rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 March be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by setting this draft order in context. The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 sets out key reforms to benefit consumers. It meets this objective in a number of ways. First, it brings together consumer bodies to form the new National Consumer Council and its associated councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It establishes new redress schemes for consumers in the energy, postal services and estate agency sector, and it improves regulation of estate agents and doorstep selling.
The order concerns the new National Consumer Council and the commencement of Section 5 of the Act, which requires the new council to prepare, consult upon and publish a forward work programme. Work is currently under way to fully establish the new council, to enable it to take on its full statutory functions by 1 October 2008. We have already made substantial progress, although much work remains to be done. The first commencement order concerning the new council—Commencement Order No. 2, which came into force on 21 December 2007—brought into force the provisions of the Act which established the new council, required regulators to set complaint handling standards in the gas, electricity and postal services sectors, and provided for new redress schemes in the same sectors. The new council does not yet have its full range of functions, because it is still in the process of being developed.
Commencement Order No. 4 commenced the provision of the Act which requires the new council to keep accounts with effect from 1 April 2008. The objective of the draft order is to bring into force Section 5 of the Act, with supplementary provisions.
Section 5 requires the new council to publish and consult on a draft forward work programme for each financial year. I should like to come back to the definition of “financial year” in a few moments when I discuss the supplementary provision. Copies of the draft programme must be sent to the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers, the Office of Fair Trading and any regulatory bodies that the council considers might have an interest. The council is required to consider any representations made in response to that consultation.
Section 5 prescribes that the forward work programme must include certain features. It must include a statement of priorities of the council in relation to designated consumers—that is, gas, electricity and postal services consumers—and it must set out the main activities and projects that it plans to undertake in respect of these groups of consumers. The section also requires the council to describe the other priorities, activities and projects which it proposes to undertake.
Finally, the council is required by this section to provide an estimate of expenditure in relation to the forward work programme, and to include separate estimates of expenditure in relation to work in respect of each class of designated consumer: gas and electricity as one class, and postal services as the other.
The supplementary provision in the draft order defines the financial year of the council for the sole purpose of the first forward work programme as being the period 1 October 2008 to 31 March 2010. As a result, the council would consult on a forward work programme for that period.
The requirement in Section 5 is that the council should produce a forward work programme before the start of each financial year. The council is currently preparing to be fully operational on 1 October. It is not possible for it to produce a forward work programme before the current financial year, which has, of course, already started. It is necessary to determine a different period of coverage for the first forward work programme.
The plan is to have the council assume its full range of functions on 1 October 2008. It is proposed in the draft order that that should be the starting date for the first forward work programme.
It is sensible to aim to align the period of the forward work programme with the financial year at an early date. One option would be to have the forward work programme cover the period 1 October 2008 to 31 March 2009, which is six months. However, that would require the council to consult on a forward work programme for a relatively short period and, having done so, to enter into another consultation for the period 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010 almost immediately.
A 12-month period would not align the forward work programme with the financial year. The proposal in the draft order is that the initial period for the forward work programme should be 18 months. The council is already making preparations to consult on a forward work programme. I believe that requiring the council to set out its priorities and objectives for an initial 18-month period would provide it with the opportunity to show its ambition for consumers. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 March be approved. 14th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Tunnicliffe.)
My Lords, I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Razzall. As I understood the remarks of the Minister, the statutory instrument requires the National Consumer Council to produce a work programme before the start of each financial year; it is as simple as that. Specifically, the order deals with Section 5 of the Act, and Article 4 also alters the definition of a financial year as it applies to that section. I think that that is what the Minister said. That will now be defined as being from 1 October to 31 March, rather than the normal financial year, thus making a longer cycle of 18 months. I have no more to say. We support the order.
My Lords, this is a hangover from the exciting debate which ran over the dinner hour last week, so we are all ready for this one. I was chairman of the National Consumer Council and, naturally, I feel very nervous about this new body. I hope that it will be successful. If we have anything to say on the points that the Minister has just made, it would be that the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act gives the Secretary of State the power to require the new National Consumer Council to produce reports on any consumer matter. However, there is no duty for the NCC or the Secretary of State to publish such reports. That calls into question the true independence of the new body. However, I have no wish to stand in the way of the order.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their input into this debate. I am told that, in principle, it is highly likely that the Secretary of State would wish to publish reports made to him under Section 18 of the Act. Of course, each case must be considered on its merits and there may be issues, such as confidentiality, which ought to be taken into account before a decision to publish is made. The new council is, of course, able to publish any reports it wants. Publication and consultation on the council’s forward work programme will represent an important step in the development of this new body. On that basis, I commend the order to the House.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at 6.05 pm.