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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware, as will the entire House, that your predecessor was always a doughty fighter for the rights of Back Benchers, but particularly that your predecessor deprecated any practice of Government Ministers making outside the House statements that she said should have been made here. I hope that you will confirm that your policy will be to continue that.

Could you help the House, Mr. Speaker, by telling us--in the light of that and if you can give us that assurance--how it was that you felt able to give a press conference outside the House this morning, before you had been able to share your thoughts with Members of the House?

Mr. Speaker: Let me say that I have the highest respect for my predecessor, but she is gone. She is no longer the Speaker; I am the Speaker. I say this to the right hon. Gentleman: I made no statement. I called the press in because my home in Glasgow has been inundated by people from the press. They had no malice, but they wanted to speak to me, and that was all that they wanted to do. Many of you will understand, as many of you have families, that, for the sake of my family, I had that concern. The press corps here, many of whom are highly respected, had asked to speak to me about me--that is all: about me. I chose, instead of giving individual interviews, to speak to them as a body. I think that that was a proper thing to do. [Interruption.] Order. That was a proper thing to do.

I have a responsibility to my family, back home in Glasgow, to ensure that they are not pestered in any way. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I will never stop him from speaking to whom he wants to speak to and he will not stop me. Let me give this assurance: on anything to do with this House of Commons, I will be the first to come before the House of Commons and make a proper statement to the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We know that, on Monday, a number of people contended for your job and I nominated someone other than yourself. The final decision was quite clear--an overwhelming majority, to say the least. Can we now work on the assumption that, the House having taken the decision on Monday, that will be accepted by all Members, and you will not be the subject of continued sniping and spite by those on the Opposition Benches--a small number, I believe--who simply cannot accept the democratic decision of the House?

Mr. Speaker: I have heard no sniping. Everyone likes a Speaker.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): With that happy note, Mr. Speaker, may I concur fully? I have enjoyed many an occasion privately with you in the Tea Room,

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when we have conferred on matters. However, may I trouble you to pursue the point of order that was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? I have not had the opportunity to see the full transcript of what you said this morning, but I did see on the television that you said that you were not the Government's man--that you were the House of Commons' man, and that you were going to stand up for our rights. I am sure that all Members of the House will appreciate that.

However, I did raise with you yesterday a point regarding Ministers making statements outside the House and Ministers not being in the House to attend to their responsibilities here. Your predecessor, Speaker Boothroyd, made it very clear from the Chair to all of us that she expected Ministers to make statements here, not outside--that they should come and be answerable here--and she also made the point--

Mr. Speaker: Order. With respect to Speaker Boothroyd, Betty is no longer with us. You may want to have a quiet conversation with her outside the House, but it has nothing to do with us. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that if anyone--whether a Minister or a Back Bencher, a member of the Opposition or a member of a minority party--is in breach of the rules of this House, I will bring them to order. That is the best answer that I can give. [Interruption.] No; I am not going to continue; there are people who have other matters to raise.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. Have you received either confirmation from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions that he will be with us this afternoon or an apology for his intended absence?

Mr. Speaker: No.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raise with you an issue about which I have given you notice. In the debate on Monday that secured your elevation to the Chair, it was repeatedly affirmed that Members are all equal in their rights, responsibilities and privileges. As far as I can tell, I, as an English Member, cannot ask in this place a question about the governance of the national health service in Scotland, yet, yesterday, a Scottish Member asked a question about the national health service in England and Wales. Is it in order for a Scottish Member to be able to exercise a privilege that is denied to Members from south of the border?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. He makes an interesting debating point, but it is not really a point of order. Parliament legislated for a Scottish Parliament in 1998 and there were opportunities to debate those issues then. I also remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that it was only last year that the House debated and approved the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the procedural consequences of devolution.

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Rogue Traders

3.36 pm

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I beg to move,

My Bill would amend the Fair Trading Act 1973 to deal effectively with rogue traders whose businesses sell shoddy or overpriced goods and sub-standard services and whose tools are misleading information, oppressive behaviour and high-pressure sales methods. The provisions of the Act for protecting consumers against such traders are out of date. It does not provide the means to take relevant and, above all, prompt action against rogue traders in today's marketplace.

At present, when a rogue trading practice is identified, the Act requires that the Director General of Fair Trading must, first, find out about the problem through local fair trading standards departments, who are then sent off to collect information and evidence, and secondly, look at the rogue trader activity only when it breaks the rules covered by existing consumer protection legislation or breach of contract. In other words, the bad practice must have already been dealt with under the law. Thirdly, the director general must then show that the rogue behaviour is "persistent". In other words, there has to be evidence of it going on over an undefined period of time. Fourthly, he must then try to get a written undertaking that the trader will stop that course of conduct. Finally, only if that undertaking is broken can the matter be taken up in court.

Therefore, the Director General of Fair Trading cannot make the trader give an undertaking. The time that it takes to collect the evidence is time enough for the rogue trader to take the money and run. Often, the rules being broken are not adequately covered by existing law and not easily evidenced for a civil breach of contract case. The rogue trader often uses careful lies that either only imply things or are incorporated into what is said but never into what is written down. In other words, the rogue trader is not playing by the same set of rules.

