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Over the months, I have listened to some rather weasel words from various Ministers when I have raised the question of post offices and how people

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can access money that is due to them. I am extremely concerned about the long-term banking accounts that may be withdrawn. Do people perhaps not know that there are 2 to 3 million people out there who cannot afford to allow anyone to take money automatically from their little store? The winter heating allowance was brought in when officials realised that many elderly people were cold because they simply had no money for extra fuel.

Can the Minister tell us how many people who pay their energy bills by direct debit reach the end of the financial year owing the energy supplier money? A very quick straw poll at the weekend gave me to understand that more people, like me, find that the supplier had taken more money than was required. Paying by direct debit may earn a small discount on the basic price of the fuel but, if you are on a small fixed weekly income, you cannot afford to pay one penny more than you need to, even if you get a little extra back at the end of the year.

People on low incomes still prefer to deal in cash. They prefer to walk to the local post office to draw it out over the counter. In rural areas, the nearest bank may be more than walking distance away. Many customers are suspicious of banks. So what right do the Government have to dictate that those who have paid their stamps over the years should access their money only through a bank account? Do they not realise the problems that some people have in getting one? Was there any discussion of the possible repercussions of refusing straightforward access to cash?

The closure of these post offices represents a large number of urban and rural communities that have lost their heart, thousands of people who have lost their support system and yet more who are now further socially isolated. I wish this new body well, but I hope that, through my small, humble contribution today, it will realise that a whole swathe of people cannot access services in the way that the Government would perhaps wish just because it would save them money. In the Committee days ahead, we must give serious consideration to ensuring that we are inclusive. In her excellent opening speech, my noble friend Lady Wilcox said that we must defend the most vulnerable in our society. I am worried that we may fail them if we do not really look at the Bill in Committee.

5.22 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I declare a fairly obvious interest as the chair of the National Consumer Council. I am pleased to follow two distinguished former bearers of that office: the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on the opposition Front Bench in her first legislative outing—along with my noble friend Lord Truscott—and the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes.

I welcome this overall approach—the consumer voice project—and the new landscape of consumer protection. I also support the more specific proposals on doorstep selling and, largely, the estate agent provisions, although I accept some of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on tightening them up. I shall concentrate largely on the overall structure of Part 1.

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I support the broad structure. There is a single first-stop shop with Consumer Direct; comprehensive coverage of ombudsman, dispute-resolution and redress systems—not necessarily all in one scheme, but covering the regulated sectors; and the single policy and advocacy body, incorporating the NCC, Postwatch and Energywatch into what is called “new NCC”. That structure—cross-sectoral, learning from each other, and shifting the focus to areas of greatest consumer detriment over time—seems sensible. Making Consumer Direct the single, first telephone number in everybody’s minds for all consumer complaints also seems sensible. The proposal has great flexibility benefits. It ensures good systems of dispute resolution and redress in the regulated sectors, both benefiting consumers and putting pressure on, in particular, the energy companies to deal with complaints and advice rather better than they have in the past. One of my concerns is that the powers of the regulators to ensure that those standards are kept are weak.

The new advocacy body, the new NCC, will enable intervention in priority areas in the way that the NCC has done in the past. The noble Baroness referred to that as “guerrilla” action, which is a fair comment in many ways. The NCC has developed into a centre of excellence over the past 30 years, and we need to maintain that. We are aware of its good reports and examples: the Minister referred to the Consumer Credit Act, and later this week we will discuss the Legal Services Bill, which also originated from pressure from the NCC. In the past couple of weeks, we have had the home credit system referred to the competition authorities. We have also used the super-complaint procedure in relation to garages and our resources in relation to identity theft and food quality. There is a range of different areas of potential consumer detriment. We have also made a beginning in relation to public services in Scotland and England, where we have regarded the role of the consumer of public services as of equal importance to that in the private sector. Our colleagues in the Scottish Consumer Council took the lead in identifying the latest consumer scandal, Farepak, as a serious issue. We can build on this, and therefore the general approach of the Bill is appropriate.

