests. There will be no inherent constraints on the consumers which the new council may represent. I believe that it is essential that the council should have the opportunity to prioritise its work according to consumer detriment, while taking into account the important functions which we have set out in the Bill, for example on vulnerable consumers. The council will need to consider carefully where it can best utilise its resources in aid of the consumer and how its expertise can be deployed in their best interests.
The underlying question for consideration here is: who is the consumer whose interests are in need of protection or support? The precise identity of the consumer in greatest need of support and representation will vary according to different market sectors and different market conditions as they change over time. In some sectors the consumers facing greatest detriment at any given time will be domestic consumers. In other sectors the consumers most at risk may be, from time to time, small businesses or medium-sized enterprises, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said.
We recognise the importance of providing the new council with the opportunity to consider these issues for the benefit of all types of consumers, from individuals to businesses, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Borrie. Some larger businesses and many smaller businesses have their own trade associations to represent their interests, and these associations are active and vigilant on behalf of their members. Even so, it is likely that the expertise of the new council could be deployed to great advantage from time to time in aid of business consumers, and we wish to ensure that that opportunity is reflected in the Bill.
This amendment has provided me with a very good reason to revisit the provisions relating to the definition of “consumer”. I have reaffirmed that the existing definition of consumers in the Bill does include businesses. The definition refers to,
“a person who purchases, uses or receives, in Great Britain, goods or services which are supplied in the course of a business carried on by the person supplying or seeking to supply them, or a person who purchases, uses or receives relevant postal services in Northern Ireland”.
The definition of a “person” in the Interpretation Act 1978 applies, which means that it includes a body of persons corporate or incorporate which purchases, uses, or receives the goods or services. The definition in the Bill is deliberately not limited to those who purchase, use or receive goods and services for private purposes and so already extends to businesses as the consumers of the goods and services offered by other businesses. As a result, although I very much appreciate the amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and agree with the intent, Clause 2 effectively covers the position so the amendment is unnecessary. I hope that I have given succour to noble Lords who think that businesses have not been included and that I have provided appropriate comfort on that point.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for her support. She makes precisely the point that we are concerned about. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, for his intervention. Interestingly, he seemed to say, on the one hand, that “person” included bodies corporate, but on the other hand, that they should not have as much entitlement to the services of the NCC as individuals. I found that confusing. As he will be well aware—I specifically asked about this—we are trying to encourage the Government to clarify that, unlike in other legislation, sole traders and small businesses are covered.
The amendment is not perfect. Defining small businesses is not straightforward. We shall take it away and consider it in the light of the Minister’s response, which was delivered at some speed. We need to absorb that and consider whether we want to bring the amendment back in some form at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 [“Designated consumers”]:
5: Clause 3 , page 2, line 37, leave out “may” and insert “must”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in Committee we explored the meaning of “designated consumers”. For the purposes of the Bill they are consumers who are losing their representative body, be it Postwatch or Energywatch.
I was moved to table the amendment by the Minister’s comments on designated consumers in Grand Committee, as reported at col. 162 of Hansard. We must remember that they are losing their dedicated consumer body, which will be merged with the NCC.
In debating whether that was wise, we argued in Committee that both the energy and postal markets were going through very volatile times. The Minister said that designated consumers,
“may or may not be a priority at any time, hence the description ‘designated’”.—[Official Report, 18/12/06; col. GC162.]
Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to amend by order the description of which customers are designated consumers for the purpose of this part of the Bill, and he may also by order provide that some consumers will cease to be designated consumers for those purposes. If the consumers are to give up their dedicated bodies, we need to explore here on Report in exactly what circumstances the Secretary of State would decide that those consumers would no longer be designated consumers. They would not receive the same focus of attention, but would that be because the market had calmed down, as the Minister seemed to imply in Committee? Over what period would that have to be? What guarantee would there be that the market would stay calm and that consumers would not therefore be particularly liable to great fluctuations?
In my remarks on the amendment, I have not included anything about vulnerable consumers, nor do I mean to, because they are an entirely separate group and are subject to later amendments. I am talking only about the whole group of consumers in each case who are to lose their specific body and then can lose the designation of being designated consumers because the Secretary of State decides to do exactly that. Why would that be? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for tabling the amendment and enabling us to discuss this issue once again. Clause 3 defines “designated consumers” as consumers of mains electricity and mains gas and postal services, and provides for the future addition of water consumers in England and Wales to that category of consumers. The clause also provides powers for the Secretary of State to remove classes of consumers from the “designated consumers” category.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to make an order designating water consumers as designated consumers from the beginning, although we have said that we will consult in 2008 on whether to extend the Bill’s provisions to water. The second effect of the amendment would appear to be that the Secretary of State would be obliged to remove some designated consumers from the list in subsection (1), but the amendment does not say in which way and when that duty must be exercised. It is difficult to discern the intention behind the effect of the amendment on subsection (2)(b), despite the points made by the noble Baroness.
The powers of the Secretary of State under Clause 3 permit the possibility of incorporating the water sector in England and Wales in these new arrangements at some point in the future. We wish to retain that flexibility, although I accept that some noble Lords have expressed firm views that the water sector ought to be included from the beginning. The decision to consult in 2008 on whether to include water was taken following the public consultation. The circumstances under which consumers would cease to be designated depend entirely on the market. It would need to be clear that designation was no longer required, after consultation with the council, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and others.
My Lords, the question was: under what circumstances would consumers cease to be designated? The response was that that would depend entirely on the market. It would need to be clear that designation was no longer required, and after consultation with the council, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and others my understanding is that particular groups of consumers are designated as such because of the incorporation of, for example, Energywatch and Postwatch. Were the situation to change, if other groups came in or left, the group of consumers designated by the Bill would, by its nature, change.
My Lords, I am referring to consumers not suffering particular problems. I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, on the issue. If I may continue to clarify that point, the concept of “designated consumers” permits the new council to undertake specific functions in respect of consumers of regulated utilities covered by the Bill and to provide continuity from the current sectoral arrangements for representation.
My Lords, my amendment was merely a means of exploring the problem further. I am glad that I tabled it, because the issue needs to be addressed. I am not sure that I am happy with the clarity of the Minister’s reply, because the three sectors concerned here—energy, postal services and water—are among the most volatile issues for consumers. The situation, certainly regarding energy and water, is unlikely to get any calmer in the foreseeable future. There would be very great concerns about water.
The Minister could perhaps bring back something more definite at Third Reading regarding the Government’s proposals for when the Secretary of State might remove the designation. If the Minister chose not to do that, I would flag it up for colleagues in another place to explore in much greater depth, because the Bill is asking people to give up their representative bodies on the basis that they will be better represented by this new overarching body, without knowing exactly what that means for designation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 4 [Forward work programmes]:
6: Clause 4, page 3, line 17, leave out “before each financial year publish” and insert “publish triennially”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment would replace the existing requirement on the NCC to publish its forward work programme every year with one requiring it to publish the forward work programme every third year. That is appropriate for several reasons. While it is important that the NCC is alert to the rapid changes in the consumer world—and I have every confidence that that will continue to be the case, given its new status—I remain to be convinced that that requires a forward work programme every year. A common criticism of organisations in both the public and private sectors is their short-termism and failure to plan properly for the long term. The amendment seeks to put that right.
Furthermore, it is important not to underestimate the time, effort and money that go into the production of a full forward work programme. Noble Lords will be aware of how debilitating a constant publication deadline would be, when an organisation could better spend its time working on its core purposes. What is more, the Government recognise this in both local government and mainstream government agencies. Local development schemes require councils to set out policy every three years, on a rolling scheme, and the police authorities set out three-year strategic plans. A three-year plan allows time to produce a report, while ensuring that planned work can be budgeted for much more efficiently.
In Committee, the Minister’s words were most encouraging. He stated:
“It is normal practice to provide indicative budgets for three years ahead to aid planning and provide certainty”.—[Official Report, 18/12/06; col. GC 174.]
If budgets need to be planned under a three-year framework to provide certainty, it is surely somewhat illogical for the programme of work to operate on any other basis.
Clause 6 requires the NCC to produce an annual report that informs the Secretary of State and Parliament of the council’s activities within the year, but I do not see why it is necessary for the NCC to do both these things on a yearly basis. I believe that it would be far more fruitful to the NCC to enjoy some flexibility and discretion in carrying out its duties to enable it to focus on the task of championing the consumer. I beg to move.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord does not wish to push this issue to a vote. I see the force of his arguments, but I disagree with them. The financial planning afforded by three years is sensible but, when we are dealing with consumer matters, long-term issues can easily be incorporated in an annual forecast of activities. Therefore, I do not think that only if you have a three-year plan will you be able to look beyond the horizon.
Let us take two of the areas for which the National Consumer Council will be responsible under the Bill: energy and postal services. It would have been most unhelpful if, over the past two and half years, a consumer council for energy had not had to indicate what it wanted to do for the 12 months ahead, given that we had energy prices of such volatility and given the difficulties that confronted the regulator, the consumer and, indeed, Parliament. Where you have rapid change, as we have had of late in the energy markets, it would be foolhardy not to do that. People would ask, “Why should the consumer council be looking into this? After all, it wasn’t in the three-year plan”.
This is not an area of disagreement. We assume that, when the Bill is enacted, one of the major responsibilities of the National Consumer Council will be the protection of the postal consumer at a time when the market is opening. We know from the 1990s, when gas and electricity markets were liberalised, that problems arose that we had not anticipated. If, in those days, the old consumer councils had said, “We’d like to look at that, but we’ve committed resource to other worthy causes”, there would have been a lack of flexibility. This is about the actions of the council and its freedom to operate. I think that, as the Bill stands, there is plenty of scope for longer-term planning within the documents and that the amendment would unduly tie the council’s hands.
One thing that has not been taken account of and which we have to recognise is that, after the Bill is enacted, the National Consumer Council will, I imagine, be of far more interest to whatever committee is responsible for it in the House of Commons. As someone who chaired the Trade and Industry Committee for a number of years, I have to say that we perhaps did not pay as much attention to the National Consumer Council as we might have done, although we paid plenty of attention to Energywatch and Postwatch. It would be of great assistance to our colleagues elsewhere—where a Select Committee looks at this area of operation, affording a degree of parliamentary accountability—to be able to meet the council annually to discuss the work programme. That would allow the council to accommodate the views of the other House. I think that, although the amendment is well intentioned, it is fundamentally flawed, and therefore I hope that the noble Lord will not push it to a vote. I am in favour of three-year financing but I am not necessarily in favour of over-prescriptive three-year plans, which could well be inflexible.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, on this but not because I think that my noble friend is wrong. The turgid language in the Bill is not clear. I think—I should like the Minister to confirm or deny this—that what is envisaged is a three, four or five-year plan and, within that, a financial report on where the council expects to be each year. It will say at the end of each year how it is moving towards ensuring that the plan ultimately works out.
As the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, pointed out, things can change drastically in a market. If the council cannot react because the sums are not there, surely, under the terms of best business practice, it should say that the three-year plan has been put off course due to whatever reason and that therefore, for this year, it needs to do this and, for next year, it needs to do that.
The wording in the Bill makes the reporting process appear highly complicated. I hope that my noble friend does not feel that I have taken his amendment in the wrong way, but I think that the Bill is probably set out as it is—I hope that the Minister will confirm this—to ensure that a big hole does not appear in year one of a three-year plan without anyone knowing about it and without it being addressed until the three-year plan is reported on. I think that the provision is probably common sense.
My Lords, I largely agree with my noble friend Lord O’Neill and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, but there is another dimension to this. I do not think that the new NCC, any more than its three predecessor organisations, would have any difficulty in preparing annual work plans. Those organisations do them now and they have a corporate plan along the lines set out just now by the noble Baroness. So I do not think that planning is the issue, but the finances could be.
In particular, we have to bear in mind that this is not simply a question of a grant in aid from the DTI in the normal sense of general taxation, but of levies on designated consumers, which a large part of Clause 4 deals with. It is important not only that the new NCC knows what it has more than a year ahead, barring accidents, but also that the regulated industries know what they are expected to pay for those three years ahead. So it is sensible to deal with the finances on a three-year basis from that point of view, as well as from the point of view of general security of outlook. But, so far as concerns the planning, the wording of the Bill is perfectly okay.
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions from noble Lords. With regard to annual reports and forward work programmes, the idea is that the plan might be done for three years but it is a rolling programme. I think that that meets the point referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain.
The amendment would require the new council to publish a forward work programme only once every three years. We believe that the publication of an annual forward work programme strikes a good balance with the requirement to prepare an annual report in line with financial years, as I mentioned. That is the basis of the provisions as drafted. This requirement replicates the current requirement on both Energywatch and Postwatch to produce a forward work programme annually. It is also consistent with the requirement to produce an annual forward work programme on the sectoral regulators, Ofgem and Postcomm, respectively.
The publication of an annual forward work programme, on which the council must consult, ensures that the proposed activities of the council are transparent and that it can be held to account for those activities. That is particularly important given that some of the new council’s funding will come from industry. Additionally, the consultation allows it to obtain the views of key stakeholders in determining its priorities and the activities it undertakes to achieve them.
I recognise that an organisation has to spend time and effort on preparing a forward work programme, but it is time and effort well spent. The forward work programme is the means by which the new council can set out a programme for consumer advocacy, set out its aims and priorities, and—because this is also important—set out its funding requirement. The Bill requires the forward work programme to cover the year ahead, but in many cases organisations are understandably keen to set out a programme covering a longer period, perhaps three or more years ahead. That enables the organisation to take a longer-term view, and by updating and renewing that vision each year, new and urgent priorities can be taken into account. Those points were made by my noble friends Lord Whitty and Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan.
