HL Deb 29 June 1999 vol 603 cc257-61

8.18 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

We now move into a less controversial measure; certainly a much briefer discussion will, I hope, ensue on this small piece of legislation. Perhaps I may begin by saying how much I welcome my noble friend Lady Buscombe, who will be making her first speech from the Opposition Front Bench tonight.

This Bill has been promoted in another place by Andrew Lansley, the Member for Cambridgeshire South.

In the other place the Bill had an extensive discussion. In fact, I am rather surprised that a small measure, long overdue, quite uncontroversial and highly commended by all parties and by the Government, should have merited so much attention. Since no amendments are required, none were proposed, and none are likely to be proposed, I hope that we can abbreviate proceedings in your Lordships' House.

Chambers of commerce have had a long and honourable history. They represent traders in a locality or in a defined geographical area. There are also many bilateral chambers of commerce. Here I must declare an interest, in that I am the honorary vice-president of the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain, which has counterparts in the British Chambers of Commerce in both Sao Paulo and Rio. I am also an honorary vice-president of the British-Argentine Chamber of Commerce, which has its counterpart body in Buenos Aires in the Argentine-British Chamber of Commerce. There are many similar bilateral chambers of commerce, and many British chambers of commerce overseas in the variety of countries in which we trade.

Above all, there are vast numbers of chambers of commerce in the British Isles, and it is with them that we are concerned tonight. The fact is that the words "chamber of commerce" are not protected in any way. They could be misused by some unscrupulous businessman who wanted to start up some project and thought that this would give it credibility. The object of the Bill is to provide precisely that missing protection, without in any way restricting the variety of bona fide organisations and proper representative bodies.

The various clauses provide for the Secretary of State to give approval for the use of the words "chamber of commerce" and to consult with the main umbrella organisations, such as the British Chamber of Commerce for England and Wales, and the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, in Scotland. Northern Ireland is outside the scope of the Bill.

The chambers of commerce movement, with which my noble friend Lord Boardman has been associated for many years, has been pressing for this measure for a very long time, as it will ensure that the high standards which the chambers of commerce have been very forceful in maintaining will be maintained at all times.

With that short explanation, I hope that we can move this very simple measure rapidly on to the statute book.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein. I must declare an interest in that I was president of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce from 1977 to about 1980, when the body still retained the word "Association".

I strongly support the Bill. It has been the wish of the chambers of commerce for many years to obtain the limited protection that it provides. The chambers of commerce have made a massive contribution to commercial life in this country. They provide a link between responsible commercial firms in a specific area, and they supply services, training and many assets to commercial life.

I recall that during a time of some industrial trouble, when the government badly wanted to know how commerce was operating in certain parts of the country, it was to the chambers of commerce that they looked for their returns. The CBI is marvellous, but it makes a national response; the chambers of commerce have local, strong branches throughout the country and have provided very important lines of communication to government.

The contribution of the chambers of commerce to this country's exports has been very large. The trade missions that they send abroad are very important. The quarterly surveys of the chambers of commerce are very much valued and are very meaningful as to the prosperity of commerce in various parts of the country.

So I strongly support the Bill. It is right that the work of the chambers of commerce should be protected from intruders that may otherwise seek to cash in on the name "chamber of commerce" to achieve a wrong respectability. I hope that the Bill will go through as my noble friend has said.

8.24 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Montgomery for bringing forward this Bill to the House. It has been fully debated in another place and carries considerable support among what I might describe in this context as bona fide British chambers of commerce.

I should also like to congratulate Mr Andrew Lansley, MP, on introducing the Bill. It is an excellent measure and will produce a much needed improvement in the law. It is an important Bill, given the clear need, particularly in recent years, to protect the quality and integrity of British and Scottish chambers of commerce. As my noble friend Lord Boardman said, the chambers of commerce have for many years wished for that protection.

There are currently 230 approved chambers of commerce providing a comprehensive range of services covering national and international trade, export support services, information services, representation of business and access to training sources. The overwhelming majority of companies and businesses in Britain—indeed, it is thought 95 per cent—now have reasonable access to a chamber of commerce and have good cause to expect a high standard of service.

