Enterprise Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Field: On a further point, will there be, in a sense, a period of purdah, in that after the trigger mechanism and the 60 or 90-day investigation has begun, super complainants will not have the opportunity to make further representations during that period that might influence the OFT in determining whether there should be a fully fledged investigation? A highly organised consumer campaign could put great political pressure on the OFT during its investigative period, and surely it would be wrong for any party to make further representations after the initial investigation has begun.

Miss Johnson: We do not envisage ongoing involvement. There will be discussion beforehand about what a reasoned case looks like, and published criteria will be discussed beforehand and put out for consultation. Once the complaint is made, there will not be further discussion. The OFT will look at those matters. There is nothing to stop anyone mounting campaigns. Indeed, all Committee members are experts at mounting campaigns and understand those pressures.

One aspect of the changes, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) should bear in mind, is that the removal of politicians from aspects of the process will ensure that the OFT will be as watertight as possible in examining cases and forming judgments, despite any surrounding political campaigning. The grounds for examining a case are whether there is a market problem.

Mr. Field: The Under-Secretary seems to have a low regard for us politicians and our open-mindedness on such matters, but I would like to explore this further. She will understand the concern that if it were made

Column Number: 090

public that the OFT was investigating a particular industry, as it inevitably will, a large-scale newspaper campaign could follow which might greatly tempt the super complainant body into ensuring that it was seen in the public arena to have teeth. That body might then put forward a petition or make further representations during the 90-day period in a way that was potentially highly prejudicial to the industry being investigated. I wanted the Under-Secretary's assurance that the OFT would not be subject to media pressure and to a second bite of the cherry by the complainant who made the initial application that was subject to the 90-day investigation.

Miss Johnson: The reasoned case would be submitted. It is not possible to stop items dropping through the OFT's letterbox but things will not be done on the basis of the super complainant being invited to make further representations. It will be for the OFT to consider the case that has been presented—initially, it must meet the criteria about what the case should look like and how it should be presented—and then to form a view about whether it should go into the normal complaints process which, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, is a pre-investigation investigation. If it were accepted that the case was valid, it would be put into the investigation process and go through the normal channels.

Mr. McWalter: I invite my hon. Friend not to pursue too closely the precise mechanisms by which super complaints are generated, as there are so many. Many of the Opposition's contributions assume that the investigations will be directed only at legitimate businesses, causing them harassment, and they appear not to trust consumer associations and others.

Miss Johnson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's encouragement not to go into too much detail, although I understand to some extent why Opposition Members are so concerned about it. However, there will be a public process in which the super complainants will be subject to public scrutiny of how they conduct their role, and guidance will be published about how they will do so. Those bodies will need to have, and to maintain, their credibility by exercising good judgment in how they operate in a public arena. The press and other organisations will have views about these matters and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said in respect of the telephone scams, hon. Members, too, might express their views.

We are in a public environment and public debate is at the core of the matter; the OFT will need to publish its views and plans for any action that it proposes to take. We want to ensure that both sides benefit from the demand for high-quality input and responses that are well judged, well reasoned and in line with publicly published guidance.

Mr. Carmichael: I am greatly reassured by what the Minister said. I add my weight to the call to resist the siren voices in the Committee. I am struck by Conservative Members' antagonism to consumer groups, which is entirely unhelpful. To listen to the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Huntingdon, one would think that businesses were never involved in lobbying or publicity. If there is

Column Number: 091

a damaging press campaign, there are already delictual or tortious remedies to companies that are well able to afford them.

Miss Johnson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. I shall ask the Committee to reject the amendments. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman could not attend the Committee's previous sitting. If he had been present, he would know that Conservative members of the Committee were split on these issues; there was strong advocacy for the consumer voice on the Bill and what the consumer organisations wanted from it. The National Consumer Council strongly supports the super-complaints process, and the hon. Member for Eastbourne earlier extolled the virtues of listening to the consumer's voice on the Bill.