However, I have concerns about a number of areas that require clarification. I hope that the Minister can satisfy me on them, if not today, then later during the passage of the Bill. The first is perhaps a bit aspirational: it would have been better if the cross-sectoral approach had applied to all sectors. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to water, which at least is in on a contingency basis for a later stage, but other areas with statutory provisions are not in the Bill—for example, transport is an area of great consumer concern, but does not feature in the Bill, presumably because the Department for Transport did not want it to. That is not appropriate when we are trying to create something to cover all areas of consumer detriment.

I also have some problems about the transition, in particular in relation to complaints and queries that currently go to Energywatch and Postwatch. Part of the strategy that the Government have adopted, which I support, is to compel companies to adopt better

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ways of dealing with complainants and their queries. That particularly applies in relation to energy companies. The powers in the Bill to permit regulators to force them to do so are not only a bit weak but will also take time to have full effect. We need to know what will happen to that sort of complaint in the interim. Having an improved ombudsman system and better redress puts pressure on the companies to get things right first time, which is the objective of this policy, but these provisions will take time to have effect and we need to make sure that that is covered.

The existing ombudsman system in the energy sector is not up to scratch for the job that is envisaged in this approach. There is a delay of three months because the ombudsman cannot intervene until the company has been given that long to sort a matter out. For many consumers in a difficult situation, that is pretty late in the process, so this needs tightening up. In Committee, we need to look more closely at what proportion of the complaints that are currently going to Energywatch and Postwatch will effectively be dealt with by Consumer Direct and what kinds of complaints will come to the new, expanded National Consumer Council and whether they are complex issues or involve potential disconnection or other emergency situations.

Like other noble Lords, I am concerned about the independence of the new body. I was extremely pleased to hear the Minister mention in his introduction that this body will be independent. That is very important. The current NCC was set up by the Government 30-odd years ago as a limited company and has never been in statute. In some ways, that makes it exceptionally vulnerable, because any Government could come along and abolish it without recourse to Parliament. Indeed, that has been suggested on occasion. However, it also gave the NCC great flexibility. I hope that that flexibility is maintained in the new structure. Provisions on the Secretary of State’s directions and reporting will need to be subject to serious scrutiny as we proceed.

Flexibility is needed because we need to shift from one sector to another. What is most detrimental to consumers today may change tomorrow, next year, and in five or 10 years’ time. Indeed, the issues on which we should focus now are not the traditional ones but those that arise in the public sector. The importance of the consumer role in public service relates, as the Government have recognised, to the changes that they are introducing in health, social housing and education. Those changes, although they may improve choice, at least on a one-off basis, do not engage the consumer on an ongoing basis in the way that we want in respect of both public and private services in future.

Another issue to which my noble friend Lord O'Neill referred is devolution. The existing National Consumer Council was a pre-devolution devolution. It worked pretty well; the Scottish and Welsh councils have operated very effectively. It is important that that is sustained through the Bill. The constitutional provisions are there. There will be separate councils for Scotland and for Wales; they will have separate offices; they will be appointed in consultation with the Scottish and Welsh Executives. But the following part

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seems to limit their role to being just advisory to the main national council. That is not what happens at the moment and it should not happen in future.

Those bodies operate substantially in the Scottish and Welsh context, in civic society and with Scottish and Welsh business, but also, crucially, with the devolved powers in Scotland and Wales to the Assembly and Parliament and local government. For example, much of the best work of the Scottish Consumer Council has been done in conjunction with the Scottish Executive in improving consumer representation in Scotland. That facility needs to be retained and the drafting does not completely reflect that role.

Noble Lords would expect me to mention sustainability, especially since the Stern report. One contribution to changing attitudes and approaches to climate change must be to allow and encourage consumers to make greener choices about the goods that they purchase. Sustainability is placed as a duty on the new National Consumer Council, but that duty is not very strongly worded compared with some other provisions in recent legislation. I would like that to be addressed in Committee.

I do not expect an answer from the Minister on my final point, which is about funding, because no Minister will ever give an answer on that. I certainly do not expect an answer on quantifiable funding, because my noble friend is sitting next to the Treasury Minister. There is a somewhat confusing position on the overall structure of funding because part of it depends on direct grant in aid from the department. Other parts of the pre-existing NCC and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents depend on project funding from other departments. Now, a big chunk will be based on the levy raised from energy and post companies. That will enable us to move attention into those areas and for those areas to benefit from generic consumer interest, such as the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, of post offices in rural areas—we will be able to consider the issue in a somewhat broader context. I am sure that she will agree that we need to address the totality of services available to people in rural areas and some of our more deprived suburbs. If funding is too ring-fenced, there will be too great a rigidity in what the body can do. On the other hand, we do not want to lose what the existing bodies can do in those two regulated sectors.

