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There are interesting examples from other countries, in which membership of a trade association is mandatory, and that may or may not be a way forward here. I can see the value of such an arrangement,
because trade associations can help to inspire confidence by providing properly structured trade agreements that offer the necessary protection. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) mentioned his own experience in that regard. Such an arrangement could serve as a model for the building trade.
My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned shop workers and Sunday trading. It is axiomatic that, if we are to create consumer confidence, our consumers need to be served by well-motivated, well-trained staff, be they shop workers or people who work in the hospitality industry. We still have some way to go in this country in relation to changing public attitudes towards people who serve in those roles. Unlike in the United States, their jobs are sometimes seen as menial. However, many of our constituents now look to those industries for employment, and we need to guarantee that they will have a system of career development through properly structured training schemes. Trade unions have a strong role to play in that form of training and education.
In that industry, in which there is direct contact with consumers, not all of whom are confident and decent, violence against shop workers, for example, is a major issue. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has been anxious to campaign on that recently. It is legitimate to promote responsible as well as confident consumers, and one of their responsibilities is not to assault physically or abuse verbally those engaged in providing such services.
Mr. Prisk: The hon. Gentleman is right that where companies clearly abuse their position, they must be dealt with thoroughly and properly. Does he also accept, however, that one of the ways in which we can change behaviour among businesses is to use the carrot rather than the stickto show that, for many businesses, customers value good service, which therefore provides a competitive advantage? That language might be more likely to encourage the vast majority of people involved in business and in providing services, public or private, to up their game.
Tony Lloyd: I probably did not explain my original point fullyI was talking about the customer, not the company. Assaults on shop workers are, I hope, rarely committed by their employer; it is not a good motivational technique in the modern world. [Laughter.] We certainly know of cases in which shop workers have been assaulted by irate customers, and all of us have probably been irate customers from time to time, but that is not an excuse to subject those who provide such service to physical or verbal abuse.
The hon. Gentleman makes a credible point; there is a strong role for companies in recognising that the provision of high-quality service, which requires highly motivated, well-trained staff, is also in the corporate interest. The best companies do exactly that, and we hope that that spreads throughout industry.
Finally, I want to refer to the debate about the consultation on Sunday trading. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who is new to his job, must take a dispassionate, neutral attitude. However, I do not feel that I must be neutral or dispassionate. We altered the
laws on Sunday trading only 12 years ago. At the time, a compromise was struck between those who argued from different perspectives, ranging from those who wanted no Sunday trading whatever to those who wanted total deregulation. That compromise recognised the different feelings in society. Of course, society is not static, so there is no inevitability that we will stay where we are for ever. Not enough has changed in those 12 years, however, to alter that fundamental compromise.
Michael Fabricant: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that when we debated this issue 12 years ago we had a free vote? Does he wish, as I do, that when we eventually get round to voting on the issue again, whichever view we take, it will be a free vote, not one divided on party lines?
Tony Lloyd: Most of us are pragmatic and believe in a free vote when it guarantees that our side wins the vote. I may have to allow the argument to develop a little before I come down on one side or the other. This type of debate raises some genuine issues, and our approach should be to try to build the largest consensus. I think that we have a consensus at the moment. I have family members who work in the retail industry and who make the point to me that they quite like to work on Sundays. That is okay; it is what they choose. However, they like to work on the present Sunday, not a Sunday that might ultimately look like every other shopping day of the week. Keeping Sunday as a rather different day of the week is not necessarily to pander to ultra-Sabbatarians but to recognise that our way of life is best protected if our ordered week at least maintains something of the present character.
I live in the middle of one of the most bustling cities in Britain, in the area where arguably such considerations apply least. Nevertheless, people still value the fact that one day of the week is a little different, and shop workers want to maintain the benefits of that.
It could be said that the argument is not about the interests of consumers but about those of the very large stores, which still believe that they can gain a competitive advantage if they can open for longer on Sundays. That is questionable. It may not be in the interests of consumers if the result of longer opening hours for the large operators is smaller distributors being squeezed out of the industry. Interestingly, Tesco, which was one of the leading advocates of a change in the regulation of Sunday hours, has withdrawn from the deregulation coalition. I do not know why that is, but I am pleased that Tesco may have realised that it is not in its corporate interest to advocate a change that would be unpopular with the public.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his new role. I can think of no one in Government who is quite as tenacious in supporting the interests of ordinary people against those who abuse their different forms of monopoly power. He has a great personal reputation. I am happy to say that publicly. We are not often given the chance to read our colleagues obituaries while they are still with us. I am delighted that the Prime Minister did absolutely the right thing in this instance in moving my right hon. Friend to the DTI in his reshuffle.
