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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (Commencement No. 3 and Supplementary Provision) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Hancock
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Burgon, Colin (Elmet) (Lab)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Meale, Mr. Alan (Mansfield) (Lab)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Teather, Sarah (Brent, East) (LD)
Thomas, Mr. Gareth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform )
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Yeo, Mr. Tim (South Suffolk) (Con)
Young, Sir George (North-West Hampshire) (Con)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 28 April 2008

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Draft Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (Commencement No. 3 and Supplementary Provision) Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (Commencement No. 3 and Supplementary Provision) Order 2008.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. Having seen you engage in robust exchanges in the House, I look to you for protection from bullying by the Opposition and from one or two of my Back-Bench colleagues.
The order will require the new National Consumer Council to publish and consult on a draft forward work programme before each financial year. The supplementary provision in the order defines the council’s financial year for the sole purpose of the first forward work programme as being the period from 1 October 2008 to 31 March 2010. For obvious reasons, it was not possible for the council to produce a forward work programme before the current financial year. Consequently, it is necessary to determine a different period of coverage for the first forward work programme.
Since the plan is for the council to assume its full range of functions on 1 October this year, the order proposes that that should be the starting date for the first forward work programme. It is sensible to aim to align the period of the forward work programme with the financial year at an early date. One option would be for the forward work programme to cover the six-month period from 1 October 2008 to 31 March 2009, but that would require the council to consult on a forward work programme for a relatively short period, and having done so, enter almost immediately into another consultation period from 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010. Therefore, the order proposes that the initial period for the forward work programme should be 18 months.
4.33 pm
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I know that you have already had an exciting afternoon, and although our contributions will not be quite as valuable, I am sure that the debate will be just as important.
I welcome the Minister’s opening remarks and their prompt nature. However, promptness is not necessarily evident in the background to the order. I do not intend to delay the Committee for too long—I suspect that some Members will be thankful for that—but I would like to raise a couple of practical points. The Minister opened his remarks by saying that the first financial year would begin not in April, as one would expect, but on 1 October 2008. Can he confirm that the future work programmes after March 2010 will revert to what most of us would regard as a proper financial year, from April to March?
Mr. Thomas: If it will help, I can.
Mr. Prisk: I will take that as a yes—otherwise, the Minister has stated that he will be helpful, but not told us how—just to make that clear for the record.
Mr. Thomas: Absolutely.
Mr. Prisk: Good.
I welcome the principle that the National Consumer Council should set out its forward plans on the grounds of transparency. I am possibly right in saying that the hon. Member for Solihull and I are the only survivors from the unqualified pleasure of that Bill’s consideration. There were some debates about whether there should be both a forward plan and an annual report, which did seem—to be fair, I have had it on record—possibly a little bureaucratic. Nevertheless, it is important that the transparency is there, and I support that. However, that transparent approach is not necessarily matched by a statutory duty for the National Consumer Council—or indeed the Secretary of State—to publish the findings of reports that emanate from that forward work programme. Can the Minister say whether the Government intend to publish all those reports, and if not, what the grounds for not publishing would be?
My second point is that the Act became law last summer and yet, with regard to transferring the functions of the existing National Consumer Council and Consumer Direct, there has been growing concern in many circles about the slow progress. I appreciate that Ministers have changed during that time, and it may be difficult for the current incumbent to answer the question directly. Now that we know about the proposals for forward plans, when can the Government confirm the role and the resources of Consumer Direct, albeit that its functions would sit under the Office of Fair Trading? That relates directly to the ability of the National Consumer Council to plan ahead. For example, can the Minister confirm the budget for Consumer Direct for this and the next financial years? The matter is—with your indulgence, Mr. Hancock—slightly beyond the immediate boundary, but clearly one cannot have a work programme unless one understands the financial implications. There have been some contradictory messages from the Department. It would be helpful if the Minister could put firmly on the line the amount of money involved. I am happy to conclude, and look forward to his reply.
4.36 pm
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I add my appreciation of your robust chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and I are veterans of the original Bill and, like him, I have no problems with the timing of the forward work programme. Eighteen months as opposed to six months sounds like a sensible way to proceed, particularly in the early stages of a new council.
I would like to trespass into three areas about which we expressed concern in considering that Bill. I do not know whether the Minister is able to satisfy my concerns. One of those areas was whether the organisation will be capable of fulfilling the requirements of its remit, since it now has fewer staff and resources than the original three organisations—the original NCC, Postwatch and Energywatch. How might we be able to tell that that has been reflected appropriately in the work programme? Can the Minister reassure us that the work programme will be as full as it needs to be, and not constrained by financial and other resource problems?
