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I also noted from the Statement that we shall be purchasing the Trident missile from the United States of America. Exactly how independent will our deterrent be? The repair and maintenance of those delivery systems will be at the behest of the United States. Is it not also true that the targeting and guidance systems will depend on United States technology? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer those questions because an independent deterrent really needs to be independent.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think that I did answer the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. I said absolutely clearly that the answer lies in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That is the framework within which we are working and which has led us to the situation that we have now. I accept that some states seek to move towards greater proliferation, but the situation that President Kennedy and others anticipated in the 1960s has not come to pass precisely because of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which came into effect in 1970. There are two strands to it. One is to seek to ensure that non-nuclear states do not move to have nuclear weapons. It has not worked in every instance, but we have not seen the proliferation that was predicted. That is why the framework remains so important. The second arm of the treaty is to work for disarmament of those states recognised as nuclear states within the treaty. The United Kingdom has had

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considerable success with that. We are seeing the modernising of systems and the United States and Russia moving to a smaller number of warheads, all within the context of the treaty.

On the issue of independence, our current nuclear deterrent is fully operationally independent and we retain absolute sovereignty over its use. Only the Prime Minister can authorise its use, even if the missiles are to be fired as part of a NATO action. No other country, including the United States, is able to prevent launch once authorised. The instruction to fire would be transmitted to the submarine using entirely UK codes and equipment. All the command and control procedures are totally independent. The Vanguard-class submarines can readily operate without the system of global positioning by satellite. The Trident D5 missile and our warhead do not use GPS at all. The missile has an inertial guidance system. This position will not change in any way following the planned life-extension programme.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, accepting that it is—

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I am sorry but I am afraid that time is up.

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [HL]

4.52 pm

Second Reading debate resumed.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I stay with protection but move from the defence of the realm to the consumer. Unlike my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, I shall concentrate exclusively on Part 3, which concerns estate agents and amends the Estate Agents Act 1979. If ever an Act needed updating, that is it. I shall be supported on all sides of the House in what I want to do with the Estate Agents Act 1979, which started as a Private Member’s Bill, promoted by the then Member of Parliament for Oldham Central and Royton and supported by the then Member of Parliament for The Wrekin.

It is a great pleasure that the former MP for Oldham Central and Royton is present. I refer to the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, otherwise known as the Government Deputy Chief Whip. The former MP for The Wrekin is none other than the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, the Government Chief Whip. They introduced the 1977 Bill, which became the 1979 Act, having been taken up by the Government. Under Section 22 of that Act, the Secretary of State may, by regulations made by statutory instrument, make provision for ensuring that persons engaged in estate agency work satisfy minimum standards of competence.

Sadly, Section 22 has never been implemented. Noble Lords who have been Members of the House for some time will know what I am about to say, and I hope that those who are new will support me on it. We last discussed this subject when I moved an

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amendment on 13 September 2004 to the Housing Bill to license and provide training for estate agents. The Bill that we have in front of us is welcome so far as it goes, but it is only partially welcome in that it does not complete the job. It shuts the stable door after the horse has bolted. When you seek a full redress system and apply to the ombudsman you already have a complaint. I am trying to prevent the complaint in the first place and thereby give greater protection to the consumer. I will be moving amendments in Committee to that effect.

What I want to do is supported by the great majority of estate agents. My profession is not the most renowned in the world; second-hand car dealers, estate agents and politicians all fall into the same category. I very much hope that the mood and the time are now right to upgrade the estate agent. It seems utterly ridiculous that my daughter is going through endless exams to sell £100-worth of shares on the stock market, yet the person who can sell the biggest asset in most people’s lives—their house—is under no obligation to have any qualification or training. When the Minister loses at the next election, he can set up as an estate agent the day after and start a business with no training or qualification. I have no doubt that he will be brilliant at it and absolutely straightforward. Sadly, a lot of people in my profession are not. With the housing market continuing to expand and increase in value, the problem is getting worse. The damage that is being done to people and the amount of money that is being lost can never really be quantified. It is not an exact science. Valuing a house is not the same as valuing a share. Each house can be slightly different, and it all depends on the purchasers at the time. In my experience, there is no doubt that a lot of people are losing money and are not getting a proper service.

