Enterprise Bill

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Mr. McWalter: Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that consumer groups may end up with additional responsibilities and potentially significant financial problems as a result of those new responsibilities unless their resource base increases substantially?

Miss Johnson: That is conceivable, but it is for consumer groups to prioritise their resourcing of both time and money and to decide what their priorities are. If there were a general area of difficulty in the way in which a market was working and such a consumer group were able to proceed with a super complaint, which one would expect it to pursue successfully in such conditions, that would reduce its work load in a number of other ways and increase public interest in supporting it. The NCC's submission makes it clear that it is keen to be designated.

Mr. Waterson: If I may say so, Mr. Beard, one or two hon. Members have got a little overheated and perhaps even grumpy about the effect of amendment No. 20, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East characteristically put into context.

There are plenty of safeguards before such a provision would kick in. First, there is the designation process about which we are shortly going to talk. I hope that the Secretary of State will designate precisely those consumer bodies to which I referred earlier, namely professional, long-established, well-supported, thoroughly responsible bodies that are already active in the field.

Secondly, the business of frivolous and vexatious complaints is another red herring because we are all confident that the OFT would dismiss those out of hand and the most that would be generated would be a short exchange of correspondence with the company.

Miss Johnson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that such complaints are unlikely to be put before the OFT? I agree that they should be dismissed quickly by the OFT and not pursued, but does he accept that it is highly unlikely that they would ever be brought?

Mr. Waterson: It is a chicken and egg situation, because we do not know what bodies will be designated. During our forthcoming debate, we shall press the Under-Secretary for a clue as to who will be the lucky winners of the lottery. I hope that there would not be such complaints, but if there were, they could be dealt with quickly and at minimum cost to anyone, which is what they would deserve.

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The absolute worst-case scenario would be costs incurred over a 90-day period. We believe that the period should be shorter at 60 days and the CBI would like 30 days, but three months should be the maximum. The amendment is sensible, but in a spirit of amity and with the wish to make progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 5, line 17, leave out from 'body' to 'such' in line 19 and insert

    'where he is satisfied that it is fully representative of the legitimate interests of consumers and that it meets'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 22, in page 5, line 18, after 'consumers', insert

    'of products or services of any description'.

Mr. Waterson: I hope to deal with these amendments quickly. They concern the designation process and precisely which bodies are designated. Amendment No. 21 is a probing amendment to draw from the Under-Secretary the sort of bodies that might be designated. It is easy to make a quick list of three or four, but we are interested in how many more there might be. We have already heard from the National Consumer Council, which rightly considers itself a prime candidate, and the Under-Secretary may want to put some of the organisations out of their misery today.

We have heard from the Consumers Association, which is a likely candidate, and it would be surprising, to put it mildly, if it were not on the final list. Other bodies such as the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux would like to be on the list and deserve to be, but have not had a nod or a wink so far. The Under-Secretary may wish to tell us more about that. The purpose of amendment No. 21 is to draw that out and the purpose of amendment No. 22 is to narrow the basis of selecting the organisations.

Clarification is needed of the standing and type of groups that we are discussing. The easiest way of doing that is for the hon. Lady to intervene and say that what the Government have in mind is to designate the following six organisations. We could then move on.

Miss Johnson: I am afraid that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman in that way.

Mr. Waterson: That is a shame, because I shall have to speak at inordinate length

Miss Johnson: I can help. Our intention is that super-complainant status will be granted only when a body asks to be designated. No body will be designated if it has not applied. The Secretary of State will publish criteria against which possible candidates will be assessed and we shall consult fully on those criteria. To give the hon. Gentleman some guidance, there are criteria for the designation of bodies in relation to the Stop Now Orders (E.C. Directive) Regulations 2001, which were approved last June, and we shall use similar criteria as a starting point.

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The Secretary of State will also issue guidance on the application procedure and it will be possible to amend the list of designated super complainants if they meet all the criteria I mentioned.

Mr. Waterson: I guess that that is helpful, except for the bodies that are waiting with baited breath. There will be lot of guidance flying around in the wake of the Bill. I shall work on the assumption—

Miss Johnson: Is the hon. Gentleman complaining about that?

Mr. Waterson: About what?

Miss Johnson: Guidance.

Mr. Waterson: One can have too much of a good thing in life, as we all know.

The amendments have a narrow ambit. Amendment No. 21 aims to ensure that the consumer organisations will have an effective, balanced and responsible approach. I have mentioned some organisations that would, on any view, fit those criteria. They are my criteria; the Under-Secretary tells us that there will be criteria, but will not hint at this stage who might fit them. It would be very difficult to justify if some of the organisations that I have mentioned were not designated pretty promptly under the procedure.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux says that it welcomes super complaints in principle and will consider requesting status as a designated consumer body. It goes on to say

    ''we very much hope that the OFT will have adequate powers to act in response to . . . Super-complaints.''

I have already made that point. Amendment No. 22, which would insert

    ''of products or services of any description'',

would slightly tighten the context in which the bodies would be designated.

I do not want to press the Under-Secretary unduly and no one will sue her if things turn out differently, but does she have some general notion of the number or size of bodies, or the kind of criteria, that might pop up in guidance? Otherwise, we are in effect talking about the matter in a vacuum. Some very good organisations, including NACAB, are keen to get on and be designated. Why not put them out of their misery?

Miss Johnson: I shall make a brief response, because I covered several of the hon. Gentleman's points in my intervention.

I emphasise that we will set out criteria and that there will be consultation. The hon. Gentleman could refer to the stop now orders regulations. He asked what sort of organisations we are talking about. The Secretary of State will need to be satisfied about the quality of consumer bodies to contemplate designating them. We want to ensure maximum flexibility in the designation process by using criteria rather than by including conditions in the legislation. That means that we can update the requirements later if necessary.

Amendment No. 22 is unnecessary. Clause 173 already contains a definition of ''consumer'', which is

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reflected in clause 11(9)(b). I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment.

On the nature of the bodies that will be involved, I think that it would be entirely wrong to start toying with the idea of which bodies might or might not be designated. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are looking for such things as capacity and track record in the appropriate area. We will use as our starting point the criteria set out in last June's stop now orders regulations, which are available to hon. Members.

Mr. Djanogly: Does the Under-Secretary countenance having single-issue bodies designated in any way, shape or form? For example, if there were a complaint about a particular product, 1,000 consumers unhappy with it might get together and form an association for the purposes of making a super complaint.

Miss Johnson: I have not envisaged such a thing.

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to detain the Committee, and we might discuss that matter in more detail later, but my hon. Friend raised an interesting point, which might need further examination. I am thinking of an issue over which I appeared on the ''Watchdog'' programme—rather than ''That's Life''—recently, the failure of the company Tempo, which is a retailer of electrical goods. It had taken money from many customers for its extended warranties—one is pressed to buy them when one buys something and does not understand how it works. Many customers were left high and dry because there were no arrangements of the sort found in more reputable and better-run companies, such as Dixons, where money was ring-fenced or backed by insurance. I have seen estimates of up to 100,000 people affected. One would imagine that such a group could come together for a single purpose relating to a practice of one company and then disband.

11.15 am

Andy Burnham: I am interested in the argument that the hon. Gentleman has developed. Does he agree that single issue campaign groups, such as the Campaign for Real Ale, which campaigned for full pints, or the Football Supporters Association, which campaigned against ticket-pricing and merchandising policy at football clubs, can be extremely effective bodies in raising issues that affect a certain sector of industry?

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