Secondly, we had particular concerns about the regional aspect. Coverage in regional areas will be much less now. Will the work programme seek to address the service that it is able to give in the regional as well as the national context?
The third area just relates to post offices—well, not just, it is a huge issue, particularly at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) went to great lengths to seek assurances at the time that the new National Consumer Council would be able to address concerns about decisions over the planned closure of 2,500 post offices. What will the NCC involvement be, and what powers will it have to comment on and overturn appeals against decisions that are perceived to be unfair?
4.39 pm
Mr. Thomas: I will begin by picking up on the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford that there might have been or might be slow progress in establishing the new NCC. Perhaps he was alluding to the aspiration expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) when the Act passed through the House, that the new NCC would be established within 12 months of the Act becoming law. We will not achieve that, but we will be relatively close. I took a decision to put back the intended start time from 1 July to 1 October to enable the NCC to complete all the necessary arrangements. Human resource policies must be in place and governance systems set up. I wanted to give the NCC board the time and space to think through its forward work programme and bring the three bodies into one.
I am confident that we are on track to achieve the start date of 1 October. It is fair to say that there is still quite a bit of work to do. However, we are confident that aiming for 1 October is a realistic time scale and that while there is additional work to do, the NCC will be able to do it. Consulting on the forward work programme is key to that. The NCC has begun tentative informal discussions with one or two obvious stakeholders. I hope that the Committee will approve the order as it will give the NCC the green light to accelerate the start of formal discussions on its work programme.
That brings me to the second element of the hon. Gentleman’s questioning on the budgets not only for the new NCC, but for Consumer Direct. Before the budgets are finalised, a key consideration for the Government, the NCC and the Office of Fair Trading, which runs Consumer Direct, must be what is in the work programme.
Mr. Prisk: I have two questions. The Minister raised two separate but related issues. First, does the order mean that the work programme will begin on 1 October, but the publication will be subsequent, or that 1 October is when the work programme will begin and be published? Secondly, on the point that he has just raised, my understanding from parliamentary questions is that £19 million was the anticipated budget of Consumer Direct. As I asked earlier, will the Minister confirm what the Consumer Direct budget will be for this and the next financial year?
Mr. Thomas: We expect to make an announcement shortly on budgets. The budget will in part be dependent on the forward work programme, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the complete clarity that he would like. We have been consulting carefully with the OFT and the NCC on their financial needs for the short and long term.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government will publish all reports. As he knows from the Act, the Secretary of State may publish any report that is made to him. Knowing the Secretary of State, I would have thought that, in principle, he will want to publish all reports that are put to him. I cannot state definitively that every single report will be published come what may. There might be issues of confidentiality. However, the hon. Gentleman can take it as read that we want the new NCC to be as transparent as possible in its relationship with Government. The new NCC can publish any report that it chooses, so it is not just up to the Government whether reports are published—the NCC can make that call.
The hon. Member for Solihull asked about resources. She is right that in bringing the three bodies together, fewer members of staff will be employed. However, we are seeking to set up a radically different process for the way in which complaints are handled, which is a key consideration. She will remember from the debates that were held in 2006 and 2007, that significant additional requirements were put on industry to get the handling of complaints right. Consumer Direct will also be able to deploy additional staff to help with the handling of consumer complaints.
I cannot state definitively today what the budgets for regional and national work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be, but perhaps I can reassure the hon. Lady that the regional and national chairs of the NCC sit on the board of the new NCC and so are directly involved in decisions on the new forward work programme and on the expenditure and resources of the new NCC.
Mr. Prisk: The Minister has raised several issues there that are of interest to the Committee. Would he be good enough to write to members of the Committee setting out the issues as they arise? Clearly, he anticipates announcing some quite timely issues, and it would helpful for us to see the detail.
Mr. Thomas: I am happy to give a commitment to reflect on each decision that we must make between now and 1 October. In general terms, I am happy to write to hon. Members about the key decisions taken. If at any stage members of the Committee want to have a formal update on how the implementation arrangements for the new NCC are progressing, I am happy to sit down with both Opposition spokespeople and Labour Members to discuss that further.
The last question that the hon. Member for Solihull asked concerned the assurance sought by her hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park about the support given by Postwatch staff in relation to the post office closure programme. I can repeat the assurances that were given at the time: the staff working on that programme will be ring-fenced as they come into the new NCC, so there will be no diminution of capacity as a result.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (Commencement No. 3 and Supplementary Provision) Order 2008.
Committee rose at twelve minutes to Five o’clock.

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