The Bill has two primary purposes: first, to protect the standing and integrity of approved chambers of commerce from abuse by individuals and groups of individuals who have sought to use the title "chamber of commerce" and pass themselves off as genuinely representative of the business community when they are not; and, secondly, to ensure that bodies describing themselves as chambers of commerce, even though they may properly be chambers of commerce, do not do so on the basis of an inappropriate geographical description.

With regard to the parameters of the Bill, it is not intended to prevent groups organising themselves to represent the interests of the business community in new and different ways in the future, nor to cover situations in which it may become appropriate for a chamber of commerce to be deregistered or for there to be reversibility—that is, power to remove members' names from the chamber. In essence, it has a narrow, albeit important, purpose: to ensure that bodies which register as chambers of commerce embody the necessary characteristics recognised by the community at large, being that the chamber of commerce is owned by its members; that it operates not in the commercial interest of a member but in the wider interests of the area that it serves; that it relates specifically to the geographical area described in its title; and that it is genuinely representative of the businesses in that area.

I do not believe that it would be helpful for the Bill to be amended in any way. Therefore, I am pleased to support it as it stands.

8.28 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

I endorse the remarks made in support of the Bill. I should also like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for bringing the Bill before the House. All noble Lords who have spoken have supported the Bill admirably briefly. I shall endeavour to do the same.

This Government have formed excellent relationships with the British chambers of commerce and Scottish chambers of commerce, and we expect these national and local partnerships to continue and strengthen. The noble Lord, Lord Boardman, talked about the strong local branches and the importance of their relationship with government. We see them as valuable partners in progressing the competitiveness agenda at both national and local levels.

The work of chambers of commerce at the local level allows them to advise government of the complex and varied issues and concerns that businesses have on the ground. We value this contribution and the work that the British chambers of commerce and Scottish chambers of commerce undertake in partnership with government departments across Whitehall. For example, the BCC is a key partner in the BusinessLink network, a key deliverer of business support services and is fully involved in the drive to ensure that high quality, appropriate and effective business support is available to all businesses in England.

I am sure noble Lords are aware that the network is now complete, but the BCC continues to work with government and other national partners to ensure that the quality of these services continues to rise. We very much appreciate the enthusiasm and commitment. Both the BCC and the SCC have moreover been at the forefront of promoting public recognition of the title "chambers" as one which is synonymous with quality. That is why this Government fully support this Bill which will establish a statutory right for the BCC and SCC to be consulted when the Secretary of State is considering whether to approve new business or company names which include in their title "chamber of commerce" or specific related titles.

The Bill will ensure that the Secretary of State consults the BCC or SCC in determining whether expressions such as "chamber of commerce", "chamber of trade", "chamber of commerce training and enterprise" and similar expressions may be used as part of a registered company or business name. It does so by providing for these names to be specified by statutory instrument under existing companies and names legislation. This link will help to advertise more widely to the business community that it will need to seek approval before it can use a relevant name for its company or business. The Bill will have the additional effect of ensuring that the expression "chamber of commerce" and its Welsh equivalent could not be removed from these regulations without primary legislation.

The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the definition of "chamber of commerce" to which the Secretary of State of the day would have regard when he or she considers an application to use a relevant name. The Department of Trade and Industry will of course consult fully on this guidance with the BCC and SCC. In the interests of transparency the results of that consultation will be placed in the Library of both Houses.

Finally, noble Lords will note that the Bill will apply in Great Britain. It will be for the new Northern Ireland Executive to put proposals forward for consideration by the Northern Ireland Assembly on any legislative action in this field.

I end by reiterating the Government's warm support for the work of the BCC and SCC. The Government are pleased to support this Bill which provides a clear and workable statutory basis for consultation with those bodies on company and business names.

8.32 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my two noble friends for supporting the measure. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, for the clear way in which she has outlined the Government's support for this measure and the way it will work. This has been extremely helpful and I am sure that we are all grateful to her for that.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.