The forward work programme is in many ways the showcase for an organisation. It is a statement of intent, certainly, but, more than that, it is a demonstration of ambition to make a difference and a statement of willingness to be held accountable for that ambition.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, my noble friend Lady O’Cathain and the noble Lords, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan and Lord Whitty, for their contributions. I am pleased that we have had the opportunity of this debate; it has been useful and flushed out some helpful information, especially on budgeting. For the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 [General provision about functions]:
7: Clause 5 , page 4, line 40, leave out “have regard to the desirability of acting in the manner” and insert “exercise its functions in the manner which it considers is”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 8, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall.
Both amendments seek to strengthen the new council’s sustainable development objectives and, I believe, are intended to have the same effect. Having listened carefully to the concerns raised by noble Lords in Committee, my amendment follows the precedent of Section 35(1) of the Water Act 2003, which inserts a new Section 27A(12) into the Water Industry Act 1991. This section places a duty on the Consumer Council for Water to perform its powers and duties in the manner it considers best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Amendment No. 7 places an equivalent sustainable development requirement on the new National Consumer Council; the terminology used is slightly different, as the new council has “functions”.
The term “functions” is defined in Clause 40 as including powers and duties. Such functions include, for example, the representative function under Clause 7, the research function under Clause 8 and the information function under Clause 9; the objective does not only relate to the internal operations of the council, for example. Both amendments therefore require the council to exercise its functions in the manner it considers best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Both amendments are intended to have the same effect, hence only one of them is required, and Amendment No. 7 is the preferred option. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for moving somewhat on my Amendment No. 8. We have tabled an amendment of our own to highlight that the Government could move further. I doubt that the NCC feels that the government amendment gives enough emphasis to the extreme importance of the sustainability duties.
The NCC’s recent work, for example, has clearly had a significant effect. A while ago, my honourable friend Norman Baker published How Green Is Your Supermarket?. The answer for all of them was, “Not at all”—the word “green” never crossed their minds. The NCC recently published a report called Greening Supermarkets, which addressed a wide range of issues and encouraged supermarkets to start to take action. We have seen headlines about supermarkets vying with each other to prove their green credentials, but they are still far from green. The Government will know that among the issues that still hang over how green a supermarket can ever be are the number of car journeys made to and from it and the amount of food being trucked up and down Britain’s roads. However, the issues raised by the NCC’s report have been immensely influential and underline how such a body can help consumers as a whole to encourage suppliers to change completely how they think about such issues.
The Government are resisting my amendment, which requires the NCC to,
“develop policies and discharge its duties so that it contributes”.
It is much firmer than the Government’s amendment, which leaves it to the NCC to judge. So if push came to shove and the NCC was not exercising its functions in that manner—a scenario I cannot envisage when it is under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—and sustainability did not seem to be a big issue for it, how would the Government judge whether the council was doing enough? We know from debates on this matter that climate change will not go away. It is bound to be important, yet the pulls on the NCC may not always be about it; they may be about price. That is where some of the biggest tensions will come from, especially in the field of energy, where there will be tension between maintaining as low a price as possible and some microgeneration issues—I shall not go down that path. How will the Government ensure that, despite their somewhat strengthened amendment, sustainability will be at the heart of what the NCC does?
My Lords, I apologise that I was not able to be present on the second day of Committee stage. I hoped that we would reach my amendment, Amendment No. 100, on the first day, but that was not possible, and on the second day I was speaking at a conference in Nottingham.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, rightly raised the issue of sustainability. As the Minister knows, Natural England was recently set up. For me, there is a question about where the responsibilities will lie. The new National Consumer Council will deal with complaints, but how much additional responsibility might it have for looking at sustainability? Will it make any judgments on sustainability, or will it look to Natural England to develop those policies and then react? While the NCC is being set up now, Natural England was launched only last October, so it is still in the early stages of its remit. On a later amendment I shall take up, in particular, the position of the Commission for Rural Communities and how it has not responded on behalf of post offices. Where does responsibility for sustainability lie? What interplay will there be between the organisations? Will one body deal just with complaints while the other deals with issues on a daily basis and looks at long-term sustainability?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, when speaking to the two amendments, asked what was the Government’s intention. Amendment No. 7, in my name, would ensure that the council exercised its functions, including the core functions in Clauses 7 to 9, in a manner that it considers is best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. We think that our amendment strengthens the clause. The term “functions” is used, as it is consistent with the drafting in the rest of the Bill and covers powers and duties.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about the functions of the NCC. The council is subject to challenge if its functions are not carried out. My advice is that the council is also accountable through its annual report. I will write to the noble Baroness to clarify the point further.
On Question, amendment, agreed to.
[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]
Clause 6 [Annual report]:
9: Clause 6 , page 5, line 17, after “activities),” insert—
“( ) contain details about the most frequent complaints from consumers about post and energy for that year, ( ) contain recommendations, if any, for regulated energy and post companies to change their practices,”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 9 would place a duty on the NCC to include in its annual report details about the most frequent complaints from consumers about post and energy for the year in question, and make recommendations, should it see fit, for regulated energy and post companies to change their practices. I return to this amendment from Committee as I believe that it would support and underpin the merger of Postwatch and Energywatch at what could be one of its weakest points.
The amendment would complement the duty that we seek to place on redress schemes in Amendment No. 74, which would ensure that all suppliers of services had effective internal complaints handling procedures. We will be able to go into further detail on that point in due course. The amendment would enable the NCC fully to implement its new duty of providing insight into consumer affairs and as a provider of a complaints signposting service under Consumer Direct. That is particularly important in the light of the services the NCC will be covering. Postal and energy services are essential to all consumers, especially the most vulnerable. The impending closure of thousands of post offices highlights that the consumer will soon need assistance more than ever before.
This addition to the annual report would be a simple task for the NCC to perform. Energywatch has informed us that, as it keeps records of all the complaints it receives as a matter of course, it would simply be a matter of pulling together statistics and displaying them in a suitable form. Page 8 of the Energywatch annual report shows that very well.
As I think the Minister has pointed out, Clause 44 already places a duty on the NCC to publish statistics on complaints, but not on any regular basis. The amendment puts complaints statistics, the most transparent insight into consumer relations with providers, at the heart of the NCC's self-evaluation.
Complaints demonstrate better than any poll the attitude of the consumer and how successfully providers are running their services. The amendment provides a low-cost, consumer-driven addition to the way in which the NCC will communicate through its annual report. It will also place complaints at the centre of how the NCC evaluates its own work. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment No. 9 would add to the obligations on the council in respect of the annual report by requiring it to include details of the most frequent complaints from consumers about post and energy for the year. It would also require the new NCC to include in the report any recommendations to regulated energy and post companies to change their practices.
I certainly agree with the objective of the amendment. I share the ambition of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, that the council should be vigilant and active in the pursuit of opportunities to increase the transparency of the relevant markets by drawing attention to the sort of problems encountered by consumers. I am also very supportive of the ambition that the council should be a positive force for change and should be able to make recommendations to companies that would improve their performance to the benefit of consumers—that is also a clear benefit to the companies. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has previously made the powerful and compelling observation that complaints are important to companies because they help them to improve their performance and develop their businesses. I support that view wholeheartedly.
Clause 9 provides the council with a general information function, which allows it to facilitate information provision to consumers, and Clause 44 obligates the council to publish information on the levels of compliance by an energy or postal services company with any complaint-handling standards set by a regulator.
I hope that there is general agreement that the new statutory functions conferred by the Bill will provide the council with every opportunity to pursue the objectives set out in the amendment. As I said, I endorse the objectives of the amendment. However, although the council may very well include such information in its annual report if it considers that appropriate, it should not be obliged to do so, because that might not be the most appropriate way to provide consumers with information on complaints or on its recommendations to regulated post and energy companies on their practices.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that, on balance, we should leave it to the council to decide how best to bring such information to the attention of consumers.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and his supportive words agreeing with the objective of the amendment. I am not entirely sure that I agree with him but, having every confidence in the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 [The representative function]:
10: Clause 7 , page 5, line 29, leave out “may” and insert “must”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with this amendment are grouped Amendments Nos. 11 to 13. They return to the issue of whether the Bill should lay a firm duty on the council with regard to the representative function in Clause 7, the research function in Clause 8, the information function in Clause 9 and the general powers of investigation in Clause 10; or whether it should simply have the power to do that.
We explored that in Committee, but I felt that it merited further investigation in the light of the Minister's reply, as reported at col. GC155 of Hansard for 18 December. The Minister resisted the idea of the council having the duty as opposed to the power because he felt that the council should be able to set its own priorities, and that laying a duty on it would prohibit it from doing so. However, my amendment would not spell out in any way how the council should conduct its representative function under Clause 7(1)(a), (b) and (c); it would say simply that it must do these things. It should not have discretion on whether to provide advice and information to persons about consumer matters, and it should certainly not have discretion on whether to represent the views of consumers on consumer matters. That is the very core of what it is to do. I imagine that the Minister will say that that is covered in Clause 4, on the forward work programmes, but the fact that the council has its own clause, entitled “The core functions”, means that those are its core functions. Therefore, despite the Minister’s resistance in Committee, it would be interesting to know why the Government are not laying a very firm duty on the council to perform those core functions.
The research function is equally crucial to consumers, because if the council chooses not to obtain the information on consumer matters, it will be a fairly toothless creature. It must disseminate that advice to consumers, because that is the other reason for its being.
On the general powers of investigation, I cannot understand how the Government can draft the clause so that the council could exercise any discretion as to whether it will investigate. Of course it will have the discretion to decide how it will investigate and how much resource it puts behind that investigation, but surely that is exactly what this council is for and exactly what consumers will be relying on. If the Government say that a Bill such as this is there to improve life for consumers, it really must be seen to have the power to do so. That is why I re-tabled these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand clearly the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that the council should be required to fulfil its functions as provided by the Bill. There is no real difference between us on that point, but the amendment would remove the council’s discretion in exercising its key functions. The council would be required to make representations to government and others, to undertake research, to facilitate the provision of information and advice to consumers, and to use its general powers of investigation. The council already has the flexibility to do all or any of these things, but it is not possible under the Bill to require it to do any particular thing without defining precisely what must be done and when. That is why the clause is drafted as it is.
I hope that noble Lords will acknowledge that the Bill’s key purpose is to provide better and even more effective consumer representation to create a new body with important functions that go beyond those undertaken by the current National Consumer Council. The question is not whether the functions of the new council should be outlined in the Bill, or even whether the council should be sure to undertake the powers and duties represented by these functions; rather, it is a question of whether we should attempt to require the council to undertake all the functions at the same time in perpetuity, or whether we should set out the main functions of the council and leave it to determine how and when these functions should be exercised, according to the priority need and in accordance with its forward work programme. That is the position that the Government have taken.
The council will need to consult on its forward work programme, which will provide all interested parties with the opportunity to submit ideas for action and views on how the council should undertake its functions for the period ahead. In its annual report, the council will need to report on progress on any projects described in that forward work programme, which is a good example of transparency.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I suppose we will see whether this works only when the council in its new guise comes into being. This will be an interesting debate for the other place too. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 8 [The research function]:
[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]
Clause 9 [The information function]:
[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]
Clause 10 [General powers of investigation]:
[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]
Clause 11 [Investigation of complaints made by vulnerable designated consumers]:
14: Clause 11 , page 7, line 1, after “vulnerable” insert “or otherwise disadvantaged”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 16, we turn to Clause 11 on vulnerable customers. The definition of vulnerable is given in Clause 11(2), which states:
“For this purpose a person is ‘vulnerable’ if the Council is satisfied that it is not reasonable to expect that person to pursue the complaint on that person’s own behalf”.
My amendment will expand our discussion in Committee. Of course, energy consumers in particular would be moving to be looked after by the NCC. Will the Minister expand on the Government’s understanding of who would be considered vulnerable? There is a gap between people who are considered vulnerable under the definitions in the Energy Act and the Water Act and the definition in this Bill. I wonder whether those vulnerable people are being downscaled. A person might be able to pursue the complaint, but he or she might be very ill for a short period, as in the example that I gave in Committee, which I will not repeat now. The council should have particular regard to vulnerable people. The purpose of this small group of amendments is to explore how seriously the Government are taking this issue. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment No. 14 would extend the category of vulnerable consumers who can be aided by the council in the investigation of their complaints to “otherwise disadvantaged consumers”. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for raising this issue. Again, I do not think that there is any real difference between us on the question of who should be aided by the council in the investigation of their complaints. It is important that those who are most in need of assistance should be able to turn to the council for support and guidance.
For that reason we have deliberately not sought to categorise those who constitute vulnerable consumers in the Bill. Our understanding of what makes for vulnerability develops and changes over time and we should be careful not to preclude any particular group of consumers from the possibility of assistance now or in the future. The Bill leaves it to the council to consider who should be regarded as vulnerable. Clause 11(2) states that,
“a person is ‘vulnerable’ if the Council is satisfied that it is not reasonable to expect that person to pursue the complaint on that person’s own behalf”.
The addition of the words “otherwise disadvantaged” does not add materially to the consideration. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is the best way forward to meet possible future needs.
Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 would require the council to investigate complaints by vulnerable designated consumers and to provide advice or to make representations on behalf of the consumer. I would suggest to noble Lords that the interests of the most vulnerable consumers will be best served by permitting the council to exercise discretion as to which complaints by consumers need to be supported and, where the council sees a need to provide support, which means of support would be best in the circumstances.
The council should be able to use its judgment to define the groups of consumers who need help and to develop and refine that view to meet new or emerging circumstances. The council should have the discretion to decide how best to provide support for vulnerable consumers. It is important that the council should be able to determine how and when its important functions in respect of vulnerable consumers should be exercised according to the need and best use of its resources.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I hope that the council will have a definition of those people it regards as vulnerable and will keep a very careful record both of those it has chosen to treat as vulnerable and those it has not chosen; it should then review both categories from time to time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]
Clause 12 [Investigation of complaints relating to disconnection of gas or electricity]:
17: Clause 12, page 7, line 27, after “of” insert “, or a threat to disconnect,”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 17 I shall speak also to the other amendments grouped with it. These amendments supplement and expand the scope of the obligation on the council to investigate complaints relating to disconnection of gas or electricity supplies. First, they extend the obligation to investigate complaints of consumers who are threatened with disconnection in addition to those whose supply has already been disconnected or, having been disconnected, are experiencing difficulties in securing reconnection. Secondly, they extend the obligation to cover the investigation of complaints from consumers who use prepayment meters where the meter, the means of charging the meter or the prepayment meter facilities which enable the consumer to purchase credit for the meter have failed and the consumer is unable to obtain a supply.
