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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Weir
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Kramer, Susan (Richmond Park) (LD)
McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
McCartney, Mr. Ian (Minister for Trade)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Neil (Wigan) (Lab)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Mr C. Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 17 April 2007

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill

10.30 am
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the Bill has a money resolution and a Ways and Means resolution connected with it. Copies are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments. Please would all Committee members ensure that mobile phones, pagers and so on are turned off or in silent mode during Committee meetings. Although it is a bit cooler than it has been, hon. Members may remove their jackets if they wish todo so.
First, we come to the programme motion, which may be debated for up to half an hour.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I beg to move
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 17 April) meet—
(a) at 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 17 April;
(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 19 April;
(c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 24 April;
(d) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 26 April;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clause 1; Schedule 1; Clauses 2 to 25; Schedule 2; Clauses 26 to 30; Schedule 3; Clauses 31 to 35; Schedule 4; Clauses 36 to 45; Schedule 5; Clauses 46 to 53; Schedule 6; Clauses 54 to 67; Schedules 7 and 8; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 p.m. on Thursday 26 April.
This is the first time that I have led on a Bill under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir.
I hope that both the Bill and my performance will live up to expectations. The Under-Secretary of State and I intend to deal with matters effectively. We will give the fullest answers that we can to probing amendments, and will treat on their merits amendments that have been tabled in order to make legitimate changes to the Bill. I give Committee members a commitment that if issues arise on which they require me to provide more detailed information in writing, I shall try to provide such information before the next sitting in order to ensure continuity. Finally, the Committee will know that when this Bill was considered in the House of Lords, we accepted reasonable amendments and those improved it in a number of ways.
The timings for this Bill were agreed at a short meeting yesterday. We had a good debate on Second Reading, and I think that we know the general and specific issues that are likely to arise from amendments and in debate.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): May I add my greetings to you, Mr. Weir? Like the Minister, I do not think that I have been guided through a Bill by you, and I hope that you will be able to treat us all with firmness and fairness. I also welcome the Ministers. I do not know whether we have reached such a state of lawlessness that they need to travel in pairs, but it is nice to see them both and I look forward to debating with them.
Before I touch on the motion, may I endorse what the Minister said about the dreadful shootings in Virginia? I visited the town three years ago and have been on that campus, so I was particularly shocked.
The Bill has, as the Minister said, already been discussed in another place. Therefore, it has already received some important amendments, a number of which were tabled by my noble Friends. I hope that, as the Minister implied, that was a sign that we will take a cross-party approach to the scrutiny process. That process is vital to good legislation, and the work of a Committee such as this—the careful consideration of the words, phrases and meanings of our laws—is essential. That is why we on the Opposition Benches have often opposed the routinely heavy-handed programming of our deliberations by the current Government. I am sad to say that time and again we have faced aggressive timetabling and guillotines. The result of that is that clauses and schedules that need amending, correcting or improving often go unconsidered and undebated.
That is a problem not just because of what it means for the regard that people have for the House but because what we do here affects every constituent and citizen in the land. We must therefore get legislation right. That is why we are pleased to see that, on this occasion, the Government have been willing to resist the temptation to restrain our deliberations. We hope to contribute to them in a positive and thoughtful manner, and hopefully at the end of the process the Bill will be better than it is today.
Question put and agreed to.
The Chairman: I now call the Minister to move the motion to report written evidence. This is a formality whereby any written evidence that the Committee accepts enjoys the benefit of parliamentary privilege.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—[Mr. McCartney.]
Those papers are all helpful and important, and I do not oppose the principle that underlies the new procedure, but I wonder whether the way in which it operates is helpful, particularly in relation to this Bill. I have open mind: other Members might say that it has been extremely helpful, which will be fine. The danger is that a lot of paper is produced, and although individual Members might have the opportunity to raise one particular point or perhaps ask a question, if the procedure is to work properly it is important for the papers to come at least a week before the Committee begins so that Members have time to consider their arguments.
I do not wish to oppose the motion, but I should like to put on record the fact that, while the principle is good, it is perhaps not working as well as it might.
Mr. McCartney: All I can say is that as the hon. Gentleman knows, I will continue to try to ensure that information is provided to hon. Members in an adequate and non-partisan way. As he said, the system is new and is very different from when I was on the Back Benches and the Front-Bench spokesman forthe Opposition would get absolutely nothing from the Government—neither amendments, sympathy nor a scrap of paper on how to deal with things. We want to ensure that the system works in a practical way, and I take on board what the hon. Gentleman said.
The Chairman: I note to the Committee that I understand that the Scrutiny Unit is responsible for distributing the papers, and that they are distributed as soon as they are received. The Minister is not responsible for the fact that the papers have been received just this morning.
Mr. Prisk: Thank you, Mr. Weir. Perhaps it would be helpful if the concerns that I have raised were fed back to the Scrutiny Unit so that, as the process develops, it can improve for future Bills.
The Chairman: I will certainly feed that back, but it depends on when papers are received. They can be distributed only once received.
Question put and agreed to.
The Chairman: Copies of any memorandums that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room.

