Norman Lamb: I rise briefly to say that I support the importance of the new clause. Unless consumers are able to understand such provisions, there is not financial inclusion but ignorance of the requirements imposed on them. It must be right that someone who perhaps cannot speak English or who is blind has the capacity to understand the information in another way. It also seems right that the consumer in those circumstances should serve notice on the lender to the effect that the information is required in another format. So I certainly support the new clause.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):
Sadly, we have learned over the past few days what a large proportion
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of people in the United Kingdom do not speak English or at least do not have English as their first language. All hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that we have a duty of care to all our citizens. For those who perhaps speak Gujarati, Hindi or other languages and bearing in mind the difficulty that some many people face when getting into debt, it is incumbent on the Government ensure that their duty of care is expressed in ensuring that information in languages other than just English and Welsh is made available to those who cannot easily understand English.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I agree with the thrust of the new clause, but is it not more widely drawn than is suggested? Would it not be open to people who can speak English as their first language to request a notice in another format and a language other than English? It could be open to abuse by those who wish to request information in another language unnecessarily, when they do not need to do so for the purposes of understanding the notice.
Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Such abuse is always a possibility. As in all cases, reasonability must be the test. However, it is incumbent on the Government to protect the consumer, and this Government and previous Administrations have a good record in that respect. I hope that the Minister, whom I know to be a flexible man, will accept the new clause; but if he does not, I hope that he will certainly assure us from the Dispatch Box that guidance will be given to lenders. Such information must be made available.
Of course, there is another issue. Many of us who have English as first language find it difficult to understand precisely what some of these provisions are all about, even when they are in large type. It is also incumbent on people to ensure that the information is given in clear, plain, understandable English, not in legalese, which is not understandable to the general borrowing population.
James Brokenshire: I want to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). The new clause highlights a wider issue: the clarity of the notices that will be issued under the Bill. As the Minister knows, we are talking about issues such as default notices and getting people to understand their level of debt and borrowing. It is important that we provide protection to ensure that people are given as much opportunity as possible to understand the notices that are given to them.
The new clause touches on accessibility and availability. We know of the implications of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which ensures that we have facilities for all people to gain access to understandable information. That is what the new clause seeks to provide. I hope that the Minister will listen to the comments that have been made in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield raised this issue in Committee and has spoken about Braille and ensuring that those who are partially sighted fully understand their credit and commercial situations. That is important because if someone is in default, charges and other penalties may arise as a consequence. We have
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duty of care, as my hon. Friend said, to ensure that people are fully aware of their predicaments, so that if they are getting into increasing debt, they can seek advice, help and assistance to allow them to address their credit situation.
The new clause would impose obligations on businesses that are already catered for elsewhere, and would impose a significant burden on business. I am surprised that Conservative Members are trying to increase those burdens, as they constantly remind the Government of the many burdens that they think exist already. As the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said, I have written to him on the issue, and I have copied the letter to the members of the Standing Committee and placed a copy in the Library for other Members.
As I pointed out in Committee, it is important to consider the Bill in its context: the other legislation dealing with the provision of business services to disabled persons. So, in relation to providing information to blind or partially sighted persons, the result that the new clause seeks to achieve is already dealt with in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which applies generally to business. The Act imposes obligations on businesses to take such steps as are reasonable to make their services available to disabled people.The Disability Rights Commission has published a code of practice on access to goods, facilities and services, which provides advice to businesses as to the manner in which they can comply with those obligations.
Similarly, there is no provision in relation to other languages in the Bill, the Consumer Credit Act 1974 or any similar legislation. Lenders should look to any legislation or codes of practice that may have some bearing on the question. It goes beyond the issue of the provision of notices that can be understood by consumers to more fundamental questions concerning the capability of particular debtors to contract with the creditor. If a person cannot understand documents written in English and the lender knows that, or knowingly disregards it, it may be relevant to the fairness of the relationship when considered in the context of all other relevant factors. Similarly, the regular targeting of consumers who have difficulty in understanding agreements and notices is a matter that could be taken into account by the Office of Fair Trading in assessing fitness under the licensing regime.
As I have said, the concerns of the hon. Gentleman in relation to blind and partially sighted people are addressed generally in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. As for the question of languages, although I know where he is coming fromI keep repeating thatthe Bill provides those consumers with sufficient protection. On a practical level, the new clause would impose a significant, and potentially open-ended, burden on business, which I know that he would not want to do.
Charles Hendry: I very much endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said about the need for plain English, which is an issue that runs through so many debates. We have only to study the Bills with which we are presented to see incredibly complicated phraseology. Those of us who do not have the legal expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) find that sometimes we have to read statutory instruments several times to understand them. The same applies to credit agreements. When people are taking out such an agreement they want to know exactly what they are committed to, what their responsibilities are and what happens if they default. I completely endorse my hon. Friends' comments on the need for agreements to be written in plain English.
I endorse too what my hon. Friend said about the nature of the documents. They are extraordinarily important to people and there was much discussion in Committee about how they should be deliveredhow we could prove that they had been received by the right person and how they should be addressed. The Minister said that he hoped it could be done in a user-friendly way, but our concern was that it if was too user-friendly people might not understand the severity of the message. The documents should probably be stamped with the words "This is an important document that requires your immediate attention", otherwise companies would not be seen to have fulfilled their legal obligations. There is no doubt that such documents are extremely important, so clarity is essential.
The Minister is fundamentally wrong to say that the provision would impose a big burden on business. The industry is looking for clarity and wants to know what is expected of it. He said that if a lender knows that there is a language problem and knowingly disregards it they will be deemed to have acted unfairly. How on earth can they prove in retrospect that they knew or did not know? Due to the way in which the legislation will change, the burden in court will be on the company to prove that it did not act unfairly. Businesses need to know their responsibilities.
The new clause makes it clear that the onus is on the customer to say that they need information in a particular format and that the company should provide it. If the company did not respond properly, it would certainly have acted unfairly, but that would not be the case if it had not automatically offered the information in 25 languages at the outset. The whole problem turns on the nature of what is unfairsomething to which we shall return later in our debate. Lenders need to know what is unfair and what is not.
Our small new clause would provide that if a person wants documents in Braille, large type or a language of their choice, they must be given them in that format; but it is up to them to tell the company. That is not a huge additional burden on business.