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Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The decision that Brigadier Jim Dutton should succeed Brigadier Roger Lane as commander 3 Commando Brigade in April 2002 was taken by the First Sea Lord in July 2001, as part of the normal appointing process for senior officers in the naval service. Ministers were not involved and would not expect to be because it was a routine changeover at one-star level.
Brigadier Lane was in command of operations in Afghanistan in April 2002, and the Chief of the Defence Staff and the First Sea Lord therefore decided that the planned handover should be delayed. It will now take place after the operations have been completed.
Mr. Hoon: That is clearly a matter for them, but I was surprised by the story that began the so-called controversy. It suggested that I faced mounting pressure to sack the Royal Marines commander in Afghanistan. That could not have been true because there was no such pressure. At least, if it existed, I was not aware of it.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Why did the Secretary of State tolerate a situation whereby officials in his Department were criticising a serving officer, who, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, has no opportunity to answer any criticism? Will he ensure that that never happens again while he is in charge?
Mr. Hoon: Let me make it clear that no Minister in the Ministry of Defence tolerates any such briefings by officials in the Department. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific examples of such briefings, I assure him that I shall investigate them fully if he makes them known to me.
'8A Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market ("Directive on electronic commerce").'
'(2A) An act or omission or course of conduct falls within this subsection if it amounts to the abuse by the person in question ("the supplier") of his superior knowledge or bargaining strength so that he:
(a) unfairly induces consumers to enter into transactions which are not the result of free and informed decisions; or
(b) unfairly hinders consumers from enforcing rights under any consumer transaction.
(2B) In considering whether an act, omission or course of conduct amounts to an abuse under subsection 2A, the court shall take into account all the circumstances, including the nature of the goods or services in question, the nature and extent of any commitments undertaken by the consumers in question and any lack of good faith on the part of the supplier, and the court may have regard to:
(a) any representation made by the supplier, or failure to disclose information, which unreasonably prevents consumers from making adequate price or value comparisons between competing suppliers;
(b) any exploitation by the supplier of consumers' inability to make free and informed decisions, or to enforce rights under contracts, because of physical or mental infirmity, inability to understand the language of the transaction or other vulnerability;
(c) any failure by the supplier to comply with a consumer code of practice (as defined in section 8(4) of this Act) which he claims to follow;
(d) any act or omission by the supplier which causes any unreasonable expense of time or money by consumers pursuing legitimate complaints or rights under contracts entered into with the supplier; and
(e) any failure to keep consumers reasonably informed about matters relating to a contract for supply of services, or which might affect a decision whether or not to change suppliers.'.
I shall not go into detail about the amendments unless hon. Members wish me to do so. Amendments Nos. 375, 376 and 379 apply to Northern Ireland. The others are much more technical, and I do not believe it is necessary to go through them unless hon. Members seek clarification.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I am grateful to the Minister for the quick guide to Government amendments. I agree that they are either consequential and minor or have the effect that she described. Amendment No. 378 is significant because it updates the definition of an associate. She was good enough to write to me about that and explain the reason for it. We therefore have no difficulty with it. I shall leave Liberal Democrat Members to speak about amendment No. 373. I principally want to speak about amendments Nos. 195 and 196. Unless the Minister has a concession up her sleeve, I intend to press amendment No. 196 to a Division.
Consumer protection is very much Tory territory. It was mapped out by the Conservative Government in the 1970s, and in particular by the then Sir Geoffrey Howe, in the fair trading legislation of that time. I even played a modest walk-on role, by helping to write a pamphlet, published in 1972, called "Square Deal for Consumers", when I was a very young, obscure, research assistant. Now I am an equally obscure middle-aged Front-Bench spokesman, and it is amazing to see what has happened in the intervening 30 yearsexcept to my career, of course.
The principle behind our legislation in the 1970s was clear, and the view of our party has not changed since then. It is that consumers do best when markets are working properly and fairly. Not even Adam Smith took the viewalthough it is often ascribed to himthat markets could be completely unregulated. That translates neatly into my party's current approach, which is to try to help the vulnerable, right across the policy spectrum. In this instance, the vulnerable are consumers. That is in contrast to this Government's actions, which are those of a party dedicated to helping not the vulnerable but its cronies and its donors. We dealt with that matter to a great extent on Thursday in the context of the Express Newspapers Group takeover, however, and I do not wish to reopen that discussion today.
The problem is that we have moved on since the 1970s. The need for consumer protection has moved on as well, and it keeps changing. That is why we are rightly revisiting the fair trading legislation, and why the Government are, sadly, missing this moving target. We heard many examples of this in Committee, but I shall resist the temptation to return to them on Report. I shall, however, cite just two which are indicative of the evidence that we have received from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the National Consumer Council, the Consumers Association and many other organisations, about the scams and abuses that our constituents are having to deal with in the early part of this century as opposed to the 1970s.
One good example is so-called holiday clubs. The abuse of time-shares became apparent and was tackled some years ago. That is why many of the same personalities are now involved in so-called holiday clubs. As an observer of these matters, I find it difficult to see the difference between the two, although some of the current literature supporting holiday clubs carries a large disclaimer on the front saying, "This is not a time-share". But, of course, in many ways, they are.
Many of the abuses and many of the personnel have been carried forward from the old time-share cons to the so-called holiday clubs. In the last few weeks alone, we have read of one fraudster involved in time-shares and holiday clubs who had to pay some £36 million in compensation to his victims, and of another who was recently brutally murderedor committed suicide, depending on one's view of eventsin Spain. In that example, the law has slowly caught up with time-shares, only to find that these activities are now carrying on under a different name, largely outside the scope of the law. Moreover, I do not believe that they will be affected by the provisions in the Bill.
Another good example, of which we heard evidence in Committee, is high-pressure sales techniques in people's homesoften those of the elderly and frail. Age Concern produced an excellent report on this issue recently. The existing rules can easily be subverted by an individual being manoeuvred into inviting a salesman to visit them in their own home. In that way, the requirement for a seven-day cooling-off period and other regulations that would normally apply can be avoided. We heard an example of a lady who had had a salesman sitting in her home for five hours until she eventually signed on the dotted line to buy a very expensive orthopaedic chair that she probably did not need in the first place.
There are various ways of approaching this matter to ensure that the Bill will bite on these and the many other abuses that we debated in Committee. In Committee I tabled amendments Nos. 46 and 47, which were subtly different from these amendments but were part of the attempt to establish a general duty not to trade unfairly. As I think I conceded at the time, the terms of those amendments were quite wide; that is why we have now tabled amendments Nos. 195 and 196.
We must strike a balance between ensuring that there is some predictability, so that burdens are not placed on reputable businesses, and making the provisions flexible enough to catch the fraudsters and con artists who move on rapidly when the law is changedas has happened in
In its briefing for the Bill, the Confederation of British Industry made clear its opposition to a clause providing a general duty in regard to unfair trading. It felt that such matters should be clearly identified and defined. It referred to discussions taking place in the European Union, with the aim of establishing a pan-European approach. It said:
2B elaborates on the definition of abuse and sets out the factors which a court shall take into account."