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Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and he has touched on the resources of the OFT. Does he envisage that the OFT will have to review all the licences when the law comes into force? What effect will that have on the manpower of that organisation?
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend has made a valid point. As he has said, the rate of company acquisitions in this country is enormous. Credit lenders, both large and small, are taken over daily. If one buys a fridge from, for example, Comet, one enters into some form of credit agreement, which can be sold by that company to another credit company. Will the OFT check each such company from the start?
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
Is my hon. Friend concerned about the efficacy of evidence
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taking in respect of the OFT, given the example of supermarkets, where there have been concerns aboutfor the want of a better wordreprisals against people who have given evidence to the OFT?
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I was interested to hear my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) discuss Lord Sainsbury, who issues quite a lot of credit lines to people who subscribe to his supermarket chain. There is nothing wrong with thatbut how on earth would it be policed if the OFT did not have a database or background information? As I have said, I defy anyone to work out who is doing what. Will the OFT have the power to force those companies to let it know about such changes on a set date? Will such companies have 28 days or 14 days for compliance, and how will someone know whether their account has been moved?
I am sure that most hon. Members have mortgagesone or two of us have more than oneand one must know from whom one is borrowing money. There is no guarantee that the OFT will be able to police such matters in the long term. I am not convinced that the resources will be available for the individual companies to be put into their slots for the long term and controlled by the OFT.
Governments are very good at cutting resources, and we have seen too many examples of such organisations being slimmed down, in terms of manpower and resources. The Rural Payments Agency is a good example. If it goes wrong, who is responsible?
The Bill is delightful and will provide protection, but the underlying problem is that when big companies start to play, they do not care who they hurt. If they start to hurt the most vulnerable people in society, the credit unions and others are left to pick up the pieces. If we then do not let the OFT do its job, or we do not give it the powers, or it does not have the resources, the Bill will be worthless. I ask the Minister to ensure that that is built in.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I said to colleagues that I expected this debate to be over quickly, on the basis that the Lords amendments were all agreed and there had only ever been one Division on this Bill both this time and before, when its predecessor was lost for lack of parliamentary time. I therefore had reasonable expectations that we would not go into the detail that we have tonight.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Well, perhaps other issues have had an effect. We have had a good debate, which was conducted in the right spirit. We had some robust contributions, which did not necessarily hone in on the Lords amendments before us this evening.
I apologise to the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for not welcoming them to their new responsibilities. We have had discussions in Committee recently and I am beginning to see those hon. Gentlemen far too often for my liking. We continue to have good natured debates.
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There was reasonable support for Lords amendment No. 1, so I hope that everybody is happy with the distinction between "his" and "the debtor's". The wording is transparent and will provide the opportunities that we need. On Lords amendment No. 2, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who has raised many issues about legal certainty and judgment. I take on board his comments and thank him for his congratulations on the amendment.
The main amendment for discussion was Lords amendment No. 3, on the OFT's responsibilities in relation to irresponsible lending. There was confusion in some minds about the distinction between the unfairness test and the responsible lending function that the OFT will be able to take into consideration when performing its licensing function. I refer hon. Members to the debates on previous stages of the Bill, in which we tried to clarify why we were supporting that function for the OFT. I do not think that the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) meant to attack the OFT, and it is true that the Bill will have resource implications for it and bodies such as the trading standards authorities, which act as enforcement authorities on behalf of the OFT when requested.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton raised the point on data sharing made previously by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). It is important, and the three Front Benchers have been talking to APACS and others about it. I have also talked to colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and we will consult shortly on the issue.
Mr. Prisk: What I did not hear from the Minister on amendment No. 3 was whether there was a particular reason why he changed his mind and accepted it. What was the one thing that led the Government to accept the amendment, when they were so reluctant to do so previously?
Mr. Sutcliffe: It is easy to answer that. It was the power of the argument, especially from some of the noble Lords, from their experience on various boards. Lord Borrie had also been involved with the OFT. It was the weight of discussion and the opportunity for the OFT to have that power in the licensing function. I make the distinction between the licensing function and the duty to lend responsibly.
The Lords amendments are important to our discussion. We have gone through all the aspects thoroughly, both this evening and previously. The Bill has been well consulted upon. It became part of the process following the consumer credit White Paper, which again was fully consulted upon. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill stands alone in that it has not completed its passage through the House. In amendment No. 5, we rightly acknowledge and respond
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to the concerns of the Regulatory Reform Committee in relation to clause 68. I have dealt with the point about data sharing.
Implementation is a key issue. A timetable will be produced. We are cognisant of the fact that there need to be IT systems changes, and experts from the industry will be seconded to the Department to offer advice and assistance when we draw up the various regulations.
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