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I remarked earlier to my hon. Friend, who is acting as my Parliamentary Private Secretary, that the maiden speeches reminded me of my maiden speech and that my by-election victory was on 9 June 1994, so I am celebrating my 11th year in the House today. One important thing for me over those 11 years
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has been that we should agree and work together when we can. Clearly, politics plays a part in our proceedings, which is why the hon. Member for Wealden made his political points about the state of the economy. All I would say in response to him is that with low interest rates, low inflation and more people in work than ever before, we have a sound economic platform.
We cannot be complacent about examining what is happening to individuals and their circumstances, which is why the Government wanted to introduce the Bill. However, the Government have to work with industry and stakeholders to ensure that they present effective legislation that can work. The consumer credit White Paper showed the need to reconsider legislation, owing to the 30-year interval since the Consumer Credit Act 1974, but it was important to move forward with the consent and support of the industry and stakeholders. Those stakeholders will be heartened by today's debate, because there has not been a party political divide between people's viewpoints. It was clear that people felt, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) indicated, that some practices, which are perceived to be outrageous approaches to vulnerable people, are immoral.
As the Minister responsible for the Bill, I wanted to bring it back to the House quickly, given that we only just failed to get it through in the last Parliament. The Bill fell because there was inadequate time to discuss it in the Lords after the announcement of the general election, but I wanted to keep the momentum going. Those of us with experience of such matters, whether we are lawyers or involved in the industry, know that people try to move in different directions when consensus breaks down, so it becomes difficult to keep momentum going. It is important that we keep the momentum going, because the Bill and its principles will affect vulnerable people, in particular.
Mr. Sutcliffe: The House will have the opportunity to consider the Bill in CommitteeI am sure that the Whips will be happy about the competition for places on the Committee. I hope that we will be able to negotiate with the House authorities so that we can get the Bill through its Commons stages as soon as possible and it will go to the other place in the autumn. We will try to get its implementation worked through as soon as it receives Royal Assent. However, as hon. Members have said, the implementation requires a balance between fair regulation and working with the industry to ensure that information technology systems and other matters are addressed, and ensuring that consumers are protected.
It is clear that there is some disagreement about the unfair credit test, so I am sure that we will have a detailed debate in Committee about why we prefer to take a broader viewpoint on what the test should be. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) has raised the role of the Office of Fair Trading with me on many occasions in the context not only of horse racing, but of the principles of the Bill. Following the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002, the
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Government were asked to move away from being involved in the detail of competition issues so that the market could be allowed to determine matters, so it is ironic that we are now being asked to ensure that we curb the OFT's powers. A balance must be struck. The OFT reports each year to the Department and the Secretary of State. The powers that we are giving it on licensing are vital because it is important that those who lend money are the appropriate people to do so.
Mr. Bacon: On the unfairness test, does the Minister accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), that many individuals involved in such cases do not want to get anywhere near court? If so, what does he have to say to him? It is one thing to say that an alternative dispute resolution is available, but peoplein particular those at the lower enddo not need a neutral arbiter, but need someone to stand up for them against these wicked people?
Mr. Sutcliffe: Again, that has to be seen in the context of what the Government are trying to achieve across the piece with the work in the Treasury on financial inclusion. I take the point about the onus being on responsible lending. Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Wealden said about civil servants having the answers and Ministers following the line put to them, I was struck by the quality of some of the interventions.
I undertake to consider what can be done on credit issues, but the alternative dispute resolution is important and should not be put to one sidenor should the distinction that enables courts to consider such things. The existing extortionate credit test is not appropriate and has not worked, but we are moving in the right direction. Our proposals should be considered against the background of working with the industry and stakeholders to achieve something that is workable. If all that happens is that the industry sticks its foot out because it does not want to participate, it will find ways around the legislation. The idea is to go forward with as much consensus as possible. However, as I said, I shall consider things in great detail, before the Bill is in Committee, if that is possible, or while it is in Committeecertainly, before we discuss it on Reportto see what we can do for the most vulnerable people at the lower end of the market.
We used statutory instruments on consumer credit legislation to introduce transparency in the way in which agreements are drawn up. We also introduced the loan shark projects in Birmingham and Glasgow. I am happy to say that they are working well. So it is not just a case of what is in the Bill. The wider context has to be considered as well.
I am convinced by the evidence, especially that produced by Bristol university, on the negative impact of a cap on interest rates. However, I have attended lively debates in which there is still a bit of give and take on that. Evidence from Europe and other places suggests that there are ways to get around some of those negative impacts. Is the Minister still prepared to discuss the issue? Will he look again at including a power that can be used should the evidence change?
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Mr. Sutcliffe: Hon. Members who have worked with me know that I am prepared to consider all aspects of the problem. I told the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) that we would look at evidence from elsewhere, or at evidence that is in addition to the information that we have gathered. The opportunity to do that is while the Bill goes through its various stages.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) is an expert on such matters. I enjoyed his contribution immensely, even if he is from Leeds, which is close to Bradford and we do not always enjoy the best of relationships. His speech gave an idea of the problems faced by people on lower incomes who are at the bottom end of the market and are hit by illegal moneylenders, who prey on them with violence and in other ways when they cannot pay back their loans.
We need to put the Bill in context. Consumer credit can be a useful tool to consumers if handled in the right way, with a balance between it and saving. The Bill is necessary. Thirty years is a long time for a piece of legislation to be in force, and it has now become out of date. We will work hard in Committee. With excellent contributions by Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that we will get it right. I undertake to ensure that we listen to them and discuss the merits of all amendments tabled in Committee. I hope and know that the House will ensure that when the Bill becomes law, it will be the right piece of legislation to meet the concerns of the industry and consumers. I commend the Bill to the House.
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