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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Secretary of State began her review when the scale of the problem became known to her, but the scale of the problem was pretty clear on 13 October to the junior doctors committee representative from the BMA who, in my presence, made quite clear to junior doctors at East Surrey hospital the scale of the disaster that was about to happen and made it clear that the BMA’s junior doctors’ representatives were begging the Department
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of Health to postpone this process. The parliamentary questions that I have tabled on this matter have resulted in answers of the most stunning complacency. I have now been told of a further issue that will arise out of this virtual nationalisation of junior doctors beginning their new jobs. Apparently, between 1 and 3 August, almost every junior doctor and registrar will be involved in induction training in hospitals up and down the country, leaving only consultants available to provide doctor cover. Is the Secretary of State aware of this potential problem, and is she going to do anything to avert it before it happens?

Ms Hewitt: I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the summer of last year—and, if I remember correctly, in 2005 as well—we were told that we were about to have thousands of unemployed doctors all over the country. Of course, that was not the case, any more than it will be this year. We are looking at what will happen in August, but the immediate priority is to ensure that we sort out the changes that need to be made for round 1 and round 2 to ensure that this first year—which was bound to be a transitional year—of appointments to the new consultant training system continues in a way that will be fair to everyone and that restores the confidence of junior doctors.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Horton general hospital in Banbury is possibly going to lose 24/7 paediatric cover and, as a consequence, consultant-led obstetrics because, we are told, there are insufficient junior paediatricians to go round. What this saga seems to demonstrate is that there are more qualified junior doctors than there are posts. Will the Secretary of State give the people of my constituency an assurance that any paediatricians who want training posts at the end of this exercise can go to Horton general hospital, where, for the past 75 years or so, we have had consultant-led obstetrics and, ever since Barbara Castle initiated a public inquiry, consultant-led 24/7 paediatric cover?

Ms Hewitt: It is entirely a matter for the hospital and for the NHS in each region to decide how many training places should be made available and in what specialties. I would never seek to dictate that from the Department of Health. How and where services are most safely and appropriately provided is also a matter on which decisions need to be made locally by the local NHS, in full consultation with the public.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I, too, was contacted today by a junior house doctor, who specifically wanted me to ask the Secretary of State whether she was aware that, under the new system, a surgeon will have only about 25 per cent. of the number of training hours that they currently receive. Would the Secretary of State be happy to be operated on by such a surgeon?

Ms Hewitt: On that, and on other relevant matters, it is more relevant to listen to the views of the Royal College of Surgeons, which has been closely involved throughout the development of the modernising medical careers programme. The programme is designed to replace a rather disorganised old system with one that focuses clearly on the competences and
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the level of ability that doctors need as they progress through their specialty training towards becoming a consultant.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): It is not only junior doctors who are missing out—first-class hospitals such as St. Richard’s cannot get the best doctors to train. My constituents will therefore not get the treatment they would otherwise be able to obtain. This is an absolute shambles. Cannot the Secretary of State see the scale of it? Will she now, as numerous people have asked, just say sorry?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman should have listened to the review group. We published a further statement from it last Friday, which I have just repeated in my statement. The changes that we have already agreed for round 1 mean that junior doctors who did not get an interview, or did not get an interview for their first or second choice of specialty, will now have their applications reviewed, in some cases through a face-to-face interview. Where appropriate—depending, of course, on whether they meet the selection criteria—they will then be added to the interview process. In addition to the very fine young junior doctors who have already been given interviews in round 1, including 84 per cent. of the second-year foundation training programme graduates, more doctors—we estimate that there will be more than 5,000—will be given round 1 training interviews. That will not only ensure fairness to them, but will enable the NHS to choose from the best candidates for all jobs.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Apart from the misery that is being caused to thousands of junior doctors and their families, this is another NHS information technology project failure. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much the MTAS system has cost to date, and will she consider inviting the National Audit Office to inform her and the House whether it has been value for money?

Ms Hewitt: I do not know how much the MTAS system has cost, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about it, and I will certainly consider his suggestion about the NAO.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am astonished to hear the Secretary of State continuing to defend the system when she should be apologising for it. I met about 20 junior doctors from Bournemouth hospital at the weekend. They said that
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the online system was a joke, that proper training was being jeopardised, and that come 1 August thousands of able doctors would be made redundant. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet those doctors so that she can hear their views directly, and does she agree that of all the cock-ups that the Government have caused in the NHS, this has to take the biscuit?

Ms Hewitt: I am glad to say that I have the opportunity to meet junior doctors and other NHS staff all the time, and will continue to do so.

As soon as it became clear that the new system was not working properly, I sat down with the royal colleges and the BMA and established an independent review group. We are acting on its recommendations, and I think that that is the right way in which to proceed.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give us any idea of how many doctors will be out of a job after August, and has she made any assessment of the work load that will be placed on those who will be left in the system?

