George Freeman supports Consumer Rights Bill

George Freeman supports the Consumer Rights Bill and in particular welcomes the changes to ensure consumer rights law keeps pace with changes in technology.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Unlike the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I believe this is an important subject, although I agree with his point. It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), or should I call her the hon. Member for Alderaan, or my hon. Friend the Princess Leia, champion of consumer rights?

Mr MacNeil: Explain!

George Freeman: Perhaps the hon. Lady could explain that to the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to her commitment to the subject. We heard all too little of such commitment during the 13 years of the Labour Government. Her commitment is all the more welcome for that.

I strongly welcome the Bill. It is deregulatory, pro-consumer and pro-business. After saying something about some of the measures in it, I will turn to one or two points it is appropriate to think about on Second Reading, such as the changing pace of technology and how it is changing the landscape, and the way in which the debt crisis and the model of broken public finances we inherited from the previous Government demand that we embrace a more radical model of consumer empowerment and citizenship to drive the recovery all hon. Members want.

The truth is that consumer law is currently not clear enough. It is often out of date, and it is confusing and incomplete. The Bill sets out a simple modern framework of consumer rights. Twelve pieces of legislation currently govern them, and I welcome the fact that there will now be only one.

Yvonne Fovargue: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

George Freeman: I will not take interventions because of the instruction from Madam Deputy Speaker to keep moving.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I was addressing my remarks only to the hon. Lady at the Dispatch Box speaking on behalf of the Opposition. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member wants to take interventions, it is entirely up to them. I have not put a prohibition on interventions.

George Freeman: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that very helpful clarification. If I can finish my point, I will happily take an intervention.

I welcome the fact that there will be one simple Act to govern what has hitherto been covered by 12. I also welcome that, underpinning the Bill, are core consumer principles. People will have the right to get what they pay for; for goods and digital content to be fit for purpose; and for services to be provided with reasonable care and skill. We will also have the right to have faults in purchases put right free of charge, or to be provided with a refund or replacement. The reforms will enhance measures to protect consumers when appropriate.

I welcome the deregulation to reduce business burdens and costs. I also welcome the modernisation of the legal framework to ensure that consumer law keeps pace with technology. It clarifies the law when it is written in legal jargon and streamlines consumer rights, remedies and enforcement powers.

Yvonne Fovargue: The hon. Gentleman mentions the modernisation of consumer rights. Does he agree that it is time to change the bill of sale legislation, which was introduced in the 1800s, but which is now used to create log book loans—people give their log books for loans and can have their cars repossessed if they miss so much as one small payment? The legislation obviously does not intend to allow that, and it is time to modernise it.

George Freeman: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, some of which is dealt with in the Bill. It will be interesting to see whether it is picked up in Committee.

Consumers spend more than 59 million hours a year dealing with goods and services problems, which costs an estimated £3 billion a year to the British economy. The Bill is deregulatory by nature, which means that consumers and businesses will find it easier to resolve problems with faulty goods and substandard services, and, for the first time, corrupted digital downloads. I noted with great interest that the executive director of Which?, Richard Lloyd, has said that the Bill

“brings consumer law into the 21st century, extending rights into digital content for the first time, and making it easier for people to understand their rights and challenge bad practice.”

The House will agree that that is a welcome step.

I welcome the fact that underpinning the Bill is the principle of fairness and helping customers when things go wrong, as they sometimes do. The measures will provide a firm foundation for empowering consumers, which will benefit businesses that treat consumers fairly.

Many businesses provide their customers with enhanced rights, but the truth is that even the best businesses still spend significant time and resources—more than they should have to spend—understanding the law and training their staff to apply it. The Bill will benefit businesses by reducing many of the burdens they face because of complicated consumer law. I particularly welcome the competition affairs tribunal.

My support for the Bill is genuine, but I wanted to mention one or two aspects of it that reveal, within our society, a view of consumer rights that is, at times, rather too narrow and that does not embrace broadly enough a concept of true consumer and citizen empowerment on the scale we need to drive a sustainable recovery and to reform how we deliver public services and put this country back on its feet. There are three specific areas in which the challenge of unleashing citizen and consumer power are urgent.

First, some markets—banking, utilities and telecoms—are holding back our recovery. Secondly, I am struck that the consumer rights conversation is framed around consumables, point-of-purchase rights and commercial rights in the commercial market. Many of those concepts could and should apply equally in the public sector and public services. Thirdly, it is also important to have active and empowered consumers in supply chains to drive them. That subject may not entertain all hon. Members, but I know that the Secretary of State feels particularly strongly about it.

