Standing Committee B
Thursday 18 April 2002
[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]
Super-complaints to the OFT
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 23, in page 5, line 20, at end insert—
'(6A) The status of ''designated consumer body'' for the purposes of this section shall be renewed by the Secretary of State on an annual basis and revoked if he thinks fit.'.—[Mr. Waterson.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): The amendment would make the Secretary of State renew the status of designated consumer bodies on an annual basis. We intend that it should be done only as necessary when we and/or the Office of Fair Trading are worried about a designated body.
I appreciate the points made earlier by hon. Members but to make an annual review a legal requirement would place an unnecessary administrative burden on the Government and consumer bodies and be a bureaucratic addition to the Bill. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) remarked, it could lead to more complaints than necessary as bodies attempt to justify their status. The amendment is unnecessary; we have the powers to withdraw the designation when and if necessary. I hope that hon. Members, having debated the subject and thought about it further may wish to withdraw the amendment. If they do not do so, I shall ask the Committee to oppose it.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Conway.
If the Minister says that my amendment is unnecessary, who am I to argue? I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Super-complaints to regulators
other than OFT
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I beg to move amendment No. 122, in page 142, line 41, at end insert—
'(1A) The Secretary of State may by order provide that section 11 is to apply to complaints made by a designated producer body in the same way as to complaints by a designated consumer body.
(1B) ''Designated producer body'' means a trade union or other body designated by the Secretary of State by order.'.
The amendment arises from remarks that I made at the end of the second sitting, which were exceptionally
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brief because I was not sure that I was in order and wanted to make my point quickly. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said that he was looking forward to my tabling an amendment on the subject, as that would make an interesting debate. He has encouraged me to table this amendment.
My concern is that we have discussed consumers and business—I solidly support the points made this morning in defence of consumers—but not the position of producers and workers in such circumstances. My question is, ''What about the workers?'' In the Committee's first sitting, the hon. Gentleman said that I was ''irredeemably old Labour''. In speaking to the amendment, I shall try to reveal that Labour, old and modern, has many strands.
At the high watermark of what was called Bennism in the Labour party, there was what we called the hard left and the soft left. I suspect that the hard left's belief in the workers would have made them favour my amendment rather than the provisions on consumer bodies that we agreed in clause 11. The soft left's commitment to the parliamentary, rather than the industrial, struggle would have led it to prefer clause 11 to my amendment, as the electorate are all consumers but are not all paid workers. There is a feeling in Parliament that consumers and the electorate are fully interlinked. My brand of old Labour has always represented a third socialist way; neither too hard nor too left. It should not be confused with any other third way, such as the new Labour one. In fact, my brand of democratic socialism is bang up to date and futuristic, as my support of clause 11 and the amendment reflects.
I recognise that the same person can have different, even conflicting, interests in different circumstances and places. They can be a consumer on the high street, a worker at the coal face—of which there are few left—an academic in an ivory tower or someone on the other side of the counter. Part 1 should reflect those interests in relation to designated bodies that can make complaints to the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT would then have the standard, democratic duty to try to reconcile conflicting interests. That is a valuable characteristic of a democratic society, as long as the process does not disadvantage people; that is what the provisions on consumers seek to correct. My amendment recognises that the workers by hand and by brain are not forgotten. They have not gone away, and we cannot function without them.
I mentioned G.D.H. Cole who produced books on guild socialism early in his career. He came to advocate a Parliament comprising a House of consumers and a House of producers. Everyone held the interests of consumers. The House of producers and the House of consumers would be similar bodies under a universal franchise that was still developing at that time. Consumers are now properly and fully represented in the House of Commons. Clause 11 would not have surprised him, as it is in keeping with his thinking and values.
His House of producers was to be a second Chamber and was based on his idea of guild socialism, an industry-based, democratic trade
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unionism that covered all workers by hand or by brain in a sort of institutionalised TUC. He believed that consumers and producers would work in harmony with each other, especially as a socialist society was developed and established. He believed that the House of producers should have the final say in any clash of interests with the House of consumers. The House of producers was the nobler ideal, as producers affected the workers more and, in the end, we were all dependent on them.