Ms Hewitt: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has been following the discussion. He assumes that thousands of doctors will be out of work, but the applicants—more than 29,000—who are currently working in the NHS will continue to be needed in the service, whether they have moved on to run-through training programmes or are working in staff and other NHS jobs. Those jobs will continue to be needed, because those doctors are at the heart of the NHS.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): One question that has been asked repeatedly this afternoon remains unanswered. I will repeat it, for the sake of good order, and I hope that the Secretary of State will answer it. Will she say sorry?

Ms Hewitt: As I have said, the system was not working as well as it should have been, and as soon as that became clear—and because of the distress being caused to so many junior doctors—we established an independent review group. We have already made changes in the system, which have been communicated to the junior doctors both directly and through the websites. Further changes are now being made, and will continue to be made.

I only hope that the hon. Gentleman and other Members, while complaining—perfectly reasonably—about problems, will acknowledge that we are sorting those problems out. I also hope that they will, just occasionally, give credit for the real progress that has been made.

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Orders of the Day

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: First Progress Report, HC 263, and the letter from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the Chairman of the Committee, dated 12th March 2007.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.14 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have been involved in consumer affairs in the House for more than 20 years, and I feel passionate about the issues. I am proud that under the present Government the country is seeing the biggest overhaul of consumer protection for the past 20 years. The Bill is part of that story. We want to empower consumers—to give them a strong voice and access to redress when things go wrong. We also want to ensure that rogue businesses have nowhere to hide. The Bill embodies the Government’s commitment to a fair deal for consumers, and that is why I am delighted to present the Bill to the House today.

The Government have an impressive track record in competition and consumer policy, but we are not complacent. Our goal is to have the best competition and consumer regime in the world by 2008.

Sticking up for consumers does not mean bashing legitimate business. Indeed, we have a responsibility to businesses to get rid of the rogues. Honest, well run businesses should not be undercut by competitors who rip off consumers. Often, the reputations of many responsible firms are tarnished by the actions of the irresponsible few.

Government have a key role to play. Consumers need to have, first, the right information to spot a good deal; secondly, the knowledge to tell when they are being ripped off; and thirdly, we need to give enforcers the power to catch the rip-off merchants. Those are the principles driving the Bill.

Before I speak about the Bill in detail, I want to explain how it fits with other changes that the Government are making to empower consumers. The Consumer Credit Act 2006, which received Royal Assent last March, greatly improves consumer rights and redress in relation to borrowing money. The Act also introduces major changes to the licensing of consumer credit businesses, and new powers to drive dishonest traders out of the market.

The unfair commercial practices directive is another powerful tool. It is designed to tackle the rogue traders and unfair business practices that target the most vulnerable people in society and damage the reputation of honest firms by association. Once implemented, that directive will ban 31 types of unfair commercial practices outright, including high-pressure or unreasonably persistent selling methods. It will tackle unfair sales ploys such as prize draw scams, including phone-in prize draw scams; bogus closing down sales;
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sellers who refuse to leave a customer's home until a contract is signed; and traders who prey on elderly people's fears about personal security to sell them burglar alarms. The directive also introduces a catch-all “duty” not to trade unfairly. Currently, a practice would be examined against prescriptive legislation, which unfair traders can try to avoid. The general duty will be able to catch all unfair practices that might affect consumers.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I wonder whether the catch-all provision would cover the practice that a number of disabled people experience where there is an advert for an electronic buggy or bed with a phone number. When they phone up asking for a brochure, one arrives that has no prices. If they ask what the price is, they are not told. Instead, a salesman calls and what happens thereafter is pressured sales. Will that kind of sales technique be outlawed under those provisions?

Mr. McCartney: I can confirm that that is the case. As I get into my speech, hon. Members will see that the Bill covers issues relating to solicited or unsolicited sales. That is important. I think that there is all-party support in that respect.

Together with this Bill, those measures form a comprehensive package that will empower consumers more than ever before. As I said, I have been involved in consumer affairs for over 20 years. The Bill is an effective refurbishment of measures introduced over that period.

The Bill represents an important step forward in consumer protection. It contains a range of important provisions that will create a new, stronger, more coherent consumer advocacy body to represent consumers across all markets; introduce availability of redress for consumers in the energy, postal services and estate agency sectors; and improve regulation of estate agents and doorstep selling.

The Bill has already benefited from full and thorough debate in another place. Some valuable changes have been made to it as a result. I shall outline some of those changes as I describe in more detail the content of the Bill itself.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Will the Minister clarify one issue of detail on the name of the new consumer advocacy body that is created by the Bill? The Bill describes it throughout as the National Consumer Council. The phrase “consumer voice” has been used extensively by Ministers. Will he clarify whether that phrase is still in current usage?