Mr. McCartney: Although only a few Members have been present to participate in my comeback, I can genuinely say that the debate has been interesting and has featured a good deal of serious comment, questioning and analysis. We all want to arrive at the same destination when it comes to some of the big issues and challenges, although there may be different options along the way. Difficult decisions may be necessary. Sometimes the easy decision is to opt out, while a decision that appears difficult at the outset may provide stability in the long term.
I shall respond to as many points as I can, but I do not want to give an answer about which I am uncertain, and I may want to go away and ponder some of what has been said. I shall write to those to whom I do not respond today.
Both the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) asked about access to cost-benefit analyses relating to Sunday shopping. I said that I would write to them, but I can also tell them that following my contribution at the stakeholders meeting yesterday the information has been placed on the DTI website. We would welcome comments. That is, however, separate from what I said earlier about preparation for potential further consultation.
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has told us about the study, but has he any idea when the formal consultation might begin? I assume that it will have to begin reasonably soon if the timetable set by the Queens Speech is to be adhered to.
Mr. McCartney: That is a fair point. I am working on it as we speak. We have been consulting since January, and yesterdays stakeholders meeting represented almost the culmination of that first phase. I must now organise a further consultation, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, if it is to form any part of the legislative programme it will have to start fairly soon. Given that it is part of a continuing process of consultation, I expect that that will be the case. I shall give the hon. Gentleman the information as soon as I can. I shall ensure that he does not read it in the newspapers, and that I announce it in the House.
I want to say a few words about the national debate on small shops. It grates a little when, just as that debate begins, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford announces that he wants to close the Small Business Service. Small businesses will be horrified to hear that. The Conservatives say one thing, but would do anotheryet another example of their flip-flopping. This Government have shown their absolute commitment to the regeneration of town centres and marginal shopping areas, and to the renaissance of villages, small towns and estates, all of which were abandoned during 18 years of Tory government. A key aspect of that fundamental renaissance is bringing sustainable local businesses back to communities. This Government have pumped, and continue to pump, billions of pounds into the renaissance not just of our cities, but our out-of-town areas, villages and estates, all of which the previous Government abandoned. Small businesses have a big role to play in that renaissance.
Mr. McCartney: I thought that that would wake the hon. Gentleman up.
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the Minister for his stopping our drift into a consensual swamp. I enjoyed his pantomime attempt to suggest that we have a particular policy commitment regarding the SBS and the Department of Trade and Industry, but of course, and as he well knows, it is not true. Can he give a commitment to ensuring that the Government will provide time for a debate in this Chamber on the future of small shops?
Mr. McCartney: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the Leader of the House, on whom the hon. Gentleman will have to use his persuasive talents. But whether or not that debate takes place, day in, day out, this Government will act to support small businesses, while you talk about it.
The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about the need for action and financial capability. I agree that it is important that consumers have the knowledge and understanding necessary to manage their money. The Financial Services Authority is taking the lead in work on financial capability. It has launched a range of initiatives, targeting employees and parents in particular, to provide people with simple tools to enable them to assess their financial position and borrowing. As part of this strategy, we will introduce financial education into the core curriculum from 2008.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I will meet representatives of the Association for Payment Clearing Services to discuss chip and PIN fraud. Credit card fraud is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whose Ministers have regular contact with APACS. I can however assure the hon. Gentleman that I will meet APACS representatives to discuss a range of issues, including this one. I will not be dishonest and say that such a meeting is already in my diary, but APACS is among a list of organisations whose representatives I will be meeting very soon. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me on this issue, I invite him to do so.
It is important not to rush change, and we judged the proposed time scale for the introduction of consumer voice as sensible. We fully understand the importance to staff of stability, and we are closely consulting existing bodies, including staff representatives. This is in no way a cost-cutting exercise. The National Consumer Council is Government-funded and is at the core of the establishment of consumer voice. There is no intention to marginalise citizens advice bureaux. All such bodies are working closely together with the NCC.