Yet this Government, who will not go to that stage, have recently made a hash of introducing home inspection reports. They asked surveyors to get retrained to prepare only part of the home inspection pack: the survey. I spent a lot of money and was retrained, but they consequently pulled the rug on me and various others, including the brother of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and they did not give us any compensation. They said, “That is just too bad; we have changed our minds”. If you want the surveyor to be qualified, surely it is even more important that the agent is qualified, properly trained and kept up to a high standard.

As I said, I will move amendments in Committee, but that is the gist of my complaint about the Bill. It is okay so far, but it needs improving. This is a wonderful opportunity to address the situation that I know the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, wanted to address in 1977. He allowed for its provision; let us now put that provision into practice.

4.58 pm

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I welcome this Bill. As far as I can see, there has been an awakening of consumer concern in recent years. I do not propose to follow the noble Earl, Lord

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Caithness. I am not an expert on estate duty matters; I am just a house owner, and I pay my money and grit my teeth.

I will talk about the other parts of this Bill. When I was in another place, a sizeable amount of my constituency workload was taken up with consumer-related complaints: disputes over whether the local authority or the water company was responsible for water and sewerage; metering of gas and electricity; utilities billing; and the failure to attend timeously to minor concerns, which meant that repeatedly people had to take time off work awaiting the gas man and others. Then there was the more serious problem of disconnection of electricity and gas, which really has a life or death effect on individuals.

In many instances, the intervention of my staff took the form of directing the public to the correct telephone number and telling them who they should speak to and what they should say to them. The combination of several consumer council organisations should provide a single telephone number and a single help point, which could considerably reduce the confusion that exists so that consumers, in a time of need, have such a point of contact. It would be even better if such a national help line number started with 0800, because call centres in recent years have developed the flexibility to direct the complainant, the consumer, to the appropriate area. It is worth putting down markers at this stage that we will want some assurances, probably in Committee, that the specialisation that has been developed in the electricity, gas and postal industries must not be lost when organisations in those industries are combined. The expertise that has been developed by them should be made available to the public with the simplest of keypad exercises.

If that is to happen, it will be necessary in the early stages to fund the new body with the appropriate resources. The early days of Postwatch and Energywatch were bedevilled by the drip-feeding of finance by the Government and I became involved in wrangles in my capacity as the chair of the Trade and Industry Select Committee. Those organisations were several months into the financial year before they knew what Treasury support they would receive. I would like a clear indication that there will be an appropriate programme of funding of the new organisations, the expanded national consumer bodies, for perhaps three to five years.

For example, Energywatch currently deals with some 60,000 complaints per annum. It is anticipated that that figure will rise by 10 per cent this year. Those complaints are resolved within some two months, but Energywatch is worried that when it is left to the companies, they will have three months in which to resolve the problems. If the issues involve billing, disconnection or other large sums of money, it is not unreasonable to assume that they should be dealt with more speedily, particularly if there is no incentive to the companies to address the issue with the kind of urgency that the personal circumstances of many of the complainants will require.

I hope that by Committee we will get an indication of what will be expected of companies. I am worried that there could be a plethora of ombudspersons’

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schemes and different arrangements; for example for gas and electricity, even under the umbrella of one company. It should be incumbent, perhaps on the consumer organisation, the company or a regulator such as Ofgem or Postcomm, to provide a model that would facilitate the introduction of such schemes as quickly as possible. I know that there will be a time lag before the new body takes over, but it would be terrible if it did that in a vacuum, without schemes or proposals for the speedy handling of consumer problems.

There are other specific issues relating to vulnerable customers who currently slip through the net. It has been possible for them to highlight their problems through social services, citizens’ advice or their elected representatives. One always feels that we are getting only the tip of the proverbial iceberg with this group; many people need support and assistance—they should be among the highest priorities of the new body— but I am not convinced that that is currently happening.