These enhancements are important and represent a positive and practical response to advice we have received from Energywatch and others. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, made the point most persuasively in Committee, while the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, and my noble friend Lord O’Neill also contributed to the debate on this important issue. As a result I am glad to be able to bring forward these amendments which I believe will address the structural issue of the scope of the new council’s remit in this crucial area of potential consumer detriment. They will also provide the council with the obligation to extend its advice and support to consumers with prepayment meters and those who are threatened with disconnection.
I should like to take this opportunity to emphasise once more the importance we attach to retaining the considerable skills and expertise of Energywatch staff in the transition to the new arrangements. They will clearly have a major role to play in the success of the new council. I beg to move.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in thanking my noble friend. I agree that the Government have co-operated on this issue. A number of organisations had approached noble Lords and I think they will take considerable consolation from the comprehensive character of the amendments that have been tabled in so far as they have met almost all of the concerns we expressed. I hope, therefore, that this important gesture, which may be more than a gesture, will go a long way to speeding the passage of the legislation.
My Lords, I support the amendments. They make it clear that all issues concerning cut-off of supply, whether through a threat of disconnection or a failure somewhere else in the system, will be treated in this way. I simply make the point that I might have made on the previous group of amendments that these are the kind of complaints that would fall to the new National Consumer Council. I know that Energywatch takes the view that there is a wider set of priority complaints over and above those dealing with disconnection or failure of supply. At some point it will need to be made clear what boundaries will be considered by the National Consumer Council, by the normal information function of Consumer Direct or by the companies themselves in the first instance, and, if they fail, by the ombudsman system.
It would be helpful if such clarity were placed on the Postwatch side of the equation so that the new structures and consumers can be clear where each form of complaint will fall.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
18: Clause 12 , page 7, line 32, after first “of” insert “, or a threat to cut off,”
19: Clause 12 , page 7, line 36, at end insert—
“(da) a complaint by a gas consumer against a gas supplier, in respect of the failure of a prepayment system;”
20: Clause 12 , page 7, line 39, after “of” insert “, or a threat to disconnect,”
21: Clause 12 , page 7, line 45, at end insert—
“(g) a complaint by an electricity consumer against an electricity supplier, in respect of the failure of a prepayment system.”
22: Clause 12 , page 8, line 8, leave out subsection (4)
23: Clause 12 , page 8, line 47, at end insert—
“( ) in paragraphs (da) and (g), references to the failure of a prepayment system are references to— (i) a failure in the facilities for payment for the supply of gas or electricity which results in a consumer with a prepayment meter being unable to make a payment for the supply of gas or electricity, or (ii) where a payment has been made for the supply of gas or electricity through a prepayment meter, a case where the supply is not given through the prepayment meter because of a defect in the meter or in the facilities for payment.”
24: Clause 12 , page 8, line 48, leave out subsection (8) and insert—
“(8) In this section—
“electricity consumer” means an individual who is a consumer in relation to electricity supplied by an authorised supplier;
(a) an Act of Parliament, (b) an Act of the Scottish Parliament, or (c) a Measure or Act of the National Assembly for Wales, whenever passed or made; “gas consumer” means an individual who is a consumer in relation to gas supplied by an authorised supplier;
“the consumer’s premises”—
(a) in relation to an electricity consumer, means the premises to which the electricity supplied to the consumer by the authorised supplier is supplied; (b) in relation to a gas consumer, means the premises to which the gas supplied to the consumer is conveyed by the gas transporter; “redress scheme” means a scheme under which complaints may be made to, and investigated and determined by, an independent person.”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 17 [Secretary of State's powers to require reports]:
25: Clause 17 , page 10, line 15, leave out “may” and insert “must”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment would place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish any reports that are submitted to him by the National Consumer Council. It seems only right that reports from the National Consumer Council, which will be a partially publicly funded body and provide services to the consumer through Consumer Direct, should be accessible to the public.
In Committee the Minister said that, in some cases, it would not be appropriate to publish reports from the National Consumer Council and that there could be cases where reports from the National Consumer Council were not,
“of wider interest or relevance”.—[Official Report, 9/1/07; col. GC 54.]
I cannot see how reports from a council dealing with national consumer matters would not be of some interest to some consumers. The Minister noted publication costs. Surely if a report is published for the Secretary of State there cannot be great expense incurred in merely attaching a link to that report to the NCC website.
I have not been convinced by the Government’s refusal to allow the publication of all NCC reports. This is a matter of transparency for the consumer and of public accountability. I was worried by the Minister’s words that the Secretary of State and the National Consumer Council would between themselves decide what was appropriate information to give to the public. That does not seem to be the best way for a champion of consumers to operate. I hope the Minister can give a more substantial reason than publication costs, which I contend would be non-existent, and the supposed relevance or not of reports. I beg to move.
My Lords, because the amendment obviously seeks transparency, one feels very much in favour of it in principle. However, one should put the amendment into context. The National Consumer Council is required by other provisions in the Bill to publish its annual reports and its forward work programmes. The noble Baroness did not refer to Clause 16, which immediately precedes the clause with which we are now dealing, under which the council may prepare a report on any matter within its function and may publish the report. Some of the noble Baroness’s remarks would be applicable to Clause 16 because it provides that the National Consumer Council may publish reports of its own volition on matters it has itself chosen to consider. The logic of her argument suggests that if that report is of interest to consumers nationally it ought to be published.
Leaving that aside, the noble Baroness has alerted us to Clause 17, under which the NCC is required to report on “any matter” that the Secretary of State specifies, and the Secretary of State may publish any report under that clause. The noble Baroness seeks to have the word “may” altered to “must”. Surely the NCC itself is free to publish a report on any matter it considers, whether it considers it of its own volition or at the request of the Secretary of State. Perhaps I am making a legalistic point to the Minister. I hope I am right about it and that the power of the council to publish any report under Clause 16 is not confined to that clause but that the council could publish a report as it wishes if that has been requested by the Secretary of State under Clause 17. I hope I am correct that the NCC is entitled to publish any report on anything it studies, whether at the request of the Secretary of State or not.
The amendment proposed by the noble Baroness would be unduly burdensome by requiring the Government, at the taxpayer’s expense, to publish a report that neither the Government nor the National Consumer Council thought was of sufficient interest to justify publication. There must be some situations where a report is not worthy of publication simply because the work that has been done demonstrates that there is no problem where previously it was thought that there was.
I fear that the amendment might inhibit the use by the Government of the power to seek the help of the NCC on matters relating to consumer interests. Surely the last thing we want is for the Government to feel inhibited or that they had better not risk asking the NCC for a report because of some compulsory obligation to publish that report in any circumstances and at whatever cost. I doubt the value of this amendment.
My Lords, Amendment No. 25 relates to Clause 17 and to the actions that fall to the Secretary of State in this respect. I was grateful for the opportunity to debate this amendment in Committee. From that debate, it is clear that the intention behind the amendment is essentially the need for transparency in the Government’s dealings with the new council and the importance of the new council maintaining its independence. I confirm our wholehearted support for those intentions.
As I explained in Committee, Clause 17 gives the Secretary of State the power to require the council to prepare and submit reports on any matter, permitting the Secretary of State to call on the expertise of the council to prepare and submit a report on issues that are judged important enough to the consumer interest to warrant further attention. Such a report would be for the purpose of reaching a decision on what further action, if any, was needed on the issue. We envisage that such a need could arise where the issues in question have not been identified in the council’s consultation on its forward work programme.
The amendment would place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish all the reports submitted by the council under this clause irrespective of whether or not they are of wider interest or relevance, a point rightly made by my noble friend Lord Borrie. Having requested a report from the council, the Secretary of State would take into account any recommendations made on how best to progress the particular issue and would work closely with the council and others in coming to decisions about what would be appropriate in each circumstance. The current drafting allows for the discretion needed for that to happen.
On the issue of the independence of the new council, particularly in response to my noble friend Lord Borrie, I confirm that Clause 16 enables the council to prepare and publish reports on any matter within the scope of its functions, while Clause 18(2) enables it to publish advice and information about consumer issues if it thinks publication will promote the interests of consumers. Those powers allow the council to take separate action in the interests of the consumer, or indeed in the interests of transparency, should it consider that appropriate. While I am sympathetic to the amendment, I believe we meet all the substantive points raised.
My Lords, I am told that because we are on Report, I may be breaking a rule. In that case I shall use the record instead.
I was chilled by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I thought, “What am I listening to? I’m listening to the National Consumer Council being changed from the body it is: brave and strong and able to publish its reports as it has done all these 25 to 30 years, not hindered by the Government in any way, fully funded by government but free to choose its work and to report as it wished”. Then I heard it said that the Secretary of State and the NCC will between them decide when things are published. All of this shows how important the amendment is. We should use the word “must”. The National Consumer Council is being tied up in these words. I worry when I hear “appropriate”, “discretion”, “drafting”. I worry that the National Consumer Council is being subsumed by a great, big body on which lies the Secretary of State’s hand, stopping it doing what it wishes to do. The provision does not sound clear or transparent. It does not sound like what we want the National Consumer Council to be.
I am sure that the Minister has thought carefully and been well advised by his civil servants on how he should respond to me at this stage. I do not wish to divide the House on this point but I am disappointed by the answers. I was particularly disappointed by the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 21 [Voluntary activities]:
26: Clause 21 , page 12, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) The Council may acquire an interest in a body corporate under subsection (4)(b) only with the consent of the Secretary of State.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment relates to Clause 21, which provides the council with the power to carry out commissioned work in any area where it has skill, experience or expertise. Under the clause, the council would be able to give advice or assistance to others and be paid for providing this service.
This clause also gives the new council the power to acquire an interest in an existing body corporate with a view to that body exercising certain functions on its behalf. Following a very useful debate in Committee, we have given this aspect of the provision further consideration and concluded that it is appropriate to make this power subject to the approval of the Secretary of State, as was raised in Committee. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 24 [Enforcement by regulator of section 23 notice]:
27: Clause 24 , page 13, line 10, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group. The amendments have arisen as a result of changes to the group of persons to whom the complaints-handling and redress provisions in Part 2 of the Bill apply.
Following representations by Ofgem, Clauses 41 and 48 are being amended to extend the Bill’s provisions for redress schemes in the energy sector to include the holders of licences to distribute electricity and gas transporters. The changes mean that the complaints-handling and redress provisions will now be applicable to a wider group than can reasonably be defined by the term “supplier” which is used in the current drafting. The term “provider” better captures all those concerned. The amendments are necessary to make the minor drafting improvements needed across the Bill to substitute the term “provider” for “supplier”, and include a consequential change to the Long Title. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
28: Clause 24 , page 13, line 16, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
29: Clause 24 , page 13, line 17, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
30: Clause 24 , page 13, line 22, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
31: Clause 24 , page 13, line 24, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
32: Clause 24 , page 13, line 25, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
33: Clause 24 , page 13, line 28, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
34: Clause 24 , page 14, line 2, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
35: Clause 24 , page 14, line 3, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
36: Clause 24 , page 14, line 6, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
37: Clause 24 , page 14, line 8, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
38: Clause 24 , page 14, line 9, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
39: Clause 24 , page 14, line 18, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 29 [Abolition of “Energywatch” and “Postwatch”]:
40: Clause 29 , page 16, line 40, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The Secretary of State shall bring forward an Order subject to an affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament to abolish the Consumer Council for Postal Services.
(2A) The Order set out in subsection (2) shall not be made before 2010.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is very clear. We propose that the merger of the Consumer Council for Postal Services should be postponed until at least 2010. We are specific about the reasons why we are moving this amendment. Nobody who has listened to the debates in your Lordships' House and another place and paid attention to the consultation that has gone on across the country can doubt that both the Post Office network and the Royal Mail are in disarray. Four thousand post office branches have closed since Labour came to power in 1997, on top of the 3,500 post offices and sub-post offices closed during the period of the last Conservative Government. On 14 December, the Government announced plans for Post Office restructuring, which they expect to lead to the closure of a further 2,500 branches by 2009. The consultation on those proposals goes on until 8 March.
We are aware that one difficulty that the Post Office network has suffered is the phasing out of the Post Office card account, on which many pensioners rely to receive their state pension and on which thousands of branches depended to keep them in business. On 14 December, in the face of a huge outcry, the Government backed down and announced a replacement for the card account. It is a matter of knowledge for your Lordships that in recent years the Government have directly or indirectly overseen the Post Office network losing TV licences, vehicle excise duty and passport authentication work.
I do not need to go on, as this is not a debate about the decline of the Post Office network, but that decline is highly relevant to the amendment that stands in my name and that of my noble friend. As for the Royal Mail, noble Lords will be aware that a significant loss of business occurs almost every week, now that it has lost its monopoly in a number of areas in the delivery of postal services. We have the benefit through the pages of the financial press of seeing the dispute going on between Allan Leighton, chairman of the Royal Mail network, and the Government about whether they will permit proposals for any form of share issue to Post Office workers or any form of shares sell-off in the Royal Mail network.
