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Consumer Protection

Volume 749: debated on Monday 11 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what legislation or other proposals they have to update the protections for consumers from unfair practices.

My Lords, rogue traders who mislead and bully consumers, some of whom are the most vulnerable in our communities, are a blight on society. Research by Consumer Focus found that they cause more than £3 billion-worth of detriment to consumers each year. The Government recently announced legislation to make it simpler and clearer for consumers to fight back by giving them new rights to seek redress and, where appropriate, compensation for the damage that they cause.

My Lords, we have range of people and companies ripping off people who play fair: those who mis-sell PPI, rogue claims management companies, dodgy builders, people selling fake goods and people breaching copyrights. For a whole range of services, the Government use premium-rate phone lines so that when people phone for help and advice they pay over the odds for the privilege. For example, when bereaved people phone the Bereavement Service for help and advice they are charged over the odds. Is not the Minister ashamed of that? When are the Government going to put people first?

We agree that it is inappropriate for vulnerable people to pay high charges for accessing vital public services, and we are clear that a more consistent approach is needed. The Cabinet Office now runs a cross-departmental group to consider customer telephone lines. This group has made some good progress in drafting guidance on prefix number selection and establishing best practice. We will publish the guidance and have a standing remit to ensure that it is kept up to date.

My Lords, will my noble friend look at the plight of some bank customers with dormant accounts? Is he aware that a current account can be declared dormant after a year’s inactivity and a deposit account can be declared dormant after just three years? It can take six months for people to get their own money back in those circumstances. Will he ask the banks to notify customers more clearly and more readily that their accounts are to be made dormant and will he try to get the banks to speed up the repayment of people’s own money?

The Dormant Bank and Building Societies Accounts Act was passed in November 2008 and included a requirement for the Government to undertake a review. The legislation set out the specific questions that the review should cover: for example, how many banks and building societies have transferred balances; how much money has been transferred and how promptly; and how effective the arrangements have been for meeting claims. HM Treasury is currently undertaking the review. The closing date was 21 October, and the report will be laid before Parliament by March 2014.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Trading Standards Board. The Minister’s department is currently consulting on a new piece of consumer legislation. Will he tell us why it is in the interest of consumers that this legislation will require that two days’ notice is given before potential rogue traders are inspected by trading standards officers? Why is it in the interest of consumers for potential scammers—importers of counterfeit or unsafe goods—to have two days in which to destroy the material and the records that might otherwise incriminate them?

My Lords, the powers strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and reducing burdens on business and enabling enforcers to tackle rogue traders. Requiring enforcers to give 48 hours’ notice before carrying out routine inspections will benefit businesses by making it more convenient for them to accommodate these inspections. However, notice need not be given, for example, where it would defeat the purpose of the visit, as when a breach is suspected, such as with counterfeit DVDs.

My Lords, will the Minister, in responding to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for protection of consumers from unfair practices, look at helping those people who find that, without their knowledge, they are signed up for membership of trade unions or the Labour Party?

My noble friend may be aware that there is a Bill going through Parliament at the moment and I am at the Dispatch Box later.

My Lords, it is not just consumers of the big six who are taken advantage of by their providers; many vulnerable customers will have to pay more in rent than they should, are taken advantage of by the banks and are unable to shop around. Will the noble Viscount tell us whether the Government are really on the side of consumers and, if so, why they wound up Consumer Focus, whose report he has just quoted? If they are on the side of consumers, what will the Government do to strengthen the power and remit of ombudsmen so that people can get redress for poor service?

The noble Baroness will know that we are on the side of consumers and that we have updated some legislation already, particularly focusing on estate agents. She brought up the issues of tenancies and lettings. All letting and property management agents will have to belong to an independent redress scheme; the process for redress has become much clearer since 2010.

Is the Minister aware of the disgusting practice of payday lenders of targeting their advertising at children’s television programmes? Why do my grandchildren have to be subjected to that kind of advertising when they are watching “Peppa Pig”?

The subject of payday lending has taken up much time in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord will know that we are taking action. The FCA announced last month that it has proposed tough action on payday lending, which includes a focus on children, and we welcome these proposals.