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Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister, who always takes time and care in his replies, especially when talking to me about consumer issues, because he knows that I was chairman of the National Consumer Council and am president of the National Federation of Consumer Groups and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. I thank him for his kindness in taking care to explain matters to me.

I am grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, with whom I had a very good relationship when he was Director-General of Fair Trading for some 11 years.

I am a little confused by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who very kindly agreed with me and then very kindly agreed with the noble Lord, Lord

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Borrie. Given that the noble Lord was disagreeing with me, I am not sure whether I should thank the noble Viscount for agreeing with me.

Viscount Falkland: I was agreeing with the noble Baroness's general comments and I was agreeing with the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that the appointment should be made by Ofcom rather than the Secretary of State. I did not explain that in detail in order to speed up the Bill. Now that I have had to have an extra word, I have failed in that aim.

Baroness Wilcox: I am grateful to the noble Viscount although I am still confused.

My experience on one of the bodies which the Minister did not mention—the Gas Consumers Council, a very independently appointed body—is that there is great variety in the way that advisory panels work. My concern, and perhaps that of the National Consumer Council—I shall go back to it, and I shall also think again—is that the Bill covers such an enormous body of work. We are discussing a regulator to beat all regulators. The Bill covers such an enormous area. I am still nervous that it will be difficult to criticise those who appoint a body if one's own next appointment depends on them. I am still uncomfortable about that. I shall re-consult, but I reserve the right to return to the point at a later stage. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Puttnam moved Amendment No. 72:

    Page 18, line 19, leave out from "by" to end of line 22 and insert "the Secretary of State, acting with the advice of OFCOM.

( ) The chairman of the Consumer Panel shall be chosen by the Panel from among their members."

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 72 I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 76 and 77. I should like to say first, however, that I completely share the confusion of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. As I understand it, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was disagreeing with an amendment that stands in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. However, I am sure that they will sort that out over tea.

I also share the noble Baroness's concern that there is a problem here that is not being properly bottomed-out. I can deal with it quite briefly. I think that the Government have to understand that there is genuine and, to an extent, legitimate anxiety among consumer groups that they are being asked to rely tremendously on the good will of the consumer panel. They are being asked to rely on the fact that the chairman appointed over them, their leader, will be appointed from elsewhere. They are being denied the opportunity to publish or influence the activities of Ofcom. As I said earlier, I should think that it is in the Government's interest to bend over backwards to allay those anxieties. One means of doing so is to allow the consumer panel, as we are suggesting, to appoint its

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own chair. The other way of doing it would be to give the panel as much flexibility as possible in the way in which it works.

I may have misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. He may already have agreed to a suggestion which we made and to which the Government seemed sympathetic in their response. Page 6 of the response states:

    "We agree, however, that the Panel should be able to determine any committees of the Panel and we are considering whether any amendment is necessary to the current draft of the Bill to permit this".

As I understand it, the noble Lord is saying that the Government have conceded that small but possibly—who knows?—important extra favour. I reiterate, however, that it is in the Government's interest to allay the fears of the consumer panel, and to ensure that the panel has the best possible relationship with the content board and that there is as much transparency as possible between the two. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I can certainly confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just said: there is no restriction on the consumer panel appointing any committees that it wishes. However, I do not think that that needs to be on the face of the Bill. There is no way in which it could be ruled out. As he says, it is a minor but perhaps not unimportant matter.

I should like to reinforce what I have just said to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about the independence of the panel. I have one or two more examples of the panel's independence which I failed to give in response to her in addition to the most important fundamental fact—that the panel is a legally separate unincorporated body and operationally independent of Ofcom. The point that I could have made to the noble Baroness and now make in response to Amendment No. 72 is that the panel does have independence of thought. It has the power to commission and publish its own research. It is able to give advice not only to Ofcom but to other bodies as well. For example, it might wish to advise the Office of Fair Trading. It might wish to take part in the formulation of European legislation by giving advice to European institutions. It might want to give advice to government departments or to the self-regulators who are provided for in this legislation such as ICSTIS.

It is not just that Ofcom has to receive the advice from the panel; it has to consider it. Where appropriate, it must have regard to the advice and the results of the research that the panel has notified Ofcom about. If Ofcom chooses not to follow the advice, it has to give the panel reasons for disagreeing, and it has to ensure that those who are aware of the panel's advice will also be informed of the reasons. Those are important measures for ensuring the independence of the consumer panel from Ofcom.

I turn to the amendments themselves. The combined effect of this group of amendments is not quite the same but similar to that of the previous group. It would make the Secretary of State responsible for

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appointing the members of the consumer panel. Amendment No. 72 would have the additional effect of making the members of the consumer panel responsible for choosing their own chairman from among their membership. As we agree with the need to ensure the independence of the panel, we think that the measures we have included in the Bill provide for it.

As I said in response to the previous group of amendments, we think that although there is an analogy with Energywatch and Postwatch, for example, those bodies—which are separate non-departmental public bodies with their own legal identity and their own secretariats and staff—are different in that they have significant complaint-handling responsibilities with which the Ofcom consumer panel will not have to deal. I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, says about the Gas Consumers Council. I am afraid that I am a little out of date as it is more than 20 years since my wife was chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council. That certainly was a separate body, with its own staff and secretariat and indeed regional structure. In terms of the volume of its work, it was, of course, primarily a complaints-handling body. However, that is not the model that we are looking for here. As I said, we are looking for a model closer to the FSA Consumer Panel. The members of the panel are appointed by the FSA although the chairman's appointment is subject to the approval of the Treasury.

We are going further than that in the Bill. We are providing that the Secretary of State has oversight over the appointment and the removal of all of the members of the consumer panel. Those appointments and removals are subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. So Ofcom cannot appoint anyone it pleases and cannot remove anyone of whom it disapproves. I think that that is the really important consideration. The difference between that and appointment by the Secretary of State is one really of comity between the consumer panel and Ofcom. The consumer panel is independent, but it will always be working closely with Ofcom. We think that the balance we have struck here is appropriate.

As to the appointment of a chairman, members of the consumer panel will be chosen for the experience and expertise they can provide in specific areas; in other words, different members for different specific areas—a point which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, made this morning—such as consumer interests, disability interests, the opinions of particular localities and so on. The chairman of the consumer panel is required to carry out that role objectively and with neutrality. These are perhaps different qualities from those which are required of the regular members of the panel who represent different interests. There could be conflicts of interest if the members of the panel with specific interests were required—as Amendment No. 72 would require them—to appoint an impartial chairman.

Under those circumstances we think that it is right that Ofcom should appoint a person who can bring to the post the necessary skills, can carry out the role of

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chairman free from any potential conflicting interests and, indeed, play a role in the appointment of the other members of the panel.

I do not believe that the differences between us are earth shattering. We have thought the matter through carefully and I believe that we have achieved the right balance.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Puttnam: I am perfectly comfortable with the Minister's response. As he says, the differences between us are not earth shattering. However, I suggest that the Government should be aware of the concerns and do all they can to address them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 73 to 77 not moved.]

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Committees and other procedure of the Consumer Panel]:

[Amendments Nos. 78 to 80 not moved.]

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clauses 18 to 22 agreed to.

Clause 23 [Publication of information and advice for consumers etc.]:

[Amendment No. 81 not moved.]

Clause 23 agreed to.

Clause 24 [Training and equality of opportunity]:

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