Against that background my noble friend Lady Miller and I believe that this is not the time to interfere with the very effective method of consumer consultation which is in place as we speak. We wonder what is the point of transferring en bloc the expertise in the Consumer Council for Postal Services to the new consumer council. If the people with the skills necessary to perform the very effective job done by that organisation over the past few years are to be made redundant, there will be a significant loss of effectiveness over the next three years, which in the public’s eye will be an absolutely crucial period for the future of the Post Office network and Royal Mail. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for tabling this amendment. I again apologise to your Lordships’ House that I was not able to speak to it at an earlier stage as I was speaking at a conference in Nottingham.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will well know that for six years after 2000, when he was a Minister responsible for rural matters, I expressed my concerns about the future of post offices. I share the concerns that have been expressed on that issue. Part of the Bill is concerned with redress. Consumers want things to go right. Today, through no fault of the railway company concerned, I had the most horrendous journey getting here. A fire on a freight train outside Berwick totally blocked the line and it will be blocked for 24 hours due to the nature of the cargo on that train. I should say in fairness to the railway company that it was very good and made arrangements for some passengers to be transported via the west coast line. In that context it is important that we do not water down the Bill’s new provisions. I am particularly concerned about the part that concerns the postal services. I have made various rail journeys back and forth to Scotland. I had a difficult journey going up on Sunday as I was delayed three times, which was the railway company’s fault. However, the second occasion on which I experienced difficulty was certainly not its fault.
The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, made various points on post offices, but I want to comment on the situation from a slightly broader perspective. As the practice on Report is to examine Ministers’ responses, I want to highlight the Minister’s response and to explore whether we are happy with it and therefore confident about where it will take us. As the Minister indicated clearly in Grand Committee:
“Postal services consumers will also benefit from the introduction of redress schemes”.
But we want to ensure that we enhance, and certainly do not detract from, the service that is offered by the new consumer council.
The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, touched on the number of post offices that are likely to close. I share his concern. The Minister also stated in Grand Committee that,
“99 per cent of the population will be within three miles of an outlet”.—[Official Report, 9/1/07; col. GC 60.];
that is, a post office outlet. However, in order to achieve that percentage, are not some of the most rural and remote post office outlets more likely to be closed in the future cuts so that the Government can achieve their target of having 99 per cent of people living within three miles of an outlet? Having travelled down through the country today, I am aware that some very remote areas will be in great jeopardy of losing their outlets. Will the Minister clarify the response that he gave in Committee as I do not think that he responded to that point?
My next point was raised by colleagues. How will the Government ensure that the most vulnerable people in the remotest areas who have the greatest difficulty accessing these outlets will continue to be able to do so? I take up the point made about the squeeze on the Post Office bank card, which, as we have heard, has been overturned temporarily, but who will fight that corner in the longer term? I understand that the National Consumer Council will deal only with complaints; it will not set strategy. Perhaps the Minister can answer my earlier question in that regard. I refer him to the setting up of the Commission for Rural Communities. When that announcement was made I assumed that the Commission for Rural Communities would be the watchdog that would ensure that the rural voice and people’s concerns about the closure of post offices were heard. I was desperately disappointed that that was not heard in the national press.
I am trying to get the Minister to respond to some of the comments he made in Committee. I ask him to clarify whether the council is going to deal just with an individual complaint or whether it will be able to look over the longer term at the repercussions of government decisions and the Royal Mail’s decisions on squeezing post offices. Having read carefully through the Committee stage, I find that not at all clear. I seek clarification from the Minister on those points which were debated in Committee but not clarified to my satisfaction. I am sorry that I was not here to raise the matter at the time.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, but I draw exactly the opposite conclusion on what should appear in the Bill. It seems to me that the problems of the Post Office have not been resolved by dealing with them in isolation from everything else that happens to rural areas. The whole rationale of the Bill is to create a trans-sectoral organisation which is able to bring expertise from other markets into markets such as the post office and the energy market, and to use the expertise in those markets to create more generic solutions to consumer problems. The longer you delay the establishment of those arrangements—and we are already putting water back until after the initial establishment of the arrangements—the longer it will take for that new organisation, the new consumer council, to achieve that level of strength and influence in general decision-making.
On rural post offices, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and I have been very much concerned with services for rural areas. So has the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, who is just about to contribute to the debate. Post offices have been dealt with in a silo, entirely separately from the concerns of Defra and of the rural community more widely. Post offices are but one of the losses of services, both public and private, in rural areas. The losses have taken place partly as a result of market changes and demography and partly as a result of government decisions over recent years. It is much better that the issue is placed in that wider context, with an influential body that can influence government policy in a wide range of areas, rather than in the narrow area of departmental Post Office sponsorship by the DTI. That is what I see the new National Consumer Council doing.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I say that the new National Consumer Council is primarily about strategy and issues of broad concern to consumers and not so much about individual complaints. In this wider context, the strategy on the Post Office network can best be dealt with by a larger, more all-embracing body. If we put back the Post Office consideration until 2010, as is suggested by the amendment, we will fall short of achieving the Bill’s objectives in a relatively short timetable. On the immediate issue of the current review of rural post offices, Postwatch is already setting up the way in which that will be conducted. It needs to get expertise from the National Consumer Council and the Commission for Rural Communities to broaden the base of that review. It can go on; it will have started by the time the new organisation reaches its vesting date, and it will continue thereafter. It is a ring-fenced process that is dealt with somewhat separately from the rest of Postwatch’s activities. Therefore, it will not be jeopardised by creating the new organisation. Clause 15 specifically requires the new council to conduct an assessment of the network of rural post offices, in the same way as Postwatch currently has this obligation.
That responsibility is preserved. The influence on future post offices will be stronger, and the context in which such rural services are delivered will be broadened in a way that, as a whole, ought to benefit the rural consumer and not simply be seen in one dimension depending on the Government’s attitude to the Post Office in general. Rural consumers and indeed urban consumers who have lost their post offices in recent years will be better protected under this system. The sooner we introduce it, the better it will be.
My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Razzall. It does not state that the merger shall never take place; it accepts that, in time, that may be the best thing, and the Government have put a strong case for it. I understand the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that that should happen now. Without in any way doubting his competence to manage the whole process, it is over-optimistic of the Government to expect that to happen at a time of enormous upset in the post office service and at a time when a consultation on the closure programme is under way. Notwithstanding the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, says that that process is ring-fenced, however much that is the case, you cannot stop disheartened staff leaving because they do not see a future for them within a new organisation. You cannot stop the expertise leaking out.
All we are suggesting is a delay until 2010 and that Parliament will have another look at the matter. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who spoke on this issue at Second Reading—I fully understand why she could not be present in Committee—was quite right to say that the Commission for Rural Communities had been pretty silent on this. As she will know, I opposed the setting up of that quango, which can be no more than a voice. However, it is supposed to have direct access to the Prime Minister through its rural advocate and I wonder what he has been saying recently on this issue to the Prime Minister and if it has had any effect at all.
The amendment will provide a chance for the Post Office reorganisation, as the Government might euphemistically call it, to take place under detailed scrutiny from Postwatch, which it is best placed to deliver because it has been working on this issue for several years. No one can take its place in that regard. Our amendment offers a middle way. We are not saying that the reorganisation should never happen but simply that it should not happen at this time of enormous turbulence for the Post Office, which provides a crucial service for people in rural areas and is equally important for people in suburban and urban areas.
Finally, noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have raised the issue of the business sector. The business sector has asked me to express its disappointment at the Minister’s response on this issue. In particular, a letter stated that,
“no detailed responses were made about the need to preserve sector-specific expertise and the representation of business interests in the postal sector”.
In rural areas, nothing is more important for small businesses than the postal sector, and that applies equally to the business sector throughout the UK.
My Lords, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to make an order to abolish Postwatch and to make that order subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses. Furthermore, the Secretary of State would not be permitted to make the order before 2010.
I recognise the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Whitty that one of the main objectives of the Bill is the creation of a cross-sectoral consumer advocacy body that is stronger than the sum of its parts in addressing consumer issues that frequently exist across sectors of the economy. The new body must have the critical mass to engage effectively with government, regulators and industry sectors on the basis of expert and informed analysis and have the benefit of being able to draw on experience and expertise from a number of sectors. We recognise that maintaining the existing sectoral expertise in the postal services sector is vital to the success of the new body. We also recognise the importance of this in a sector that has only recently been opened up to competition.
We had a lively and informative debate in Committee on the principle of merging Postwatch with Energywatch and the National Consumer Council, and, given the extensive prior consultation on this issue, I am not convinced that it is necessary or appropriate to subject the proposal to incorporate Postwatch into the new council to the affirmative resolution procedure at a later date.
On timing, I understand the concerns raised by noble Lords that the postal services sector needs a strong advocacy body in order effectively to represent consumer interests in the post office network restructuring programme. In recognition of the importance of this issue to consumers, the new council will, under Clause 15, maintain the current function assigned to Postwatch of investigating any matter relating to the number and location of public post offices. Having a strong consumer advocate in the postal services sector and maintaining the sectoral expertise that Postwatch has built up and which the new council will inherit are vital to the Government’s proposals for a sustainable post office network.
We believe that delaying the inclusion of Postwatch in the new arrangements for consumer advocacy would merely prolong the uncertainty for existing staff and consumers and would increase the likelihood of staff retention problems and departures precisely at the point when Postwatch needs its staff most to feed into the post office network restructuring programme. The amendment would exacerbate the problem and be counterproductive, as it would extend that period of uncertainty, with consequent damage to morale and staff retention.
After careful consideration, therefore, I am not convinced that a delay in the creation of the new National Consumer Council and the associated abolition of Postwatch would benefit consumers of postal services, who would be faced with a delay in the creation of a stronger consumer advocate, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Whitty, to represent their interests, and redress schemes to provide them with complaints resolution and redress as appropriate. Indeed, a delay might actually be harmful, creating a longer period of uncertainty for the existing staff of Postwatch, which I do not think was the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. We debated this extensively in Committee. I suppose that the best argument against the amendment tabled in my name and that of my noble friend is that it will be the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is responsible for proving us wrong. However, I am afraid that I am not persuaded, for two reasons.
First, I would be better persuaded if the world of this integrated authority to which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, refers was that which is actually going to be put in place. We already know that the Department of Trade and Industry lost the internal turf wars and failed in its attempt to have a number of other councils, in particular the transport one, merged into the empire of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.
Secondly, the Government have already conceded that water will not come in until 2010. I am not sure why the arguments that apply to water do not apply in spades to the Post Office and the Royal Mail, for all the reasons that I set out. I do not want to repeat those arguments, as we know what they are, but on this occasion I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Gambling: Casino Advisory Panel Report
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the recommendations of the independent Casino Advisory Panel. The panel has today published its report, and I should like to thank Professor Crow and his colleagues for their work.
“Before I turn to the recommendations, I should like to remind the House of the context in which we are allowing new types of casino. Gambling is on the increase. People want to gamble, and technology allows many new forms of gambling. Existing regulation is inadequate and leaves people exposed. So, through the Gambling Act 2005, we have placed the protection of children and other vulnerable people at the heart of gambling regulation for the first time.
“Yet if I believed everything I read in the papers about the Gambling Act, I would never have introduced it. So let me make it very clear: Las Vegas is not coming to Great Britain. British casinos will be subject to new controls, the strictest in the world.
“For example, Las Vegas-style tricks of the trade will not be allowed. There will be no free alcohol to induce more gambling, and there will be no pumped oxygen to keep players awake. It will be a criminal offence to permit a child to enter the casino or the gambling area of the regional casino. All casinos will require staff trained to spot the signs of problem gambling and intervene where necessary. If they do not, they risk losing their licence.
“It was safe in the knowledge of these protections that we took the decision, in response to demand from local authorities, to allow a limited number of new casinos. Sixty-eight local authorities, representing all the main political parties, subsequently made applications to the panel. The Act allows 17 in total: one regional, eight large and eight small. Because the new casinos will be different from those we have seen before, and because we have listened carefully to the concerns of Members and their constituents, we thought it was right to be cautious.
“Now I can say this in 50 different languages, but the message would be the same: we cannot allow and will not even consider allowing any further casinos until a proper evaluation over time has been made of the effect of these 17 casinos on problem gambling, and such a decision would require a debate and vote in both Houses of Parliament in any case.
“We have commissioned a group of academics led by Lancaster University to advise on the methodology for that assessment. The baseline study will be undertaken later this year, once Parliament has approved the new areas. The assessment process will be in place in good time for the opening of the first new casino. The assessment will not be completed until at least three years after the award of the first licence. The work is in addition to the prevalence studies of patterns of gambling, which we are undertaking every three years from 2007. The benchmark prevalence study is currently under way, and the findings will be published this autumn, when the Gambling Act takes effect. The findings of the next prevalence study will not be published until autumn 2010. I therefore wish to make it crystal clear to the House that these safeguards preclude any consideration of further casinos for the lifetime of this Parliament.
“I am required by the Act to make an order identifying the local authorities where the 17 new casinos should go. So, in October 2005, I established the Casino Advisory Panel, under Professor Stephen Crow. The primary consideration for the panel throughout has been to ensure that the areas facilitate the best possible test of social impact. Subject to that consideration, I also asked the panel to include areas in need of regeneration that would benefit in employment terms from a new casino and to ensure that those areas selected are willing to license a new casino. The panel has been operating entirely independently of the Government, and I should like to place on record my appreciation for the rigour and professionalism that Professor Crow and his colleagues have brought to the process.
“This has been an open and transparent process throughout, and the views of local people have been taken into account at every stage. The panel asked local authorities to include evidence of local consultation. Local people were invited to participate in the examinations in public that were held in the seven short listed areas. A number of areas, including Brent, Canterbury, Dartford, Thurrock and Woking, withdrew their applications to the panel in response to local opinion. A number of local authorities, such as Hackney, St Albans and Slough, have also taken advantage of new powers in the Gambling Act to resolve not to license any casinos in their area.
“After 16 months’ consultation, and having considered all the evidence available, the panel has today recommended that the following authorities should be entitled to issue a small casino premises licence: Bath and North East Somerset, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lindsey, Luton, Scarborough, Swansea, Torbay, and Wolverhampton.
“The following local authorities should be entitled to issue a large casino premises licence: Great Yarmouth, Kingston-upon-Hull, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newham, Solihull and Southampton. And that Manchester should be entitled to issue the one regional casino premises licence permitted by the Act.