I have an interest in these matters in so far as I am vice-president of National Energy Action, which is concerned about the operation of Consumer Direct. In response to the consultation document, it said:

However, the burden of responsibility for resolving problems and complaints should lie between the company and the customer.

We must not get into the situation in which we have such a comprehensive set of arrangements that the company almost gets off scot-free. One of the achievements of Energywatch was to get some £4 million in compensation from the companies and into the pockets of predominantly poor consumers, who had overpaid, been badly billed and so on.

Some of the briefing materials we have received were based on a rather ill considered and opportunistic report from the Public Accounts Committee. From time to time, the PAC parachutes opportunistically into areas about which it knows, by and large, very little, and makes simple, trite accusations, such as, “Nobody knows who Postwatch is”. However, the number of complaints that Postwatch has highlighted has increased dramatically since it was established. I refer to highlighting the shortcomings of Royal Mail and the 16 million pieces that are lost, the delays and the bad performance. I have to say that performance is improving dramatically even as we speak, and I hope that over the Christmas period there will be a great improvement, year on year, in terms of delivery. Postwatch has been something of a victim of its own success. The number of complaints it has to deal with means that its expenditure has gone up. I must reflect the opinion expressed earlier in this debate: I hope that integrating the various consumer bodies is not a cost-cutting exercise. We must retain the specialised skills in the staff, separate the functions of the company from the regulator and, as has already been said, secure the considerable policy development expertise vested within the National Consumer Council. If we can get that, we will see an improvement.

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I have certain misgivings about the role of the regulator in this process. I was always very suspicious when the regulator—Ofgem, the old electricity body—seemed to have the Electricity Consumers Council in its back pocket and worked in its offices. They should have been physically separated. The regulator’s responsibilities are different in some respects from those of consumer protection, although that is contained in its powers.

I must raise a question, which may be regarded as mischievous but it is not irrelevant. Is the proposal to bring together the consumer councils good and worth while? Why did we not include the consumer panels for Ofcom and for financial services?

My noble friend Lord Borrie mentioned Farepak, which could not, of course, be covered by such provisions because a financial service is involved. There is an interface between general consumer matters and financial matters. I suppose that happened because it is part of the Treasury and this is predominantly a DTI Bill. Once the Treasury has a Bill within its clutches, it—like the Jesuits and seven year-old children—never lets it go.

I shall make just one or two final points because I realise that I am taking up rather a lot of time. We have seen the integration of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh councils but we have not had any assurance about what is to happen to the English regions. As a Scot, I am concerned that a kind of creeping and irrelevant English nationalism is taking place at the expense of English regionalism, which is very important when it comes to issues such as this. In a number of instances, the water and postal companies, and certainly the energy companies, are still predominantly regionally based, and that should be given some consideration.

Lastly, I make a small plea for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has considerable legislative powers, which neither of the two other Assemblies—if the Irish one is established—has. They need a passing reference or a clause in the legislation. In a very fair and reasonable letter to a number of us today, Douglas Sinclair, the chair of the Scottish Consumer Council, suggested that some provision should be made for the regional Parliament in Scotland so that it can be given its proper place in the legislation. That could be one of the tidying-up issues that we consider in Committee.

I am happy with the Bill in most respects. It has great potential. I, for one, am more than happy to give it my support today and to give it a fair wind in Committee if we can iron out some of those kinks.

5.11 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I read with great interest the Written Statement of 20 November made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the Bill. From it, I learnt that the Government,

I am sure that we all share that aim. It was followed by a short paragraph explaining the importance of consumers in achieving the aim and another paraphrasing the contents of the Bill. The fourth paragraph summarised

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events relating to doorstep selling and led into the remainder of the Statement, which consisted of seven further paragraphs, all on estate agents. Those are all important matters but, in my contribution, I shall leave the subject of estate agents aside and concentrate on the National Consumer Council, which I think is more controversial. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, explained why he has reservations, and some of his comments will be very much reflected in my contribution.

