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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to wind up the debate for the official Opposition. It has been a good natured and well informed debate, and I shall deal in a moment with some of the contributions.

I, too, regret the absence of the Secretary of State, but I pay tribute to the Minister for the way he has put his case and drawn up the Bill. I thank him for his courtesy
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in inviting me to his office a few weeks ago to discuss the Bill. Perhaps I am not supposed to say that. I am sorry, but I appreciated the invitation. That does not mean that we will agree on everything, but when we do not oppose the Bill, working behind the scenes like that is beneficial to those whom we are trying to help.

We heard from all parts of the House about indebtedness. We heard that debt has increased considerably in the past few years. We also heard that incomes and household assets have increased—that is true, but it misses the point. In individual cases there can still be a problem, and in some cases a desperate problem. To say that income or assets have increased in general is to ignore the deeper point. I am pleased that the deeper point has not been ignored by many hon. Members who spoke today. They recognised that debt can be a huge problem.

I remember my grandfather telling me, "If you're in debt, you're in danger." That is true and it is a maxim that I have tried to stick to all my life. There are times when it may be desirable to borrow money. If one wants luxury items, that may be the right way to acquire them, although personally I think it is not. It may be useful to borrow money or extend one's credit to get over difficult times. The problem is that when one is in difficulty, one is more vulnerable, and when one is vulnerable, one is less likely to strike a good deal. We should be aware of that.

Some people do borrow sensibly, but when I nipped out earlier for five minutes for a cup of tea, I had a message on my pager. Somebody who came to see me yesterday—a constituency case—needed a little money. The message was to let me know that they had gone into their bank today without much supporting evidence and had come out with a promise of £24,000, just like that. That, I regret to say, is not untypical. It happens all the time and it proves to be a difficulty for some people. I know from experience that when people go out to work on Monday morning and get their pay packet on Friday or at the end of the month, it is depressing to see a large chunk of that money go to pay off past debts, perhaps for consumer goods from which the shine, the polish and the attraction have worn off. We are right to tackle the issue.

One of the problems is that legislation cannot tackle all the issues. We live in a free country where, rightly, people can borrow money if they so desire. Nothing that I have said so far should be taken as an attack on the credit industry, which is extremely efficient and one of our leading industries. There is a case for better education on running finances and the composition of credit agreements. From studies that I have conducted, for example, I know that if a contract includes a big condition in large print, minute writing somewhere else on the contract might not be legal and might not reverse what the big writing says. I know that, but a lot of people probably do not, and they may fall foul of such contracts. That is one small example of how we might start to educate people better. When we are broadening the curriculum in schools, such matters could be added to citizenship classes. Whenever I go to a wedding or speak to couples who are about to get married—they do
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not come and seek my advice—my advice to them is the same as that given to me: do not overstretch yourselves and do not get into too much debt.

I shall move on to hon. Members' contributions. The right hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, discussed loan sharks and interest calculations and warned about debt.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), spoke at great length about many issues—I shall not try to touch on all of them, but his speech was comprehensive.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) spoke about people being "ripped off" by loan sharks and cited one or two moving cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a characteristically good, old-fashioned speech containing many good old-fashioned values—that is a compliment. She also provided warnings about debt, and I echo her remarks.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) discussed interest rate charges. I have not been persuaded yet and want to return to this point, but his argument for a statutory instrument to allow the Minister, whoever that may be—an election may well be coming up—to impose a ceiling on interest rates was persuasive. [Interruption.] I might be that Minister. Labour Members seemed to give up on the Minister and started to ask Conservative Members questions about what we would do, which is sensible because they will be doing that an awful lot more after 6 May.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) discussed the savings ratio and increased household debt. He provoked a number of interventions, but he made a thoughtful speech, especially when he said that he wanted a "more favourable balance" in the industry, which is a good way to put it.

The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) made a good point, to which I shall return, when he asked about the meaning of "unfair".

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made an outstanding speech, especially when he mentioned that financial problems are a considerable factor in many marriage breakdowns. Although financial problems are not the only reason for marriage breakdowns, debts place many marriages under an unreasonable strain, and I am glad that he raised that point. He raised another important issue, the inadequacy of credit ratings, and discussed payment protection, which he described as "a scam".

Unfortunately, I missed the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), but I am told that he raised the issue of unfairness. I apologise for missing his speech, and that of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who made the good point that APRs are not a reliable guide to actual interest rates.

In the shortest speech that I have ever heard him make, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) made the good point that statutory instruments are perhaps needed.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) discussed banks and their practices; the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) spoke
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about credit card cheques; and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), from whom we have just heard, discussed the difficulties with many money lenders. It has been a very wide-ranging debate.

I mentioned my concerns about debt levels, education and small print. Like many other hon. Members, I am also somewhat concerned about the way in which opportunities to borrow money are marketed and sold.

It is right to reduce the burden of proof to unfairness, but we need to know what that means; otherwise, one or two court judgments might be required in order to set a precedent. I am not convinced that we should leave the provision as it is, and before the Committee starts I shall discuss with my hon. Friends whether we want to try to clarify it. After all, clarification is one of the Government's main motivations for introducing the Bill.

On small loans, one of the arguments against interest rate ceilings is that the interest rate is not necessarily the all-important factor. Many people find small loans of £100 or £200 very helpful. The interest rate on those loans might be relatively high, but the companies who lend that kind of money are often more flexible in their approach, so one factor may balance the other. We will need to take a sensitive approach to that in Committee. I would not want such customers to be alarmed, for example, by getting late payment notices when they are only two or three weeks late with the payment and paying only a fiver a week.

I am worried about giving more power to the Office of Fair Trading. The Bill is all about proper regulation and cutting out the loan sharks—that is necessary, and I would not want anyone to get me wrong about that. However, I remember that when I had an Adjournment debate on the horse-racing industry in the House about 18 months ago—it was replied to by the Minister who will reply today—I said that although Parliament can control the OFT through primary legislation, it has no such control on a day-to-day basis. I could bring my case to the House of Commons, but it would not be heard by the OFT, which had the power to destroy the horse-racing industry. There was nothing that I, as a Member of Parliament with the Cheltenham racecourse in my area, could do about it. That is an analogy, but it is relevant. I am particularly worried, for example, about giving the OFT the power to enter premises. I shall return to that in Committee.

Several hon. Members said that there should be more scope for statutory instruments in the Bill—for example, to allow the Minister, if he so wishes, to set interest rate ceilings or to increase the £50,000 fine if it is found to be inadequate. At the moment, I am not persuaded that we should go down that route, although I understand the points that have been made. Again, I will discuss it with my hon. Friends.

We will need to analyse many of these matters in Committee, and I regret that we may not have adequate time to do so. I am afraid that it is the hallmark of this Government to programme everything. That is why, in a few minutes, we will vote against the programme motion, although we will not vote against the Bill itself.

We recognise the need for the Bill. The credit industry and the financial world in general have changed remarkably and are unrecognisable from what they were 30 years ago. We need to root out loan sharks and
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to create more favourable conditions for those who borrow money, especially the vulnerable. The same people lose out all the time, and the Bill is welcome if it will prevent those same people from losing out in future. I thank the Minister for his courtesy in keeping me informed as he introduced the Bill, and I look forward to taking up the issues with him in Committee.

5.49 pm

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