“I congratulate Manchester and the other recommended towns and cities on their success and I acknowledge the disappointment of those towns and cities that have not been recommended.
“I received a copy of the panel’s report just this morning. Because I am also conscious of the need to maintain the integrity of the independent process that we have established, it is only fair to all the applicants that I should take the time to consider its contents carefully. I am also required by the Gambling Act to consult Scottish and Welsh Ministers.
“I am therefore announcing today that, following this consultation with the devolved Administrations, I am minded to return to this House at the earliest opportunity with an order which will enable Parliament to consider the panel’s recommendations and vote on the order. The order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and the debate will be held on the Floor of the House. This means that Parliament will rightly determine the outcome of this process.
“Gambling will always be a sensitive issue, and I understand the reservations that some Members and others have about casinos. However, I have always sought to ensure that the Government proceed cautiously, with the strongest possible safeguards and on the basis of the best evidence of public protection in the face of rising public demand. That is what we have done.
“Once again, I thank Professor Crow and his panel for the thoroughness of their work and I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in another place. I am sure that the choice of Manchester is a good one, but I find it difficult to join in the general congratulations when the whole concept of dramatically expanding the gambling industry in this country is so flawed. I find it even more difficult to understand why Her Majesty's Government should be so keen on this course of action when organisations such as the police and the British Medical Association have come out so strongly against the expansion of gambling because of the problems associated with it
For those who wish to gamble there already exists a plethora of ways of so doing, from the internet to the racecourse and plenty of stops in between. Casinos such as are proposed will only introduce new punters who might otherwise never have gambled. A proportion of those will become addicts, resulting most probably in the destruction of their and their families’ lives.
I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will treat this properly as a pilot scheme to thoroughly assess the impact of these casinos, rather than just looking on the pilots as a method of introducing massive expansion of gambling through the back door, in the way that the 1968 Act has been used to give initial approval to 90 casinos.
Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to a proper evaluation of the effect of the 17 casinos on problem gambling is welcomed. A rigorous set of criteria for evaluating the success or failure of the pilot scheme will do much to restore faith that Her Majesty’s Government have a desire to learn from what happens and to act accordingly.
It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how Manchester came to be chosen when it was ranked only sixth in the original shortlist and whether the preferred bidder will be Kerzner International.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and join in thanking Professor Crow and his team for their work. We welcome the fact that there will be the opportunity to debate the affirmative order. There is clearly some surprise—indeed, shock—in Blackpool and Greenwich at the outcome—
And in Manchester.
And in Manchester, my Lords, as my noble friends point out.
No doubt the report will repay further reading in the run-up to that debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about the timing of the debate, so that we will really have the opportunity to examine the grounds on which the decision was made, which has obviously been such a disappointment to many in those two areas.
This House, like the other place, will be surprised by the Secretary of State's statement:
“We thought it was right to be cautious”.
Just before the general election, it was the opposition parties who were urging caution on the Government about the spread of casinos, especially the regional casino concept, not the Government. The Government were very gung-ho for the concept of eight super-casinos.
I very much welcome what the Secretary of State said today about not expanding the number of casinos beyond 17 until their ability to aid regeneration while not increasing problem gambling has been thoroughly tested. I hope that the Minister can confirm that we will be able to debate the methodology to be suggested by the University of Lancaster: how it is judged whether regeneration can take place without increasing problem gambling.
Today's announcement of 17 new casinos has hit the headlines, but the Minister may cast his mind back to a programme just this weekend that revealed that 68 new licences have been approved by the Gambling Commission in the past two years. Although some have had premises licences refused, that could lead to another 40 or 50 casinos on top of today's 17. There are even more applications in the offing. How does that square with the statement by the Secretary of State that the Government will not even consider allowing any further casinos until proper evaluation has been made of the 17 announced today?
Why did Mr Richard Caborn say two years ago that,
“we can say with certainty that there will be no more than 150 casinos. There could be fewer”?—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee B, 11/1/05; col. 718.]
Was that not a complete misstatement? Doesn’t it look as though there will be more than that? What will be the final total of new casinos? I also wonder whether the Secretary of State regrets saying about three years ago:
“If this legislation”—
the Gambling Bill—
“gave rise to an increase in problem gambling then it would have failed and it would be bad legislation”.
She said in a recent “Any Questions” broadcast that,
“every single bit of change in legislation, if it proves to give a rise to harm, will be rescinded”.
Can the Minister confirm that that is indeed government policy?
Then we have the issue of expenditure on problem gambling. Given that we spend £270 million on treating alcohol addiction, should not the gambling industry be paying much more than the current £2.5 million to the main body that helps deal with gambling addiction? Will the Government ensure that the new casinos make a proper contribution to help fund solutions to gambling addiction?
At least in the Statement, the Minister committed to no further growth in gambling opportunities until we test out what we already have and are likely to have following today's announcement. I very much hope that he will confirm that that is rock-solid government policy. We look forward to the debate on the affirmative resolution.
My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords for their comments on the Statement. I must emphasise again in response to the noble Lord, Lord Howard, that this is to be a pilot scheme. He expressed anxiety on that score. We have made it absolutely clear that we have no intention of introducing further legislation that might increase the number of casinos—if it is ever mooted—in this Parliament because we will take time to evaluate the impact of the casinos on their localities. I emphasise that one key feature that came through from Professor Crow's report, which the House will have the opportunity to deliberate more intensively as time goes on, is that he is concerned about the areas in which casinos are located. The impact of the regional casino should be measurable.
I do not want to go into the relative merits of the claims in great detail at this stage, but one relevant factor that Professor Crow considered with regard to Blackpool—I can see one or two noble Lords itching to rise to advance the cause of Blackpool, which we all recognised had some strength—was that quite a large transient population would be participating in casino activities, whereas with the city of Manchester the advantage is that it will be much more locally oriented and therefore give us a chance to examine fully in the pilot scheme the impact of the casino on the locality.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, was somewhat unfair in his reference to Kerzner and its association with the Manchester bid. Associated with a number of the major bids were some big gaming interests and organisations. That is how those bids could be rendered credible. But that was about constructing the nature of the bid. Manchester and the other authorities now have to engage in a full competitive process and the large companies that have been associated with particular bids have neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. They start in a fully competitive position as far as the local authority is concerned. I understand the anxieties expressed, but decisions on applications are made by the local authority. The panel made absolutely clear that they needed local backing, and the strength of local consultation was that it helped to establish that fact.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, says that the announcement has shocked. I am sorry if he is shocked by the outcome. If by that he means that he had already made up his mind where the casino was going, that merely reflects a prejudgment—dare I say, even an element of prejudice—when the panel was going about its job in a dispassionate, evaluative way. It reached its conclusions, which the Secretary of State will put before Parliament in due course after having consulted the Welsh and Scottish devolved authorities. She will put before both Houses the recommendations of the panel, which will be subject to an affirmative resolution and debated.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, also said that we did not know the final number of casinos. Of course we do not because, believe it or not, the Government do not dictate the final number. We provided in legislation for the “one plus eight plus eight” formula for this group of casinos, but there are local decisions under the 1968 Gaming Act on which local authorities are deliberating. That is the right of local authorities. Several of them have given permission for casinos to be developed in a much more limited way than the ones described in the Act, which is the issue that we are considering today. Of course we cannot say how many local authorities will agree that a casino is of value to their neighbourhood. That is for them to judge, and it is not fair to criticise the Secretary of State.
I hear what the noble Lord says about the gambling industry making its proper contribution to GamCare and to tackling problem gambling. We will scrutinise that most closely. Sufficient resources are being devoted to GamCare and to other bodies that tackle problem gambling. We have reserve powers to insist that a contribution is made, but we expect the gambling industry to show the right level of responsibility.
My Lords, what possible justification can there be for the Government to produce legislation to increase opportunities for gambling at a time when individuals throughout society are plunged into record levels of debt? What moral or social justification is there for that? Can we at least draw some comfort from being spared the ultimate degradation of a casino at the unfortunate, disastrous Dome?
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says, but he has probably not cast his mind back to one significant increase in debt in this country, when the Conservative Government decided that they would turn regular weekly rent payers into mortgage holders with accumulated debt. That was a decision of the Conservative Government at that time. Mortgages are a significant part of household debt, but we also recognise that the British people can manage their debt effectively because they understand the true costs of that debt and the fact that we can sustain low interest rates and low inflation. Consequently, the debt is manageable.
I did not mention the Dome. I am sorry if the noble Lord is disappointed that the Dome does not feature significantly in this Statement, but it does not.
My Lords, the Millennium Dome is in my diocese, and I am anxious that a good long-term use be found for that remarkable building. Nevertheless, I am relieved to hear that the first super-casino in Britain is to be in Manchester, as such a casino will inevitably bring new problems of gambling and I am pleased that those problems will be tackled in Manchester rather than in south London. However, the people of Manchester have my sympathy. I hesitate to say that these problems will be faced first in Manchester, as media reports suggest that the Government are planning to accelerate the number of super-casinos to be authorised.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I was relieved to hear him give such a clear assurance that the rumour has no foundation and that the lessons to be learnt from the pilot super-casino will be carefully pondered and examined before future super-casinos are planned. We on these Benches will certainly be looking to see that promise fulfilled.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, although he re-introduces the issue of the Dome, on which I was slightly dismissive in my response to the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, for which I apologise. The right reverend Prelate will take some joy from the fact that one of the features of the Greenwich application, on which the panel commented, is that there is a great deal of redevelopment in the Greenwich area at the moment, to the great benefit of the locality. The panel sees that position being enhanced. The casino would not have added sufficient value to that development. As he will know, there are several proposals for the development of the Dome within that framework, many of which have exciting aspects. A great many of London’s facilities will be enhanced in preparation for the Olympic Games in 2012, and we anticipate that the Dome will be utilised then.
The right reverend Prelate says that he feels slightly sorry for the city of Manchester, which will be subject to the pilot study. That is not the view of Manchester or its people, who are delighted with the outcome of today’s deliberations.
My Lords, there will clearly be some enthusiasm for this announcement, no doubt not least from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—quite apart from Manchester and the other local authorities, as we have heard from the Minister. No doubt they will have negotiated other benefits for their area in addition to extra jobs. However, as noble Lords have already heard, there is considerable concern among Members on these Benches and people throughout the country. In a YouGov poll, 56 per cent of citizens were worried that this would lead to more addiction and more social problems. Of course we are glad to hear that the Government are committed to monitoring seriously the likely effect of these casinos. With that in mind, however, can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government made, before embarking on this rash of casinos, of the cost of supporting—and, one hopes, reforming—each additional addict and their family, including the vulnerable children who will be affected, and the local community, which, as we have heard, is likely to be subjected to extra crime? Will the Minister also assure this House that at least this cost will be the first charge on the profits of every casino company involved?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this issue. This gives me the opportunity to correct a slight slip that I made a moment ago. Local authorities organise the bids for super-casinos in their areas, but the decisions to create casinos under the 1968 Act are taken by local licensing magistrates, not by local authorities, and I apologise for that slip.
The noble Baroness mentioned the Gambling Act 2005. The motivation behind that Act was not to create casinos—the casinos are a by-product of that Act—but the fact that our gambling laws dated from 1968 and were woefully misplaced to deal with modern gambling, not least the development of online gambling, which presents a real challenge for regulating authorities. The development of new forms of gambling meant that we had to address the fact that the 1968 Act was out of date. That was the principle behind the Gambling Act, which was also the background to decisions about the casinos, as the noble Baroness rightly recognised. Concern was expressed throughout our consideration of that Act that the nation should balance the obvious increase in the participation in gambling of our fellow citizens who, with increased disposable income, are both entitled and in many cases expected to use that income for gambling, from which they derive a great deal of innocent and proper pleasure, against the necessity of dealing with problem gambling and addiction, in particular the impact on children. The Gambling Act sets out to reach that balance. It was the result of very considerable deliberations in the other place and this House. We think that we have reached the right balance.
My Lords, it is very nice to hear people congratulating Professor Crow and his committee. However, I do not congratulate him on the regional casino: it should not be in Manchester. I spent a very long time on the pre-legislative Select Committee looking at different areas and all the things that I assumed Professor Crow was looking at. Blackpool would be a resort casino; the Dome would be a destination casino; and Manchester would be a city casino. The Select Committee said that the casino should not be in a city. I went to Australia and saw the damage caused by having a casino in a city.
The Minister mentioned regeneration around the Dome. What regeneration has there been in Blackpool? The answer is none. What has there been in Manchester? There has been a lot. Blackpool needed this: it was waiting for it and will need it still. Why do we hand over to an academic committee something that should be decided by this House and the elected Members in another place? Can the Minister answer that?
My Lords, as I have indicated, the final decision will rest with the other place and this House. When the order is considered, I have no doubt that very similar speeches to that which my noble friend has hinted at today will be made here and in the other place. Indeed, she may be a participant in that debate. Therefore, all these issues will be aired. The House will have the opportunity to look carefully at Professor Crow’s report. I can merely report that the judgment that my noble friend reached is different from that reached by the professor and his panel.
My Lords, I assure the Minister that I have never been prouder that I took the title Lord McNally of Blackpool, especially with the town’s dignified and resilient response to today’s news. The Minister mentioned Professor Crow’s report. As the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, has just indicated, the report dismisses with almost cavalier economic illiteracy the Blackpool economic case. I sometimes think that if Blackpool was a steel, coal or cotton town, the impact of declining tourism would be greater appreciated.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, also pointed out, the Minister gives a smooth government decision-making process. I wonder what the royal commission set up to look into this matter thinks about this or what the Joint Committee thinks. The wheel has turned many times and it is unfortunate that this one has turned against Blackpool when the strongest arguments were in Blackpool’s favour.
Two points really worry me. We have suddenly found that this inner-city casino has the merit of being able to test social gambling—quite so. Every study at home and abroad has warned against “door-step gambling”—gambling on the door step. Professor Crow says that,
“most of the social effects”,
as would affect Blackpool,
“would be exported”.
