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I shall concentrate on part 3, which amends the Estate Agents Act 1979. Members have said many times that buying a house is probably the most mystifying and expensive thing that most people will do. It is probably up on the Richter scale with getting divorced as the most stressful experience in most people’s lives. [ Interruption. ] I suspect that it probably
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leads to many divorces. In taking a particular interest in this part of the Bill, I have involved local estate agents from my constituency. Rather than just using estate agents as whipping boys, I felt that it was right and proper to use the expertise of established estate agents in my constituency who have worked in the field for many years. I hasten to add that I have not received many complaints about estate agents, but I have heard from other Members about people who have been used and abused by estate agents. Particularly in areas where prices are high and housing is sought after, it is incredibly important that estate agents do the job that they should do.

That is why I invited a whole series of estate agents to come to the House of Commons. I thank them publicly for their work and for the time that they spent examining the Bill and looking at ways in which to make sure that it does the job that we expect it to do. I suspect that we were comfortable in each other’s company because we all wallow around at the bottom of people’s expectations of how people like us respond to the public. What I found most interesting about the estate agents was that they probably wanted the Bill to go further, because they are good estate agents and they want to drive out the rogue estate agents who give them a bad reputation.

At times—I had to take on board what the estate agents were saying—the public can behave quite badly as well. In fact, one estate agent said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we all had criminal records checks?” He went to a house to measure up and do a valuation and when school-end time came, the mother said, “Do you mind just looking after those two while I skip to the school to collect my children?” She left the estate agent in the house with two small children. He was fairly shocked by that behaviour. At times, the public need help when it comes to how to behave towards people they invite into their homes.

I am deeply grateful to the Minister for Trade, who is steering the Bill through Parliament, for his help, advice and letters. He has responded to the queries that we had throughout our consultation process and clarified that all aspects of the work that estate agents do will be part of the Bill. That has been widely accepted and it makes people feel that this is a really good scheme.

Having an accredited scheme is vital. The quality of the scheme is the most important issue. Members have said that we should perhaps increase the fines for estate agents, but compulsory professional indemnity insurance is a far more important issue. The heart of the Bill is redress. If somebody has been dealt a serious blow by a disreputable estate agent, they should get redress for that. It should not just be a fine, with money going into a black hole. People need to have a real sense that they are going to get some help if they have received bad treatment from an estate agent.

The recording of transactions is vital. Anybody who has worked in the public sector, as I have in nursing, knows that recording a process is crucial when it comes to examining that process later to ensure that all has been done properly. I hope that estate agents will respond properly to that aspect of the Bill.

Quality is essential. To jump to the defence of the DTI website, I thought that the published letters from the estate agent ombudsman and the response letters
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from the DTI were incredibly helpful in understanding that getting the schemes right is the first and foremost way in which we can get the Bill into the shape that will mean that it will do the job that we expect it to do. I was impressed to see that those who are interested in getting into a redress scheme are responding to all the issues raised by the DTI. It gives us some confidence to know that that work is going on, and going on in public.

I want to clarify a couple of points. I know that the schemes are being examined, but could the Under-Secretary tell me how close we are to making sure that there are some decent schemes available and when he hopes to make an announcement about them?

Mr. Prisk: The hon. Lady said that the estate agents whom she had consulted were keen to widen the scope of the Bill’s amendments to the 1979 Act. Will she clarify whether she believes—as I think that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) felt—that that should include lettings?

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We did not discuss lettings. I was referring to the fact that the estate agents were worried that they were being invited into people’s homes without having a criminal records check to protect them in those circumstances. The discussion was not related to lettings. I thank him for allowing me to clarify that.

To conclude, the quality of the redress schemes is going to be the most important aspect of this part of the Bill. I know that there is a lot of work going on and I thank the estate agents in my constituency who were good enough to help me to understand the Bill and to ensure that we get the very best outcome. Good estate agents are sick and tired of the reputation that poor and rogue estate agents give to their profession. The good ones are responsible. They want to do a decent job and to make sure that people have a good experience when buying or selling a house. I know that the Bill will contribute to that enormously.

