§ The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)
Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the White Paper published today to promote the interests of consumers. The White Paper forms a key part of our programme to support competition, innovation and enterprise.
Far too many people feel that they live in rip-off Britain, where they pay high prices compared to other countries, where cheats are allowed to prosper and move from one scam to another with ease, and where there are more shoddy goods than high-quality products.
For too long, the attitude in Britain has been that things could be worse, rather than that things should be better. We do not want to create an army of Victor Meldrews, but we do need confident and informed consumers. That is why the Government are publishing a comprehensive consumer strategy today.
Consumers who are knowledgeable and demanding get a good deal. They also promote innovation and improve the competitive position of business, which in turn means better products and keener prices for consumers. The White Paper will create a virtuous circle between knowledgeable consumers and business performance. It will do that in four ways.
First, the Government will work with business and consumer groups to introduce codes of practice that actually mean something, instead of giving false reassurance to consumers. Codes already pepper the Yellow Pages, but many are little more than marketing devices, offering no safeguards to customers.
The White Paper therefore proposes to introduce legislation to give the Office of Fair Trading powers to approve codes of practice that guarantee high standards of customer service, including proper redress if things should go wrong. That approval will not be a one-off. The Office of Fair Trading will withdraw its approval if the code no longer meets these principles. The OFT's seal of approval will provide at-a-glance assurance for the consumer.
We will also develop an e-commerce code, with industry and consumer groups, to be monitored by an independent body. As purchasing over the internet expands, it is vital that people feel that they have security when they make purchases. That is why we will introduce an e-hallmark, which will provide safeguards for the purchaser.
Secondly, we want to strengthen the role of those who protect the public against those who continually cheat consumers. The current law is ineffective. It offers no deterrent to the determined cheat, the perpetual scam merchant, and the exploiter of the weak and vulnerable, and no deterrent against the one-day sale in a hotel that is simply a rip-off, or the car repairer who fails to deliver and threatens those who complain. As constituency Members of Parliament, we all know of many other examples that have been drawn to our attention.
The traders often disappear before action can be taken, then reappear elsewhere to conduct themselves in exactly the same way. The White Paper therefore proposes stronger action against such fraudsters. I want the OFT and trading standards officers in local authorities to have 1343 powers to seek injunctions to stop traders carrying out specified practices, and to give the courts the power to ban them from all trading. Cheats who continually rip off their customers should be treated in this tough and responsible way.
We will consider the imposition of criminal sanctions where appropriate. We must also be able to respond quickly to new scams that might develop. We therefore propose a power to make orders by secondary legislation, which will specify that certain practices that have been shown to be harmful should be made illegal.
The third key proposal in the White Paper is better access to advice. People need quick, accurate answers to consumer problems. We will promote the development of a new advice network, building on the existing agencies. People will be able to see easily where they can get good-quality advice. We will also set up a new telephone helpline. Today, I have launched a new consumer gateway on the internet, to provide easy access to consumer advice and information.
Fourthly, we will improve research on consumer issues, so that our policies are based on sound evidence. Many feel that they are paying higher prices for everyday items than people in other countries. We can all understand why rice costs less in China than in Chingford, but why do trainers cost less in New York than in Newcastle, or a CD less in Washington than in Winsford?
I have, therefore, launched a full survey of international price comparisons. That will compare the prices of some 100 products across four countries—the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States. I already have powers to refer prices in a particular sector to the Director General of Fair Trading, and I will use those if the survey shows that the British consumer is being overcharged.
The White Paper contains some 70 measures, which cover a whole range of issues. We will make prices clearer to customers; consult on plans for tougher controls on misdescription of services; make sure that a pint of beer is a pint of beer; and make it easier for people to spot if the mileage reading on a car has been fiddled. We will also support and improve enforcement agencies so that they are better able to meet the expectations of consumers and business.
We do not want to distract business from its focus on serving its customers. We will in addition, therefore, begin a programme of reviewing all consumer protection legislation to find out whether it is still effective in meeting the needs of consumers, or whether it has simply become a burden on business with no apparent benefit to the consumer. To start the review, I have today published a consultation document on the law covering weights and measures.
