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Clause 3

Transfer to Authority and Council of functions, property etc.

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 3, leave out from ("Directors")") to ("are") in line 4

4.34 pm

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 3, 36 to 50, 52 to 54, 150 to 158, 174, 187, 206 to 212, 221, 225, 226 and 245.

Dr. Howells: The amendments are concerned with the consumer council, and, in a few cases, the authority. There are three sub-sets within the group. The first set make arrangements for independent adjudication of disputes about the council's rights of access to information from the authority or from companies. The second group affect the council's powers to report on its investigations. Finally, a set of miscellaneous, minor amendments improves and corrects the drafting of the Bill.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We are obviously in for a long evening because there is much important material in the Lords amendments. Fortunately, the House has a lot of time in which to deal with the Bill, in contrast with the last matter before us on which important changes to the rights of individual citizens were disgracefully railroaded through the House under a guillotine.

The Utilities Bill is not in the same category as the Football (Disorder) Bill, but it introduces important measures that require our mature consideration. I will not detain the House unduly on this group, nor will I linger on each amendment. It would be far from my mind to do that.

My eye has lit, however, upon amendment No. 38, the wording of which could give rise to worries under some interpretations. The Minister will wish to leaf through his notes to consider the amendment. Of course, he will already have done so, because he is doubtless well acquainted with every one of the amendments before us. We shall wish, over the next few hours, to tease out just how well he has read them. For now, however, I wish to ask only about amendment No. 38.

27 Jul 2000 : Column 1317

The amendment states:

It may well be thought that paragraph (a) is relatively uncontroversial, and one cannot argue with the proposition that if an individual or body has consented, it is perfectly proper for publication to proceed. We can dispose of that provision without further ado.

Paragraph (b) is more problematic, however. Real questions arise about "some other source". Wording so loose and general must give rise to some concern. There is no further definition, and no restriction is proposed. What if the other source were to be one normally bound by confidentiality?

Dr. Howells: If it were commercially confidential, it would not be available to the public. We are discussing information already available to the public from other sources.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful. We are discussing a duplication of effort, then. Information already available elsewhere will simply be rearranged and represented. That being so, one wonders how worthwhile the amendment is.

Dr. Howells: Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. On this Bill, I have been constantly accused of including all sorts of Henry VIII powers and so on. With this amendment, I am trying to include the briefest provision possible, and am finding myself criticised for it by the hon. Gentleman, who is usually a fount of common sense in these matters.

Mr. Forth: I am glad to hear that--as I would have expected of him--the Minister has paid close attention to the matter, exercised his judgment and decided that, on balance, the amendment is acceptable if not actually beneficial.

The most worrying of the three paragraphs in amendment No. 38 is (c), which states:

Here, we enter a judgmental area. It would appear that the council is being given the power to take the decision. That is a serious judgment in any case, but we will have to be more than usually satisfied to give it explicitly to the council.

As hon. Members well know, making available information, in particular about an individual or body, can be extremely prejudicial in many ways. If the body is a commercial business, it could seriously affect its share value, for example. In some circumstances, it could prejudice the degree of confidence that the public have in a public body. In the case of an individual, I do not need to tell hon. Members about the damaging or deleterious effect that publication of information about them might have. Almost daily, there are cases where the publication of information can be damaging to an individual.

27 Jul 2000 : Column 1318

I wonder what safeguards might exist. Paragraph (c) simply states, baldly that

the information should not be judged seriously or prejudicially to affect interests. There is nothing to say what recourse an individual or body might have if the council judged that publication was not prejudicial, but the individual felt that it was.

Dr. Howells: As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, other parts of the Bill contain stringent provisions to ensure opportunities for appeal about the demand for information, in which case the decision would go to an adjudicator. In this case, the adjudicator will, temporarily, be the authority or regulator, who is paid a great deal of money to make such decisions.

Mr. Forth: I am only partly reassured by that intervention. The timing of these events is crucial. If the information is already in the public domain--about me, for example--and I then tell that highly paid adjudicator that I do not believe that it is right and he agrees, the damage has already been done. If the information is already in the public domain, what is the point of that highly paid adjudicator coming to my rescue?

Dr. Howells: The right hon. Gentleman has a good point, but as he said, it is all to do with timing. The adjudicator would adjudicate on the initial offering up of the information, not subsequent to it being offered up. If the information was delivered on request, the adjudicator would prevent it from being put in the public domain if he felt that it would be harmful to the company involved.

Mr. Forth: If the Minister is telling me that he is satisfied that there is a mechanism whereby, before the information is in the public domain, the individual or body would be apprised of the fact, that is sufficient.

Dr. Howells indicated assent.

Mr. Forth: I gather that that is what the Minister is telling me. If he is satisfied that mechanisms exist properly to protect individuals and bodies from potential damage, of course I accept his word. He has studied the matter and given it his mature consideration, and that is his view. Therefore, on that basis, I am prepared to accept what he says.

That brief exchange shows--I am sure that I do not need to persuade you of this, Mr. Deputy Speaker--the value and necessity of the scrutiny that we are undertaking. It is one thing for a Bill to go through all its stages in this House and to go to another place, it is another for the Lords to have amended it. It is equally essential, is it not, for us to have the opportunity to consider what has been suggested and to determine how appropriate it is?

I pay the Minister yet another tribute--he stands high in my regard anyway. At least with this Bill we are not being constrained by the usual jackboot of a guillotine motion. The Football (Disorder) Bill, which we have just considered, was a disgrace. However, the Minister is content for us to debate this Bill properly and to consider it. I pay tribute to him and, indeed, to the Whip on duty, who is also generously allowing the House proper time to consider the matter appropriately.

27 Jul 2000 : Column 1319

Having obtained the assurances that I had hoped for, I am satisfied that I need not challenge the Government on this matter any further.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.

Clause 6

Publication of advice and information about consumer matters

Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 4, line 17, leave out from ("matter") to end of line 20 and insert
("which relates to the affairs of a particular individual or body of persons (corporate or unincorporate), where publication of that matter would or might, in the opinion of the Authority, seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that individual or body.")

4.45 pm

Dr. Howells: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

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