Mr. Waterson: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with enormous interest, tinged with horror. Did he ever have a chance to discuss these interesting ideas with his late uncle, whom I once had the great pleasure of meeting in the bar of the British Legion club in my constituency? He was very proud of his young nephew and how well he was doing in politics.
Mr. Barnes: I did not have a chance to discuss these ideas with my late uncle Arthur, but we certainly discussed the happy occasion when he met the hon. Gentleman.
G.D.H. Cole would probably have wanted to add something to my amendment, because he would want to raise the status of the workers more than this mild measure does. It is a quite peculiar proposal, in fact, because of the time in which I tabled it. Although it would allow producers to have a say with the OFT, that would be on consumer issues. I did not think about that matter earlier; it only came out of our discussions. However, there might be an opportunity later to clarify the proposal further, perhaps in the form of a more appropriate new clause.
After his guild socialist period, G.D.H. Cole's views moved on. As he became more involved in the politics of Labourism, he edged much more towards the position of the electorate and therefore the consumer, even though he still had a great commitment to the trade unions.
That is just about the position in which my amendment would put us. It would not turn the Bill on its head and is not designed to do something contrary to the principles on which it is based. However, the amendment would introduce into the Bill an interest that is not currently considered by it and which is being pushed ever backwards in modern society. Altering legislation so that that interest receives more consideration is important.
I merely wish to improve the balance of the Bill without changing it into something diametrically different. In response to my short speech the other day, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that it was hard to answer my point as she needed to give it more thought. Now that I have tabled an amendment, presumably she and her office have given it more thought.
I am talking about a mechanism whereby trade unions and representatives of people at work in all forms and different grades can be involved in the consideration of market operations. The provision could provide for another set of people who could be consulted on consumer matters, or there could be a
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mechanism whereby their more direct interests as producers could function without distorting terribly the operation of the market, while offering some safeguards for their position. The position of the consumer may sometimes be like that of David against Goliath, as was said this morning, but workers are sometimes in exactly the same position.
I may be told that this is the wrong Bill through which to deal with these matters, but we shall come later to the merger provisions, in which the work force has a clear interest; these may be subject to discussion.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): Lovely territory. Would not it have been an elegant coincidence if, instead of clause 196, we had been debating clause 4? My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) calls upon an excellent tradition to make his case. I understand his point that perhaps later in the Bill, when we look at the question of mergers and monopolies in markets, we should revisit his words. He calls upon a tradition that is embodied in the notion and ethics of co-operation, of the Co-operative movement and of Robert Owen, seeing that the interests of consumers and producers were one and the same in a just and equitable society.
Regrettably, we do not live in just and equitable society. The nature of the competitive ethos with which we struggle is inimical to the idea of co-operation. It is a pity, but we must work with the tools and in the society that we have. We have to begin from where we are, rather than where we would wish to be. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling the amendment. When we look at the organisations such as the Consumers Association—and when we praise the wonderful work that the late Lord Young, who started it all those years ago, did on behalf of consumers—we should remember that their ethos should thread its way through this Bill. In the society that I would like to build, there would be a coming together of the interests of consumers and producers; whether those producers work by hand or brain, as my hon. Friend would define it, or as part of a company as owners and shareholders. They are not opposed.
The idea that we should produce ethically, properly and within rules that are not unfair to any other producers, and that goods and services are produced to the highest standards at the most reasonable costs, threads through the whole of the Labour party. The Labour party that I inhabit has never opposed enterprise. It has always recognised that, to succeed, the economy must be a mixed grill of regulation, competition and organisations that act on behalf of employers and workers. In that sense the strengthening of our trade unions through recent legislation by this Government has been helpful.
Opposition Members will take a contrary view; they are entitled to do so. I stand firm and say that in the society that we inhabit and in terms of the economic ethos with which we work, a strong trade union movement, a strong consumer movement and strong producers and employers suit us best. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire for tabling the amendment to provoke
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those thoughts. I sincerely hope that his words will be taken into account again when we come to the part of the Bill that deals with mergers, monopolies and anti-competitive measures.