The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the clause is specifically about publication of the annual report, not a general release of information.
Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Mr. Beard.
Miss Johnson: I seek clarification, Mr. Beard. Should I respond to amendments Nos. 5 to 12? I understand that we have been debating all of them.
The Chairman: That is correct.
Miss Johnson: Thank you. We agree on the importance of ensuring adequate protection of individual and business interests. However, there is a need to strike a balance between excluding information that seriously prejudices the interests of individuals and businesses and enabling the OFT to carry out its functions, such as explaining a decision fully and in context in the annual report. Clauses 4(5)(b) and 6(3)(b) in particular have been drawn to our attention. Those clauses achieve a balance,
Column Number: 59
providing adequate protection of individual and business interests without unduly impeding the OFT's provision of information and advice to the public, or its publication of reports.
On amendments Nos. 7 and 11, and the words ''in its opinion'', I may have to seek your advice about voting, Mr. Beard, because those are part of one group. The OFT is in any case bound by a duty to act reasonably. The amendment would make no difference to that duty, so I would be happy to accept amendments Nos. 7 and 11. I shall deal separately with amendments Nos. 8 and 12, which are different. For the reasons that I have given, amendments Nos. 5, 6, 9 and 10 do not add anything and I ask the Committee to oppose them.
I will try to be as helpful as I can on amendments Nos. 8 and 12. We agree that the legitimate business interests should be protected. The current provisions achieve that in many ways. They are in line with clause 235(3) and (4) although the wording and context differ slightly. We agree, however, that there may be some benefit in consistency across the clauses if the amendments are accepted.
As we said this morning, we should be constructive and aim to work together to make this a better Bill. Achieving consistency across the clauses would indeed make it better. Amendments Nos. 8 and 12 would restrict the provision only to business interests. To align the provisions fully we would want protection for non-business interests too and therefore I would be happy to consider amendments Nos. 8 and 12 further and to come back on Report with something that takes on board both the points that Opposition Members made and our need to ensure that consistency works across both business and non-business interests.
Mr. Waterson: I am delighted that we are making progress on this. Of course, it would be churlish not to withdraw the amendment. I look forward to seeing the improvements that the Minister and her officials make to amendments Nos. 8 and 12. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 7, in page 2, line 34, leave out 'in its opinion'.–[Mr. Waterson.]
Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Provision of information etc. to the public
Amendment made: No. 11, in page 3, line 20, leave out 'in its opinion'.–[Mr. Waterson.]
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Miss Johnson: I am happy to say what I can on the clause. We have covered much of the ground already. Clause 6 will give the OFT the function of promoting to the public the benefits that competition has for
Column Number: 60
consumers and the economy and providing the public with information or advice on matters relating to its functions. It enables the OFT to publish educational literature or take part in educational activities and to provide support to others producing such literature or carrying out such activities. It enables the OFT to continue to provide a wide range of information and advice helpful to consumers and business. In publishing any literature, the OFT is obliged to have regard to the need to exclude information that is seriously prejudicial to a person or business.
Mr. Waterson: I have only a fairly narrow point to make on the clause. I want to elicit information from the Under-Secretary. The matter also relates to clause 5, but it seemed inappropriate to make the same point twice. It is raised in a briefing from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which says:
''we are disappointed by the absence of any duties prescribed to the OFT. Duties are so often the guiding lights for regulatory bodies.''
It also points out that there should be a general duty to protect consumers, a duty to educate consumers and a specific duty to investigate complaints made. I am not wholly clear what the difference is between a function and a duty. If the Under-Secretary wants to intervene now she may be able to put me out of my misery.
I can see the difference between a power and a duty: a duty presumably means that one is under an obligation to exercise a power, but I am not sure how a function differs. It may be a distinction without a difference, but it seems to exercise NACAB and if it is good enough for that organisation, it is certainly good enough for me. NACAB makes a related point, which I throw in now for what it is worth, when it says:
''We would also urge the Government to ensure that the new powers for the OFT are accompanied by sufficient resources to enable the new OFT to fulfil all of its functions satisfactorily.''