He means that people would go to places like Blackpool for two weeks for holiday enjoyment of gambling. At a door-step casino like Manchester, they will stay with the problem and will create the problem. In many ways, it is the most perverse decision that could be made and is against all the warnings of research.
There is another extraordinary thing in the report. It states that,
“Manchester … is one of England’s eight ‘Core Cities’”,
“national and regional economic growth”.
When and where from did the committee get this information and why were the other applicants not told that this special privilege would be given to core cities as against places like Blackpool?
I should like to make one further comment to opponents of casinos. We have all watched James Bond and George Raft films and the problem with casinos is that they are a nice, emotive issue. In fact, while opponents are obsessing about casinos, the real problem gambling will go on tonight on ITV when people can spend 75p a minute on television quizzes from their beds or make bets from their telephones. The most regulated and most easily controlled problem gambling is at a destination casino. The worst kind of casino is in an inner city where problems are waiting for it and where those problems will fester.
My Lords, perhaps I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who deserves a response to his powerful contribution. He has been unwavering in his advocacy of Blackpool as the location and will get the opportunity for further debate on whether this recommendation should come into effect across the country. He will have the chance to make that advocacy. The noble Lord has presented the great strengths of the Blackpool case. There were great strengths among all bidders in the final group which were considered for the super-casino. Earlier, I reflected in the briefest way possible with regard to the report some factors which were considered by the casino panel.
Of course, there will be disagreement with its conclusions. By definition, there would always be more disappointed towns and bidders than successful ones, which is in the nature of this kind of exercise. However, in one respect, the panel was absolutely clear: a crucial aspect of the Manchester bid was that it gave the best possible circumstances for considering problem gambling in the pilot location. That is the basis of its recommendation. We will in the future have the chance to deliberate on those points.
My Lords, I declare an interest. When the Gambling Bill last came before the House, I was the non-executive chairman of Stanley Leisure. Since then, it has been sold as the result of a takeover and I am now life president. Stanley Leisure had 45 casinos, including three in Manchester, so I, living in Manchester, welcome the casino being situated there.
The decision was difficult and, as a result, I hope that there will not be a series of judicial reviews which will halt the process even further. Some of the more hysterical newspaper reports say that the whole thing is a disaster. I put it to the Minister that Great Britain has the lowest rate of problem gambling in the world. I am proud to be a founder member of GamCare, an organisation that helps to look after problem gamblers. To my knowledge, casinos here keep a tighter control on problem gambling than those in other countries. I commend that and long may it continue. I hope that the comments about crime, prostitution and money laundering are all basically figments of journalistic licence. We have never had a case of problem gambling. We have never had a case involving crime or prostitution. I hope that the Minister will continue that record.
However, I have a few questions—
My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying. I have the following questions for the Minister. Will he give an undertaking that the current opening hours for casinos will remain the same? Will he give an undertaking that advertising will not be broadcast on television or radio before 9 pm? Will the Minister also try to deal with online gambling, which is becoming an extremely difficult problem? I hope, with my years of experience, that I have been of some help to the Minister.
My Lords, the one point on which the noble Lord and I agree strongly is that this was a very difficult decision. Everyone recognises that the bids put in had enormous strengths, and of course several noble Lords have sought to identify the strength of certain cases.
We have the best regulated gambling industry in the world. We have the lowest rate of problem gambling, as the noble Lord indicated, and we intend to keep it that way. However, we cannot avoid the fact that there are now many new activities which involve gambling or something very close to it. Even the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to that when he commented on the development of quiz games on television, which are now causing concern in terms of the nature of gambling. It is because of that that we needed the Gambling Act 2005. It will stand us in good stead to guarantee that we keep a high level of regulation. I want merely to emphasise that within that level of regulation, the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg—there are far too many for me to respond to at the end of our debate on a Statement—are covered.
Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]
Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.
Clause 30 [Designation of the Consumer Council for Water for abolition]:
41: Clause 30, page 17, line 28, at end insert—
“(5) The consultations set out in subsection (3) shall not take place before 2011.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 41 while still feeling somewhat shell shocked by the events of the past two minutes. I thought that my noble friend Lady Miller would move this amendment, but its substance is quite clear:
“The consultation set out in subsection (3) shall not take place before 2011”.
It is very much on a par with the arguments I made on a previous amendment. The thrust of many of our amendments has been to seek to delay the implementation of certain clauses of the Bill. That is the purpose of this amendment and no doubt my noble friend Lady Miller will put the case more articulately than me. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Razzall, and I certainly could not improve on his ability to introduce the amendment. I should apologise to the House because I was delayed briefly in the Minute Room. Following our earlier discussion, I realise that the Government are intransigent on this matter. The purpose of this amendment is to highlight water issues. I do not want to repeat my previous comments because the Report stage should not be used for repetition. However, since we considered these issues in Committee some more material has become available about the link between the price review and the timing of river basin management plans for the water framework directive.
The regulator operates on a five-year cycle for the water price review and is therefore out of sync with the six-year cycle governing river basin management plans. The consumer is caught between those two processes, which is an uncomfortable place to be. This issue, which is a complicated one if you are not part of the water process, is as imperative for customers as the Post Office. It is vulnerable to the fluctuations that will take place as the Consumer Council for Water, which was created only very recently, is subsumed into the NCC. The Government have recognised some of the issues here because they have built a delay into the Bill. I therefore suggest to the Minister that there would be advantages in putting back this merger at least until after the next price review and the river basin management plan are put into effect. By then we will have one river basin management plan under the belt, so to speak, making it a much more auspicious moment to bring this provision forward.
My Lords, Amendment No. 41 seeks to delay the consultation on the merger of the Consumer Council for Water into the new council until 2011. We had a thoughtful debate on this issue in Committee and perhaps I may reiterate some of the key points that were made. One of the fundamental objectives of the Bill is to create a stronger cross-sectoral consumer advocacy body while making consumer representation and redress simpler and more effective. Key to the success of the new body is the retention of sectoral expertise, and this will be equally as important in the water sector as it is for the energy and postal services sectors. The new council will also benefit from the ability to share best practice from different sectors. So, for example, if the Consumer Council for Water is merged with the new council after the consultation in 2008, the council will have the benefit of not only the existing sectoral expertise in the water sector but also experience from other sectors of representing the consumer interest in a price review.
The public consultation held by my department this time last year sought views on the best time to consider the question of the inclusion of the water sector in the new arrangements. Some respondents suggested that the consultation should be later than the proposed date of 2008. However, as I said in Committee, many other respondents believed that the water sector should be included from the outset. We considered carefully the representations made to us and took the view at the end of the consultation that we would consult on the inclusion of the water sector in 2008, recognising that the Consumer Council for Water needs time to establish itself and to start tackling the important objectives it has been given before assessing whether these arrangements are the most effective for consumers. I repeat, though, that the commitment is that we would consult on the inclusion of the water sector in 2008.
I recognise that there are many important forthcoming issues in the water sector, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. There is a price review in 2009 and the ongoing work on the water framework directive will require a strong consumer advocate to represent the consumer interest. It is important that we hold the consultation on the merger of the Consumer Council for Water with the new council earlier than 2011 to ensure that the most effective arrangements are in place to represent the consumer interest.
I also acknowledge the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, raised in Committee about the important environmental role assigned to the Consumer Council for Water and her belief that that role should not be lost. I believe that our earlier discussion on the new council’s sustainable development objective will have demonstrated to it the importance of that role. I can assure noble Lords that if the Consumer Council for Water is merged with the new council after consultation, we will seek to ensure that the crucial and very best elements of the current body are retained in the new council.
I am therefore still not convinced that the amendment represents the best way forward for consumers in the water sector at this time.
My Lords, I thank the Minister on behalf of myself and my noble friend Lord Razzall for giving the most cheering reply we have had all day to any of the amendments. His reply has significantly recognised the issue, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 37 [Removal of the Council's functions in relation to Northern Ireland]:
42: Clause 37, page 21, line 34, at end insert—
“( ) section (The territorial committees)(3A)(c) (functions which Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee is authorised to exercise);”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 41 [Interpretation of Part 2]:
43: Clause 41, page 23, line 41, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
44: Clause 41, page 23, line 43, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
45: Clause 41, page 24, line 1, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
46: Clause 41, page 24, line 4, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
47: Clause 41, page 24, line 8, at end insert—
“A person holding a licence under section 7(2) of the Gas Act 1986 (c. 44) (transportation licences). A person (other than a gas licensee) who is a consumer in relation to services provided by a gas transporter (within the meaning of Part 1 of that Act). The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”
“A person holding a licence under section 7(2) of the Gas Act 1986 (c. 44) (transportation licences).
A person (other than a gas licensee) who is a consumer in relation to services provided by a gas transporter (within the meaning of Part 1 of that Act).
The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. The provision in the Bill for redress schemes for gas and electricity extends to consumers in their relationship with suppliers of gas and electricity. We wish to extend that provision to cover instances where the consumer needs to have a direct relationship with a gas transporter or an electricity distribution company, the network companies responsible for the system of pipes or cables that deliver the energy supplies to the end user.
For most purposes, the relationship is between the consumer and the supplier. That is intentional in order to avoid complexity. There are instances, however, where the consumer needs to have direct dealings with the distributor. In many instances, this will be when a new mains gas or electricity connection is requested. A new connection may prove to be expensive in some cases and there is provision in existing legislation for quotations to be referred to the regulator, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, for determination of the amount to be paid by the consumer.
The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority has indicated, however, that there are instances where its powers of determination may not prove to be adequate to deal with consumer complaints against distributors. At the same time, the authority considers that there will in future be potentially greater scope for consumers to need to have direct contact with distributors, particularly on issues concerning distributed generation. For these reasons we seek to extend the scope of the redress schemes to cover that potential need for redress for consumers.
Amendments Nos. 47, 48 and 53 extend the scope of the requirement to belong to redress schemes to transporters and distributors, and Amendments Nos. 82 and 84 extend the classes of membership of redress schemes that are required to be approved by the regulator. These amendments would mean that the new classes of regulated providers will also be subject to the regulator’s power to lay down standards for handling complaints by relevant consumers in Clause 42, and the provisions for the council to publish information about complaint-handling standards in Clause 44 and to give information to relevant consumers in Clause 45, as well as making the new regulated providers subject to the power to require membership of a redress scheme in Clause 46. The amendments also have the effect of ensuring that potentially a distribution company or a transporter in its capacity as a customer of a supply company should be within the scope of those able to use the redress scheme as would any other customer.
I hope that your Lordships will agree that this is a very worthwhile addition to the Bill’s consumer protection and redress provisions. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
48: Clause 41 , page 24, line 13, at end insert—
“A person holding a licence under section 6(1)(c) of the Electricity Act 1989 (c. 29) (distribution licences). A person (other than an electricity licensee) who is a consumer in relation to services provided by an electricity distributor (within the meaning of Part 1 of that Act). The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”
“A person holding a licence under section 6(1)(c) of the Electricity Act 1989 (c. 29) (distribution licences).
A person (other than an electricity licensee) who is a consumer in relation to services provided by an electricity distributor (within the meaning of Part 1 of that Act).
The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority”
49: Clause 41 , page 24, line 26, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
50: Clause 41 , page 24, line 27, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
51: Clause 41 , page 24, line 30, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
52: Clause 41 , page 24, line 31, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
53: Clause 41 , page 24, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) In this section—
“electricity licensee” means—
(a) an electricity supplier (within the meaning of Part 1 of the Electricity Act 1989 (c. 29)); (b) an electricity distributor (within the meaning of that Part); (c) the holder of a licence under section 6(1)(a), (b) or (e) of that Act (generation licences, transmission licences and interconnector licences), except where the holder is acting otherwise than for purposes connected with the carrying on of activities authorised by the licence; “gas licensee” means—
(a) a gas supplier (within the meaning of Part 1 of the Gas Act 1986 (c. 44)); (b) a gas transporter (within the meaning of that Part); (c) a gas shipper (within the meaning of that Part); (d) the holder of a licence under section 7ZA of that Act (licences for operation of gas interconnectors), except where the holder is acting otherwise than for purposes connected with the carrying on of activities authorised by the licence.”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 42 [Standards for handling complaints]:
54: Clause 42 , page 24, line 35, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 44 [Information with respect to compliance with complaints handling standards.]
55: Clause 44 , page 25, line 27, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
56: Clause 44 , page 25, line 31, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 45 [Supply of information to consumers]:
57: Clause 45 , page 25, line 37, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
58: Clause 45 , page 25, line 39, leave out “supplier’s” and insert “provider’s”
59: Clause 45 , page 25, line 42, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 46 [Membership of redress scheme.]:
60: Clause 46 , page 26, line 5, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
61: Clause 46 , page 26, line 17, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
62: Clause 46 , page 26, line 25, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
63: Clause 46 , page 26, line 27, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
64: Clause 46 , page 26, line 32, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
64A: Clause 46 , leave out Clause 46
The noble Lord said: My Lords, although the amendment seeks to leave out Clause 46, I should say straightaway that—as I am sure the Minister’s officials will have spotted—it is designed not to wreck the entire Bill but to enable me to raise again a point that I raised in Committee. For those who wish to be keen students of my earlier speech, it was reported in Hansard on 9 January at cols. 73 to 75. My point received some support on that occasion from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, both of whom I am pleased to see in their places. My aim in moving the amendment is also to give the Minister a greater opportunity to make a fuller response to my points than he was able to give on that occasion, when I bowled him what could be seen as a bit of a bouncer.
I again declare what I called in Committee a “potential prospective interest” in that I am chairman of the Council on Tribunals which, under a Bill that the House will be considering on Report tomorrow, will become the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and acquire a much greater interest than it has even at present in the world of ombudsmen, which is widely seen as part of the system of administrative justice.
The point in question is that Clause 46, and indeed the estate agents provisions later in the Bill, clearly envisages what I regard as a curious provision for multiple competing ombudsmen in the same sector. It would be wrong for me to rehearse everything that I said in Committee and I shall not do so. I shall simply reiterate the main points.
