Previous Section Index Home Page

12 May 2009 : Column 196WH—continued

11.47 am

The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate and on how he campaigns on consumer issues more generally. I also welcome the interest shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), as well as the chance to follow the contributions made by the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

Even in this relatively short debate, a series of issues has been raised, and I will try to do justice to at least some of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith—I apologise for missing the start of his remarks—raised a series of specific constituency cases, not least some of the problems with new homes. Some of his constituents have found it hard to assert their rights because the firms that built their houses perhaps contracted out responsibility for completing the work to subsidiaries.

One of the issues that we are concerned about is the continuing high number of complaints about home improvements and the completion of work by those who operate in that sector. Year on year, Consumer Direct continues to report high levels of complaint in that area. That is one reason why I wish to bring
12 May 2009 : Column 197WH
together key players in that sector—for want of a better phrase—to hold a home improvement summit to consider the scale of the problems and what further collective action might be taken to improve the experience of consumers.

As my hon. Friend knows, whether specific action can be taken depends upon the particular circumstances of the case. However, I would be happy to have a further conversation with him if he wanted to explore whether anything else could be done to help his constituents.

My hon. Friend also mentioned First Choice holidays. I hope that he will understand when I say that I cannot comment on individual cases at this stage. His concerns about the ABTA code of practice were echoed by a number of other hon. Members. From what I have heard about that case, it seems that a package had been purchased. That is significant, because rights under package travel regulations may enable civil action to be taken to secure redress for those consumers who have lost out. Again, we are dealing with specific circumstances in that case, and I would be happy to discuss them in more detail.

I turn to the other matter raised by my hon. Friend—misleading websites. The Government recognise that there has been considerable concern of late about misleading websites, particularly those that appear to be similar in design to Government sites or debt advice agency sites. New protections in law protect consumers from unfair commercial practices, should misleading statements cause consumer loss. Those regulations have strengthened protections—for example, introducing a general duty on traders in all sectors not to treat consumers unfairly. They came into force in May 2008, and they prohibit unfair marketing practices, both online and in the high street. If the attention of the Office of Fair Trading or trading standards officers is drawn to specific cases, action can be taken.

I shall give an example of such action being taken on the question of misleading websites and debt advice. The OFT has recently taken action against firms posing as Government-endorsed or other sorts of official debt advice service. The OFT has initiated action against 27 websites, closed a number down and forced improvements in how others present themselves. The OFT is working closely with Citizens Advice and other consumer organisations to monitor what is going on in the sector and will continue to take action to shut down rogue websites.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister mentioned one enforcement agency and one advice agency—trading standards officers and Citizens Advice. In my constituency, although I suspect that it is a national problem, council budgets are being squeezed. The budgets of trading standards officers and consumer advice centres are therefore being squeezed. As a result, they are becoming less effective, particularly in the enforcement work of trading standards and the debt advice of citizens advice bureaux. Will he consider that question carefully, because I believe that consumer protection is being weakened?

Mr. Thomas: I have similar concerns, but responsibility has to be taken by local authorities. They have to make a judgment on the service required in the area. As the House would expect, I always hope that local authorities will prioritise support for trading standards and Citizens
12 May 2009 : Column 198WH
Advice. Action was taken in the pre-Budget report to make further funding available for debt advice, and agencies can bid for additional money. There is a series of extra advice surgeries, and surgeries are being opened for longer or at more convenient times. Further debt advice is being provided through citizens advice bureaux as a result of Government action.

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of scams, either on the internet or simply through the activities of rogue businesses and more generally. Some hon. Members will know that, following the introduction of a series of pilot scambuster teams, we have rolled out the model of regional trading standards officers working with other enforcers to all parts of the United Kingdom.

So far, that approach has led to 19 successful prosecutions, with an estimated saving to consumers of more than £3 million, and £2.5 million-worth of criminal assets have been seized. Clearly more needs to be done, but although many of the scambuster teams are relatively new, they are already bedding down and making a difference.

The hon. Member for Solihull raised the question of mobile phone contracts. I am aware of the considerable concerns that arose last year, some of which continued into this year, about the complexity of mobile phone contracts, the difficulty of judging one service against another and whether cash-back and other contracts were being honoured. The hon. Lady may not be aware that Ofcom has taken action. Indeed, Consumer Focus, the new body to which a number of hon. Members referred, has also prioritised some of its work, putting pressure on the mobile phone industry to get its act together. We will continue to watch for progress. Given the huge concern expressed by the media and the House, we hope that the industry will realise that there is a spotlight on it and that it will continue to work to improve its performance.

