|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I shall speak specifically to amendment No. 223. I wish to reinforce the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about the timetabling of consideration. It is ridiculous that we shall try to get through about 200 new clauses and amendments in about four and a half hours, and especially an item as important as amendment No. 223, which deals with the codes of conduct and behaviour of trade associations.
In making my short contribution, I shall worry the Minister by saying that I am broadly in favour of amendment No. 223. I welcome it, but I feel that it should go a little further. The provisions set out in the Bill needed to be amended in any event to take it into account that trade associations should properly be representative of the area of commerce or industry in which they operate, and that their finance, organisation, policies and procedures for redressing consumers' complaints should be as transparent as possible. These considerations are not taken into account in the Bill.
When the Secretary of State addressed the issue of consumer codes of practice on Second Reading, she told the House that provided they would be effective in protecting consumer interests and would meet core criteria yet to be defined, the Bill would include
The House, as well as consumer groups and trade associations throughout the country, will want to know where they stand before the Bill comes into effect. They will not want to await an interpretation by the OFT in the fullness of time.
I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were in the House, as I was, when it passed legislation that led to the establishment of the Child Support Agency. We passed that legislation because it was absolutely right that parents who were not looking after their children should be called to account and made to contribute to looking after them. Everybody was agreed and the Bill went through Parliament in record time. However, none of us suspected that the rules and regulations that would follow, introduced by the civil service, would create a nightmare in years to come and clog our surgeries with problems for month after month. We are finally getting on top of things, but if we had known what was to come, we would have been rather more circumspect in deciding what to put into legislation.
I hope that we shall hear something helpful from the Minister. Organisations outside the House have already picked up the issue and have started to run with it. The CBI has made it clear that it wants further discussions on the framework and the principles that the OFT will be using to ensure that codes of practice will be
On Second Reading, in the spirit of helpfulness and co-operation that I obviously like to adopt, I made clear my concerns about the need for proper recognition of trade associations and the role that they should play in arrangements for protecting consumer interests. I have since had several discussions with trade associations and Mr. Mark Boleat, who is not only a professional consultant but has been the director general of two of the largest trade associations in the country. He served in one for quite a few years, then moved to an even bigger organisation and has now set up his own consultancy practice. He has another tremendous merit as he is a constituent of mine, which obviously gives him every possible advantage. I listened to him with great interest and am grateful to him and a number of trade associations for their advice and assistance. They emphasised the fact that it is essential that trade associations, which will effectively draft consumer codes of conduct under the Bill, should be as representative of the industry as possible. If Ministers are aware of that point, they have not given any sign of it.
I do not want to be too prescriptive, but codes of conduct should be given only to leading trade associations, which enjoy at least 50 per cent. representation of the industry; I shall not object if that representation is 60 or 70 per cent. Some years ago, I went to Japan, where I expected to see a Minister but, instead, I was ushered into the presence of the Japanese shipbuilding trade association, the most powerful body in the area, with only one company not being a member. I rapidly came to the conclusion that the association was highly instrumental in Government business and in driving forward a number of activities, including exports and Government financial measures to help the industry. I commend that example to the Minister. My constituent, Mark Boleat, wrote a book some time agoI do not
The DTI cannot possibly have enough officers to deal with so many associations. Different associations need to be brought together so that the DTI can give a focus to a sector rather than trying to deal with hundreds of warring trade associations; that can only be beneficial for the economy. I make that point in the spirit of co-operation and helpfulness which is in my nature, as everybody in the House knows.
Trade associations seeking approval from the OFT for consumer codes of practice should make available to the public their membership, finances and strategic plans both on the internet and in hard copy. Trade associations should make the public as consumers aware of the composition of their governing bodies, policies and procedures for dealing with complaints. I do not doubt that the OFT will consider that when it looks at the codes submitted to it. I do not advocate a wholesale return to the guild system of the middle ages, but it had some good points; if anyone was not up to scratch in the production of a particular service or product, they either had to get up to speed or were put out of business. Codes of conduct should have some insurance backing; trade associations should ensure that every single member of the sector has insurance cover so that if it goes bust or produces faulty work, the consumer is protected. That will make a trade association's logo meaningful; every consumer will know that if they go to a company belonging to the association they will have redress if something goes wrong. If a company goes bust, consumers will not be left with faulty products or services.
The Government amendment, which alters the regulatory mechanism, does not advance that proposal. I hope that I am pushing at an open door; nothing in my suggestion should come as a surprise to Ministers. The Department published a guide on best practice models for trade associations as long ago as 1996; since then the subject has been thoroughly investigated by the Trade Associations Forum. The criteria that trade associations and others must meet when submitting consumer codes to the OFT for approval are sufficiently important to merit much more discussion than we can give them today. The Government amendment characteristically leaves the matter to the OFT, presumably in consultation with the Department, to determine. That is not good enough; it is in no one's interest for the OFT to set out guidelines on consumer codes that are likely to raise business costs substantially or prove too bureaucratic. On the other hand, consumers need reassurance about the procedures for complaint and redress offered by trade associations, and must have confidence in the OFT's regulatory role. Those issues have been passed over, so I would be grateful if the Minister could offer me some reassurance in her reply.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): You may be relieved to have begun chairing the proceedings now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and not to have played any part in Committee, where debate was wide-ranging. Similarly, the last three contributions have brought forth thoughts on the socialist philosopher Mr. Cole, the care home crisis and the Child Support Agency; there are no immediate comparisons among those three subjects.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said. At Conservative party conferences, we are used to hearing the calls of many activists to bring back various things, but I have not yet heard of anyone going back as far as the middle ages. Perhaps we will hear other singular proposals in our debate.
I took on board my hon. Friend's claim that it would have been better to call the Bill the enterprise regulation Bill; that point is central to the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). I acknowledge the fear that the OFT will flex its muscles too often. We must ensure that that temptation is kept to a minimum.
The key consideration is the cost to business. I am probably less sanguine than many of the professional bodies that wrote to members of the Standing Committee about the power of super-complaints. I am concerned that the self-appointed consumer champions will have far too much authority in relation to certain aspects of the Bill. There is a risk that legitimate business interests will be significantly harmed, so I hope that the Minister will give fair consideration, as she did in Committee, to the time limit for responses. A 60-day limit is sufficient. How will the Minister exercise her discretion to vary or override the current 90-day limit, a subject tackled in one of the Conservative amendments?