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The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 33D concerns consumer freedom and the right to choose. I declare an interest: I am president of the National Consumer Federation and past chairman of the National Consumer Council. I speak with some knowledge of what empowers consumers. It is the following: choice, information on which to base that choice, access, safety, equity and redress. Long ago, consumer bodies recognised that life is not risk free and that choiceprecious choicebrings risk. However, reasonable risk, which is recognised, should allow people to make their own judgments in their own homes and with their own possessions. Of course, there need to be tests of safety for the goods that consumers buy and consumers must be informed of any risks involved in those choices. Beyond that the Government should not need to tell men and women what they can and cannot do. To do so is to restrict consumers freedom to decide for themselves. Amendment No. 33D seeks to encapsulate that. I hope the Minister will accept it.
Amendment No. 33E seeks to challenge the Government on whether they have the balance right when deciding to regulate in a certain field as opposed to merely providing advice and information. No doubt the Minister will say that the idea that regulatory activity should take place only if it is impossible to achieve its purpose through information or advice is contained in the principle at subsection (3)(b). We think that these principles need expanding and clarifying. Over-regulation is a tool of a nanny state; it interferes with our day-to-day existence and is patronising. On the whole, the people of our country should be allowed to choose to take on the risk of something going wrong if they wish to.
Lord Borrie: I appreciate Amendments Nos. 33D and 33E, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. The noble Baroness has had tremendous experience of regulatory activity. I have admired her work as chairman of the National Consumer Council and president of the Trading Standards Institute. Both organisations were engaged in proposing consumer protection regulations or, indeed, in enforcing them. So I know she has a feel for regulation. I admire her also for considering in this amendment the need to establish some clear blue water between over-regulation and the need for freedom of activity for people both in business and in ordinary life.
Of course most people live in close proximity to other peoples homes, and what may be a reasonable risk if you live in an isolated area and wish to carry on some potentially dangerous or noisy activity may not be appropriate if you live in a fairly crowded street. But I am more worried about other matters, including the provision that,
Enabling people to reach agreements is the basis of the law of contract, and agreements should be adhered to. Like me, the noble Baroness knows that there are businessmen who make agreements which are anti-competitive, unduly restrictive and price-fixing. There are all sorts of agreements which, in the interests of competition and of the free economy, have to be restricted, as they are not only in this country but in many others. I simply suggest, in a mild sort of way, that Amendment No. 33D should not be accepted because, although it represents a principle that I understand the noble Baroness is seeking to uphold, it is too broad.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: In spirit, this is an apple-pie amendment, but when you undertake an exercise not dissimilar to that which my noble friend Lord Borrie has just undertaken, you begin to realise that the thing unravels.
I have tremendous respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. She has been a strong advocate of consumer rights and the rights of the individual to enter into free contracts and to understand the nature of those contracts for much of her time in public life. During one or two discussions over the Dispatch Box, the depth of her experience from a number of non-departmental public bodies has become clearI suggest that it is beyond peradventure that very few
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However, Amendment No. 33D would so widen the power in Clause 2 that it could be used for securing regulatory functions exercised in a way that complies with the broad principles that regulatory activity must respect, but, in the end, undermines important, possibly fundamental, protective rights that individuals enjoy.
Having read the amendment and heard what the noble Baroness has to say, I am not quite sure what the nature of the problem that she is trying to tackle is. Of course, it must be right that, in a free society, it is open to us to take reasonable risks in our homes but, with that, we must measure the need to protect people who work in our homes and buildings and ensure that, in our dealings with public bodies and organisations who visit us, we offer proper protection.
I am sure that we are all free to exchange goods and services, but the individual consumer, through regulation, must surely be protected from exploitation. I am sure that we are all grateful that we live in a free society where we can enter free agreements, but we also need to be protected by the law so that those who seek to exploit us unreasonably for gain can be held to account through proper legal agreements, and that the terms of those agreements are not easily flouted. We are also all grateful that we live in a free society where private contracts can be entered into without interference by the state.
The noble Baroness and other opposition Members must know full well that targeted regulation is essential in sophisticated societies such as ours. We have been regaled with occasions when regulatory activities may have gone too far. The whole purpose of the Bill and the Governments better regulation agenda is to tackle bad and excessive regulation. That is exactly what Clause 2 is there for: to tackle how regulators go about their activities to ensure that they are not overzealous and that we do not have overprovision. We make no apologies for targeted regulations. They improve standards in public services, promote competition, ensure fairness at work, help industry and provide protection for consumers and the environment.
Clause 2 will contribute to that better regulatory aim and purpose by allowing a Minister by order to make provision that he or she considers is to ensure that regulatory functions are carried out in a way that is transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases where action is needed. So the thrust of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness is already matched by Clause 2.
It is hard to disagree with the principle behind Amendment No. 33E, but it is too prescriptive and so does not need to be included in the Bill. The Better Regulation Executive in the Cabinet Office is working closely with departments and regulators, challenging them, as we have said, on their regulatory proposals and ensuring that all non-legislative means are considered in the policy development process. The
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All regulatory proposals must be accompanied by a regulatory impact assessment. Major proposals are scrutinised and require approval by the panel for regulatory accountability. RIAs and PRA scrutiny, to use the jargon, ensure that the costs and consequences of regulatory proposals have reasonable and proportionate benefits. The Better Regulation Executive is also working with regulators and other bodies on a code of practice for regulators, which will be made statutory under Clause 24. I am not entirely sure what the noble Baroness wants to achieve with the amendment but, if we have understood it correctly, I believe we are already achieving it through the regulators compliance code. A copy of the draft code is available to all who seek it out in the Library and on the BRE website.