The programme in the White Paper is ambitious. It reinforces our commitment to modern, open markets. It works with the grain of the knowledge economy. It promotes stronger business performance as well as a better deal for consumers. It rejects endless regulation as the saviour of the consumer in favour of competition, information and effective sanctions against rogue traders. It is forward looking and sets a framework for the future. It charts a new way forward in which consumers and business serve each other's interests—benefiting us all through quality products and improved services.
1344 A fair deal for all our people—that is the vision of this White Paper, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I thank the Secretary of State for making the documentation available to me just over an hour ago; I am most grateful.
There is much that we can welcome in the White Paper because it gives the consumer a fair deal. In particular, we welcome the fact that research into identifying retail price differentials between the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom will be improved. It is important that we identify exactly how the pricing structure is achieved before there is any hasty action to name and shame. For example, the strength of the pound, employment costs, land prices and so on will have a different impact in different countries. Therefore we welcome the Government's initiative in that area.
The Secretary of State mentioned enforcement and, in particular, the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards officers, but he did not mention resources. Given existing legislation, never mind any additions that he may intend to make, it is clear that resources, particularly in trading standards departments, are extremely important. It would be helpful if he would say how much new money will be put into backing the White Paper, particularly for trading standards officers.
To give just one example, since the Government took office, trading standards officers have been charged with the task of identifying the GM content of processed foods. The technology developed in the past few years to carry out such tests is still extremely expensive and trading standards officers do not have the resources to carry out that task. We are looking to the Government to endorse the proposals in the White Paper with detail on how they intend to resource the promises.
The Secretary of State's decision to review all consumer legislation is welcome, as long as no additional burden is placed on business. It is not acceptable simply to consider the legislation with a view to adding to the unnecessary burdens on businesses. He says that he does not want us to be a nation of Victor Meldrews; I say to him, "I don't believe it!" because the hallmark of the Government is their introduction of ill-thought-through legislation and their subsequent reliance on endless regulations, which are a burden and a brake on enterprise and on business.
Consumers have more spending power today than ever before, and we support any initiatives to give them best value and to ensure that they are well informed, but may I ask the Secretary of State about a particular part of his statement? He said that the Government have been able to respond quickly to new scams, which is good, and that they therefore propose to introduce a power to make orders by secondary legislation, specifying that certain practices that have been shown to be harmful should be made illegal. Will his suggestion lead to the creation of a criminal offence? If so, is secondary legislation the appropriate means for dealing with such an offence? I should be grateful if he identified in more detail what he means by practices that have been shown to be harmful and exactly how the law will follow his suggestion through to ensure that such practices do not occur.
The Secretary of State also mentioned the important matter of electronic commerce, which is a growing area for consumers and something that we welcome. It will 1345 create a lot of changes. He is, of course, aware that there is a global marketplace; people are already buying across national borders. He mentioned an e-hallmark to cover goods sold through electronic commerce. How will that work? Will it apply to goods sold from a base in the United Kingdom? Is he seeking EU standards? How will the e-hallmark work in respect of people who make electronic purchases beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, particularly from the EU and further afield? We should be grateful for more detail on that.
Bearing in mind that this point has been flagged up in the press, so one must assume that it is true, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he intends to release the draft e-commerce Bill in the next 24 hours? Can he also confirm that no statutory licensing provisions will appear in it? We welcome his reference to weights and measures, but the Government failed to push in Europe for an additional moratorium for market traders. They are concerned because the regulations will change at the turn of the year, and traders in loose goods will be required to label goods in metric and imperial weights. Why did not the Government press for the derogation to be extended for another 10 years? This matter will cause those traders and their consumers a great deal of concern.
I must pick the Secretary of State up on one point. At the beginning of his statement, he said that there are more shoddy goods than high-quality products. We want the scams to end, and we want people who produce defective goods and services to be brought to book so that consumers are protected from them, but I caution him: that sort of language talks down the majority of traders and the bulk of the goods in this country. He needs to strike a balance. I shall leave him with a quote from John Ruskin, who died in 1900—the turn of the century. He said:It is not cheaper things we want to possess but expensive things that cost less.Most consumers would agree with that; it is nothing new. If the White Paper can achieve that, it will have the support of Conservative Members.
§ Mr. Byers
I am grateful for the support that has been offered by the Opposition to many points in the White Paper. I hope that it is one of those sectors where, in a spirit of partnership, the House can go with the grain of what we seek to achieve. We will wish to pursue the issue in that way.
