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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I certainly welcome the Birmingham pilot. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of Mr. Alan McNally, who preyed on many people in my constituency and who, fortunately, has been prosecuted as a result. It is
important to make an example of such people. It is also really important to highlight these cases as a warning to others, and so that they can act as a back-stop to the debt advice schemes that my right hon. Friend mentioned.
Mr. McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. My constituency, like his, has been bedevilled by illegal loan sharks who terrorise individuals and communities. They have no place in our communities or on our streets and doorsteps. Such prosecutions and subsequent ones will send the clear message that there is no hiding place for these people, who inflict misery on families and communities, particularly the elderly and other vulnerable people.
Prosecutions aside, the teams are preventing illegal moneylenders from operating by generating publicity for their work. They are demonstrating that loan sharks can, and will, be prosecuted, and directing victims towards seeking money advice, and towards third-sector lenders such as credit unions. Credit unions are an important means of accessing affordable credit. One of my first actions in my new role was to sign off legislation that will help the Treasury in its plan to encourage the growth of credit unions, so that they can offer loans to a broader range of people.
I turn to the unfair commercial practices directive. The Government are committed to simplifying regulations in order to provide effective protection for consumers. That is why we will introduce into the UK regimethrough the implementation of this directivea general duty not to trade unfairly. That will assist us in tackling aggressive doorstep selling; scams requiring competition winners to call premium-rate numbers; bogus closing-down sales; the advertising of unavailable products at low prices to attract consumers, in order to then sell them higher-price goods; and false claims that consumers will get a better deal if they sign up immediately, to prevent them from buying elsewhere. We have already consulted business and consumers on how to implement this new law, and we will publish our response before the summer. We aim to introduce this legislation next year.
Mr. Truswell: My right hon. Friend is displaying his customary generosity in giving way. Many of the scams that he has just described are perpetrated by fraudsters who use accommodation addresses provided by mailing companies. Such an address often proves to be just one of many post-boxes at a particular, sometimes prestigious location. A couple of weeks ago, I had an Adjournment debate on this issue. The then Minister for Competitiveness, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), was so impressed that he invited me to meet him and his officials to discuss the issue, and to bring trading standards officers with me. Given that my hon. Friend has been shuffled off to another Government coil, and that, essentially, this is a consumer protection issue, will my right hon. Friend pick up the baton and meet me and my posse of trading standards officers?
Mr. McCartney: I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his trading standards posse. I have not read his Adjournment debate, but I will put it in my red boxthere is a name to dropfor this weekend. The problem that he refers to is a genuine one. I have visited some of these posh addresses, a number of which are in the City of London. Often, there is a very nice office full of display cabinets, all of which are locked. They
contain the records of scam companies that every day throughout Britain are scamming pensioners and other vulnerable people and those who are unsure of their rights. Trading standards officers write to, or visit, the posh addresses given. The records are filed, and that is the last than anyone sees of them. These companies know that they are operating in this way. Those looking after such records know that such schemes are scams, and they are making a living out of doing so.
We can do more, and should be doing more, to bring together all the enforcement bodiestrading standards officers, the police and othersto tackle the problem of dead postal addresses, which are a cover-up for illegal scams that cause misery in many parts of the country. Unfortunately, when they are closed down they often reappear. I will definitely meet my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and his delegation to discuss this issue. However, as the proposals that I have set out show, the Government are very much on the front foot in dealing with it.
On enforcement, we are making great strides in developing policies to deal with those who flout the law and harm consumers. In the long term, competition punishes bad business; in the short term, rogue traders can undercut decent firms and dent consumer confidence in the market. We need to protect vulnerable consumers, the vast majority of decent businesses and the market itself by cracking down on these crooks. That means effective enforcement. The Department of Trade and Industrys company investigation branch is a powerful weapon in the fight against undesirables such as those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey is probably going to tell me about later.
Investigations can lead to companies being wound up in the public interest. We are tackling scams targeting consumers and we work closely with trading standards, the Office of Fair Trading and the police. Last year, the Company Investigation Branch conducted 162 investigations and wound up 121 companies. A plethora of con artists, running charity scams, buy-to-let scams and dodgy ticket agencies, were targeted and have now been dealt with effectively.
