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Secondly-I think this is a fair criticism-it was said that in some ways we have not placed families and carers at the heart of a new system for care in the future. I can see the reasons for that criticism of the Green Paper, but I want to say today that we do see families and carers as being at the very heart of the system. The purpose of a care service has to be to provide the support, choice and services that individuals need and that they can access in order to their lives as individuals with somebody caring for them with their families and relatives. Some people, of course, do not have carers, families and relatives around them. The care service needs to meet their needs, too, but we need to ensure that, as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) said, the care service gives support to carers and families, who are at the heart of what a care system should be about.
On benefits and attendance allowance, which were mentioned by many hon. Members, let me make it clear that we are still keen to receive views on the case that was made by the King's Fund, Wanless and others to bring together some elements of disability benefits, such as attendance allowance, with the funding of care to provide a better, targeted system of care and support that will benefit everyone in need of care. I recognise some of the detailed points about the fact that attendance allowance and the DLA can be gateway benefits to other benefits, and that any change to the system will therefore need to take that into account. I am keen to get all of that right. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean described attendance allowance and DLA as being folded into a care system that gets reshaped and redistributed, rather than as being cut, which is how others have been portraying it. It quite clearly is not a cut.
Whatever the outcome of the consultation, the principle will continue to be that people receiving any of the relevant benefits at the time of reform will receive an equivalent level of support and protection under a new and better care and support system. We are going to make changes to disability benefits only if we are certain that by doing so we can better support the care needs of older and disabled people.
To pick up on the point about the cash that one gets as an attendance allowance, our intention is that the care and support that people will get in the future will be in the form of a personal budget that can be provided in cash for anybody who wants it that way. We want to see that feature driving forward as we develop our national care service. Although I am sure that that will not have assuaged all the concerns that have been raised today, I hope that those reassurances will help individual concerns.
I will not take the time of the House by reflecting for too long on the Government's concerns about the views expressed by the Conservatives and its way forward. My view is that the Opposition simply do not get it. A few weeks ago, they announced their scheme for a voluntary payment of £8,000 to provide residential care for those who choose it. We now understand that that scheme will exclude people with any pre-existing health conditions, so the number of those who would enter the scheme-let alone the number who would voluntarily choose to do so-is so small that it becomes a scheme for very few people, which completely ignores the needs of the many. Indeed, nine out of 10 people are not cared for in
residential care-they are cared for in their own homes. That is why we have gone down the route of the free personal care scheme as a major building block for a new national care service.
Although I do not know the details, last week the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, announced the creation of what appeared to be 153 new local quangos called public health boards, which would just be another layer of bureaucracy and complexity of funding, which already bedevil the system. I fail to see how a party that talks publicly about cutting bureaucracy and waste can immediately create a massive new wasteful bureaucracy, but that is for it to defend.
In drawing this debate to a close, I am delighted to say that the careandsupport.direct.gov.uk website has had 90,000 hits. Will hon. Members please encourage all their constituents to take part-if Members have their own website, I ask them please to add a link to the site from theirs-and to get engaged in the debate? Let us learn from the inspirational example of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley who held a debate in her constituency. Let us meet local organisations. The job is clear. I want to build an unstoppable momentum for reform that will represent the biggest step forward for social justice in decades and improve millions of lives. Let us together create a national care service of which we can all be proud.
That this House has considered the matter of the Social Care Green Paper.
That Dr Richard Taylor be a member of the West Midlands Regional Select Committee.-( Mr. Blizzard .)
That Mary Creagh be discharged from the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Select Committee and Mr Austin Mitchell be added .-( Mr. Blizzard .)
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I should like to discuss motion 5 on the Order Paper. I rather missed the opportunity on motion 4, I am afraid: I was sitting back and when motion 3 was not moved, I thought that the same thing would happen to motion 4. I was going to ask a question of a Minister, but I cannot see the Leader of the House or the Deputy Leader of the House on the Government Front Bench. However, the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household is there-it is like looking into a mirror-and I am sure that he will be very capable of answering some questions.