The hon. Lady raised a number of questions. On retail prices, clearly, a range of issues needs to be taken into account in addressing why products cost more in one country than in another. It is dangerous to look at the matter in a superficial, headline way. We need to get below the figures and to find out exactly what makes them up; I am very keen that we should do so. We should expose all the arguments, even if some may be more difficult to address than others.
With regard to legislation and burdens on business, I hope that, when the hon. Lady has had the chance to look at our document on weights and measures, she will get a clear feel for the direction in which we want to go, which is very much about reviewing the current position.
Most businesses are concerned about the mass of detailed regulations that come from the weights and measures legislation. We are considering ways in which to withdraw some of them to make life much easier 1346 for business. That will not compromise the position of consumers, who will still have protection, but it will make life much easier for businesses.
On e-commerce and buying through the internet, in international transactions, there is a real issue about where the contract is actually made and about which legislation would apply if there were a dispute after a contract was not complied with. In the White Paper, we say that we will seek agreement with the company or organisation that is selling through the internet. If it agrees to meet certain standards in complying with our consumer law on guarantees of quality of product, delivery and so on, we will give it our e-hallmark. If businesses do not agree to that, they will not receive the hallmark. That will be a simple way in which consumers can see whether the person with whom they are dealing, whether based in the UK, continental Europe, America or elsewhere, is meeting those standards. It is also an effective way in which businesses can comply with the standards. The pay-off for them is that, on their website, they will be able to demonstrate the e-hallmark to show the consumer that they have guaranteed those standards.
We hope to publish the e-commerce Bill in draft tomorrow. The hon. Lady needs to wait until then to see the detail, although she may have a good idea of what might be included in it.
We need to be able to move quickly on new scams. It is a dramatically fast-moving area: new scams are developing almost daily. We may find that, if we try to put something in stone today, we shall be out of touch by tomorrow, so we need some flexibility, although I take the point that criminal sanctions are a significant step. I said in the statement that we were considering criminal sanctions in certain sectors. We will consult fully before we embark on that road.
The hon. Lady makes an important point on enforcement. If we are to ensure that, day to day, enforcement is effective, we will need to provide trading standard officers with the means to deliver on the ground. Because of the priority that we attach to the White Paper and to consumers, whom we now want to bring centre stage, I will devote from my Department—redirecting resources that are earmarked within the budget to go elsewhere—an extra £30 million to deliver on the White Paper proposals.
§ Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)
I was sitting here when I listened to the excellent statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I should like to say without any further interruption how much I appreciate the White Paper, particularly the reference to giving the millions of beer drinkers in this country the protection and consumer support that they deserve. In the previous Session, I tried to introduce the Weights and Measures (Beer and Cider) Bill which sought to do just that. I look at the expressions of Conservative Members. The Conservative party had the opportunity to support earlier legislation in the interests of beer drinkers, but it refused to do so. In 1992, it took similar legislation out of the programme and refused to give that 1347 protection—what a contrast with the Labour Government and the Secretary of State, to whom I am extremely grateful. The beer drinkers of Britain will also be extremely grateful. I hope that, as a consequence of the White Paper, before too long we shall see this long-overdue legislation and that every beer drinker in Britain will get the fair measures that they deserve.
§ Mr. Byers
I look forward to raising a full measure with my hon. Friend later today to celebrate the full measure contained within the White Paper. I am sure that the White Paper will be welcomed by beer drinkers throughout the country and by millions of other people. I compliment my hon. Friend on raising this matter over a number of years to try to get a fair deal for the British beer drinker. I am delighted that we have been able to find space in the White Paper to take up his best proposals. This is a good example of a Government working for everyone, including beer drinkers, unlike the Conservative Government who worked just for the few.
§ Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for providing me with his statement an hour before he delivered it. Incidentally, it puts excellent flesh on the bones of the summary provided by BBC Online from about 9 o'clock this morning.
I welcome the first proposal and should like to raise a few points on the key principles for consumers: access, choice, information and redress. On codes of practice, it is important that trade associations achieve a change of emphasis from self-interest to consumer interests. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he intends self-regulation to be a universal concept, applied wherever possible, across all sectors of commerce and trading? Codes of practice are one thing, but compliance with them is another. Will he confirm that non-compliance with the code of practice would be an automatic cause for redress by consumers, with prosecution to follow where appropriate? Will he confirm that the breaking of the code of conduct will trigger the process?