Clause 1

Establishment of the National Consumer Council and its territorial committees
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): I add my welcome to you as our co-Chairman, Mr. Weir. I am sure that we shall benefit from your guidance and stewardship. This relatively straightforward clause establishes a new statutory corporate body—the National Consumer Council—and requires it to establish and maintain territorial committees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to be known formally as the Scottish Consumer Council, the Welsh Consumer Council and the Northern Ireland Postal Services Committee respectively. The names of the national and Welsh consumer councils are also provided in the Welsh language. The clause introduces schedule 1, which makes further provision in relation to the council and its territorial committees.
Mr. Prisk: As the Minister said, the clause establishes in statute the new NCC and the new territorial committees. I shall consider their remit in clause 2 in more detail.
I will not revisit the principle of the proposal—the merging of various utility consumer organisations—which we debated on Second Reading. However, I want to explore the Government’s intentions towards the new council and its potential remit, now and in the future.
The Government consultation prior to the Bill addressed the issue of what were then termed regulated industries, not just gas, water and electricity, and included the entire communications industry and consideration of financial services. However, the Bill reflects a narrower interpretation, perhaps understandably, as it seeks to merge into the council only those bodies that we would naturally recognise as utilities: gas, water, electricity and, in this case, postal services. Furthermore, it acknowledges the timing problems for the waterindustry vis- -vis the pricing review. The upshot is that it will not seek to incorporate either the financial services or the Ofcom consumer panels into the new council.
However, part 1 of schedule 1 on page 42 enables the Secretary of State to appoint members of the financial services panel and Ofcom to the council, despite the Government agreeing that at present it has “no plans” to incorporate such organisations into the council. The Government thus recognise the potential need for a wider remit.
That leads me to consider how the council might develop in the coming years. A regulated industry covers many things; hon. Members on both sidesof the Committee can think of a number of different industries that do not immediately and currently fall within the purview of the Bill. As such, a regulated industry could therefore mean many more things than we are debating and my concern is how the council might develop when it is established in primary legislation.
For example, many of my constituents, and, I suspect, those of Labour Members, want increasedand strengthened consumer representation in the railway industry, which is regulated, and they will have complaints about pricing, servicing and so on. Is it the Government’s view, therefore, that the new council could or should extend the remit to bodies or sectors beyond those named in the Bill? Does the Minister envisage other regulated industries being included in the future, and, if so, which industries?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is on a fishing expedition to identify future Government plans, which I am not in a position to identify for him, other than those for water, which was widely discussed on Second Reading and which will be incorporated in prospective consultation next year. At present there are no plans; we will fully explore some of the issues that he raised in later clauses.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Mr. Weir, this is the first time that I have encountered a ministerial double act, and, for the sake of clarity, I ask which Minister has responsibility for each part of the Bill and who will reply to the debate on the relevant clauses.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for that information as our discussions develop. As he said, we have two Ministers present with responsibility for different aspects of the Bill and responsibility within the Department for different aspects of policy. However, there is blurring at the edges on some issues. Therefore, we may well get a double act in response at some point during the course of the Bill.
10.45 am
Mr. Prisk: The Minister perhaps unintentionally implied that this was what he described as merely a fishing expedition, but the purpose of the Committee is to explore how far the legislation could extend. So, I suspect that he may regret those remarks and I hope that he will have the courtesy to reconsider them.
I want to know exactly what he would rule out. For example, would the Government never include the railway? I do not oppose inclusions, I just want to make sure that the Government’s intentions are crystal clear.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Forgive me, but I am not an angler and was not in any way disparaging the fishing community or fishing as an activity. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford was correct, the mechanism is entirely appropriate for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill, as well as future plans and so on. I can only repeat the answer that I started earlier, that the sectors in the Bill are the ones being dealt with. Future Governments may have plans for other services to be incorporated. We have mentioned that, subject to the consultation next year, water may be incorporated in due course, but at this point there are no further concrete plans.
Mr. Prisk: Simply, should the new council extend its remit beyond those industries currently in the Bill?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I apologize to the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Weir, but I am not in a position to rule anything in or out other than what I have already said. The Bill deals with the services and arrangements as outlined; we have said that water may well be incorporated; there is nothing further for the Government to say now.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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