Mr. McCartney: It will be the National Consumer Council. As I get into my speech, the hon. Gentleman will see what the process is. If he wants to intervene on me again, he may by all means do so.

I apologise. I just lost the plot there— [Interruption.] I thought that that would get a chuckle. I lost my place in my speech.

As well as creating a new, stronger and more coherent advocacy body, we will introduce the availability of redress schemes and improve the regulation of estate agents and doorstep selling. The Bill has already benefited from having been debated in
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another place, and further issues might arise in Committee. The Bill was dealt with in another place in a non-controversial and non-partisan way, and I will give serious consideration to suggestions offered in that spirit for improving the Bill—but, obviously, I will not give serious consideration to matters raised simply for partisan reasons.

The consumer voice provisions form the largest part of the Bill. They will bring together the existing National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch to form a strong and powerful consumer advocate: the new National Consumer Council. The Bill also allows for the Consumer Council for Water to be brought inside the new National Consumer Council tent in the future, after public consultation.

Some critics of those proposals have raised concerns about loss of expertise and loss of independence. Some have even suggested that the Government are creating this new body in order to silence criticism of Government action, on post offices in particular. Let me say now that our objective in bringing these bodies together is to create not a mouse too meek to challenge us, but a lion who will, I hope, roar on behalf of consumers. We do not want to weaken consumer representation, but to strengthen it. We do not want to lose valued expertise, but to build on it and make sure that all sectors benefit from it. A strong rope is made from intertwining different strands together. That is why we will create the new National Consumer Council.

Markets for essential services such as energy, post and water have been liberalised one by one over a period of time. As a result, we now have several sectoral consumer bodies, as well as the National Consumer Council. The National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch have provided a valuable service to consumers until now, but there are key issues to be addressed. Consumer representation is fragmented. Consumers are confused about where to go for help. Lessons are not being shared between sectors. Resources and information can be shared more effectively.

It is now time for change. The new National Consumer Council will be a strong and independent advocate for the consumer. It will speak with expertise and authority in discussions with companies, with Government and in Europe. It will be able to look across sectors, and to give advice on the basis of expert and informed analysis, and it will draw on all its skills and expertise to tackle the biggest problems in the areas of most concern.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Minister talks about the new body being an advocate for consumers. Does he mean that it will be so in a general sense by advocating the needs of consumers, or does he envisage it taking up specific issues? I know that changes have been made in the Lords in respect of some energy consumer issues, but there is still concern that vulnerable people might not get their cases dealt with quickly unless someone acts as their advocate.

Mr. McCartney: I assure the hon. Gentleman that its role will be both general and particular, and that it will
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have a role specifically to tackle issues to do with vulnerable consumers, in terms of dealing with their initial problems and complaints and in assisting them through the process—all the way through, if necessary—of getting redress for their personal circumstances. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the proposed legislation will do that.

Consumers will know when to turn for help and who they can turn to for help. Consumer Direct will act as a first port of call, dealing with simple complaints and inquiries, or referring consumers on to redress schemes if the company in question fails to resolve the problem. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made in that regard. Even at the stage of the first port of call with the company, the most vulnerable consumers will be assisted. When they make contact with Consumer Direct, they will not simply be told, “Well, go away and see what you can do, and then come back to us if the situation has not been resolved.” We will provide an end-to-end service.

Let me be clear: we have big ambitions for the new National Consumer Council that I am confident this House will share. Our challenge is to take the best of the current organisations—their knowledge, their independence, their ability to act quickly—and to build that into something even better: a champion fighter that is able to protect consumers and that is admired for its expertise, trusted for its advice and feared by those who would rip off consumers.

I should at this stage report that we had an informative and thorough debate in another place. As a result of listening to concerns raised, the Government laid a number of amendments. In particular, there were concerns about the position of the Scottish and Welsh Consumer Councils. It has always been our intention that those bodies should undertake the same key functions as the new National Consumer Council. We laid a number of amendments in another place to clarify the role of the Scottish and Welsh Consumer Councils, and to ensure that they are provided with the power to exercise the same key functions within their relevant territories, except for a very few instances where it is necessary for the new National Consumer Council to maintain a co-ordinating role.

The Bill also extends the availability of redress for consumers in the energy and postal sectors. Energywatch and Postwatch currently labour under a significant burden of complaints. However, they can seek to resolve these complaints only through persuasion. They have no powers to enforce resolution and cannot provide for redress or compensation.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): The Minister says that he has great hopes for the National Consumer Council. Will it be structured in such a way that other industries can be incorporated at a later stage and is that his intention?

Mr. McCartney: That is a fair question. I have already indicated in consultation that the next sector that I would like to see join is water. We do intend to build on this start over time, but if changes are to be made, they will have to be made by consultation. That is critical.

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