Like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I welcome the strengthening of trading standards officers' powers. The Secretary of State mentioned the £30 million in his coffers. He knows that trading standards officers are incredibly overstretched. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Cabinet to ensure that more resources are available to strengthen trading standards departments in local authorities, which are at the sharp end?
I welcome the promotion of the advice network for consumers set out in the statement. How will that link in with the CBA network—[HON. MEMBERS: "CAB".] Yes, I beg hon. Members' pardon. Citizens advice bureaux are often the first port of call when consumers seek redress if they have a problem with goods or products. [Interruption.] Although I enjoy the humour of Conservative Back-Bench Members, this is an important issue. What consultation is the Secretary of State carrying out, and what proposals does he have to enable CABs to provide better legal advice, leading to redress in the courts, for people who find themselves in that position?
Consumers have a right to full information about the goods that they purchase and the choice available. What plans does the Secretary of State have to enforce full 1348 and clear labelling on food products? I am thinking particularly about products that may contain genetically modified organisms.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton asked about metric weights and measures. Do the Government intend to pursue the opportunities that they still have to preserve imperial weights and measures at the point of sale for goods that are sold in bulk?
We all welcome the strengthening of consumer protection, but will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what assessment he has made of the additional costs that will inevitably be borne by the taxpayer, and by business?
§ Mr. Byers
The hon. Gentleman welcomed the broad thrust of my proposals, and I welcome the broad thrust of the support that he has expressed.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the role of trade associations. I think it important to make clear what we mean by the seal of approval from the Office of Fair Trading. The code will be purely voluntary. Members of the public will recognise the seal of approval; they will be able to see it clearly in Yellow Pages. It will meet a standard—
§ Mr. Byers
A kitemark, perhaps; call it what you will.
That is the nature of the seal of approval that we want to introduce for businesses that sign up to the code of practice. However, there will still be businesses that do not sign up, and customers will need to be aware that they are dealing with organisations that have not received the seal of approval. The full range of the law will apply to businesses—as it does to all businesses—that fail to deliver on the contracts into which they have entered, and do not provide proper compensation.
The hon. Gentleman asked about trading standards officers. Yesterday, we had a useful meeting with the group representing trading standards officers' organisations, which has been closely involved in the development of the policies in the White Paper.
There remains the question of how we can target the extra funding to ensure that it is used specifically for consumer-related matters. We shall be considering whether we can find a mechanism enabling us to do that, through local authorities, and we shall be engaging in discussions to that effect.
The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of the role of citizens advice bureaux. No doubt many hon. Members' constituencies contain CABs that play a vital role in the provision of this and other information. We have just allocated an extra £1.3 million to the CABs nationally, so that they can use their computer network to provide advice on consumer matters as well as other issues. The CABs have also been closely involved in the details of the White Paper, along with the Consumers Association. They broadly welcome our approach, and especially welcome the possible opportunity for CABs to get together with other information-providing organisations and to be located in the high street, so that they can give consumers information more readily.
The hon. Gentleman asked about labelling. We insist that any food with GM ingredients in tins and other containers must be clearly labelled: that is the approach that we have taken, and will continue to take.
1349 As for the issue of imperial measures, there is no question of our preventing people from going into a high-street shop in Wallsend and asking for a pound of Cox's apples. We are also ensuring that shops do not suffer an undue burden because of the dual pricing that will be necessary. Consumers will not be affected: they will still be able to ask for a pound of apples, a pint of milk or a pint of beer.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I appeal for short, sharp questions—and, of course, short, sharp replies?
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I wholeheartedly welcome the policy of sanctions against rogue traders. I think that this will be the key legislation in the current Parliament, because the public want change. They want an end to rip-off Britain. But what are we going to do about premium phonelines? People telephone a number, and are ripped off. What are we going to do to stop that?
§ Mr. Byers
I agree that strong action against rogue traders will make a huge difference to many of those whom we represent. Let me give clear notice that we intend to introduce strong, tough measures, reflecting the wishes of the British people. That will, of course, require legislation. There is nothing worse for a person who works hard all week and then goes out at the weekend to spend some of his own money than to find that he has been ripped off by one of these rogue traders—one of these scam merchants. We will act to stop that.