I have dealt with most points raised by hon. Members in their contributions to our interesting debate and I urge the Committee to resist the amendments.

Mr. Waterson: At least one of my earlier questions has been answered. Clearly the anti-business wing of the Liberal Democrat party is with us this morning; no doubt the pro-business wing will make an appearance later in our deliberations. With all due respect, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead was a bit grumpy this morning about an amendment that would shorten the period within which a super complaint would be responded to, but there we are.

Mr. McWalter: The hon. Gentleman should know that I am never grumpy.

Mr. Waterson: Perhaps I should have said dozy. I withdraw the remark unreservedly, though Committee proceedings are subject to qualified privilege when it comes to the law of defamation. There was a little of the same from the Under-Secretary, and rather more of it from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who complained that it was monstrous that the Opposition were worrying about the effect on business. Yes, we do worry. Business needs its interests looked after—Miss Johnson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: Let me finish the sentence, or, at least, the clause of the sentence. Given the slap in the face that the Government gave business and industry yesterday, plus all the other accumulated slaps in the face, it is important that somebody here sticks up for business.

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is being deliberately contentious. Other hon. Members may wish to defend their views on business, but I have certainly not said anything in relation to the hon. Gentleman's belief about our attitude to business that he could attribute to me. Earlier I quoted the hon. Gentleman's words back to him; that fair trading is good business. We strongly believe in supporting good business and all members of the Committee want to give their fullest support to good business. Indeed, good business is often disadvantaged when cheats, scams and frauds in the system prevent the operation of a level playing field. We must ensure that good business does not face such competitive disadvantages.

Column Number: 092

Mr. Waterson: I promised myself that I would try to avoid using the phrase ''level playing field'' during these debates, but—

Miss Johnson: Ditto.

Mr. Waterson: The Under-Secretary has beaten me to it.

If there was an attempt to misrepresent our views on these matters, it was wrong. It is a question of balance and, for the record—so no one can be in any doubt—we are pro-consumer and pro-business. The Under-Secretary kindly cited a phrase that I had quoted from the then Sir Geoffrey Howe on this very subject.

The Under-Secretary's remarks were helpful, but she has not provided an assurance that the period in question will not be extended. We would greatly welcome a power to reduce the period, but we have had no confirmation from the Under-Secretary—sadly, we have had quite the opposite—that an increase will not take place. We do not oppose the power in itself—we are in favour of it—but we want it to work properly and to ensure that the period for responding does not creep up over the years in response to pressure of work.

An element of confusion remains about the test to be applied. I appreciate that we are not talking about a court of law, but people need to know what level of evidence will be necessary to secure a full inquiry. I hope that the guidance will sort that out in due course. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 5, line 12, at end insert—

    '(3A) In the event that the OFT decides to take no action, and an undertaking has incurred costs as a result of the complaint, the consumer body which made the complaint shall bear the reasonable costs of that undertaking'.

With the help of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead and others, I shall try to be brief. Strong views exist on the issue and it is important to reflect both sides of the argument. The CBI believes that under the current system investigations by competition authorities often involve huge costs and other burdens on business. We developed that argument in a different context on Tuesday, so I need not labour the point.

Business is concerned, not unreasonably, that it may become enmeshed in a large Office of Fair Trading investigation into a company or a sector. The hon. Gentleman was probably right in hinting that it is more likely to be into a sector, but it is perfectly possible that an individual company will be responsible for a widespread abuse.

10.30 am

These matters can be long, drawn-out and expensive. Just because the OFT has to respond to the original super complaint within 90 or 60 days does not mean that it will not take a long time to reach a resolution, certainly if the activities of the Serious Fraud Office and others when dealing with competition are anything to go by.

Column Number: 093

The CBI believes that, where there is a lengthy and expensive investigation but a company is exonerated, there should be compensation. I know that it is stretching the hon. Gentleman's imagination a little to suggest that there are innocent companies out there and that companies will be exonerated on occasion.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 18 April 2002