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Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): It is fair to say that we have had a wide-ranging debate on this large Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made clear in his opening speech, the Opposition join with business and consumer organisations in welcoming much in the Bill and I will deal in more detail with the measures that we specifically welcome in a moment.
Many of the provisions are far removed from party politics, but much in the Bill is complex, technical and legal and needs careful and close scrutiny. We are far from convinced that the draftsmen have got it right first time. As has been pointed out more than once, this is precisely the sort of measure that cries out for a draft Bill and proper pre-legislative scrutiny. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) made that point powerfully. What has happened? The Bill was published on the very day that the House rose for the Easter recess and this Second Reading debate is on the first day back after it.
The Bill contains no fewer than 269 clauses and 26 schedules. Myriad regulations will have to be made under it; I hope that we shall see drafts of at least some of them in Committee. However, we face yet another timetable motion and the Government's absolute insistence that the Bill be out of Committee by the middle of May. So, with the best will in the world, the Bill will not receive the detailed scrutiny that it deserves and that is no one's fault but the Government's.
I think that it was Bismarck who once commented that those who love laws, like those who love sausages, should not see how they are made. That comment is particularly apposite to this long and complex Bill. Of course, it is right that the Fair Trading Act 1973legislation enacted under a Conservative Governmentshould be revisited. We support that, as do all the consumer organisations. However, we need to ensure that the functions and powers of the new Office of Fair Trading are properly defined and that it will have the resources to carry out those functions.
How will the so-called super-complaints and stop now orders work in practice? Will they really benefit the consuming public as the Government claim? Why has there been no attempt to reform consumer credit legislation, which also calls out to be revisited at this time?
Ministers should also be aware of the keen disappointment that consumer organisations feel at the failure to introduce a general duty not to trade unfairly as part of the promised replacement for part II of the 1973 Act. Only this morning, I attended the launch of the "Stop Shark Practices" campaign, led by the National Consumer Council with representatives of the Trading Standards Institute, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the Consumers Association.
NACAB, for example, has some significant concerns, which it lists in its briefing for this debate: a series of rip-offs that it believes will not come within the scope of the legislation. Examples include pyramid money-gifting schemes, credit repair scams, time shares and holiday clubs, doorstep and distant selling, and pressure sales often to elderly and unwell consumers. It lists the case of a 90-year-old client with Huntington's disease who was sold an adjustable bed. The company would not refund
While we are on that subject, in clause 202, where is the list of so-called domestic infringements that are meant to be covered? How on earth are we meant to debate that clause and those powers in Committee if we do not have that list in front of us? Will the Minister assure us that it will be available in plenty of time, before the Committee reaches those deliberations?
Under existing legislation, stop now orders have not been the success some hoped that they might be. They are at present operated with a lack of clarity and predictability, which is worrying for business. The guidance required by the relevant regulations has still not been published. When can we expect to see it? We need to ensure that the new measures do not create unacceptable and costly burdens for business, as well as giving consumers the protection that they need.
Another point made by more than one hon. Member in the debate concerns resources. It is all very well passing all these new regulations and giving new powers, but what if the resources are simply not there for trading standards departments to enforce them? We all know from our own experience that, as it is, trading standards departments are overstretched in many parts of the country. If they are to have all these new powers and duties without a concomitant increase in resources, that is simply unacceptable.
As we have made clear, we welcome the end of ministerial interference in the competition and mergers regime, but that was on the cards anyway and, in recent times, Ministers have only rarely refused to follow the advice of the director general. We have a Conservative Secretary of State to thank for the existing guidelines that decisions on mergers should be based primarily on competition grounds. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) made some good points on this issue, based on his own hands-on experience.
The Opposition think that it is too early to revisit competitionthe Competition Act 1998 has only been in force for a couple of years. More time should be allowed for the legislation to settle down in practice. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made that point powerfully in his knowledgeable and telling speech.
We note the concerns of business about criminalising cartels. Of course, no one is in favour of cartelshardcore or otherwisebut is this the right way forward? The new regime will be out of step with most of the rest of Europe. In practice, it might make little difference and it seems to propose an extreme range of possible punishments for individuals. We also think that the new powers of the OFT to investigate markets could well be a massive extra burden on business. There must be some limit on how those powers are exercised and how the costs are dealt with.
On the Bill's insolvency provisions, we welcome the abolition of Crown preferencewho would not? But we wish to ensure that the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will not find other ways of securing their pound of
Sadly, there will always be the Maxwells and others who are genuine villains, but what about the pathological optimist who can often leave just as much wreckage in his wake? In short, we must ensure that there is no danger of this becoming a rogues charter.
We have concerns also about the cost of bankruptcy. Some people will still be too poor, literally, to go bankrupt. We have concerns about whether the official receiver will have sufficient resources to operate the new system. The question of resources will run through Committee.
We can all see the wisdom of giving innocent bankrupts a fresh start but, in the real world, credit reference data are kept for anything up to six years after a bankruptcy. That is bound to affect the ability of a discharged bankrupt to take on new obligations. The Government seem to have missed this point altogether, but it was dealt with powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).
We also share the concerns of a whole range of organisations about the proposals for administration, which we think are unrealistic. They could be costly, bureaucratic and slow; these issues were dealt with by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).
Fundamentally, we all know that this is not really a Department of Trade and Industry Bill at allit has the Chancellor's fingerprints all over it. We are told that he is impressed by the enterprise and productivity of the United States economy, yet he has completely missed the point in ignoring the role of light-touch regulation, low taxes and limited bureaucracy in the USA's success. We agree with the CBI when it says:
The Institute of Directors has this to say about the Bill:
It stretches credulity when the regulatory impact assessment accompanying the Bill claims that no significant costs will be imposed on business as a result of the competition and consumer measures. [Interruption.] I welcome back the Secretary of State, fresh from relaunching her website, no doubt.
The real irony of the Bill's timing is that we are debating it against the background of the Government's sharply deteriorating relationship with business and the City. Even after the humiliating U-turn of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions over Railtrack, it still seems likely that the shareholders will sue him and the Government. Even if the Government can raise the funding for their various projects, it is bound to cost the taxpayer more than it would have done. There will now be a premium to be paid for financing Government projects.
Among the large flock of chickens coming home to roost is the disastrous effect on company pension funds of the Chancellor's smash-and-grab raid on pensions. If we add to that the seemingly never-ending string of revelations about the Prime Minister's cronies such as Mr. Mittal and Lord Levythe list goes onwe see a massive loss of confidence in a Government who, in opposition, went to enormous lengths to woo business.
Finally, is not the truth that the first super-complaint about the Bill should be about its title? It has about as much to do with enterprise as the Government's spinning has to do with the truth. I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Second Reading because of the measures that I have indicated that we support and that are supported by business and consumers. However, we shall not let the Government get away with the preposterous notion that the Bill has anything to do with encouraging enterprise.