Premium phonelines are a matter primarily for Oftel, and we are discussing with Oftel how we can improve the present position. As most hon. Members recognise, it needs to be dealt with.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)
Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the e-commerce hallmark will include any guarantee of the security of the electronic infrastructure, and what discussions he has had with the industries involved on secure electronic infrastructure? Will he also say whether the better regulation task force has been involved in the White Paper's preparation or will be expected to comment on it? How many deregulation measures does he expect to bring before the Deregulation Committee as a consequence of the White Paper?
§ Mr. Byers
I think that the hon. Lady will find that the weights and measures consultation document proposes a number of deregulation measures and that it will be very much welcomed by business. The better regulation task force has been fully consulted on the White Paper's details and it is supportive of our proposals.
The e-commerce hallmark is intended to ensure that people know that if they deal over the internet they retain their normal consumer rights. The e-commerce hallmark will address that issue.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
I welcome the White Paper. I also very much welcome my right hon. Friend's emphasis in the White Paper on the need to make markets work properly. If we have a choice between 1350 competitive markets and overweening regulation, we should realise that consumers are served best by better-working markets.
In recent months, I have been very much involved in the financial services and markets pre-legislative inquiry, which has highlighted the fact that big financial decisions—such as buying a pension or obtaining a mortgage—can not only change consumers' lives but dog them throughout their lives. I hope that the emphasis will be on providing good information to consumers so that they are able to make a reasonable choice. Communication and information are essential for people who, without them, are lumbered with poor deals, poor pensions and poor mortgages.
§ Mr. Byers
Once hon. Members have had the opportunity to examine in detail the philosophy underpinning the White Paper, I think that they will realise that it very much recognises that consumers benefit when markets work well, and that not only businesses benefit from effective markets. We have no doubt that competition must be the driver in ensuring that consumers get a good deal or that competition creates lasting consumer benefit.
On the specific point about financial services, the White Paper is very clear in stating that those who are considering giving a mortgage, for example, will have to state very clearly the rates of interest that will be charged and present that information in a manner that is easily understood by those who are probably about to embark on the biggest financial transaction that any of us undertake. Those people have to have clear and precise information, and the White Paper proposes measures that will ensure that they are properly informed.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
In his statement, the Secretary of State raised several e-commerce issues. Will he say more precisely how the independent body that he mentioned will be constituted to address those issues? Will he also be more specific about the "knowledge economy" that he mentioned?
§ Mr. Byers
The knowledge economy is a recognition that whereas, in years gone by, the prime responsibility of business and of Government was to encourage investment in capital such as plant, machinery and equipment, if we are to win in the 21st century, investment will have to be in human capital such as skills, learning, knowledge and education. We have to respond to that priority. However, we are not saying that traditional spheres are not part of the knowledge economy. The hon. Gentleman made a good point in saying that if we are to be really successful we shall have to marry the two together. One of my priorities is to ensure that traditional spheres such as manufacturing both embrace and receive the benefits of the knowledge-driven economy of the future.
The independent body on the e-hallmark will have responsibility for judging whether a business qualifies to receive the hallmark. We think that it is far better if businesses themselves are involved in the process, which we shall have to monitor. The Office of Fair Trading, too, will have a role to play. Nevertheless, that is the role that the independent body will play in ensuring that when we award the e-hallmark for internet trading—whether in the 1351 United Kingdom or internationally—people will know that consumer law applying in the United Kingdom will apply also to that transaction.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
A great deal was said in May by candidates of all parties for the Scottish Parliament on stronger action against fraudsters, the powers of trading standards officers in local authorities, criminal sanctions and scams. How does this measure fit in with legislation that the Scottish Parliament claims as its own?
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that one of the products to be the subject of international price comparison will be the pump price of petrol and diesel? Will he give a further assurance that that will include also comparative rates of tax across the international market?
Will e-hallmarking be carried out by the e-envoy? What happened to the two candidates for e-envoy who were submitted by the right hon. Gentleman's Department to the Prime Minister's office in March? Have they both said they are not willing to take on the job? Does the Secretary of State think that giving a decision to job applicants within a reasonable space of time ought to be part of the new consumer standard?
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Many people in my constituency are fed up to the back teeth with being ripped off by one-day salespeople—for example, table-top salespeople at Cheltenham—and will be encouraged that the Government are at last tackling the problem. Will there be an obligation on one-day salespeople to give prior notification to trading standards officers that they will be in an area? It is all very well talking about criminal sanctions but, by their very nature, those people are literally here today and gone tomorrow. The question of prior notification is central.