The amounts of money involved are staggering, but we have the power to put the firms out of business and we will be aggressive about doing so. Those targeted will include cowboy builders who cost homeowners thousands of pounds in shoddy and unnecessary building work, illegal doorstep salespeople, including those trying to sell financial and credit services, counterfeiters, and those who prey on the unsuspecting at car boot sales.
Richard Burden: Will my right hon. Friend also address the scams that target home workers, which still cause many problems for my constituents and others? People are promised thousands of pounds for work, but are required to pay up-front for meaningless kits and end up receiving nothing back. I introduced a private Members Bill on the issue some years ago, which did not proceed, but there is still a problem and I ask my right hon. Friend to look into it.
Mr. McCartney: I am happy to do so, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry,
my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who deals with employment rights. The issues are covered by the legislation on the national minimum wage[ Interruption.] My point is that we have a regulatory regime to protect home workers
Mr. McCartney: I am trying to be fair to all concerned. We have a regime to combat such practices, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) is saying that people have found different ways to get round that regime, I am happy to address that, together with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We have been very hot on regulatory matters around the minimum wage to ensure that we deal with any potential loopholes. I welcome the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield and I will arrange for him to have a meeting with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I will liaise with him.
Michael Fabricant: I wish to be helpful. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) was talking about the scam where the supplier provides goods that the person has to pay for, on the understanding that when they have made those goods into some other item, they will be paid considerably morein effect, for the value added. It is a complete scam, because people pay for the goods, do what is required to make the finished item and are paid nothing.
Mr. McCartney: Well, it is the first time that the hon. Gentleman has been helpful to me. It is a business scam. We have dealt with the issue of the employment scam effectively and I have invited my hon. Friend to the Department so that we can consider the points that he makes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest.
Sir Robert Smith: The Minister mentioned increasing enforcement and making it more effective. The Government accepted the Hampton report, which recommended bringing together various agencies into an organisation to be called the consumer and trading standards agency. The consultation on that proposal closed in October and I would like an update on the Governments intentions. As the report said, the new body
would need to dedicate significant resources to deliver a more coherent enforcement network and to improve performance in local authorities around the country.
Mr. McCartney: I will be frank in saying that that issue has not crossed my desk, but I will get a reply for the hon. Gentleman and place it in the Library so all hon. Members present can read itas long as the reply is sufficiently coherent in terms of the hon. Gentlemans request.
Many hon. Members are interested in the Governments review of any further liberalisation of Sunday shopping laws. I attended a stakeholder conference on that issue yesterday and heard first hand both the economic evidence and the concerns of stakeholders. The current laws governing Sunday opening were put in place 12 years ago. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 restricts large shops in England and Wales from opening for more than six hours between 10 and 6, and prevents them from opening at all on Easter Sunday. Sunday shopping hours have never been restricted in Scotland, but in 2003 the Government passed the Sunday Working (Scotland) Act to ensure that Scottish shop workers have the same right to choose not to work on Sundays as shop workers in England and Wales. The Government also supported the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 which ensures that large stores cannot open on Christmas day, no matter which day of the week Christmas falls on.
The fact that the regulations have been around for 12 years does not necessarily mean that they are wrong, but it means that it is sensible for us to review them. According to the Office of Fair Trading, which recently announced that it was studying certain areas of online shopping, internet retail sales in the United Kingdom have increased by 350 per cent. in the past five years. Between January and April this year the Department for Trade and Industry asked informally for views and evidence on a possible extension of Sunday shopping hours. I have not yet seen the results, but I know that there is a wide range of opinions and some are exceedingly strongly held. This is the time for the Government to listen, so if I may, I shall say that I am shopping around for a few good ideas.
I want to run through some of the strongly held views to illustrate the strength and complexity of the debate outside the Chamber. No one will agree with all of them. Indeed, some may not agree with any of them. For example, some consumers are keen to be able to shop at all hours of the day and night; others cannot imagine why they would ever want to do so. Some employees value the chance to work on Sundays; others say that Sunday opening has made their working life more difficult. Some people feel it is not the Governments place to regulate in this area; others would like to see Sunday protected as a day of rest by as much regulation as possible. Some religious groups feel either that it is wrong that shops open at all on Sundays or believe that family life benefits from having a day in the week without shopping and that it is extremely important to the social fabric of the country. Some have commented that the current rules under which many shops open and close at similar timesfor example 10 am and 4 pmcause congestion on the roads and say that it would be better to allow shops to decide for themselves when they close, which would be similar to the greater freedom now available to public houses.
