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Mr. Hoon: I know that the health service has been in contact with the relevant trust and is offering advice on how to identify the precise nature of the outbreak and, obviously, how to contain it. It is important for us to allow its work to continue. The hon. Gentleman is right, however: the outbreak must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): May we have a debate on the financial situation in which primary care trusts find themselves? New Forest PCT is only one of many trusts that are running a deficit. We really do need an opportunity to examine claims that proposals to close services and withdraw beds represent
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not just financial savings but, somehow, new models of working needed to improve services—that, in some way, fewer means more.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the amount spent on health between the financial years 1996–97 and 2007–08 will have trebled. That is a remarkable achievement for any Government. I would feel somewhat more confident in the hon. Gentleman's objectivity if he paid tribute to that extra spending, rather than picking on particular details.


Racial and Religious Hatred

Mr. Secretary Clarke, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Secretary Alan Johnson and Paul Goggins, presented a Bill to make provision about offences involving stirring up hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 13 June, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 11].

Civil Aviation

Mr. Secretary Darling, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Ms Secretary Hewitt, Mr. Secretary Clarke, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Alan Johnson, Ms Harriet Harman and Ms Karen Buck, presented a Bill to make further provision about civil aviation, including provision about the funding of the Air Travel Trust; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 13 June, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 12].

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Orders of the Day

Consumer Credit Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before I begin my speech, let me welcome the hon. Members for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) to their new positions.

The Bill represents a major step towards a fairer, more competitive 21st century credit market for both consumers and industry. For 30 years, the consumer credit market has contributed positively to the building of what is now a thriving economy. Responsible use of credit has allowed consumers to enjoy high standards of living, and at the same time business has flourished. But since the foundations of our current legislative framework were established in 1974, everything about the market—from the providers to the consumers and the products—has changed immeasurably. Through the Bill we can complete much-needed reforms, and equip the credit sector to meet the challenges of the modern market.

The United Kingdom has one of the strongest and most efficient credit markets in the world. It represents a quarter of the European Union credit market generally, and more than half the EU credit card market. For most consumers, credit is a useful tool. A combination of sensible borrowing and saving enables them to enjoy the freedom that credit gives: for example, to improve their homes or buy season travel tickets. However, unfair lending and ill-informed borrowing decisions can cause real problems for some people.Many of us will know from our constituency postbags the misery that can be caused by unscrupulous lenders who coerce people into   credit agreements that they neither need nor understand.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this measure, which I know is very close to his heart; indeed, he has been desperate to get to the Dispatch Box to move this Second Reading. Getting in over one's head and into debt that one can no longer afford to pay drives some people into depression and, in other tragic cases, even to suicide. A main cause is the high interest rates that some companies can charge, over which there is little control. Can measures be introduced—if not in the Bill then perhaps by future ministerial order—to control interest rates, so that people do not get into such trouble?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; he has a good track record in assisting constituents who get into such difficulties. The question of interest rate capping accompanied our pre-election discussions of the Bill and of the consumer credit White Paper. The Government do not consider capping to be the way forward, because there are many other hidden charges that can equally cause such misery. But I did undertake to keep the capping issue under review, and
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to examine it in the light of future developments and of our efforts through this Bill. However, at the moment there is no need for such caps.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Sutcliffe: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way; I am glad to note that he is giving a speech similar to that which he gave the last time we debated Second Reading of this provision. Let us hope that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats stick to the position that they adopted before the general election. I want to push him on the issue of credit card cheques, on which he promised some movement. He will know that many credit card companies send people blank cheques, saying that all that they need do with such a cheque is to write in the figure and then cash it. Many do not understand that they might be entering into an agreement that, should they fall foul of it, could lose them their home. Will the Government try to ensure that the practice of issuing credit card cheques comes to an end?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He, too, has a good understanding of this issue; indeed, he was a member of the Standing Committee that previously discussed it. The unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques is a problem, and I undertake—as I did before—to consider introducing regulations and to discuss with the industry what can be done to stop the issuing of such cheques.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I note my hon. Friend's description of the Government's position on interest rate caps, but what exactly is the argument against introducing them? Does he honestly think that there is some ethical justification for major financial services companies levying interest rate charges of 25 to 29 per cent. per annum?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand why my hon. Friend raises this issue, but there is not enough time during a Second Reading debate to go through the detailed arguments surrounding it. If he catches the eye of the Whips, he can join the Standing Committee and we can then have this argument in greater detail. For example, we can explain why, in the light of evidence that we took from other countries, the interest rate cap does not work.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I understand what the Minister is saying about interest rate caps, but does he not accept that another problem exists—the calculation of annual percentage rates—that has been brought to our attention for the purposes of this debate by Which? Different methods of calculation can lead to the paying of very different rates of interest, even though they may seem similar. Does the Minister propose to deal with this problem?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman will know that last October, we introduced regulations concerning a single way of calculating APRs. The issue is causing confusion
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to the consumer, and this Bill is about responsible lending and ensuring that consumers know their rights, but it is also about responsible borrowing.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Government and particularly the Minister on reintroducing this Bill so quickly. But as he knows, it was preceded by intense negotiations with the financial services industry, and despite the good measures in it, there are still problems with the definition of a single APR, with data sharing and with the issuing of unsolicited cheques. Will he work with the industry to ensure that such matters are dealt with? Transparency and competitiveness are at the heart of this Bill, and without transparency and an informed consumer, we cannot have a fully competitive market. Will the Minister ensure that the industry delivers on these issues, as it said it would?

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