We are taking a series of other measures to provide real help to consumers affected by the downturn—not only with the additional debt advice to which I alluded in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Cotswold, but in dealing with some of the emerging practices that we have seen, such as in the credit card industry. We also realise that we need to help consumers not only by cracking down on rogue businesses, but by helping to deliver a level playing field for reputable businesses—the vast majority in the UK—that do not want their relationship with the consumer to be undermined by the rogues.

New markets have developed in recent years, particularly on the internet, which may lead to a need for changes in how regulations are introduced and managed in the UK.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister is being generous in giving way. Does he recognise the final point that I made in my speech, which is that it is incumbent on all Government organisations to have people of sufficient expertise to be able to counter the growing world threat of cybercloning and so on—people with IT skills and forensic accountancy skills? Such people need to be well paid, as they need the ability to counter such international scams.

12 May 2009 : Column 199WH

Mr. Thomas: I accept in principle the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. We want to take action to increase our capacity to crack down on rogues—be they loan sharks, those perpetuating scams or those operating on the internet.

I referred to our additional investment in scambuster teams, which are beginning to make a difference regionally. We have also established regional illegal moneylending teams to target those who are often vicious thugs who operate as loan sharks and target the most vulnerable members of our communities. Those teams have had considerable success in bringing loan sharks to justice. They not only take victims’ harassers to court and prosecute them, but direct victims to more affordable credit, be it in the form of credit unions, social fund grants or loans, or support from debt advice charities. We have been aiming at a holistic response to people’s needs.

The marketplace in which consumers operate has been changing steadily as a result of globalisation, and the hon. Member for Cotswold alluded to additional work done in the United States. We recognise the need to update and modernise our consumer law and enforcement regime to reflect the internet era. With that in mind, over the past 18 months, my officials, at my request, have been reviewing the relevant consumer law with a view to introducing a series of reforms.

In particular, we recognise the need to improve internet enforcement. Many of the issues discussed today will be reflected in the consumer White Paper, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith alluded, and we are busy working on those, although hon. Members will forgive me if I do not reveal the full contents of the White Paper at this stage.

Lorely Burt: Will the Minister comment on my suggestion of a register of administrators to help businesses seeking to trade with other companies to assess the risk-worthiness of such trade and to establish whether there might be any serial liquidators? That suggestion was made to me by an industry body and I have mentioned it a number of times in Parliament. Will he take it into consideration?

Mr. Thomas: I shall consider the hon. Lady’s suggestion when working on the White Paper, but, if she will forgive me, I make no promises.

With that, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith on securing the debate, and I look forward to the opportunity presented by the consumer White Paper to continue today’s conversation.

12.3 pm

Sitting suspended.

12 May 2009 : Column 200WH

Police Crowd Control

12.30 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in this House the widespread concern over the policing of the recent G20 protests and demonstrations. Like many hon. Members, I have been on my fair share of demonstrations and am well aware that police tactics are not always ideal. Since the days when I went on demonstrations nearly every Saturday, we have seen the rise of the citizen journalist. Police tactics and activities are subject to scrutiny as never before. The video footage and photographs of police crowd control at the G20 protests were shocking to many of our fellow citizens up and down the country in what could be called middle England. Such people might never have been on a demonstration and might not have believed previously what was said about police excesses.

We have a right to protest, and I am well aware that policing demonstrations and protests can be challenging for the authorities. From this Chamber we can hear the drumming of the demonstrating Tamils outside. That demonstration has been going on for three weeks and has caused sensation, impact and inconvenience. None the less, however challenging the citizen’s right to protest may be, it is that right that separates free western democracies such as ours from totalitarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea and other despotic Governments of whom we are often critical.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating four charges against the police in relation to the G20 protests. A police officer hit Nicky Fisher and knocked the back of her legs with a baton when she complained. An unnamed man and a 22-year-old woman claim that they were assaulted. There is also the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson, which caught public attention the most. I remind hon. Members that as well as those four specific IPCC investigations, there have been 256 complaints to the investigatory body. Members of the press and the public have raised many concerns about the conditions that protesters were subjected to as a result of the kettling technique and the heavy-handedness with which the police broke up groups of peaceful protesters.

Before I speak about the events of that day, I draw the House’s attention to the way in which our right to protest has been curtailed through legislation over the decades. The Public Order Act 1986 gave senior police officers the power to impose conditions on a protest. Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, senior police officers can grant stop-and-search powers to other police officers to search anyone. Although ostensibly directed against terrorism, section 44 powers have been used against protesters. Famously, police officers used section 44 to prevent my Labour party colleague and the well-known activist, the elderly Walter Wolfgang, from re-entering the Labour party conference in 2005.

