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House of Lords

Monday, 6th November 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Consumer Legislation

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What representations have been received on the timing and content of the consumer Bill; when these representations were received; and from whom.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, since early summer we have received 44 representations on consumer legislation. Representations have been received from national organisations such as the National Association of Consumer Advice Bureaux, the National Consumer Council, the Consumers' Association and the Federation of Small Businesses and from individuals and Members of Parliament.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that consumer complaints to local trading standards officers about unsatisfactory goods and services are now running at the rate of 1 million per year? The National Consumer Council estimates that there are probably 85 million cases per year of unsatisfactory goods and services. In such circumstances, does not the Minister feel it would be appropriate for the Government to put a new consumer Act at the top of their legislative programme?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, the bad news is that I cannot anticipate what might be contained in the Queen's Speech. The good news is that a great deal of what the noble Lord and the Government want can be achieved without primary legislation. In particular, the use of secondary legislation and the application of the EC injunctives directive have the prospect of making the existing law more effective.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the more serious abuses of consumers is intimidation and harassment by debt collectors, especially of elderly people? The present sanction of withdrawing a debt collector's licence is something of a nuclear option. Does not my noble friend think that it would be better to have a range of sanctions, including fines imposed by trading standards officers, to deal with the malpractices of debt collectors?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. His successor at the Office of Fair Trading also agrees. My noble friend will have seen that Mr John Vickers has announced increased activity by the Office of Fair Trading

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through the use of trading standards officers of local councils under the powers given by the EC injunctives directive, to which I referred earlier.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I support entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said. I have been a victim of punitive debt collectors who threatened distress on my home for a seven year-old debt. I told them, "Look, rather than this, I shall pay. But I shall report you to the appropriate ministry". They backed down. Does the Minister agree that we need some help from government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am sorry to hear of the noble Lord's bad experience. I cannot think it happened because he is elderly. The existing legislation has only had available criminal sanctions, which, as has been said, are a nuclear option. We need greater use of local action and injunctions. That would go some way towards dealing with a problem which will continue to crop up.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the Government consider reintroducing some of the provisions of the Moneylenders Act 1927 which were inexplicably omitted from the Consumer Credit Act 1974? Will the noble Lord undertake to investigate this issue? I think he will find that there is merit in my suggestion.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his lesson in history. My knowledge does not go back that far. I shall have to write to him about the provisions of the 1927 Act which were not re-enacted. It would seem that he has made a valid point.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister recall that when I introduced my Private Member's Bill on counterfeiting and copyright theft earlier this year his response was so constructive and positive that I withdrew the Bill? I know that the industry has been in touch with the department. How much progress has been made in those private talks? Does the Minister anticipate that progress will be made towards introducing legislation in regard to counterfeiting and copyright theft?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I cannot comment on the private talks to which the noble Lord refers. The best hope of getting action on his admirable Private Member's Bill is not through primary legislation but through more direct action. I cite in particular the establishment of Trust UK, a form of self-regulation for e-commerce in which the Consumers' Association and the CBI are joined. That is not the same point as the one made by the noble Lord but it may be a way forward for the problems he identifies.

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NHS Administration

2.42 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are able to give an approximate estimate of the number of committees existing under the auspices of the National Health Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Department of Health does not collect information on the number of committees operating within the National Health Service. The Government are, however, committed to saving £1 billion on management costs over five years from 1997-98 and are well on course to do so.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that to ask even as energetic a Minister as himself to count up to so vast a number would be unreasonable. I hope that the noble Lord agrees with me on this matter. Will he do all that he can to cut out a fungus that has been growing for years, stifling initiative, blurring responsibility and wasting resources? It is a terrible phenomenon.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Well, my Lords, I had considered whether to set up a committee to inquire into the number of committees! I fully accept that the National Health Service needs a lean administrative structure, and that is our aim. I accept also that we should, so far as possible, attempt to make decisions in time-limited task forces and small groups which bring together managers, commissions and other professional staff within the National Health Service, overseen by the necessary statutory committees.

I must, however, say to the noble Lord--whose autobiography is a very good read--that he himself is not short of sitting on a committee or two. I particularly commend his membership of the Confederation of European Ministers of Transport, which he describes as an "unusual international body". He says that it,

    "generated goodwill, mutual understanding, and never even looked for anything to have a row about".

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving my book a much-needed puff!

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does the Minister recollect that I asked a question earlier this year to which he was not able to give an answer--namely, how many layers of management there are in the National Health Service between a staff nurse in a hospital and the Secretary of State? Has anyone managed to count them, or is the figure too high for a human to comprehend?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not recall the noble Lord putting the question in precisely that manner. Clearly, it is not possible to describe the activities of 500 different organisations in the National Health Service. Each will have different management arrangements. We are seeking to ensure that decisions are made as speedily as possible. I have no doubt that the NHS Plan, which is focused on ensuring that doctors, nurses and other professionals are fully involved in decision-making, will lead to the most effective decisions being taken as quickly as possible.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister agree that my noble friend Lord Peyton makes an essentially wise point--namely, that the decision-making processes in the NHS are often painfully slow and cumbersome? What initiatives have the Government taken to streamline decision-making and to bring about savings?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as I explained, we are well on course to make the savings that I mentioned. As a percentage of NHS expenditure, the total spent on management costs has come down from 5.5 per cent in 1996-97 to 4.6 per cent in 1999-00. We shall continue to make reductions in management costs, as we have pledged to do. The most visible example of the Government's approach to more effective and streamlined management is the establishment of the NHS Plan. It was produced within four months, and involved nearly 150 people working in the front line of health to bring about change. As a result, we have produced a practical, effective plan which will lead to major change. We are expecting each local health community to undertake a similar process, which I believe will be equally successful.

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