My first point concerns the irony, if you like, that while the first part of the Bill is designed to create greater coherence and reduce confusion for consumers by setting up a more wide-ranging single National Consumer Council, there is at the same time a possibility of creating greater complexity in the world of ombudsmen. If I brought forward proposals for rival parliamentary, health service or local government ombudsmen, it would be widely regarded as ridiculous. There is no proposal for rival legal services ombudsmen. And I make no apology for repeating almost word for word one point that I made in Committee: the Government have gone to great trouble in the financial services field to get rid of about six different ombudsmen and to create a single financial services ombudsman which has worked out very well.
As I do not intend to take up the House’s time at length, I will simply observe that, so far as I can see, it is no more sensible to have competing ombudsmen than it would be to have competing courts or tribunals. It is even more curious—I might even say bizarre—that the choice is not for the customers complaining, but for the supplier against whom complaints are made—carrying, as again I said in Committee, the obvious risk that the choice of ombudsman will be influenced by the interests of the firm rather than the customer.
I am aware, as the Minister reminded me in Committee, that there is a competing situation in telecoms. That, however, is another arrangement in which the DTI had a major hand, and it has produced a situation which is—again I use understated language—not universally regarded as a model.
From conversations I had at the time of Committee, it was clear that there was a fairly widely held hope that the industry would achieve common sense by agreeing on a single scheme. I suspect, however, that the amendments we have just passed, widening the definition from providers to suppliers, may carry a risk of reducing that likelihood.
There is another irony. In his speech in response to my amendments in Committee, the Minister referred to the fact that,
“In approving the redress schemes, the relevant regulator will be required to have regard to established good practice”—
now “best practice”, I think—
“such as, for example, the guidance published by the British and Irish Ombudsman Association”.—[Official Report, 9/1/07; col. GC 78.]
As I said in Committee, if we are going to quote the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, as I myself did in Committee, its view of best practice is that it is right to have only one ombudsman in any given sector.
I hope the Minister will reflect again on what I have said. We have here an approach that does not appear to be adopted by any other government department, with the possible exception of the DCMS, does not correspond with the advice of BIOA, and, in my view, does not correspond with the interests either of the consumer or of common sense. I hope we might hear a clear explanation from the Minister of just what is the department’s reasoning in coming up with this proposal, which could lead to competing ombudsmen in this field. I beg to move.
My Lords, Clause 46 allows the Secretary of State to make orders requiring regulated service providers to belong to a redress scheme. It specifies that such a scheme must be approved by the relevant regulator or be administered by the Secretary of State or a person appointed for this purpose, and designated as an appropriate redress scheme. Before an order can be made under the clause, the Secretary of State must consult the relevant regulator and others with an interest in the matter.
A redress scheme is defined as a scheme under which consumers’ complaints may be made to, and investigated and determined by, an independent person. The independent person must be independent of the service provider against whom the complaint is made and the relevant regulator in relation to that service provider. The Secretary of State must be satisfied that there is at least one redress scheme in existence that service providers who are required by any order to belong to a redress scheme are able to join before making such an order. In the event that there is no scheme established by industry, this clause makes provision for the Secretary of State to establish one.
Subsection (5) requires that the Secretary of State seeks the consent of Welsh Ministers before making an order that relates to a water undertaker or sewerage undertaker for an area that is wholly or fully in Wales.
I recognise the concerns that have been expressed on this point and in Committee, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I understand that some noble Lords would prefer that the Bill provided for only one redress scheme to be established in each sector. As drafted, the Bill leaves open the possibility of a sectoral regulator approving just one scheme for its sector. That is indeed our policy preference; I make that clear to noble Lords. However, we do not feel that it is appropriate to prescribe that as a requirement on the face of the Bill, as it may not be appropriate in all sectors or in all circumstances. We believe that the sectoral regulators are best placed to decide the appropriate number of schemes to be approved within each sector.
In approving a redress scheme, the provisions in the Bill place a requirement on a regulator to have regard to the total number of qualifying redress schemes available to the relevant service providers. That is intended to avoid any undue proliferation of schemes in a sector. A regulator could indeed decide that the interests of consumers would not be served by multiple schemes, and so might only approve one scheme. I consider that that would provide the greatest degree of clarity and efficiency for consumers and service providers alike. I am happy to reassure your Lordships’ House that the Bill does not require there to be more than one scheme in each sector.
We should recognise that the market sectors as they are today will inevitably change over time. What is appropriate today may well be unduly prescriptive and damaging in the future. A redress scheme set up by the current market incumbents may prove to be entirely unsuitable for new entrants in the years ahead, and could well represent a barrier to entry into developing markets—a barrier that is avoidable today.
This clause introduces a statutory requirement for service providers in the energy and postal sectors to belong to a redress scheme, and will give consumers in those sectors greater assurance of achieving certainty of resolution of complaints.
My Lords, the Minister has probably spotted by now that I am not a natural born troublemaker, so I do not intend to seek the opinion of the House on this matter. I draw some encouragement from what he said. I cannot say that I found it wholly persuasive, when certain arguments that could have been adduced in other fields have certainly not been in the way that I touched on in my earlier remarks.
I take some comfort from the Minister’s remarks. In planning what I might say in gracefully withdrawing, more or less regardless of whatever he said, I intended to say that I took some comfort from the fact that the Bill did not make a multiple-ombudsman situation compulsory. I harbour a good deal of hope that common sense will prevail with the suppliers, the regulator or both. Indeed, I have been encouraged by the Minister’s speech to think that what I regard as common sense has spread to some degree to the Department of Trade and Industry, if it is the department’s declared policy preference that there should be only one ombudsman. I hope that the department may use whatever influence it has on the outcome to achieve a situation in which, whatever the legal provision, the consumer ends up with a single high-quality scheme.
I thank the Minister for that small bit of encouragement and for the trouble he has taken over his reply. I gracefully beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 47 [Membership of redress schemes: supplementary]:
65: Clause 47 , page 27, line 10, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
66: Clause 47 , page 27, line 12, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
67: Clause 47 , page 27, line 22, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 48 [Approval of redress schemes]:
68: Clause 48 , page 27, line 31, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
69: Clause 48 , page 27, line 32, leave out paragraph (d) and insert—
“(d) such principles as— (i) in the opinion of the regulator constitute generally accepted principles of best practice in relation to schemes for providing redress to consumers, and (ii) it is reasonable to regard as applicable to the scheme.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 69 I shall also speak to Amendment No. 92. The amendments relate to Clause 48 under the Consumer Voice provisions and Schedule 6 concerning the redress provisions for estate agents. The amendments outline the matters that a regulator must take into account prior to approving a redress scheme for operation and the key features of any qualifying redress scheme.
As currently drafted, the clauses place a requirement on regulators to have regard to generally accepted principles of good practice. In Committee, Members asked that the word “good” be replaced with “best” in this instance. I was grateful for the opportunity to have a full and frank debate on the issue. I said then that we were in agreement on the fundamental issue, which is to ensure that any approved redress scheme conforms to generally accepted criteria, such as the guidelines provided by the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, which cover issues such as independence, fairness, effectiveness and public accountability.
Our aim is to achieve the best redress provisions for consumers without placing too onerous a burden on a regulator in determining best practice. After considering the issue carefully, we feel that simply substituting “best” for “good” would force a regulator to go through an onerous process to establish what exactly the best practice was, and possibly expose the regulator to challenge on this matter. Approval of redress schemes falls to a regulator in this instance, and the determination of what constitutes generally accepted best practice is a vital part of that process. Having considered the matter further, we have tabled these amendments, which will require regulators to have regard to such principles as, in their opinion, constitute generally accepted best practice when approving a redress scheme. It will be the responsibility of each regulator to reach that opinion reasonably to avoid legal challenge.
The amendment to Schedule 6 also requires the OFT to have regard to,
“such principles as it is reasonable to regard as applicable to the scheme”.
That will ensure that, in considering best practice, the OFT will consider what is best for the estate agent market, as opposed to other markets where redress schemes operate. It brings the wording of the estate agents redress provisions into line with the Consumer Voice provisions. The amendments strike the right balance. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
70: Clause 48 , page 27, line 37, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
71: Clause 48 , page 27, line 41, leave out “suppliers, and those regulated suppliers” and insert “providers, and those regulated providers”
72: Clause 48 , page 27, line 44, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
73: Clause 48 , page 28, line 1, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
74: Clause 48 , page 28, line 5, at end insert “; and
( ) membership of such a scheme requires a supplier to have in place and operate appropriate and effective internal complaint handling procedures”
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment goes to the heart of what this Bill seeks to achieve: a new culture where responsible business practice empowers the consumer and where services are delivered and maintained cost-effectively and efficiently. The amendment would limit what could be a great deal of damage caused by an oversight in the Bill.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward government Amendment No. 69, which now includes the phrase “best practice”, to a limited capacity, within the requirements for a redress scheme. This is a step in the right direction, and I was pleased to see that the Minister had taken on board my amendment from Committee. His amendment takes the redress scheme in the right direction, but I am concerned that the wording could be circumnavigated by some redress scheme proposers to allow them to avoid making complaints-handling procedures a compulsory component of any scheme, thus creating inconsistency across the industry.
Amendment No. 74 would ensure that no redress scheme would be approved unless it required all members to have in place and operate effective internal complaint-handling procedures. The initial function of the amendment is clear. Under Clause 46, the Secretary of State has the power to order all regulated suppliers to be members of a redress scheme; therefore, the inclusion of Amendment No. 74 would compel regulated suppliers to put effective complaints handling in place.
It seems strange that the requirements for complaints handling are so flimsy in a Bill which postures to be the key to streamlining business and consumer relations. It is all very well offering redress to customers, but it is vital to remember that the redress scheme is the last stop in what we could describe as a journey of complaints made by the consumer. It is the last resort. If one is drawing up a Bill that is intended to align the provision of services with consumer satisfaction, a redress scheme that is designed to catch the worst failures in dealing with complaints should of necessity be designed proactively to prevent that failure in the first place.
In 2007-08, Energywatch will receive, it tells us, 600,000 contacts from customers. Approximately 200,000 will require active intervention with the company. New arrangements will mean that, in that same year, the full burden of complaint resolution falls on those companies. This will require a major systems and process overhaul within each supplier if these complaints are to be dealt with effectively and constructively.
Energy companies in particular do not have a good record of dealing with complaints, which are by definition technically challenging and complex. I am extremely anxious that, while the merger of Energywatch and Postwatch into the National Consumer Council could provide the perfect opportunity to relate one consumer matter with another, not only the most valuable evidence of complaints but also the effective delivery of service to the consumer, will be compromised. If complaints are not easily accessible to Consumer Voice, which will be, after all, a sign-posting organisation, the operations of trading standards bodies, the citizens’ advice bureaux and regulators could be compromised by a lack of necessary information.
The amendment does not re-invent the wheel. Indeed, a model of the system that it proposes is already successfully working in the financial services market. The Financial Services Authority already requires that membership of the Financial Ombudsman Service is dependent on an organisation having an appropriate and effective internal complaint-handling function. The Financial Services Authority goes one step further by prescribing the procedures that an organisation must follow when handling complaints, from ensuring that the complaint handler has sufficient authority to settle the complaint to offering redress.
The energy industry is run on an entirely permissive model. Perhaps I may list some characteristic traits of our energy industry's attitude towards consumers. Not one supplier currently records all direct complaints in a manner which would meet criteria set out by the International Organization for Standardization. Not one supplier records a consumer's complaint if it has been resolved at the first attempt. Most suppliers are unable to conduct root-cause analysis of consumer complaints, so the same mistakes keep happening. No suppliers publish data on the quality of their complaints-handling services.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan, in Committee, where he suggested that the Bill should take heed of the financial services industry in streamlining complaints through one ombudsman. I hope that he will support the amendment—if he is in the House—which would ensure that, while there may not be one redress scheme, there would be a guaranteed strong standard of complaints handling and, most importantly, consistency across the industry.
I hope especially that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, whose eloquent contribution in Committee I read again with great interest, will be able to support the amendment. I remember particularly his saying:
“It is … important, that regulators do not have an option to specify higher standards of customer service, which they will regulate and for which there will be sanctions for failure, but have an obligation to do so”.—[Official Report, 9/1/07; col. GC76.]
I was pleased to see that he recognised the difficulties that the National Consumer Council faces. The simple truth is that complaints are set to increase as the population of this country increases and as more people use services. The new NCC, in its capacity as complaints handler, and the companies themselves are not, and will not be, equipped to process them.
Her Majesty's Government have claimed that this Bill signals the improvement of consumer services and a future of streamlined research and response to the consumer from industry, yet the merging of bodies such as Energywatch and Postwatch, without ensuring that companies will now take on the burden of complaints, will amount to little more than wallpapering over the cracks.
I know that the establishment of effective complaints-handling procedures will have a hugely positive impact on the combined forces of the new National Consumer Council, Consumer Voice and Consumer Direct. If consumers can expect to have problems handled efficiently and solved within a reasonable time frame, set out in advance by the company, that will reduce the impact on Consumer Direct of handling thousands of additional complaints and enquiries.
Energywatch has emphasised that making complaints-handling procedures compulsory is the only way to achieve the dual objective of improving complaints handling and saving resources. It will allow the NCC to focus on delivering excellent research and policy work, and most importantly it will ensure that vulnerable consumers, especially those in need of additional advocacy and support, are not left behind by a so-called streamlining operation that does no more than provide a signpost that points away from the real problems that people face.
This amendment is vital to the success of Consumer Voice as a champion for consumers. The Minister's response at Committee was somewhat limited by the large group of amendments and was therefore somewhat disappointing. I hope that he will be able to accept this amendment or, at the very least, agree to look at it and for us to come back to it at Third Reading. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on how she introduced the amendment. We agree with the amendment and have added our name to it as an indication of that. I shall not go over the points she made—they were all good ones—save to say that I, too, was very impressed with the information provided by Energywatch, backing up the need for this amendment.
