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There are codes of practice under the Disability Discrimination Act relating to blind and partially sighted people, so the new clause would be another burden. It is unnecessary because a code of practice already exists.
14 Jul 2005 : Column 1003
Charles Hendry: I accept the Minister's point about the Act, but there will be a change in the way that the legislation works. An agreement will be seen to be unfair unless proven to be fair. The new clause is a small change which would make the Bill much clearersomething that those lobbying on behalf of disability groups would welcome. There would be a specific requirement, but the onus to ask for it would be on the consumer.
I realise, however, that the Minister will not accept the new clause. Sometimes when he can see where I am coming from he seems to show no desire to help me to achieve my objective. I can see that we shall not make much more progress on the issue; perhaps it can be addressed further in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Charles Hendry: I return again to the important issue of the powers of the Office of Fair Trading, an issue that has been raised with some concern by Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading and in Committee. The issue highlights once again the lack of detail in the Bill, and I remain as disappointed today about that lack of detail as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) was when the Bill was initially introduced in the last Parliament and he dealt with it for the Opposition. Six months on, the detail is still missing, and I venture to suggest that it will still be missing in six years' time, unless a court case has been brought to establish it. What a tragic waste of time and money that would be.
The Bill provides the OFT, and other enforcement authorities operating on its behalf, with wide and open powers to regulate the conduct of licensees. We know that its goal is to achieve better regulationsomething we all wantbut the exercise of those powers will go practically unfettered. The concepts of unacceptable conduct against which the OFT will be judging licensees' business practices are entirely loose and ill-defined, so their interpretation is left entirely to the OFT. As the measure also includes the power to impose the penalties for committing unfair practice, there is no question but that the OFT will be both judge and jury.
With such broad-ranging powers, I am concerned that the Bill contains no provisions specifying the objectives and purposes towards which the OFT must act. Indeed, there is at present no guarantee that the OFT will perform in the manner that Parliament has in mind. By introducing an "objects" clause, new clause 3 would redress that, and install a vital degree of maintenance of parliamentary control over an organisation to which we are entrusting so much authority.
Indeed, it is invariably the case that Parliament controls the exercise of the discretion enjoyed by a regulatory body. I have previously used the example of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, whose opening sections make clear the ground rules with which the Financial Services Authority has to comply. In Committee, I challenged the Minister to give a single suitable reason why the OFT should not be subject to a similar control under the Bill. Sadly, he failed to do so, but now that he has had a couple of weeks to reflect, I am happy to give him another opportunity.
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the approach taken for the Financial Services Authority, and the duties and responsibilities that are set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. The way in which the OFT is intended to operate, and its new regulatory powers proposed in the Bill, is similar to the way in which the Financial Services Authority acts. There is an important parallel to be drawn between the Financial Services and Markets Act and what is proposed in the Bill.
The interests of consumers will be best protected if the body that is seeking to protect them is clear about what it is trying to achieve. The dangerous alternative is that the OFT is left to make things up as it goes along. That is not good regulation and, indeed, could be immensely damaging for consumers. New clause 3 sets out a range of general duties and a series of regulatory objectives which are, lender confidence, to ensure the widest possible access to credit, the protection of consumers and the national interest in having an efficient innovative consumer credit section. It continues:
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