I strongly support the general thrust of the Bill. I emphasise the areas of concern that we will need to address as it proceeds. It is a good Bill. It will need some filling out and I am sure that in subsequent stages the House will fully engage in that process. I am sure that my noble friend can answer some of my concerns tonight, but I certainly do not expect him to answer them all.

5.34 pm

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I shall confine what I have to say to Part 3; that is, the estate agents’ compulsory redress scheme. During the passage of the Housing Act 2004, which brought into being the legislation governing home information packs, we had considerable discussion on whether estate agents should be more strictly regulated. As he has already said, my noble

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friend Lord Caithness—I supported him from the Front Bench—introduced various amendments to ensure that anyone in practice as an estate agent was qualified, registered with an approved body, trained and professionally competent. Although we believed that it was important that anyone charged with producing home information packs was covered in that way, we also wanted to widen that to estate agents’ work in general.

That was resisted by the Government, the Minister then being the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. He introduced his own amendments, which resulted in a provision for the Secretary of State to make an order to require an estate agent to be a member of an approved redress scheme, but only for the purposes of complaints about home information packs. The Bill implements those provisions, which we supported, but extends them to the generality of estate agents’ work.

I make clear that I support the redress scheme. But, as the Minister acknowledged when he opened the debate, the buying and selling of property is one of the most stressful undertakings in which any of us are involved. It is also without doubt the most expensive and life-affecting decision. It can be carried out with confidence only if those who are professionally charged with the sale and purchase of residential properties have impeccable integrity, knowledge and professional competence.

Unlike in most other countries, there are currently no restrictions on operating as an estate agent in the United Kingdom. As my noble friend Lord Caithness pointed out, the Minister, when he no longer occupies that Bench, could, if he wanted, become an estate agent tomorrow, because anyone can set up an estate agency business with no experience, no qualifications, no insurance and without belonging to a professional body—so without the necessity of having to abide by any rules or codes of conduct.

The limited measures in the Bill today are, as the Minister said, based on the recommendations of the Office of Fair Trading report of 2004. Apart from the redress scheme, they also include a requirement for estate agents to keep records—one would have thought that that had been done a little while ago—to give access to officials from the Office of Fair Trading and the trading standards office and enable the Office of Fair Trading to consider the fitness of someone to practise. The latter two provisions would presumably arise as a result of a complaint and therefore, as with redress, would occur post hoc—after an event. They would not prevent something happening.

While I have no particular objections to the provisions in this part, I simply do not believe that they go anything like far enough, and nor does the National Association of Estate Agents, which might be expected to be pulling back from this as far as it could. However, a professional body which represents more than 10,000 estate agents in this country would support it being compulsory for anyone practising as an estate agent to be a member of an industry regulatory body such as its own or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which has already introduced a technical qualification for estate agents as a minimum entry requirement.

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If the professional bodies see the need for there to be a legislative requirement to ensure that there is compliance across the profession on high standards, I simply do not understand why the Government balk at that.

The current negative licensing regime, under which anyone can set up as an estate agent, even if the Office of Fair Trading can ban them in extremis, is completely insufficient. Estate agents these days are more often than not handling properties worth hundreds of thousands, and in London many millions, of pounds. They charge tens of thousands of pounds in fees and handle similar sums for the Chancellor’s stamp duty. They give advice to buyers and purchasers alike. Most are capable, some are not. Most will, by sheer weight of competition, have to act with propriety and competence. Some will not. When they do not, the loss to the person who owns or is trying to buy property could be catastrophic. After the event, compensation is not enough on its own. We really should be looking at methods of prevention.