My Lords, I support the general approach. It is very important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, that the total strategy is taken into account. This Bill will not work unless effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that the companies meet the requirement to handle complaints far more effectively than, frankly, either the post or energy sector does at present.
My only query about the amendment is whether it is in the right place; it might be made to Clause 46, which sets out the requirements on the redress scheme and the regulator. I was also slightly surprised that the leverage in Clause 42 had not attracted any amendments from the Government or anyone else in which a requirement on the regulator to ensure better complaints handling would be necessary to ensure that the companies can absorb the kind of complaints which, at the moment, are dealt with only by Energywatch and, to some extent, Postwatch. If the Government suggested that the amendment should be to another part of the Bill, I would not object, but it seems a crucial part of the approach of the Bill that we have something like this amendment in the final version and that the Government recognise that they should use all leverage on the regulator, via the redress scheme, to ensure that companies comply with a high standard of complaints handling; otherwise, the whole strategy falls. I hope that the Government, if they cannot accept the amendment, come forward with one that achieves the equivalent objective.
My Lords, the amendment requires that the existence of a functioning and effective internal complaints-handing procedure in the case of each supplier and prospective member be made a prerequisite of the approval of these schemes. The current provisions take fully into account the importance of service providers establishing effective internal procedures for handling consumer complaints. The redress provisions are based on the premise that, except in exceptional circumstances in which immediate intervention is warranted, service providers will have the opportunity to resolve disputes first hand.
Although we understand the motivation behind the amendment, we feel that the approach we have chosen is in line with better regulation principles, a point to which I shall return. We are giving regulators the power to make regulations to prescribe complaint-handling standards that would be binding on suppliers. Information about suppliers’ levels of compliance with any prescribed standards would be placed in the public domain. This is a fundamental aspect of the new model for consumer redress being introduced by these measures. We consider that, between this requirement and the requirement to belong to a redress scheme which industry must fund, suppliers will face strong incentives to introduce effective internal procedures for handling complaints.
This amendment would place an additional burden on regulators and scheme administrators in determining whether suppliers operated appropriate and effective schemes, although I take on board the points made by noble Lords. These provisions will need to be adaptable and applied on a sector-by-sector basis, with each regulator being able to take a different approach to suit the sector’s own particular requirements. In some instances, these provisions will need to work alongside existing legislation, and this will be different for each sector.
I shall look at this issue again, but we believe that it is possible to achieve the desired outcomes mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, through the monitoring of performance, especially in the sphere of complaint-handling standards.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, thought it right to put her name to this amendment, and I thank her very much. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, stood up and said it all as chairman of the NCC.
I got very worried during the Minister’s response that he was going to say that he would not take the issue away and look at it, but I think that that is what he said. If he does not come back with an amendment to this part of the Bill perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, suggested, there may be a better place for an amendment to be made. In the belief that he will come back, having looked at this matter, I shall wait for Third Reading and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
75: Clause 48, page 28, line 8, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
76: Clause 48, page 28, line 9, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
77: Clause 48, page 28, line 10, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
78: Clause 48, page 28, line 11, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
79: Clause 48, page 28, line 13, leave out “suppliers were to the regulated gas suppliers” and insert “providers were to the regulated gas providers”
80: Clause 48, page 28, line 14, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
81: Clause 48, page 28, line 16, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
82: Clause 48, page 28, line 17, leave out “6(1)(d)” and insert “6(1)(c) or (d)”
83: Clause 48, page 28, line 18, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
84: Clause 48, page 28, line 18, at end insert “7(2) or”
85: Clause 48, page 28, line 32, leave out “supplier” and insert “provider”
86: Clause 48, page 28, line 45, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
87: Clause 48, page 28, line 47, leave out “suppliers” and insert “providers”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
88: Before Clause 52, insert the following new Clause—
“Standards of competence
(1) Section 22 of the Estate Agents Act 1979 (c. 38) (standards of competence) is amended as follows.
(2) For subsections (1) and (2) substitute—
(1) The Secretary of State will by regulations made by statutory instrument designate any body of persons as an approved body which people engaged in estate agency work, including both the sale and lettings of residential property, must belong to.
(2) The approved bodies must make membership conditional on signing up to rules and codes of conduct, which will include—
(a) prescribe minimum competency standards; (b) ensure that firms have adequate professional indemnity insurance and, as appropriate, clients money protection insurance; (c) require a minimum level of professional development per year; and (d) require membership of a redress scheme.”
The noble Earl said: My Lords, this has been a very frustrating Bill to take part in. In Committee we were hopelessly confused by the groupings of amendments. I commend the Minister for what he has done to make the groupings much better on Report. Now that we are on Report, we have had our concentration broken by what I would consider an unnecessary intervention of a Statement when we were well over two-thirds of the way through the debate.
As usual, I must declare my interest as a consultant to an estate agency in London. I thank the Minister very much for the letters that he has written to me and for our meeting. I am extremely grateful to him; he could not have done more to at least listen to what I had to say, although whether it moved him at all is doubtful.
Amendment No. 88 is a revised version of the one that I tabled in Committee. In Committee a number of arguments were made against my proposals, and I should like to put the counterarguments on the record. The first was that the standards and qualifications that I wanted would inhibit competition in the industry. I believe that the reverse is true; most honest agents want some form of qualifications and are happy to obtain them. Only very recently a record number of 1,200 people sat the various examinations that the National Association of Estate Agents sets. It is interesting to know that the average age of the members of that association has fallen to only 35. I believe that the minimum competency standards should be a basic knowledge of the law, building constructions techniques and valuation techniques. The minimum competency standards set by the NAEA, which are the same as the three points that I have just mentioned, equate to an NVQ level 3.
Another argument raised against the measure was that the problem is not incompetence but one of malpractice and lack of integrity. We all support the idea of a redress scheme but it is equally important that provisions are made for structures to be placed up front. While malpractice and lack of integrity are a problem, they are often encouraged by a combination of not having to abide by rules and codes and from a lack of adequate understanding. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to all the other professions involved in the buying and selling procedure that have to have licensing and regulation; for example, conveyancers, solicitors, surveyors and financial advisers. The Government’s position that you can regulate most of the groups dealing with buying and selling but shy off when it comes to estate agents is totally illogical.
It was argued that my concerns would be dealt with by the negative licensing powers of the Office of Fair Trading. Again this comes back to the issue that a redress scheme will punish only those who have committed a crime; it will not prevent the crime. I welcome the Government’s actions on implementing a redress scheme but I believe that it should be up front and that positive licensing is the easiest and most effective method to check malpractice within the estate agency profession.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said that, as usual, all I really wanted was an expensive closed shop. I counter that by repeating the point that all the other professional bodies involved in buying and selling are effectively closed shops as a result of government action. Thousands of consumers are being ripped off every year because a small number of estate agents are not qualified and are acting as cowboys in what should be a sensible profession.
It is not the case that industry bodies are keen to control the industry themselves. Under my proposals the Secretary of State would agree what the approved body would do or require. I should like to see an approved body that would ensure minimum competency standards and indemnity insurance and client protection insurance as required. I related to the Minister the insurance that I have to carry in order to retain my membership of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Membership of a redress scheme is covered by the Bill. There should be a commitment to a minimum number of hours of continued professional development. That happens in most industries and it is only logical that it should be extended to estate agents.
Consumers will be confused as in due course some estate agents will be regulated and licensed under the alternative business structures in the Legal Services Bill. A large number of the bigger estate agents want to go into partnership with lawyers and produce a one-stop shop, and they will be regulated when they do so. So we will have a dual market—some will be regulated but others will not.
I think that the real reason the Government are refusing to act is because of what is happening in Europe. As most of your Lordships will know, the EU is looking at the whole question of standards in estate agency. Could the Minister confirm that the final draft of the proposed standards which is being drawn up is likely to be agreed in Rome in March, that there will then be a further 12 months for discussion and that the final standards will be published in March next year?
Could the Minister also confirm that Brussels recently informed the Confédération Européenne de l’Immobilier that if countries do not take up the standards voluntarily, it will look to bring them in by directive in 2011-12? As those standards are very similar to those of the National Association of Estate Agents, I take the rather cynical view that the Government are saying, “No, we are not going to do it now because we can blame it all on Brussels in four years’ time when it will be imposed on us”. That is not a sensible way in which to legislate. There has been British representation in all this through the British Standards Institute. The measure has been supported by the Government, and now the Government fail to take the initiative. That is a very good reason for moving this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I repeat the declarations of interest that I made in Committee. I am a director of a large private property investment and development group, Emerson Development Holdings, which builds about 450 homes a year and operates its own customer charter. I have a declarable shareholding in Pochin’s plc, a quoted public company in property development and building services, which has a small house-building division.
These Benches offer broad support to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in his Amendment No. 88. I pay tribute to what he has tried to achieve in protecting the public both in this Bill and previously. He brings his years of professional experience to this subject.
I do not wish to repeat the arguments that we made in Committee; essentially, we seek to expand the scope of the Bill to include both property lettings and direct sales from builders/developers to the public. On lettings, many tenants, particularly of cheaper properties, are by definition far less likely to be able to afford to employ qualified advisers when contemplating a tenancy. Our contention is that they need protecting from unscrupulous agents. In addition, in recent years there have been a substantial number of purpose-built flat developments for letting, particularly in our major cities. Buy-to-let investors, often with limited property experience, have bought blocks of individual flats hoping to benefit from their capital appreciation rather than developing a genuine, long-term landlord/tenant relationship. Should the property market turn down and/or interest rates rise, as they have done recently, those investors may well have to dump the properties on the market, cutting their losses and perhaps allowing an unscrupulous landlord/investor to come in. As agents of mixed qualifications and integrity are likely to be involved at a number of stages, we believe that tenants should have a right of redress. I am particularly pleased that the National Association of Estate Agents supports bringing residential lettings into this legislation.
On sales, the approach by the noble Earl effectively enables the activities of builders/developers selling directly to the public to be classified as estate agency work and therefore subject to the redress scheme. Although the majority of such developers are usually covered by HBF or NHBC charter, we still feel that a redress scheme would provide additional protection for the public.
My Lords, I support the amendment although I shall reserve my comments about lettings until we reach the next amendment. I declare an interest in that I am in the process of trying to sell a property and buy one, so I have direct experience of a number of estate agents. But perhaps those anecdotes should be recounted in the bar rather than in the House.
My noble friend the Minister is very lucky that the NAEA seeks to raise standards through qualifications not in order to impose a closed shop but simply to improve the reputation and standing of the industry so that people like me can be provided with a better service when buying or selling a property. I should say that I am getting a good service; I do not want to cause myself more difficulties. It seems to me that the NAEA has made a sensible suggestion. I understand that since the launch of the scheme some 2,500 people have passed the NAEA’s technical qualification. That has opened up access to the industry, has encouraged younger people to come in and is a way of raising standards. This measure seems to me a good idea and I hope that my noble friend will consider it sympathetically.
My Lords, Amendment No. 88, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, introduces minimum standards of competence for estate agents. I am grateful to the noble Earl for his explanation of his intent behind the amendment. As he mentioned, we discussed this before. The amended Section 22 would require the Secretary of State to designate certain approved bodies that estate agents must belong to. Membership of those bodies would be conditional on agents signing up to the rules and code of conduct of the body concerned, which must include certain competency standards and requirements.
I appreciate the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Lee of Trafford and Lord Dubs, but as I have explained before, positive licensing was looked at in detail by the OFT, which concluded that its benefits are not justified by its costs. The Government share this view. Giving trading and professional bodies control of access to the market could reduce competition and result in rising prices, to the detriment of consumers. There is little evidence that such controls would prevent rogue agents entering the market or remove those agents whose misconduct is predominantly the result of a lack of integrity, rather than a lack of qualifications.
However, the Government support moves to develop national quality standards for residential estate agents in the UK. We see merit in that as, properly done, it can provide an incentive to raise standards. But this is a matter primarily for the industry. We do not support the imposition of compulsory qualifications and standards, which would amount to positive licensing. I recognise that the noble Earl feels passionately about this issue, which he has raised on a number of occasions over many years. I reassert the Government’s intention, which is to improve the current negative licensing regime. The fact that we are setting up redress schemes has been widely welcomed. Requiring agents to join approved redress schemes and making it easier for enforcers to prove misconduct and take enforcement action is the most effective way of tackling problems in the industry without driving up costs for consumers.
The noble Earl mentioned the European issue. At the moment, no decision has yet been taken on whether an EU directive is needed in this area.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Lee of Trafford and Lord Dubs. There are many on the government Benches who dislike the view that the Minister is taking. He has to take his brief, and that is right; but the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has put his name to a number of Bills wanting to control estate agents. The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Davies of Oldham, have both put their names to Bills trying to deal with estate agents. Everyone knows that there is a problem, and the Government are too pathetic and weak even to try to tackle it. They are very happy to try little redress schemes; but that is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to grasp this nettle, and this is the ideal Bill in which to do it.
The Minister said that it is not justified by the cost. I take issue with him on that. Is he prepared to let thousands of consumers be ripped off for a licensing scheme that will not cost the consumer any money at all? There are lots of estate agents out there and there is a big market working. All we are saying is that there should be some form of licensing to raise standards, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said.
I was very disappointed not to receive any support from my Front Bench. That is in marked contrast to what happened in the previous Parliament, when I received very enthusiastic support from my Front Bench. Quite rightly, I have not asked my noble friend Lady Wilcox what she thinks about it; she has a job to do. But since she has been such a doughty supporter of the consumer in the past, it must gall her that the consumer is not about to be given the protection that he, and she, so badly want.
On the European issue, I know that no decision has been taken on a directive; that was not the question I asked. I asked the Minister two other questions, which he has not been able to answer. I did not give him notice of what I was going to ask him, but it is right that he ought to be able to reply and give me a chance to consider his thoughts. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.