Citizens Advice welcomes the Bill but it wants much stronger powers, particularly in relation to the regulators and the Government. The present consumer councils are worried that their expertise may be lost in a large cross-sector body, which is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, has just said.

I am uneasy that another overarching body is being set up under these proposals, bringing organisations together and saving money in the process. The Gershon review has resulted in genuine savings in quite a few areas, with which we are all familiar. However, at what point will the drive for savings start to adversely affect the effectiveness of the bodies that are being established? My noble friends Lady Wilcox and Lady Oppenheim-Barnes both voiced their concerns, particularly about how the new body will be financed. I accept that this is a DTI matter, and perhaps the DTI manages its money better, but one remembers the launch of Natural England only a month ago. On the day it was launched with a full flurry, Defra said that its funding would be cut by £12 million, which was a big concern to that body. So I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will be able to reassure us on the financial side.

Energywatch, the consumer watchdog for gas and electricity, has written with a number of highly pertinent questions. The most important is probably whether consumers will have easy access to an improved service. I caution the Government against travelling any further along the road of using only phone or internet access. Listening to a tinny recording of Mozart for 40 minutes is not easy access. The advice to “go on our website” is, for many people, not possible to follow, but unfortunately there seems to be a strong correlation between those without internet access and those who have serious problems with their power supplier. Again, I would be grateful for some comment from the Minister.

Energywatch wants to know whether there will be more support to the most vulnerable complainants. Moreover, it has pointed out that, although under the “joined-up” NCC the complainant will be able to receive immediate advice from Consumer Direct, nobody will act on their behalf for three months, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, said. Many of those families cannot wait three months, and we need to address that issue. If you have just received a bill that is five times the normal amount, if you have spent three hours on separate occasions and a lot of money in a phone box, and if you are threatened with disconnection, you do not want to have to wait three months before someone acts on your behalf.

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I have asked around and find that Energywatch is well thought of. If it considers a complaint to be well founded, it contacts the supplier, whose response to the customer is virtually immediate. In my book, an effective watchdog is one that has an effect on suppliers. How do the Government propose to ensure that the amalgamated body loses none of the touch of the constituent parts? If savings are to be made, what elements of those constituent parts will be reduced or cut altogether? I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on the detail as the Bill progresses.

My main concern with the Bill is the proposal to toss Postwatch into the pot to be known as the National Consumer Council even though the Water Council is to be excepted for the moment. Of the elements vital to life, light, heat and power are more important than post, but water is more important still. The water watchdog may be included at some time in the future but not at present. I would be glad if the Minister would tell us why, because that seems to be an odd omission.

The Post Office is an issue on which I have spoken in the House very solidly for the past six or seven years. Post Office services reflect the changes that are taking place in our society. We are moving fast from a position in which most people went to the Post Office for something most months to one where those with money for mobile phones and the bills they bring, home computers and virus scans, internet access and the associated costs of training and connection no longer need the Post Office. They pay their bills by phone, they e-mail friends and family instead of writing letters and they send presents using online services. Many of those people have several bank accounts and, should they require any form of state aid or subsidy, they will have no problem in supplying the details needed for automated payment. They are also well paid and do not need to worry about paying bills only when there are sufficient funds to do so. They rarely use cash and the money that they owe does not interfere with their normal banking experiences.

Unfortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, suggested, there are several million people, many of them elderly, who do not share this modern way of life. They are either totally dependent on the state or have only a small income topped up by tax credits and various benefits. Not for them the generous overdraft facilities, the personal loans and the larger mortgages. The banks do not want their custom. In particular, they do not want their overdraft.

It is distressing that someone who is forced into seeking state aid can be compelled to have it paid into a bank account only for that bank to remove a large part of that money to service a small overdraft. The threatened closure of the Post Office card account will mean that many people who have solely their state pension will be able to access it only through a bank account and will run into banking rules with banking-scale charges. Already one bank has imposed current account charges for customers with less than £1,500 either on deposit or as a minimum monthly input.

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