We will deal with that issue in more detail later. Could the Under-Secretary help me on functions?
Miss Johnson: I am advised that function covers both powers and duty. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman and NACAB.
Mr. Djanogly: Clearly, the mirroring of the amendments in the different clauses with different implications has caused some confusion. We are talking about the provision of information to the public. Clause 6(1)(b) refers to
''giving information or advice in respect of matters relating to any of its functions to the public.''
Companies could try to use such provisions for fishing expeditions on their competitors. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify to what extent the Bill, in conjunction with other relevant pieces of legislation could be used by competitor companies. We are dealing with competition and aiding consumers and it would be unfortunate if the legislation could be used to gain an unfair advantage over a competitor. That is of great concern and is relevant in countries such as the United States that have greater freedom of information than we do. The clauses talk about publishing information. What about unpublished information? How long would the OFT keep the information after the investigation cleared the
Column Number: 61
company concerned, and when would it have to disclose it to the public? Would the OFT have to destroy the information that it holds at some point?
Miss Johnson: I hope that I can help the hon. Gentleman. Specific merger market information and consumer investigations are restricted under part 9. The main function of the clause is the provision of information to the public, as it says. That is unlikely to give rise to the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. The OFT would not publish anything confidential to a company without first consulting it. As we discussed, clause 6(3) aims to give companies the protection that they need and Opposition Members share that aim.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Provision of information and
advice to ministers etc.
Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 23, after '(1)', insert:
'Subject to the overriding requirement to keep sensitive business information confidential,'.
We move to another clause, but at least some of the arguments are the same. I will therefore keep my comments brief. The point cannot be repeated too often in the relevant parts of the legislation and the arguments have been revisited many times. The CBI speaks for business when it supports the amendment. We hope that it may find favour with the Under-Secretary.
Miss Johnson: The amendment would make the OFT's provision of information and advice to Ministers or public authorities subject to an overriding requirement to keep sensitive business information confidential. It may hinder the OFT's capacity to advise Government and public authorities and it is also unnecessary. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the clause is aimed at the OFT commenting on general trends and specific legislation, not at specific companies. As I mentioned in my remarks to his hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, specific protection is offered for consumer and competition information as defined under part 9. I therefore regret that although the hon. Gentleman suggested that the amendment was parallel to the others, it is not in the same category. I hope that he will withdraw it in the light of my remarks. If not, I will oppose it.
Mr. Waterson: I am happy to accept the Under-Secretary's explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 3, line 32, at end insert:
'(3) It shall also be a function of the OFT to issue guidance to trading standards departments about the use of their powers to obtain Stop Now orders and to ensure that such powers are used consistently.'
Despite our puzzlement about the meaning of the word ''function'', we were still keen to impose another
Column Number: 62
function on the OFT, and that is it. That is a serious, practical point. One benefit of super complaints–we are not dealing with them now–is that they should prevent different levels of interest in pursuing an abuse being expressed in different parts of the country. The matter can then be dealt with globally as a global concern, if that is not too simplistic a view of the meaning and import.
Some 200 trading standards departments around the country have varying amounts of resources to devote to particular abuses. They have different priorities, which is, in a sense, right. Later in the Bill we will hear the views–about resources and other matters–of the Trading Standards Institute and the Local Government Association, among others. Some attempt has been made to ring-fence some resources for trading standards departments. According to my information, it has not been particularly successful. Resources always have a tendency to be siphoned away into other local government activities even though, with the best will in the world, they are destined for trading standards in other departments. On any view, therefore, we have a big problem of inconsistency between different trading standards departments in different local councils throughout the country.
The OFT should have some overview of how stop now orders are carried out in practice. I do not want to oversell the amendment, but the OFT should have some say in bringing consistency of policy. We shall debate stop now orders in more detail shortly, but it would be worrying for business if some trading standards departments went off like a rocket and handed out stop now orders like bus tickets while others hardly issued them at all. Bringing some consistency is therefore a sensible extra function to heap on the OFT and we hope that it will find favour with the Government.