In the bigger markets—banking, utilities and telecoms —we inherited from the previous Government an extraordinary concentration of power. One or two institutions had a very unhealthy predominance in each of those key markets, which are vital to the proper functioning of a free market economy. What we need as we try to recover from that toxic legacy of debt and dysfunctional markets is an insurgency of empowered consumer citizens to drive a new paradigm of choice, and to demand and insist that that which is available in so many fields of public life is available in banking, utilities and telecoms.

In banking, why is it still so difficult for bank customers to take their accounts to different banks? I would like to see consumer power, and consumer frustration with some banks, driving much more insurgency and the creation of new banks. First Direct appeared nearly 20 years ago, which was a stunning moment for our generation, who had never seen an online bank. We tapped the mouse and wondered whether it could be trusted and whether it would work. It turns out that First Direct was a stunning new entrant that catalysed all sorts of reforms in banking market. Why not have more now? Our banking sector is dominated by too few big banks, which were propped up by a very unhealthy burst of crony of capitalism under the previous Government and shored up in the crisis that that incubated. We need to release customers to drive that insurgency in banking.

I would argue that the same is true with some of the utilities. Following privatisation in the ’80s, we saw those markets consolidate under the previous Government. For 13 years, we did not see or hear very much about that. We have inherited, particularly in energy, a small number of big companies that now pass on substantial global commodity price rises to customers, who have all too little real choice and power to drive across the market. To a lesser extent, the same is true for telecoms and broadband. We still see a very powerful monopoly provider in BT. Of course, other providers are able to operate on the railway tracks, but I do not think that in the telecoms market, given the extraordinary empowering impact of the underlying core technology, we have seen a parallel opening up of consumer power. Going the final mile to get broadband into deep rural areas to drive a rural renaissance, in my constituency and in East Anglia more generally, will require us to support consumers through some sort of voucher mechanism—I welcome the steps the Government are taking on this—to be more empowered to choose satellite, digital or any one of the insurgent broadband providers appearing on the market.

On public services, as important as the measures in the Bill are and as important as this subject is, they are still framed, as is the wider public debate on consumer rights, within the notion of point-of-purchase and consumerist trade descriptions legislation. It is principally concerned with the rights of the consumer at the point at which they buy a consumable. However, the concepts, ideas and rights enshrined in this useful Bill could and should go further. In fact, a number of the reforms that the Government are rightly unlocking in other areas of government will demand that they do. For example, why can patients in the health service, parents in the education system, or even pupils—possibly not young pupils, but sixth-form pupils—not have greater choice, transparency and consumer rights in the public services they receive? I would argue that a sixth former in a failing school who is receiving a bad education has just as many rights as the consumer of faulty electronic goods at a supermarket checkout. We need to extend this principle more broadly across public services.

Mrs Main: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. On education, many students are not aware of how little time they will have in lectures or interactive courses when they apply for degrees. Expanding transparency to what exactly students are purchasing when they take a course might be helpful.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an extremely interesting and shrewd observation. The truth at the heart of public services is that the taxpayers provide the money and the Government, as best they can, the service. In that loop, something is lost: a direct connection between the recipient of the public service and the point of payment. Most of the recipients of public services have, of course, already paid for them through their taxes, but the sacred moment of the empowerment of the consumer gets lost in a complex chain of public service delivery. She makes the point that we need to look across our public services at how we can restore that moment. I would like more parents and pupils in schools to feel that the choice they make—choosing which school to send their child to—is a choice that the system respects. I wholly welcome the reforms that the Secretary of State for Education is putting in place to that end.

I want to mention health care, in particular, as we are seeing an extraordinary change in modern health care. I do not think it is too profound or bold to claim that health care is going from something that traditionally, in the 20th century, was done to us by Governments when they decided we needed it, to being something that modern consumer health care citizens do for ourselves. We are seeing across the NHS much greater patient demand for information, transparency and choice. We are seeing click health care and modern patients wanting to be able to access information and be empowered. That is all to the good if we want a new generation of citizens empowered to understand what causes disease—how lifestyle, diet and even genomics affect one’s predisposition to disease. We want to empower consumer citizens to prevent disease. We will not do that without empowering them to make choices and receive information. That is why I have a ten-minute rule Bill on the very subject of releasing patient data to patients within the framework of acknowledging that it is their data—our data. By giving patients back their data, we empower them to use them better for public health care.

Chris Kelly: My hon. Friend talks about empowering health consumers to gain greater transparency. Does he welcome the improvements in the past several years to the website, which now provides a great deal of very useful information on all manner of health issues to our constituents?