As consumers, we are not trained to question traders in detail and to nail down exactly what we are being sold. We assume reasonable behaviour and can be conned by the unscrupulous. The lengthy procedures required for the Office of Fair Trading to act leave consumers vulnerable to scams and allow rogue traders to make their money and move on. We are failing consumers by leaving such a gap in consumer protection law.

We buy over the internet, by post and by telephone, as well as in person, and we need consumer protection legislation that can keep up with the fact that we do not know the people from whom we buy and cannot rely on their being bona fide traders. Even if we ask at the local trading standards service, we can expect to receive only carefully worded warnings. It cannot tell us of its fears until it is too late, when the deed is done, the money spent and evidence taken in court.

Many victims of shoddy or overpriced goods, substandard services, misleading information, oppressive behaviour and high-pressure selling techniques are elderly, badly off, or vulnerable in some other way, but the activities of rogue traders are not confined to any one group. All consumers can be subject to such problems and to the ineffectiveness of our legislation.

25 Oct 2000 : Column 224

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux tells me that, throughout the country, its members receive frequent inquiries from consumers who suffer as a result of inadequate legislation to stop rogue traders. For example, a women in her 80s recently contacted a citizens advice bureau in the south. She is one of many persuaded to buy security equipment. Each time the trader calls, she is pressurised into buying more security, and has now spent more than £8,000.

Trading standards officers are aware of many similar examples. In my constituency of Luton, South, scare tactics are used to sell security equipment. On the doorstep, the salesman sadly explains that there have been many burglaries in the area recently to coerce elderly people into buying overpriced security systems and associated service contracts. In one instance, a 20-year service contract was sold to a 90-year-old woman. Elsewhere, an 80-year-old woman was coerced into paying more than £3,000 for plumbing work worth £600. There is even evidence of traders creating dangerous problems in heating systems to persuade consumers to buy a new system when the problem would have cost only about £50 to put right.

In Luton, South, trading standards officers are aware of a company selling local residents water purification systems, with the implication that their water is not fit to drink. The company leaves empty bottles with householders to be filled with tap water for collection and analysis by the same company. It is implied that the company is associated with the water authorities and that the water is unfit. The householder, believing there to be a problem with the water supply, is then sold a water purification system with an expensive after-sales service contract, often on a credit agreement with a ridiculous APR of 22.9 per cent. over five years. The cost can be more than £3,000.

In that instance, trading standards officers have no evidence at this stage of a criminal offence, but both they and the local water authority have tried to publicise the true nature of the sale. Although people have cancellation rights under the doorstep selling regulations and the Consumer Credit Act 1974, they are not yet aware of the deception and continue to be conned.

None of us here will have to look far to find examples of such practices. Another case in my constituency, with which I am dealing, involves elderly victims. One couple were told by a company called Florida Direct that they had won a free holiday. Naturally, they were over the moon, but they were asked for their credit card details to secure the prize. What they were not told was that they would have to pay for flights and part of the accommodation. Their credit card was used to withdraw £500 from their account, and they are still fighting to recover that money.

By empowering trading standards officers, my Bill will help to wipe out such practices. It widens the power to stop rogue traders by giving trading standards officers on the ground, who know what is happening locally, the ability to act immediately as soon as a problem comes to light. It allows the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards services to require a trader to cease the offending trade practices and gives the power of a banning order which can include compensation to consumers.

The Bill allows for prompt action, which means that rogue traders cannot continue to make their money out of the vulnerable while trading standards officers remain

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powerless to stop them. It does not limit action to cases where the existing law is being broken. It changes the request for a rogue trader to agree to better practice for a requirement to trade fairly. It gives that requirement teeth, with the penalty of a banning order.

The Bill also deals with the issue of the money paid by consumers, by allowing for compensation to victims of rogue trading. In short, it changes the treatment of rogue traders from, "Please will you be good in future, now that you have made your money?", to, "You will change now, or lose your right to trade and be made to refund that money."

The Bill catches all unfair practices and does not rely on a string of criminal prosecutions and/or civil cases before the problem can be effectively dealt with. It will also do much to strengthen consumer knowledge about what unscrupulous traders are up to through a requirement to publicise the content of banning orders.

The Bill trusts consumers with the information that they need to be the confident consumers described in last year's White Paper "Modern markets--confident consumers". It will thus allow consumers a measure of confidence in consumer protection, and evidence that they are being listened to. It puts the consumer centre stage.

The Bill will be a positive force for businesses, both for companies which suffer from the reputation of the rogue traders who will be caught by the legislation, and also because knowledgeable and demanding consumers are a positive force for business. I urge support for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Margaret Moran, Mr. Norman Baker, Mr. David Davis, Mr. Kerry Pollard, Helen Jackson, Helen Jones, Mr. Jim Dobbin, Mrs. Rosemary McKenna, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Mr. Alan Keen and Judy Mallaber.

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