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Mark Tami: My hon. Friend has been very generous in giving way. Does he agree that problems can arise not only when the debt management companies address existing debts? We see in television advertisements how such companies often encourage people to take on another lump of debt, perhaps because they are making lower payments over a much longer period, to go on holiday or buy some other goods. That can mean that the problem simply becomes worse.
On the alternative disputes resolution procedure, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West made some valuable and important points about people's engagement with the legal process. We must be clear that the most vulnerable are often those who either instinctively do not want to go through a court procedure or are not skilled in grievance and complaints procedures. In some cases, people simply would not know how to do so. There is a danger that, unless consumers know very early on that there is a clear and free system of redress that can be used if they feel that they are being unfairly treated, we could lose the benefit of the Bill. Many such people would not think of taking action against the very companies that exploit them, as they would feel under-confident, and under-equipped and under-qualified to do so. I emphasise to the Minister that means of redress must be made clear, easy to use and free.
The Bill can play an important role in reducing the sum total of misery caused by poverty and the cost incurred by the general community. We are discussing the impact of debt not only on individuals, but on the health servicemany people take up GPs' valuable time with stress-related problems, which are often associated with poverty and, in some specific cases, with debt. We have heard examples of debt leading to suicide, and such cases impact on both the community and services at large. I welcome the Bill, which will benefit the whole community as well as the individuals concerned.
A number of improvements could be made in other areas to compliment the Bill. The Minister is not responsible for all those areas, but I must mention the reform of the social fund, which would stop so many people having to take out small but potentially expensive loans, and the need for efficient benefit administration, because inefficient administration often forces people to take out loans. In combination with other reforms in our welfare support system, the Bill will make a meaningful contribution to reducing poverty and the problems that arise from it in our community.
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on his excellent maiden speech. He has already made a distinguished contribution to the Conservative party as director of policysome might say that a little more work remains to be done given the evidence of the past few weeksand I read many of the research department's products when he was in charge. I am sure that we will hear more from him.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on her maiden speech. Not only were we at university together, to which she alluded, but I shared a flat with her husband, and her daughter, Georgia Charlotte Mary Miller, is my goddaughter. I am biased in her favour and congratulate her on having arrived here. She may be charming, but she has inner steel and determinationshe has not only run a successful and happy family with three children over the past 15 to 20 years, but had an outstanding business career. I am sure that she will make a wonderful contribution to this House.
I have listened to the debate with interest and particularly enjoyed the contribution by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle)I hope that the Minister was listening carefully, and I think that he was. If we want to restore people's faith in the House of Commons, we could do no more than play the tape of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, which was passionate, highly informed and persuasive. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman in Committee.
I want to deal with a couple of issues that have already been alluded to, the first of which is the question whether the definition of "unfairness" should be tighter. On the face of it, I agree with the Minister that the definition should not be too precise. Clause 19, which deals with unfair relationships between creditors and debtors, appears to give the court everything that it could possibly want:
"The court may make an order . . . if it determines that the relationship between the creditor and the debtor arising out of the agreement . . . is unfair to the debtor because of . . . any of the terms of the agreement or of any related agreement; the way in which the creditor has exercised or enforced any of his rights under the agreement or any related agreement"
At least on the face of it, that would seem to provide the court with everything that it needs, but my concern, to echo the right hon. Member for Leeds, West, is about cases that do not arrive in court. We are not talking about equal parties here.
That also relates to the point about retrospection. Generally speaking, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) would agree, we would be hesitant about retrospective legislation because one of the key principles of the law is not only equality before the law, but certainty. One might think that a clause that states that
would be deeply damaging to any sense of certainty between two parties entering into an agreement. Instinctively, I would be much less worried about retrospective legislation in this context than in some others, because it does not deal with parties who are equal in any way whatsoever, but with people who are often at the very bottom end of the income scalepeople who live in grinding poverty with the greatest difficulty in getting by, as we have heard, not just from week to week but from day to day, and who live in fear with debt collectors already knocking on their doors. That must be recognised in the Bill so that the courts will understand that Parliament enacted it in order to stand up for the little people, not the big people.
My experience as a constituency MP suggests to me that the problem exists not only at the bottom end of the scale but in the middle, where respectable, or so-called respectable, financial institutions deal with people who have modest incomes but some savings. In such cases, the scales are weighted too much in favour of the financial institution. I have often dealt with the financial services ombudsmanI am sure that other Members have had similar experiencesand sometimes think, "Whose side are you on?" The idea is supposedly to help the little person, not the big institution. I was involved in a case involving Abbey National that has still not been resolved satisfactorily. On 4 April, I had an Adjournment debate in this House on a case of cheque fraud on which the Financial Services Authority has failed to act in the 18 months since the loophole was exposed. Anybody could still do today what was done to many constituents of mine who lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. The regulatory environment is often far from fair in paying sufficient heed to the needs of consumers.