As you may know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my party and the Liberal Democrats are not terribly enthused, to say the least, by the Regional Select Committees. In fact, we have decided not to take part in them. However, on the question of motion 5, why at this stage-the
Committees were set up only recently-do people need to be taken off them and then put back on? It is always interesting. Was the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) not happy with the set-up of the Committee; or, did he in some way displease the Whips? Perhaps he pleased them so much that they took him off the Committee.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if such a change of membership is put before the House, we should always have an explanation of why one Member is standing down and another is being put forward? Currently, these motions are put forward with no discussion and, given that the Committees are supposed to provide for more local accountability and interest, it is unacceptable not to know why one Member in the area is leaving and one is coming forward.
Mr. Randall: I am not sure that I would want an explanation on every occasion, but, as this opportunity arises from time to time, it is useful just to test whether the Government can tell the House why a decision has been made. I do not labour the point, because, speaking as a furniture retailer, I am very interested in the Adjournment debate that is coming next. I shall be interested to note what the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says when I read it later in Hansard.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): In the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks, he suggested that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was being removed from the Committee. In fact, it is the other way around, and I should hope that he would not want to malign the hon. Gentleman unfortunately.
Mr. Randall: I should like to apologise to the House for that mistake. I in no way wanted to mislead Members. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby has obviously pleased the Whips. I know that he hopes for a career moving forward from the Back Benches, and, at this last moment, perhaps this is still an attempt to do so. I shall now sit down, so we might hear from the Government Front Bencher before we move to the next motion.
The Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. John Spellar): It was very interesting to see the double act between the official Opposition and their errand boys on the Liberal Democrat Bench. Increasingly, they see their role as that of principal understudy to the Conservative Opposition, and this debate is yet another example of that. Let us be quite clear what the debate is about: the Conservative Opposition do not like Regional Select Committees. They have been quite open about that, to be fair, but the House has decided. There is also a well-established procedure, which the hon. Gentleman has reflected-along with remarks about my appearance-for changing the membership of all Committees. Hon. Members are just trying to score political points, and not doing it very well.
That Linda Gilroy be discharged from the South West Regional Select Committee and Roger Berry be added. -(Mr. Blizzard.)
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): According to figures from the British Furniture Confederation, the UK furniture industry is currently worth nearly £10 billion at retail prices. It directly employs about 131,000 people in 7,500 enterprises and makes a significant, but often overlooked, contribution to the manufacturing economy. Indeed, furniture makers, large and small, represent 5 per cent. of the UK manufacturing base. In addition, the industry supports, and is supported by, a large supply chain of materials suppliers, designers, component manufacturers, distributors, contractors and retailers.
Although there is no traditional geographical base for the furniture industry, there are clusters of companies in south Wales, Buckinghamshire and the east midlands, including Art Forma in my constituency and a number of furniture makers in Long Eaton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). This is consistent with the fact that our region remains the area with the highest proportionate number of manufacturing workers. The industry is divided between small companies and relatively large concerns. The BFC estimates that 67 per cent. of all furniture manufacturing companies employ fewer than nine people, but also that the largest 300 companies account for 45 per cent. of the total employment. Fifty-eight per cent. of output is for the domestic market, 13 per cent. for the office market, and 29 per cent. for the contract market, which includes Government.
The purpose of my debate is to explore the industrial and consumer implications of the sales and promotion tactics far too frequently used by the large furniture companies in selling to the domestic market. It is all about the myth of the half-price, time-limited sale. Anyone who reads a Sunday newspaper or magazine will be familiar with the resounding slap on the kitchen floor of inserted sales and promotional fliers. Invariably, one of these will be from a large furniture company, offering huge reductions on sofas and other furniture as part of a sale that will "end soon". Typically, the sales periods will be extended and 50 per cent. discounts, even double mark-downs, will be offered to the public for an even longer period still. One of my contentions is that, despite some caveat in tiny print undecipherable to the naked eye, the discounted products are virtually impossible to find retailing at the full price, so there is no way of knowing whether the undiscounted price represents a real saving for the potential consumer or whether it is just a cynical, deceitful "come on".
The current law regarding sales periods only requires the discounted price to have been available for a minimum of 28 days consecutively in the preceding six months. Yet advertising literature from DFS and other companies scrupulously avoids quoting the actual dates for these sales periods. Instead, they have cleverly adopted a policy of "rolling" sales, where the sales offers are switched between product lines. One difficulty that trading standards officials face in effectively tackling this sort of dishonest, manipulative practice is that the pricing practices guide issued to traders is not mandatory. Indeed, the introduction to the guidance, issued by the short-lived,
now-departed, pre-Mandelsonia Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, is a master-class exercise in lowering regulatory expectations:
"This Guide recommends to traders a set of good practices in giving the consumer information about prices in various situations. It has of itself no mandatory force: traders are not under any legal obligation to follow the practices recommended."