There is also a wealth of interest in the effects on small shops, as I have witnessed at first hand in the
Makerfield constituency. Some people are worried that small shops near them might have to close; others think that it is good for small shops to have to raise their game to compete. Those and all other views expressed have to be weighed in the balance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I will look at all the evidence that we have received so far. I want to ensure that consumer and labour policies are well informed, even if we have to recognise that there will never be an overall consensus.
Michael Fabricant: I rise to point out that the Minister is right that the arguments are finely balanced. I was personally reassured that the previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was inclining to the view that time has moved on. The Minister will be aware that 12 years ago the John Lewis partnership, which now employs 64,000 partners all of whom have a stake in the company, was dead against Sunday trading. Now they take a neutral view because they recognise that time has moved on. The arguments made 12 years ago may not be so relevant today.
Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for trying for the second time in 18 years to be friendly to me. I, too, must be neutral in this matter. I know that he is trying to entice me for the best of reasons to comment on this. The whole point of what I have been saying is that we are genuinely looking to have proper consultation. I shall come to that in a minute.
We have not yet reached a conclusion on what should happen with regard to Sunday shopping hours. Given that I have only just arrived in the job, it will be no surprise that I have a generally open mind. No decision will be taken until I have assessed all the evidence and given appropriate advice to the Secretary of State. Secondly, we have promised that if we decide to continue to look at the question of changing the restrictions on Sunday shopping hours, there will be a formal consultation on the issue. We will keep that promise. We have said, and this remains the case, that the legislative process will be transparent; any changes will be part of a consumer Bill and subject to a full vote in the House.
Thirdly, I give the House an absolute commitment that the special protection that shop workers have, allowing them to choose not to work on Sundays, is here to stay. The review will not include changing that protection because we are firmly committed to keeping it in place. Fourthly, I make it clear that the Government are committed to values of economic and social justice. Although the economic case is important, it is only one part of the equation. The Government support a greater work-life balance. We also support the regeneration of communities and we want to see small family businesses flourish. We also know that many large companies are at the forefront of community regeneration. Many have developed strong partnerships with unions and have taken a positive approach to campaigning to end age discrimination and allow older men and women to
return to the labour market after many decades in which such people were not able to find work.
Our consultations are on all aspects of relaxing the restrictions on Sunday shopping, and I look forward to hearing hon. Members views on the matter. We know that there is a social impact whatever we do, whether it is leaving the current arrangements in place, extending the restricted hours or complete deregulation. This is not about being pro-small business or anti-big business; it is about being pro all businesses but also pro the people who work in them. I am determined to try to strike the right balance.
Mr. Prisk: The Minister says that he intends to make sure that there is a full and proper consultation. That is welcome. We understand that the Secretary of State has commissioned a study of the economic pros and cons. Will he undertake to ensure that that is published in order that we and the general public can see it as part of the consultation process?
Mr. McCartney: The whole purpose of yesterdays stakeholder event was indeed that. This is about two thingsthe economic assumptions and the consultation document itself, which I am working on and hope to produce soon. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the timetable for that and its content when I have obtained agreement with my Secretary of State. I will also write to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), if that is helpful.
Mr. McCartney: I want to conclude. I know that the hon. Gentleman has started to like me a bit more, but I have taken a long time to put the Governments case and I want to give the two Front-Bench spokesmen time to speak. I hope that what I have said has been helpful. I have been generous in giving way. I have set out a lot of detail. I hope that hon. Members can see how I want to prosecute the job that I now have.
Our vision is to deliver a consumer and competition regime that creates confident consumersa regime that provides help for the most vulnerable. What I have outlined today is designed to create those confident consumers, to arm them with skills to spot a bargain, to give them knowledge to exercise their rights when they are wronged and above all to protect them with the full force of the law. If we continue to fulfil those ambitions, I am sure that we will have a consumer regime that is fit for the 21st century.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): May I begin by concurring with the Ministers remarks about his predecessor, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe)? He and I had a professional, courteous relationship, and I look forward to a similar relationship with this Minister. I welcome him to his new post. I say new, but, as he rightly highlighted, he was a Minister of State at the Department some nine years ago.
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