Finally, the redress scheme relates only to residential properties. It does not include residential lettings. This is probably because these measures amend the Estate Agents Act 1979, which did not include residential lettings. The Bill will be an excellent opportunity to redress that problem, too. Although noble Lords would not think it, judging by the amount we deal with, opportunities for legislation come seldom, and it is unlikely that the concerns that I and other speakers have expressed today and which are not addressed in the Bill will be considered again for a very long time. I hope that we may be able to consider some of these issues during the passage of the Bill.

5.41 pm

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the gap. I did not put my name down to speak because I thought the debate would go on for rather longer and I would not have time to stay for the winding-up speeches.

I want to discuss two Welsh issues. My noble friend Lord O’Neill has discussed Scottish issues, and my noble friend Lord Whitty glanced at the issues that I want to discuss. The first is the remit of the new Welsh Consumer Council, which is defined in the Bill as a “territorial committee”—language that is not much appreciated west of the Severn, but let us leave that aside—of the new National Consumer Council. The purpose of this committee is,

This does not reflect the policy development role exercised by the current Welsh Consumer Council. I know that a further subsection allows the National Consumer Council to delegate and to devolve other functions to the new Welsh Consumer Council, but I believe that my noble friend would be right to consider that the core functions defined in the Bill for the National Consumer Council, so far as they affect

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Wales, should be part of the remit of the Welsh Consumer Council and should therefore be put into the Bill as such.

The second issue is the relationship between Welsh Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales, which is a devolved issue. The Bill requires the National Consumer Council, rather than the new Welsh Consumer Council, to send a copy of its forward work programme to Welsh Ministers. All that is a step back from the current devolved issue, and I very much hope that the Minister will take it upon himself to reconsider the clauses and to see whether we cannot do better than this in Committee.

5.43 pm

Lord Razzall: My Lords, it is a very strange experience for me to respond to the Bill at Second Reading on behalf of the Liberal Democrats because, for the past eight years since I have been doing this, I have been looking to my left to see the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and to my right to see the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury; so this is a new experience. I welcome the noble Baroness and the Minister to their new appointments, and I look forward to the inevitable jousting between us.

I declare an interest in that I sit on the board of directors of a public company that has estates and managing agencies among its subsidiaries.

The subject matter of the Bill is rather like apple pie and motherhood. Listening to all the speeches and reading the representations that we have all received, there is no doubt that everyone is struggling, because none of us can be against improved consumer protection, better regulation of estate agencies or further controls on doorstep selling. Everyone is struggling to ask the same thing: all this is a very good idea but, when we get to the detail of it, are the Government going about it in the right way? No one wants to say that because everyone is worried that people will say that they are against consumer protection or the better regulation of estate agencies. That, in substance, is what everyone on all sides of the House has been saying this afternoon. Is it not time for the Government to pause and, as the Bill passes through this House and we discuss it in Committee and on Report, to ask themselves whether the perfectly acceptable and welcome aspirations in the Bill are really being fulfilled by its content?

The creation of the new National Consumer Council has had a seven-year gestation, starting with the 1999 White Paper wonderfully entitled Modern Markets: Confident Consumers. It was obviously a good idea, following that White Paper, to bring all consumer bodies under one watchdog, but the lengthy time lag since 1999 rather gives the game away. The DTI’s lead attempt to bring consumer watchdogs under one umbrella has failed, because only the DTI bodies are signing up to the new National Consumer Council. It is possible that the water watchdogs may join later—indeed, we have all been lobbied to try to ensure that that does not happen until 2010—but the rail, air and telecom watchdogs, as well as the financial services watchdog, as the Minister’s noble friend had indicated, have refused to sign up to the

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DTI’s plans. The existing bodies, Energywatch and Postwatch will be abolished, the existing National Consumer Council will be become the new National Consumer Council, and the existing Consumer Direct role will be significantly extended, with ombudsman schemes in place for energy and post. If, however, you have a consumer problem with the railways, the air services, telecommunications and financial services, there will be no change to the existing arrangements.

In his opening remarks, the Minister said that the existing system was fragmented. If you have an energy or a post problem at the moment, you call Energywatch or Postwatch and they deal with it. After the Bill is passed, and assuming that it is passed in its existing form, the consumer will initially contact Consumer Direct, after which there are five different lines of possible redress to which they could be directed: Consumer Direct, the various ombudsman schemes, the new National Consumer Council, Postwatch or Ofgem—hardly a simplification.

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