No doubt somewhere, in a remote retail outlet during the quietest period of the year, there will be gathering dust sofas and other furniture at enormous prices that will then be used as a base for sales elsewhere in the country.
However, there is legislation designed to tackle misleading business in consumer marketing and sales practices. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008-CPRs-were implemented to bring the UK in line with the provisions of the European Union's unfair commercial practices directive. The CPRs prohibit 31 commercial practices and specifically cover misleading or aggressive promotions. These practices are those deemed to be unfair in all cases, regardless of whether it would have induced the average consumer to make a purchase. I believe that the CPRs have particular relevance to the sort of "perma-sale" tactic used by DFS and others. Schedule 1 to the CPRs, covering banned practices, contains the following prohibition:
"Falsely stating that a product will only be available for a very limited time, or that it will only be available on particular terms for a very limited time, in order to elicit an immediate decision and deprive consumers of sufficient opportunity or time to make an informed choice."
To illustrate the type of practice referred to, the Office of Fair Trading's guidance on the CPRs cites the example of a trader who falsely tells a consumer that the price of homes will rise in seven days' time. That prohibition should apply to the "specially extended" sales practice used in adverts such as the one placed by DFS in The Times on 4 September, which stated:
"Final days to save. There's only a few days left to enjoy half price savings on many great designs and final reductions ...there's so much choice and so little time."
The consumer has no idea whether that is accurate but is clearly being pressurised into making a snap decision to purchase rather than an informed choice. Consumer Focus and others have pointed out that the CPRs do not offer direct redress to the consumer. Even if they have lost money, a consumer cannot take traders to court or get direct compensation under the CPRs.
Trading standards offices locally and the OFT nationally are charged with making businesses comply with the regulations, and only they can bring action against traders. Yet to date, the CPRs have been used to prosecute only once. In a country of 60 million people, that is astonishing. It seems pretty clear that the Government need to put the pricing practices guide on a statutory footing, or at least knit together more effectively the PPG and the CPRs. At present, they are cumbersome and difficult for trading standards to apply successfully to the widespread use of the dubious practices that I have mentioned. Trading standards departments may also need more resources to tackle such practices, but I surmise that in the current economic climate that is not likely to happen any time soon.
That aside, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I take encouragement from the proposals contained in July's White Paper "A Better Deal for Consumers", which offers a longer-term prospect of
action to modernise this aspect of consumer law. Encouragingly, it commits to a number of actions, such as modernising trading standards powers and
"a new Consumer Rights Bill which will implement the proposed EU Consumer Rights Directive and modernise and simplify UK consumer sales law."
Keen calendar watchers will note that we are heading towards Christmas, when the sales and marketing efforts of most industries go into overdrive. The big furniture companies are no exception, and the latest flurry of fliers is accompanied by increased broadcast and internet activity. There are just eight weeks to Christmas eve, and a visitor to the DFS website sees the prominent words "Half Price" and "Christmas" on the home page. Again, we see the familiar pattern of a high price discounted, often by 50 per cent. There is no way that consumers can check the accuracy of the amount they are being offered as a discount. So far, so bad.
The internet clearly offers exciting opportunities for retailers and consumers, but we must have the regulatory framework in place to protect and promote consumers' rights in the virtual marketplace. As I have said, I am encouraged by the content of the White Paper. Its focus on the increasing commercial importance of the internet will be much needed, and I am sure that it will offer yet another important incentive to vote Labour at the general election in the spring.
To return to more traditional media, I was interested to note that the Advertising Standards Authority, hardly the most tenacious of regulatory bodies, has twice upheld complaints from the public in the last year about half-price claims made in DFS's TV adverts, ruling that they were misleading. Although neither advert was banned by the ASA for using unverifiable price reductions, they point to advertising practices that sail close to the wind, to put it kindly.
DFS has a dubious record in its advertising content, particularly on television. Members might remember its advertising campaign from 2005, which featured tatty old sofas dumped in canals. It rightly drew criticisms of environmental irresponsibility, although the ASA chose not to uphold any of the 70 complaints that it attracted from the public. One is tempted to ask why the ASA exists.
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