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Mr. Bone: Are not we being asked to pass into law something that is not transparent, on which guidance
 
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will be issued only afterwards and which gives a lot of power to the OFT? That is not good for consumers or the industry.

Mr. Prisk: My hon. Friend's trilogy of concern sadly reminds me of so many Bills that the Government generate. They are not transparent and they are not workable in practice. Unfortunately, that is a regular feature. My hon. Friend is right; the amendments take positive steps, but there are concerns that they do not go far enough. I am concerned about the workability of the legislation.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I can fully understand why the hon. Gentleman—he was not with us in Committee—is going over some of the arguments that have been well rehearsed and, I hope, explained. Do I get the impression that he will not disagree with any of the Lords amendments? Will the Opposition vote against any of them?

8.30 pm

Mr. Prisk: I have always believed that, in a debate, one should listen to the argument first. I stick to that principle, and I hope that the Minister will understand why.

Lords amendment No. 4 relates to clause 50. I am sure that hon. Members realise that the Government are seeking to leave out from the word "against" to the word "in" in page 42, line 21, and insert the words

I suspect that hon. Members who, like myself, have not been familiar with the Bill for long would wonder what that meant. Lords amendment No. 4 is a clarifying amendment, designed to ensure that clause 50 will achieve what is intended. One would assume that the Government would have done that in the first place, but that is not always the case, as I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise.

Clause 50 deals with officers of enforcement authorities other than the OFT. Proposed new section 36F(2) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 will make the OFT responsible for the actions of those officers, while they are fulfilling their duties under proposed new sections 36C and 36D, as the Minister said at the beginning of the debate. However, proposed new section 36F(3) disapplies that provision in the case of criminal proceedings against an officer or the enforcement authority—that is, the OFT will not be responsible in those instances. As originally drafted, proposed new section 36F(3) did not specifically refer to an instance where proceedings are brought against the OFT itself as a result of the actions of such an officer. Lords amendment No. 4 includes that situation for the purposes of clarification.

Again, the principle that underlies the Bill is welcome—it will introduce some clarity—but can the Minister give an assurance that, in his opinion, it contains no other instance of a similar lack of clarity about the respective roles of the OFT or any other agency? I look forward to hearing his reply, and I certainly want to ensure that it is on the record.

In Committee, the Minister suggested that the other enforcing authorities likely to carry out such activities on behalf of the OFT were most likely to be local
 
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authority trading standards officers. He went on to give an assurance that that work could not, and would not, be subcontracted out to other organisations or, for that matter, to the private sector. Can he repeat that reassurance? It was only a suggestion, as far as I can see from the record. Can he advise us about what statutory restrictions are in place to prevent the contracting out of those duties to inappropriate organisations or authorities?

Mr. Vaizey: The Minister in saying that there would be no subcontracting also said that no police checks would therefore be undertaken on any organisation carrying out such work. Therefore, my hon. Friend is making an extremely important and pertinent point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House has probably heard enough recapitulations of what was said in Committee. Such information is already available in printed form to all hon. Members, and I am sure that it has been studied ahead of the debate.

Mr. Prisk: I am sure that you are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is important that we study these matters thoroughly, because they are of great concern.

We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted Lords amendment No 5, which was tabled by my colleagues in another place. As the Minister will recall, that amendment addresses a key recommendation of the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which specifically expressed the view that the powers in clause 68 should be subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure. We welcome the Government's rather belated acceptance both of that Committee's advice and of our amendment.

Clause 68 will allow the Secretary of State, by statutory instrument, to modify any Act or subordinate legislation as he thinks fit in consequence of any provision in the Bill. Those are sweeping powers, as hon. Members will realise. Can the Minister give us an indication of the kind of legislation that is likely to be amended as a result of that clause? Of course, as with most legislation that this Government generates, we would have liked less secondary legislation in the first place.

A lack of clarity in the Bill will simply lead to confusion both for those who will implement it and those who will be subject to it. What assurances can the Minister give us that orders and guidance published under the Bill will be produced in a timely manner, giving lenders, enforcement agencies and others a proper opportunity to prepare for implementation?

The debate has given us the opportunity to seek further clarification, which hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to pursue. It is fair to say that I have raised a number of important points about the Bill's implementation, and I look forward to the Minister response. However, as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, I want to make some final points. One of our main concerns has been the lack of detail in the Bill. That concern has been recorded throughout the discussions that have taken
 
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place in the House. The Lords amendments under consideration today are relevant to two of our particular concerns.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am a fool to myself, but I want to help the hon. Gentleman. He is arguing that lots more should be included in the Bill to provide certainty, but the other side of that argument relates to the implementation of the regulations that flow from the Bill and the industry's ability to deal with those issues. If all that is included in the Bill, it becomes too restrictive—it does not allow the opportunity to discuss the changes in systems—so he cannot have it both ways. That issue was raised throughout the debates in Committee.

Mr. Prisk: There is much merit in what the Minister says, except for the fact that we are always concerned that too many Bills are essentially shells. We are asked to take it on trust that the elements that fill them out will be as described. Although the Minister is an honourable man, it is always our concern to ensure that we understand that issue, which is the essence of my concern in this case.

As the Minister will know, widespread concern has been expressed throughout the industry about the timetable for the implementation of the Bill. Indeed, the Minister made that point at the end of his opening remarks. We recognise the fact that the Department of Trade and Industry has recently published an indicative timetable—not a final one—for the secondary legislation, guidance and consultation and that the industry welcomes that clarification.

Detail is essential not least to allow lenders to reconfigure IT systems, so that they can fully comply with the new legislation. For example, APACS has noted that, in its experience, the design, building and testing of IT systems can take 18 months from regulatory certainty to full implementation. Given the Government's record on botched IT projects, I hope that the Minister will have sympathy with the industry's concerns during the implementation programme and that he will be able to respond accordingly.

Finally, good progress was made on the Bill in another place. It is fair to say that we welcome the careful consideration that the Lords have given to the Bill. I trust that we will indeed have a useful debate today, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's detailed responses to the questions that I have had the opportunity to touch on today.

Mr. Davey : The House will be pleased to know that I will not take 39 minutes to make my remarks. I generally support the Lords amendments. My colleague the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who was in charge of the Bill for the Liberal Democrats when it was considered on Second Reading and in Committee, generally supported the Government's proposals, although he made some useful points of detail. In the spirit of his approach to the Bill, I, too, will support the Lords amendments tonight.

Lords amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are very technical. They are basically drafting amendments and I have nothing to add to what has been said by the Minister and the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk).
 
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On Lords amendment No. 5, I am still slightly worried by the Minister's reply to my intervention, in which I made the point that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, if passed, will make that amendment redundant. Liberal Democrat and other Members are very worried about that Bill and hope that it will not receive Royal Assent—obviously, that is for another time—but it is bizarre that we are debating Lords amendment No. 5 when its force may last for only a few weeks before that other Bill is passed. I hope that the Minister will correct the record, because I think that he was wrong earlier in his response to my intervention.

I want to focus my remarks on Lords amendment No. 3. The Government have listened to the debates in this House and the other place and have brought in the provision with respect to irresponsible lending to ensure that when the Office of Fair Trading grants a licence to a credit organisation, it can ensure that that organisation does not engage in irresponsible lending. That is a welcome development, but there are points that need to be probed.


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