6.29 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): We have heard passionate speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the consumer, consumer rights and a consumer voice, even if that terminology is being dropped. Although Ministers and Members in general are quite low in the league table of public opinion, with estate agents slightly above them, the debate will go some small way towards encouraging us up the league table—hopefully faster than estate agents.

In the private sector, I once had the privilege of working with a civil service permanent secretary, who said, “If you’ve got a problem, don’t try to reorganise it—sort it out.” While I am broadly supportive of the Bill, I am worried that the Government are trying to reorganise. I am especially worried about Postwatch and postal services. Postal services are a big issue in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) talked about a possible growth in Members’ postbags, but my postbag is quite large already, perhaps in no small part because of the survey of sub-post offices that I carried out. The survey showed that 86 per cent. were worried about the removal of the Post Office card account, while more
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than 71 per cent. said that they would lose staff. Several hon. Members mentioned that 2,500 post offices are likely to close, and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) said that it is likely that there will be an additional series of voluntary closures. There will thus be a massive change in the postal arena at a time of massive regulatory change.

The Minister for Trade said that working across sectors would be beneficial, but I am deeply concerned that we will see the loss of a single voice for, and a single expert on, energy, water and postal services. There has been talk of removing the chief inspector of prisons, which was blocked only because of a debate in the other place. I am worried that we are removing strong and passionate voices for the sectors that I cited.

Not all voices need to come from the Government. People do not go to watchdogs such as Postwatch; they are much more likely to go to the television programme “Watchdog”, or Which? I have noticed that correspondence that I receive on which Which? or “Watchdog” have been copied in is more likely to receive a fast response than a letter copied to one of the official Government regulators, so such bodies carry more weight in many ways.

Let me turn to estate agents. We have debated whether the Bill should be extended to letting agents. From reading the popular papers, I am conscious that there is, especially at the upper end of the marketplace, an increasing grey market involving properties that never get to estate agents and private dealers I hope that the Minister will go into more detail in Committee about whether the Bill would cover that market. We also need to consider estate agency on the internet, especially when the transaction is not necessarily financial. Organisations such as offer free publicity to properties for sale. Would such organisations by captured by the Bill?

I commend the Government for extending legislation on door-to-door selling and cooling-off periods to circumstances in which appointments have been made. Elderly members of my family have been duped into buying a vacuum cleaner for more than £1,000, although it probably would have cost £40. The sale took place by appointment in response to a newspaper advertisement. People who are vulnerable, lonely and on their own are being taken advantage of.

I was horrified when the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who is no longer in the Chamber, said something along the lines of, “This is a useful vehicle for legislation that we need to take advantage of.” I would prefer the remit of the legislation to be set out clearly in the Bill. I will want to probe Ministers in Committee to get more clarity. If there is an expansion of the remit beyond water, be that to financial services or another sector, we will need to understand how organisations will be able to interact with this place to ensure that we have a strong voice, rather than extra regulation that is a burden on those who are already doing a good job.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) talked about the publication of reports. I am flabbergasted that reports might not be published. Why on earth would the Government not consider publishing all reports on the website? Such
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reports will be paid for by the general public. It will be for the general public to decide whether they are of any relevance, not an organisation or, heaven forbid, Ministers. In Committee, or when the Under-Secretary replies, I hope that we will hear a commitment that all reports will be published on the website.

6.35 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge). Perhaps the reason why the Government do not want all reports to be published is because they might find that a number of them would not be too helpful to their attempts to tackle some issues. They might thus not want the wide dissemination of advice that they receive.

Given that energy has featured extensively in the debate, I should declare my interest in the oil and gas industry, which is in the Register of Members’ Interests. My interest relates mainly to the upstream and supply side of the industry, but that obviously has an effect on the energy consumer in the end.

