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Roma Citizens

16. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What representations he has made in the past three months to applicant nations to the European Union on the human rights of their Roma citizens. [150702]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): As I have already informed the hon. Gentleman, we regularly raise the importance of equal rights for Roma and other minority groups with EU accession and candidate countries.

Bob Russell: I thank the Minister for that answer and his earlier answer about what I can describe only as the irresponsible, hysterical and misleading media reports about Roma, especially those from the Slovak and Czech Republics. Will he give an assurance that he is satisfied that the Governments of those two countries, either by deliberate act or omission, are encouraging Roma citizens to depart from the Slovak and Czech Republics?

Mr. MacShane: No. There is no doubt that the issue is sensitive, despite the rather unpleasant language used in some of our press. I had the pleasure of visiting a DFID-sponsored project in Bulgaria recently where Roma children were helped by a bilingual kindergarten—the project was dear to our embassy staff there. Our embassies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been active, and we have tried to support projects to defend the housing rights of Roma people and, for example, to train the Czech police to deal with minorities. That shows the experience that we can bring.

The problem is real, but I urge the House not to use language about Roma or any other minority such as that which shamed Britain in the 1930s when it was

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applied to Jews. There are Roma communities all over the existing European Union, and we must work with the applicant and candidate countries so that the Roma people may find their way inside the countries of which they are citizens.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend specifically congratulate our friends in the Hungarian Government on the work that they have undertaken on poverty alleviation among their Roma communities?

Mr. MacShane: There has been an awakening of conscience about the issue which was frozen during the Communist era. The European Union maintains that respect for minority rights is an absolute condition of being a EU member state. We have helped in Budapest with a programme on Roma rights that was paid for by the Foreign Office called "Training the Trainers". There is also a Foreign Office-financed programme on Roma school desegregation, so we are not only talking about the matter, but actively trying to help. Again, I make an appeal that Roma minority rights must be respected. We must reject language such as that used in one tabloid paper when it referred to a "murderous mob" waiting to come here. Such unacceptable language is unworthy of British journalism and the House should have nothing to do with it.

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17. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What discussions he has had with his United States counterpart regarding the possibility of early elections in Iraq. [150703]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I have frequent and regular conversations with the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, at which all aspects of policy relating to Iraq are discussed, including how best to establish a transitional Government.

Mr. Swayne : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that Ayatollah Sistani is held in great respect by the vast majority of the Shi'a community and that he has hitherto been supportive of the coalition? Does he agree that the last thing that we want is to find ourselves at odds with the principal beneficiaries of our liberation?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that Ayatollah Ali Sistani is held in the highest possible respect by the vast majority of Shi'a. Of course we try to work collaboratively with him and his representatives, but we obviously must also take account of the interests of the Sunni and the Kurds.

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Power Supply (Compensation for Erroneous Transfer)

12.30 pm

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): I beg to move,

May I begin by making the joke that is customary on these occasions and say how pleased I am that so many hon. Members have turned out for this important debate? I thank in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) for doing a terrific job in getting such a good turnout for me—those e-mails certainly worked.

Up and down the country, tens of thousands of people have had their gas or electricity switched from one company to another either without their consent, or after strong-arm or blatantly dishonest sales techniques on the doorstep. It is extraordinary that that ongoing outrage does not generate the sort of media coverage or political interest that certain other matters do. Perhaps that is because many of the worst victims of that mis-selling are among our elderly constituents, or it might be because most people simply do not pay that much attention to the details of their gas and electricity bills.

By means of comparison, I ask hon. Members to reflect for a moment on how they would feel if, for example, they opened their front door one day to find that during the night, Nissan had come along, taken away their Ford and left a Nissan in its place? How would they feel if they were to switch on their mobile phone to find that T-Mobile had switched their Orange service to them without so much as a by-your-leave? Even worse, how would my hon. Friends feel if they woke up one morning to discover that the Liberal Democrats had switched their party membership to that party without their consent? Parliament would be recalled! However, thousands of our constituents endure such distressing experiences each month.