If the noble Baroness has further thoughts on the amendment, perhaps having perused it at her leisure and pleasure, we would be very interested in them and in her contributions, given the breadth of her experience. Having heard that, I hope she will feel confident about withdrawing her amendment.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: Before my noble friend replies, I shall make just one point in response to the Minister. I think that my noble friend is arguing for a more overt awareness on the part of regulators of the balance that must be held. A phrase that is frequently used by ordinary members of the public who disapprove of something that has happened is, There ought to be a law about it. That attitude is to be found in many walks of society, not least in the ranks of the regulators. I have no doubt whatever that my noble friend will take close heed of what the Minister has said and possibly return with something on Report, but a counterbalance needs quite expressly to be put into the Bill so that a question is always askedI have to confess that I have not seen the guidance note to which the Minister referredabout whether the balance is really in favour of regulation or whether this should be regarded as one of the hazards of life and there is no need to make a law about it. That needs to be stated somewhere in the Bill. Perhaps the amendment is not the right way, but something is missing that we should look at again.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am at one with the noble Lord in the sense that we want regulators to take a pragmatic approach. I am sure that he is right. We have all heard the expression, There has to be a law about this. This is an outrage but when the thing is held up for greater inspection perhaps it is not so outrageous and no law is really needed against it. What is actually needed is a greater appreciation of the nature of the problem and a more hard-headed approach.
Yes, we live in increasingly risk-averse times and perhaps we should all reflect on how far one should let risk run. It is sometimes necessary to get the balance right. The noble Lord, of course, is more
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Baroness Wilcox: I should know that when the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, gets to his feet and says nice things to me, I should be very careful about what he will say next. He and I have worked together in the past when he was director-general of the Office of Fair Trading. The Minister also said extremely nice things; I should have been wary there too. Basically, I am trying to get the principle accepted, which may not be put down in a way that can be accepted by the Government. I will read what the Minister has referred me to. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding who encapsulated what I was trying to get over at the time. I will not waste any more of the Ministers or the Committees time, but I thank the Minister for taking the trouble to answer me so fully. I will go back and read. If there is any way in which I can come back to press the consumer agenda further, I am sure that the Minister knows that I will. But, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 33F seeks to prevent some of the absurdities and unforeseen consequences of regulation which occur through a lack of respect for the existing way of doing things. Sometimes, it would appear that the Government do not seem to realise that traditional institutions, practices and conventions are a significant element in the glue which holds society together. Tampering with those traditions is upsetting and disrupting, and chips away at the stability of society, frequently for no purpose.
Examples are endless but I would draw the Committees attention to the new licensing laws, for example. I should declare a personal interest as the owner of a national monument which has had to apply for a licence. Although in my case the application was simple, for many these laws are causing endless worry and expense. Small local organisations, such as parish councils and branches of the Womens Institute, which have for years held minor events either for fund raising or for the benefit and jollification of the local community, are now, in many cases, finding these events impossible because of the new expense and associated bureaucracy. I do not suppose that in the case of the Womens Institute many tears will be shed in No. 10 Downing Street.
The Standards Board, which was introduced to eliminate non-existent corruption in local government, has managed to create a situation where local councillorsI declare an interest as a parish and a district councillorare no longer able to represent those who elected them. Too often traditional products,
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Where is the benefit of making it a criminal offence to supply goods in imperial measurements? How will it possibly benefit the nation for an elderly person, who is unfamiliar with the metric system, to be forbidden to see weights in pounds and ouncesmeasurements which they understand? I could go on, but Members of the Committee will have come across similar instances of this sort every day. I beg to move.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not quite sure where to start. I have a great deal of respect for traditional values in British life. I was brought up in a village community by a mother who was a member of the British Legion and the WI. When she put her jam in pots and sold it at fetes and bazaars on the village green, she did not feel the heavy hand of the regulator leaning on her shoulder. In essence, I see where the noble Lord is coming from. But I do not see why we need an amendment to a Bill on regulation in order to secure the warm beer Nirvana the noble Lord is seeking to reconstruct.
The things the noble Lord is talking about are covered using the powers in Clause 1. If traditional products and our way of life are interfered with in the way the noble Lord suggests, Clause 1 is the appropriate part of the Bill that may be used to lighten any excessively heavy hand. While it is true that from time to time we hear of licensing laws being enforced perhaps too rigorouslyand I am aware that for a time in the 1990s the WI felt that food safety legislation was giving it a hard timethe complaints seem to have evaporated over the years. The noble Lord says that district councillors are not able to represent their constituents well. I have been a district councillor, although never a parish councillor, but I did not feel deprived of the opportunity to represent my constituents save where there was a conflict of interest. I think that I dealt with church organ pipes at Second Reading and dispelled that myth.
On blue Stilton cheese, I cannot say anything serious about it because I am not aware of the minutiae of the issue. However, I do not think that regulation is putting blue Stilton cheese makers out of business. Again, this is an issue of local enforcement and the approach taken by local environmental health and trading standards officers. This Government have attempted to protect through Europe the local names ascribed to important British products, and from my own experience I am not aware that it is a big problem. On imperial measurements and criminal offences, we have been moving away from imperial measures for the past 30 years and more. Both the noble Lords party when in government and my own party have played their part in that shift. The noble Lord will appreciate that it is to develop a degree of uniformity across the single European market, but it does not prevent people co-describing measurements
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