I have two concerns that have arisen from our debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed the view that the general principle of bringing together seamlessly the consumer voice and the consumer council and getting consumer advice out across sectors is attractive. When there is all-party agreement on the direction in which the Government are going, it must be frustrating for them to find that there is much concern and criticism about the details of the Bill. However, when there is agreement on a general direction, the purpose of a debate must be to flush out remaining concerns so that we can build on the position. I hope that the Government are still willing to build, given that they adopted a sensible approach in the House of Lords by taking on board issues that were raised.

I want to reinforce the concern that has been expressed about Postwatch. The Government have said that Postwatch has a role to play in the programme of post office closures that they are bringing about. I suppose that there is a chance that, when the Government respond to the consultation, they might decide to go for fewer closures, but, at the moment, they are minded to make 2,500 funded closures. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) said, that is only the number of funded closures, rather than a limit on the number of closures. If the Post Office believes that it can deliver a service along the guidelines suggested by the Government with even fewer post offices, there will be no limit on the number of unfunded closures. The role of Postwatch is thus vital.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) said, the way in which the expertise of Postwatch will be kept will be determined by how the Government handle the merger of the bodies. Alternatively, the merger of Postwatch could be delayed until after this round of closures so that the body could, with its expertise and skills, have an input into the process. People have been worried about Postwatch’s role, but the body has built up expertise. People’s worries about taking individual constituency casework to Postwatch
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might be due to the fact that there is little ability to get redress from Royal Mail on concerns about mail delivery. That is one of the areas in which the regulator will need to ensure that redress schemes are effective and can actually deliver something. Royal Mail is moving in the direction of giving more redress for failures on the delivery side of its operations. An advocate for consumers can go only as far as is determined by the legal obligation on a supplier.

Postwatch’s expertise needs to be protected during the closure programme because it is vital that we understand the impact of that programme. As many hon. Members have said, constituents have raised real concerns with us about the loss of services from their post offices. When it comes to rural closures, the consumer voice will need to be put even more strongly. There is a great danger of the Post Office producing a simple model that assumes that the closure of post office A will result in a customer simply going to the next-door post office—post office B. However, the geography of rural communities is such that people might well go to a post office in a larger settlement, which would mean that post office B would not pick up the extra custom. A lot of scrutiny will be needed when the closure programme comes forward and Postwatch has the expertise and skills to play a part in that.

I pay tribute to the role that Energywatch has played over the years in flagging up genuine failures in the market that have resulted in consumers not getting a good deal. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire talked about the importance of markets delivering good-quality consumer products. The energy markets are new, so they are finding their feet and evolving, and new skills are needed to understand how they work. When I have taken cases to Energywatch, suppliers have tended to act faster than they would have had they been dealing directly with the consumer. That is partly because of the role played by Energywatch in building up a pattern: suppliers noticed that if they did not deal well with emerging problems that Energywatch brought to their attention, they risked Energywatch taking the matter further through the media and taking it up with Ofgem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) both expressed concern about prices not decreasing as fast as they rose. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire made the point that suppliers had bought forward in the market and that, in a sense, consumers had some protection on the way up, but there would now be some delay on the way down. However, in the absence of monitoring, there is a danger that laziness will creep in with respect to passing on the full benefits of the market to the consumer. The consumer advocacy that Energywatch has taken up is therefore extremely important.

Clause 13 makes it clear that the new NCC will have to take up advocacy on behalf of people with disconnection problems, but, as has been pointed out, clause 12 might need to be beefed up. How are consumers who are in need and have difficulties but are not getting help from the NCC to be dealt with if there is a conflict arising from clause 12 between the availability of advocacy and the aspirations of the consumer who needs advocacy? Disconnection is not the only major problem relating to energy supply.
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Massive bills and the confusion that has crept in over the years about how billing is handled and its quality mean that a person who has to wait three months for their problem to be solved before they go to the ombudsman for redress is under considerable stress. Energywatch has shown how the process can be accelerated; we do not want to lose that expertise.