Consumer voice will be a statutory, independent body, which, I believe, is the commitment that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and others were looking for. We are considering our response to the consultation now, and we will announce the preferred option in July. Given that I have come late to this issue, I will read all the consultation documents, rather than simply looking at the recommendations made to me. I am very happy to consider the views and opinions
expressed here today. If the hon. Gentleman has further opinions that he wants to express, I invite him to do so over the next few weeks. I give a genuine commitment to considering them in reaching my conclusions on the option to be announced in July.
There is no better incentive for companies to resolve complaints themselves than having to pay ombudsmans costs. The new body will have specific responsibilities for vulnerable consumers in areas such as energy. The Office of Fair Trading has a key role to play in consumer education. Like Postwatch, Energywatch has a low public profile, and it cannot enforce compensation. I should point out that there are not 280,000 stranded customers; that figure includes all those who phoned to make a simple inquiry.
Energywatch can act as an advocate, but it cannot enforce solutions. On issues such as disconnection, I agree that a faster track is needed. Energywatch is consulting Ofgem on a new billing ombudsman and speeding up the processes. Consumer voice is able to retain specialist panels in relation to energy and other issues, so it has the capacity to act independently and consider issues that arise. I have no doubt that Members of Parliament, consumer organisations and consumers themselves will try to influence the work load of the body.
I noticed that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) made a new financial commitment for a new Department. However, he did not say what would happen to state aid, regional aid and the Small Business Service. He was careful, but I caught him out in one small aspect of that disastrous policy announcement. He has tried to cauterise the wounds, but as his proposal stands, all the other services of the DTI, including insolvency services, would be lost.
Mr. McCartney: He made his bed: will he lie in it?
Sir Robert Smith: The Minister is exaggerating. If he looks at our manifesto from the last election, he will see that responsibility for energy would be put with environment and transport, which logically belong together. Responsibility for consumer affairs and the voice of business would go to the Treasury, and consumer protection would go to the new consumer Department. Regional aid would be devolved to the regions. Such a reorganisation is a matter for another debate, and I suggest that the Minister concentrate on the consumer affairs aspect.
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman is trying hard, but he is drowning. Regional development agencies already have budgets, but what would happen to trade support services, insolvency and all the other responsibilities? The hon. Gentleman has a very bad policy, and that was noticed by very many consumers at the last general election.
The hon. Gentleman raised several issues connected with the Information Commissioners Office. The Government believe that it has a strong and supportive voice for telephone reference services. I will ensure that the hon. Gentlemans comments are drawn to the
attention of my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, whose responsibility includes the Information Commissioner. I will ask my noble Friend to respond to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the Post Office card account, which will be funded by the Government until 2010. That was always the plan, so the issue of the contract cannot be a surprise. However, it has not yet been settled what accounts will be available beyond 2010 and we are working closely with the Post Office to ensure that customers continue to have a choice of how to access their money at the post office. The Government have put in hundreds of millions of pounds to support the network, not only this year, but every year since we came to power.
Sir Robert Smith: The Minister should ensure that his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions get things in the right order. It is premature to bully people away from the card account nowand into bank accounts with the prospect of £20 or £30 letters if they go overdrawnwhen the future arrangements have not been decided.
Mr. McCartney: The Government have been careful to work with the Post Office to provide improved services for pensioners, including the Pension Service and the card account. I feel a Focus leaflet coming on from the hon. Gentleman, but I hear what he says and I will put his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He can rest assured that this Government, more than any other, have supported the Post Office in all its aspects, including services to its most vulnerable customers, especially pensioners.
The Government intend to introduce a legal services board, with specific responsibilities for competition and consumers. I will get an appropriate Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman about that with further details.
On the building sector, the Government have supported a trust mark scheme to provide reassurances that the consumer is employing a good builder or property repairer.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) raised a number of interesting points. Like me, he was consensual one moment and partisan another. I will try to deal in equal measure with the issues that he raised, but I am not sure that I can manage that.
There were some problems with the security industry registration. Let us be straight about this. The vast majority of the people not being registered could not be registered because of their criminal records. The point of introducing the registration scheme was to clean up the act and stop the industry being undermined by cowboys. This is a good industry. It is a good employer and an international industry. It provides global public and private services from the United Kingdom. It will continue to grow as we need the services of that industry in many areas. When I first raised the issue, the industry was worried, but it now has a protection that will help it expand and offer new services here, in Europe and beyond.
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