Section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 allows the police to demand the name and address of anyone whom they believe has acted in an antisocial manner. Failure to provide that information is a criminal offence. It is therefore a criminal offence to fail to give a name and address when stopped on mere suspicion of committing a non-criminal act, but it is not a criminal offence to fail
12 May 2009 : Column 201WH
to give that information when suspected of a criminal offence. In other words, the legislation imposes a more onerous regime on protesters than exists for people who are suspected of criminal acts.

Under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, ASBOs can be issued against anyone who displays behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. ASBOs have been given to peaceful protesters. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 restricted protests in the vicinity of Parliament. Bit by bit over the decades, serious pieces of legislation have curtailed our right to protest. Overall, they have tended towards an atmosphere in which peaceful protest is criminalised. That is the context in which we must examine what happened during the G20 protests.

A number of hon. Members have raised concerns about the way in which the police hyped the threat of violence in the days leading up to the G20 protests. The Metropolitan Police Service seemed to focus on how violent the protests would be. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, commented at the time that the hyped-up talk of violence from the police ran the risk of putting off peaceful protesters and of being confrontational to all protesters. Some of us feel that even before the day of the protests, the police had heightened the atmosphere and given the impression that they were in a combative mode. That was not the right way to prepare for a day of peaceful protests. Of course the police had to put the right mechanisms in place and needed the right number of officers to be available. However, the rhetoric of the police in the days leading up to the protests alarmed me and other hon. Members.

The use of the kettling technique, by which hundreds of people are hemmed in for hours in one place, has been raised with me. That technique was first used in the May day protests about nine years ago. The kettle is essentially a pen in which protesters and others are trapped by lines of riot police on all sides. Once the crowd is caught in the pen, the idea is that people should be let out slowly and dispersed. The police may take each person’s photograph and contact details before letting them out. That is presumably so that they can be identified later.

The police might argue that kettling is peaceful and appropriate if it minimises the danger of damage to property. I have been in contact with a number of people who went to protest peacefully at the G20 protests, including women and people who took their children. A number of things are troubling about the kettling technique. First, it is indiscriminate. The police might pen in a few people who are intent on violence—we do not know. We do know that during the G20 protests, hundreds of people were caught up, including women and children, who were genuinely there for a peaceful protest. The police will capture in that pen people who just happen to be walking past; people who are not protesting but who are looking at what is going on—men, women and children; people who work in the area; and, as we know from the case of Ian Tomlinson, innocent people who are trying to make their way home. So, to contain a minority of potentially violent or troublesome protesters—it is always a very small minority—the police end up containing hundreds of innocent people.

12 May 2009 : Column 202WH

Kettling is coercive: people are not allowed to leave once they are cordoned off and contained in that way, whether they have children to collect from school or have parents waiting for them—no matter what. Another problem with kettling is that it goes on for hours. People are not only denied access to food and water and not allowed to move around, but they are denied access to toilet facilities. Former Met officer John O’Connor has been quoted as saying, about kettling:

I believe that kettling is wrong because it is indiscriminate, coercive and, ultimately, punitive. If we, as a society, defend the right to peaceful protest, why should we punish people by keeping them penned up for hours and hours, as at the G20 protests, when they have committed no crime? That punishment was doled out to a very large group of people on 1 April without any clear evidence that the majority of that group had any intention of turning violent or disorderly. The use of kettling and the punitive nature of that technique have caused a lot of concern not only among the people who were demonstrating on that day, but among the general public, observers and even some members of the police.

As I said, the IPCC is investigating four alleged incidents of assault following the G20 protests, but I want to focus on the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson. He was a newspaper vendor who was working on the newspaper stand on Fish Street hill on the day of the G20 protests. During his walk home, he encountered police officers on three occasions. First, he was reportedly manhandled out of the way of a police van by four riot police officers.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. I must warn the hon. Lady that we are straying into sub judice areas here, because there is a court case involving Ian Tomlinson that we are aware of. It is the consideration of the Speaker and the Procedure Committee that we should avoid discussing sub judice matters if possible. If the hon. Lady keeps her remarks general, that will be fine, but I warn her not to stray into the details of the case.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to you for those comments, Mr. Jones, but you will appreciate that it will be impossible to talk about the policing of the G20 protests without mentioning Ian Tomlinson.

A number of general issues arise from the case of Ian Tomlinson. It is alleged—I can go no further than that—that he encountered the police on three occasions. It is alleged that he was manhandled on all occasions, and that, finally, police officers followed him along the street—he did not, allegedly, charge the police lines—and lunged at him from behind, striking him with a baton. It is alleged also that when a member of the public called 999 and spoke to the emergency operator, the operator asked to speak to the police officers, but they ignored the request. What is a matter of fact is that the first post-mortem took place on 3 April—two days after Mr. Tomlinson’s death—and recorded that he had died from a heart attack.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order.

Next Section Index Home Page