It is extremely important that, during the passage of the Bill, the Government reassure us that the skills of Energywatch will not be lost, that individual advocacy will be strengthened and that the consumer will not lose out. Although markets generally deliver benefits for consumers, in complex areas, consumers—especially the more vulnerable—need detailed support and advice. I hope to hear that Ministers are willing to be flexible on that issue.

6.42 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I recognise that the Bill is non-contentious, as the debate proves, so I shall keep my remarks as brief as possible. However, I have a duty to my constituents who have raised certain matters with me, and I wish to relay some of their concerns to the Ministers, even though several have been discussed in some depth already.

Like many hon. Members who have spoken during the debate, I welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I understand the Government’s wish to cut bureaucracy and cost, and my guess is that we will hear more about that drive in a couple of days’ time. Equally, I understand and welcome the Government’s wish to strengthen consumer representation. However, I would not want the former to detract from the latter. It seems to me that there is a real need to enhance consumer representation, as the Government believe the Bill will, but I am not sure that that can be done cheaply. In fact, one of the weaknesses of the Bill as it stands is that sufficient effort might not be put into ensuring that consumer representation is as effective and as efficient as it could be.

There is a need to ensure that rogue companies are properly dealt with while not placing too much additional regulation on good companies, particularly in the field of estate agency. I know from my constituents that there are serious problems with certain practices in estate agency, and they would want me to mention those problems to Ministers. I had hoped to spend a little time so doing, but suffice it to say that although there is a need to instil greater responsibility in estate agents, there is an equal need to acknowledge that additional regulation might not be the way to proceed in relation to the great majority of estate agents, who act responsibly. I would therefore like an assurance from the Minister that further discussions will be undertaken with the professional bodies, which are willing to help the Government to achieve their objective.

On redress for individual citizens, Help the Aged believes that it is essential that either Consumer Direct or the new national consumer council is given a mandate and resources to handle disputes for consumers who are vulnerable or who have a complex case. The Bill clearly provides the opportunity for consumers to go to the ombudsman, but only after the company in question has had three months to settle the problems. In my
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experience, however, when one mentions the word “ombudsman”, people sometimes become frightened: they feel that going to the ombudsman is a pretty heavy judicial process, and they have been warned not to get involved with the law because it is an expensive business. I realise that that is not necessarily true in relation to the ombudsman, but the general feeling pertains. We have to be careful about thinking that ombudsmen can solve all our problems. It seems to me that there is an opportunity to talk with the businesses involved—with the other side, so to speak—and to come up with a disputes conciliation body that can deal with such cases in a less official and less legal way than ombudsmen might do.

I wish to discuss how the Bill may affect businesses, with particular reference to mail volumes and to Energywatch. As we have heard, businesses account for 86 per cent. of mail volumes. Energywatch responded to 20,928 inquiries and handled 8,162 complaints from business customers last year—2005-06—so businesses account for a large part of its work. The DTI is considering consulting small businesses to see whether they should be covered by the ombudsman scheme. I hope that they will be, because small businesses in particular find dealing with disputes and complaints expensive; it takes focus away from the running of the business; and small businesses do not have the support that larger companies have. I hope that the Minister will consider not only how to involve small businesses in the scheme, but how great a cost burden that would impose on them and how to alleviate that burden. We already place many burdens on small businesses out of proportion to the cost to UK plc; I do not want those burdens to be added to dramatically, even though I want small businesses to be included in the scope of the Bill.

I shall not talk about post offices, although there is a problem in that respect. I shall simply conclude my remarks by referring to letting agencies. I do not know whether the Ministers share my experience, but I know from my own surgeries that there are a lot of complaints about letting and I have to deal with many difficult problems. I fear that if activities relating to letting are not included in the regulation of estate agents, we shall be missing out a large chunk of their business. Judging by the nods I see from Ministers, I am hopeful that they will respond favourably on that matter.

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