Of course we want equality and certainty before the law, but we also want justice. There has been a general recognition, in successive Governments' approach to regulation, that wholesale credit markets or wholesale credit derivative markets, for example, require a very light touch because one is dealing with adult parties to a transaction who do not want or expect the Government to interfere very much. At the other end, there is a much greater degree of interference; that is why I was attracted to the suggestion of a reserve power. I should like there to be powers that are potentially draconian but exercised with the discretion and judgment of Solomon, although I know that is not always an easy balance to strike. More needs to be done for the consumer and for the little person, not for the big institutions, which already have too many other cards stacked in their favour.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con):
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this great opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on a very passionate speechindeed, she used the word, "passion". I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). Those Members who were listening carefully will recall that he mentioned his love lifehe said, "I have fallen in love with Tunbridge Wells." If I may be bold and slightly controversial in suggesting an affair, I ask him to find room in his heart to come and speak in Southend, a town with which I am sure he will also fall in love.
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I follow in the footsteps of Sir Teddy Taylor. Teddy and his wife Sheila welcomed Katy and me to the area with open arms and have always been there offering a helping hand. Our friendship is no doubt assisted somewhat by the fact that we share a passion for protecting the sovereignty of this Parliament and the United Kingdom from all who attack it.
Teddy served the constituencies of Southend, East and what is now called Rochford and Southend, East for some 25 years. Before that, he was the Member of Parliament for Glasgow, Cathcart. In total, he was a Member of Parliament for 40 years, having first been elected in 1964. He has the respect of everyone in the constituency, from every walk of life and political party. He also served the country in the Scottish Office and subsequently as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. He was and will continue to be a force in British politics and a great character. As I said, Teddy was first elected in 1964, before my parents had even met, let alone when I was a twinkle in their eye. I shall not try to replace Teddy, either in the Chamber or in the constituency. Apart from anything else, I cannot do the accent.
I trust that the House will indulge me while I give an overview of the constituency. Rochford, to the north, is a long-standing market town, which has excellent architecture and is rich in history. It lies in Rochford district and Essex county council. Rochford district also boasts the lovely villages of Great Wakering, Little Wakering and Barling. Foulness Island, at the most easterly point of the constituency, was home to the Ministry of Defence and now accommodates QinetiQ, which tests munitions for our armed forces. The island represents half the constituency in size but contains only 179 voters.
By contrast, Southend-on-Sea is much more densely populated. Our home is only a few minutes from the water, with wonderful views across to Kent and out to the ocean. We have a pierthe longest pleasure pier in the world. We also have award-winning beaches. It is a truly wonderful place. On a warm summer night, with the tide in, there are few better places to be than on the front, enjoying the sand, the sea and a plethora of other activities. With new, larger hotels being built in the area, it will doubtless be an excellent place for political conferences, especially for the smaller parties.
Southend is not all sea and funwe have a serious side. We have a vibrant education sector, with excellent grammar schools throughout the constituency and throughout Southend. In addition, the university of Essex, where I did my degree, has an expanding and welcome presence in Southend.
The constituency also has its challenges. I especially want to mention two broad challenges. The first involves infrastructure and the second funding for our services. There is a problem with congestion for traffic heading from east to west and west to east. I would support work to widen the A127 and any measures to speed up traffic along that road. I would also welcome an outer relief road, although I am cautious about supporting specific proposals. Any outer relief road cannot be at the expense of building on the space for residential use. Rochford and Southend have unique
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charms and I would not want the areas to merge into one. Alas, once relief roads are built, the land within them becomes indefensible.
I want to refer to the funding of local services. Like many seaside towns, Southend has a different set of priorities compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. The seaside brings people into the area in their later years, which puts a particular strain on the health service budget. Lower cost accommodation means that authorities near London send asylum seekers to be accommodated in the area, although the local council gets no additional funding for the secondary costs of those populations. I look forward to working with colleagues in all parties to ensure that the unique problems of seaside towns are tackled as sympathetically as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) recently raised the problem of funding for Southend council with the Local Government Minister in an Adjournment debate. There are several causes of the funding crisis, but I want to highlight the main one, which was raised in the debate and is a matter of constant dispute in Southend. The dispute centres on the assertion by the Office for National Statistics that there has been a massive reduction in Southend's population.
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