§ Mr. Byers
The people to whom my hon. Friend has referred are well known to trading standards officers, but their frustration at the moment is that they have no effective powers to deal with them. Our measures, which will require primary legislation, will be able to tackle at source the type of activity to which my hon. Friend refers.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
In his welcome statement, the Secretary of State did not mention counterfeiting or whether he intends to take action on it. When he attacked hotel sales and table-top sales, should he not have put greater emphasis on saying to people, "Buyer beware"? People who buy from reputable retailers have protection, but some take a chance and buy cheaper goods from areas without the protection that we would 1352 expect from larger retailers. The right hon. Gentleman will be causing great trouble if he gives the impression today that the Government are able to underwrite every one of the millions of transactions that take place in this country. The one thing that disturbs me about his statement is that he is giving a false impression that somehow the Government will stop all these transactions.
§ Mr. Byers
If I have given that impression, I now have the opportunity, thanks to the hon. Gentleman, to say clearly that we recognise that the principle of caveat emptor—buyer beware—is important. There is a responsibility on consumers to make sure that they get goods that meet the given description. We believe that we will be able to achieve that only if consumers are informed, knowledgeable and confident, and those principles underpin the White Paper. We are taking action on intellectual property rights and counterfeit, and we are discussing how we can make the provisions in relation to intellectual property more effective.
§ Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)
Can my right hon. Friend offer an assurance to organisations such as Yellow Pages, which employs 900 people in my constituency, that they can boost and maintain public confidence in themselves and that people who find a service or product through them will be safe from rogue traders?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the important role that services such as Yellow Pages play; they are a great source of convenience. I am pleased to say that there will be a dedicated part of Yellow Pages for those organisations that have received the Office of Fair Trading seal of approval, which will make life easier for the many consumers who have to find a builder, joiner or engineer in a hurry to do work as a matter of urgency.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
We are very grateful for what the Minister said about the proper labelling of foods containing GM products, but is he aware of the widespread abuse of the country of origin labelling of meat products? Meat pies labelled as made in Britain may well contain meat from cows that were grazed and slaughtered in Bolivia and were merely minced in the United Kingdom. Will the White Paper take account of that and put a stop to the abuse? If it does, both consumers and farmers in my constituency will certainly welcome it.
§ Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)
I want to highlight the weakness of the consumer in respect of ancillary services. The White Paper deals with hotel telephone charges. I want to raise the related matter of the problems of mobile home owners. Once they have purchased their home and pay ground rent, they are ripped off for ancillary services. Will my right hon. Friend take that weakness on board when the legislation is introduced?
§ Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)
Will the Secretary of State take on board the fact that if, despite his best intentions, he undermines the principle of buyer beware, the message from today will be beware Byers? Will the Bill become law in time for the next general election and apply to the next Labour manifesto, because many voters regret the fact that it did not apply to the fine print of the current manifesto?
§ Mr. Byers
Indeed, a sweepstake; thank you so much. I always wondered what role the hon. Gentleman was meant to play on the Front Bench there. He is very helpful and I shall pass a note of thanks to the Leader of the Opposition for so sagely appointing him. I have quite forgotten what the question was now.
I am sure that our manifesto for the next general election will prove as popular and as accurate as the previous one.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)
Two weeks ago, Volvo was found guilty of pricing malpractice, and yesterday there was a newspaper headline—"£6 billion rip-off"—referring to the Competition Commission's public hearings about car sales in Britain. Can any action be taken against Volvo under existing law, and will the White Paper help to tackle the enormous scandal of thousands of pounds more being charged for a car in Britain than in European markets?
§ Mr. Byers
I agree that it is a scandal. It is a matter for regret that the law is ineffective. A whole range of powers will be introduced next year as a result of the Competition Act 1998. Next week we will announce the sanctions that we intend to use under that legislation. They will be significant and will make companies examine carefully their conduct in this important area. I am afraid that the whole Volvo saga shows that the law was deficient and that we need to have new remedies in place. We are providing them in the competition legislation that will come into force next year. The measures in this White Paper will help too.
§ Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on today's statement and the White Paper. In particular I welcome the proposed e-commerce code and e-hallmark. Young people in my constituency increasingly buy CDs over the internet from the United States because they are typically 30 per cent. cheaper. I am sure that many more will do so when they have guaranteed consumer rights. I am sure also that American companies will not be slow to apply for our e-hallmark. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage British companies so that in future my constituents can buy goods over the internet from Birmingham rather than Boston?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am pleased that the e-hallmark will be an effective way 1354 to give reassurance to people who will increasingly trade and buy goods over the internet. It is already happening with books and, in particular, CDs. I have no doubt that when we can get in place a framework with which consumers feel at ease and so want to deal over the internet, companies and businesses in Birmingham as well as Boston will want to be part of the new information age and the way in which transactions will take place in the 21st century.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we already have similar types of controls on people such as solicitors and doctors, and he will know how dissatisfied people often are with these controls which are expensive to put in place. Is it not the case that often well-meaning Ministers add additional costs to the honest trader while the dishonest trader gets away scotfree? Clearly, we are trying to help the honest trader to improve trade rather than to penalise him. How will the Secretary of State's magic bullet get over this real problem?
§ Mr. Byers
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In drawing up the White Paper we have consulted representatives of the building trade—joiners and so on—to ensure that our proposals go with the grain of what they want. The hon. Gentleman will find that today's proposals have been welcomed. Nevertheless, over the months and years ahead we will continue to work in partnership with legitimate business because in tackling the cowboy builder we do not want to affect the legitimate trader. That is why we will work in partnership with business to make sure that we get it right.
§ Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)
I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing a line in the sand between Arthur Daley Tory rip-off Britain and new Labour consumer empowerment. Does he agree that the combination of internet sales with the single currency and e-hallmarking will give enormous power to the consumer in terms of relative price comparisons—the single currency makes that easy to see—and quality assurance which we should herald as a great success for Britain?
On a separate issue, can my right hon. Friend give any assurances that he will look into the bundling of products such as mortgages and insurance, which often confuses consumers and leads to excess commissions—indeed, unbundling?
§ Mr. Byers
On the bundling of financial services, my hon. Friend will be aware that today Mr. Don Cruickshank, who has been heading up the banking review on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is publishing his interim report which will address some of those issues specifically. We welcome the proposals that he is putting in place which will benefit consumers. The British consumer is already beginning to compare prices. That has been one of the drivers behind today's proposals. That is why we are looking at more than 100 products, comparing prices in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany. That will be of real benefit to British consumers.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does the White Paper deal with the growing problem of unsolicited faxes, which affects thousands of businesses and consumers the 1355 length and breadth of the country? Moreover, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this important issue was originally aired earlier this Session in a ten-minute Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), with warm support from both sides of the House? Given that Members of Parliament, among others, regularly receive a stream of faxes, regrettably sometimes from people who appear to be a sandwich short of a picnic, early action to deal with the problem would be greatly appreciated.
§ Mr. Byers
There is a regional difference here: it is a pork pie short of a picnic in the north-east of England.
I compliment the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) on his ten-minute Bill, which drew the matter to the attention of all Members of the House. We have been discussing with the director general of Oftel how we can carry this forward. He is putting in place proposals to allow people to secure their fax machines so that they do not receive unsolicited faxes. That is touched on in the White Paper.
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
I warmly welcome the fact that we are to tackle the problem of cowboy builders and tradesmen, who are the real despair of many pensioners, especially in my constituency.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the real rip-off in our pubs and clubs nowadays is the price of soft drinks? If we compare the prices in the supermarkets with what we are charged in pubs and clubs, it is clear that the typical family in Norfolk is being asked to pay sometimes as much per pint for the child's lemonade as for the father's beer. As we want young people and drivers to drink soft drinks, should not something be done to deal with the rip-off that families currently experience?
§ Mr. Byers
Those Members of the House who, like my hon. Friend and me, buy just soft drinks will know that the costs are excessive. Many consumers do not realise the cost because they often mix soft drinks with alcoholic ones. It is a real problem. We need to guarantee that prices are posted so that people can see what they are paying. The most effective way to drive down prices is to make consumers aware of what they are paying. That is what we intend to do, and we are discussing with the industry how that can best be secured.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about cowboy builders. They often prey on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. We all know of people, especially pensioners, who have had work done by a builder and have been intimidated when they find that the work has not been done properly. Once we have established the system, they will be able to go to a builder who has the code of approval. They will have the security and assurance of knowing that the person is technically competent and has a financial guarantee to underpin the work.