Energywatch, the consumer watchdog, is currently recording around 500 monthly complaints. However, hon. Members should be under no illusion, because that is just the tip of the iceberg: the problem is far greater. I am sure that all Members have heard about the matter in their constituency surgeries. One case was that of an 80-year-old lady in Greenock who specifically told a nice young woman on her doorstep that she was perfectly happy with her electricity and that she did not want to switch. "Not to worry," she was told. "Can you just sign this bit of paper telling my boss that I've explained the benefits to you, that's all?" My constituent signed—she was trying to be helpful—and, needless to say, her supply was switched.

That case is at the shallow end of the pool. At the extremes, we have heard of cases of forged signatures, salespeople entering homes under completely false premises and people being told blatant lies about potential benefits. Some companies have even been caught forging the signatures of the recently dead so that the electricity supply could be changed before a new owner moved into the home.

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Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I fully accept that the deregulation of the market has by and large been good for the consumer, and that changing one's supplier can deliver lower fuel bills. I also accept that people generally do not go out to shop for a new gas or electricity supplier; they need to have it sold to them. The industry maintains that the most effective way to communicate the advantages of switching supplier is by doorstep selling. Well, that may be so, but the industry needs to understand that aggressive—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to some fairness. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] All those who say, "Hear, hear" should be quiet. That is the best thing.

David Cairns: I am indebted to you, Mr. Speaker.

The industry needs to understand that aggressive and fraudulent behaviour by its doorstep agents is completely unacceptable and must be stamped out. There have been recent welcome moves to end to such practices. An industry-wide code of conduct has been adopted, which aims to

A great deal of credit for that important development must go to my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who, as the Minister for Energy and Construction, did so much to force the industry to face up to its obligations.

In addition, the regulator, Ofgem, has begun to flex its muscles and has levied some massive fines on the worst miscreants. Most recently, London Electricity has had to stump up a fine of £2 million. To its credit, the company has responded with some reforms to its selling practices. That is a very welcome move. However, the money generated from such fines currently goes directly into the Consolidated Fund. Let me say right away that I have every confidence in the ability of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to spend that money wisely—not least because he is sitting two rows in front of me—but let me also say that I have every confidence in the ability of the Great British consumer to spend their own money wisely too.

My Bill would ensure that those who suffer the distress, inconvenience and uncertainty of having their supply switched should be the ones who benefit from the fines. Therefore, I propose that anyone who has their power supply switched against their wishes or without their knowledge should be awarded £100 in compensation. It is only right that those who suffer are the ones who gain. They would be up-front fines, and they would not be deferred or related to the ability to pay.

Obviously, in the compensation culture in which we live, companies will need safeguards to protect them against frivolous claims. An easy way to do that would be to require a positive confirmation by the customer that they wished to switch supplier. So an individual would simply have to confirm to the company—perhaps a week or so after the doorstep agreement—over the phone or in writing, that they wished to move to it. At a stroke, that would protect companies from frivolous claims. It would ensure that contracts signed under false premises were not acted upon and give peace of mind to

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the consumer that the final decision is up to them, and them alone. Good companies that practise respectable selling techniques would have absolutely nothing to fear from that. In fact, the opposite is true. I believe that they would welcome the opportunity to show that not all gas and electricity suppliers resort to hoodwinking elderly citizens on their own doorsteps to win new business.

It is vital that we bolster customer confidence in the domestic energy market, and to do so, I propose one further reform. Energywatch currently compiles a league table of complaints against each company. I would compel every power company to print that table on every quarterly bill that they send to every customer. I, for one, want to be reassured that my power supplier is not guilty of inflicting distress upon some of the most vulnerable and elderly members of our society.

I will draw my remarks to a close, as I understand that there may be other items of interest on the agenda today, but it remains, quite simply, a disgrace that thousands of people have had, and continue to have, their power supply switched against their will or without their consent. It is a stain on the industry that needs to be removed. If the industry cannot or will not do that, the House must take a stand. My Bill would force companies that cause distress to make amends. It would compensate those who have been affected. It would offer protection for business against frivolous claims. It would allow all consumers to monitor the behaviour of their own supplier. It would bolster confidence in the domestic energy market, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by David Cairns, Kevin Brennan, Mrs. Irene Adams, Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons, Mr. Mark Lazarowicz, Laura Moffatt, Mr. Russell Brown, Siobhain McDonagh, Kali Mountford, Rob Marris and Sandra Osborne.

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