George Freeman: Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I think this is a subject that we will debate more in the House. I am struck that some in the media are beginning to suggest that it is dangerous to release health care data because it challenges how health care is delivered and will create all sorts of unfortunate misunderstandings. It seems to me that those are prices worth paying to drive the revolution of transparency and accountability that the Government’s reforms are beginning to deliver with such benefit. We have seen in health care in the past two or three years a very difficult, at times, but powerful transparency revolution in which failings in the system have been exposed and those responsible for them held to account on behalf of the patients who ultimately paid for the service and have the right to expect that that service is delivered. That genie is out of the bottle and it is not in anyone’s interest to try to put it back. In fact, quite the opposite: at the heart of modern democracy and a modern economy, the notion of empowered citizens who are able to exercise choice in their supply chain—in public services, every bit as much as in private commerce—is an important idea that, although I appreciate the limits of the Bill, we ought to embrace in the rest of this Parliament and the next.

On supply chains, globalisation and technological change mean that in all sorts of sectors many of the goods, services, products, medicines and foods we buy have global supply chains. That globalisation and the extending of the distance of supply chains removes the consumer in many cases from the point of origin of the goods they are buying. In some areas, consumers do not appear to care very much, but in some, such as food, consumers are passionately interested in the source. We saw that most recently illustrated with the horsemeat scandal. Something interesting is going on: globalisation and technology are extending supply chains, but technology is also requiring, allowing and encouraging people to take more interest in the source of the products they buy. That creates a huge challenge. Many of the goods we buy digitally come from global websites that could be pulled down at the flick of a switch, destroying transparency. I welcome the measures to introduce transparency and accountability to the digital marketplace.

I note that the Secretary of State has, I am sure briefly, left his place, but I know that he has a strong interest in the role of supply chains in industrial policy. The turnaround in the British automotive sector has come about principally through important strategic work on how the UK’s strength in components, down at the bottom of the supply chain, can be better integrated through a policy for skills with the manufacturers at the top.

Chris Kelly: Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the many examples in the west midlands of reshoring, including in the automotive sector, where businesses are coming back to the UK for processes that they took away from the UK over the past 10 or 20 years?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. In fact, no industry is more symptomatic of the post-war British economy, culminating in the crisis of productivity in ’79 and the collapse of that model of growth under, it gives me no pleasure to say, a Labour Government, than the British automotive sector and its restoration over recent years—longer than just the past two or three years, I would grant; over the past 10 years—so that Britain is now a net exporter of vehicles. That has been brought about through a combination of enlightened supply chain work, fostering and supporting the UK’s extraordinarily strong world-class components sector with the bigger manufacturers at the top.

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about supply chains, but does he not agree that those who operate supply chains have a duty and responsibility to monitor them at regular intervals to ensure that they live up to the quality and standard of the product at the end of the chain that they will be delivering?

George Freeman: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts precisely the point I was about to make about balance in supply chains. The manufacturer at the end of the supply chain has a duty to understand, monitor, measure and take responsibility for the supply chain, but we also need to provide for consumers to exercise their rights and understand the supply chain.

I want to talk about the two areas I have most experience of: the Government’s industrial strategies for life sciences and agricultural technologies. The central thrust of the agri-tech and food strategy, which we launched last summer, is that corporate interests in reducing costs and dependence on agrochemicals, energy and labour are now very much aligned with consumer interests and demand for increasingly green food with low-carbon, low-plastics and low-water footprints. The challenge in global agriculture is how to measure those inputs and communicate to consumers clearly and simply at the point of purchase that the thing they are buying comes with a low-carbon and low-water footprint. A proper system for measuring that will also make Britain a leader in the technologies required to hit those targets. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), who has done a lot of work on resilience in supply chains and the importance of this agenda. I suspect we will get the benefit of her comments in a moment.

That agenda applies equally in the field of medicine. The challenge of discovering drugs for modern patient groups has seen the industry reinvent itself and move away from spending 15 years and $1 billion on developing a blockbuster drug that it can present to Governments as working for everybody. The more we know about disease, genomics and different patient groups, the more we know that different people get the same disease in different ways, and the challenge is to help the industry develop drugs around the patients who we know will benefit. Then we can give the right drugs to the right people, instead of wasting drugs and having to set dosages at levels that make drugs ineffective in those for whom they work well in order to prevent side effects in those for whom they do not.

That agenda is driving a completely different way of discovering drugs—one where the NHS works with patients—and creating extraordinary opportunities for the UK to lead the world in providing targeted and ultimately personalised medicine, but it requires a different way of thinking about patient rights. We need to think of patients as having the right to be involved in NHS research; to access the best medicines available; and to access and use data, both personalised and anonymised, to support research. I understand that the Bill does not address that area of consumer rights, but the House will have to return to it in the coming years.

Mrs Main: On supply chains and consumer rights, my hon. Friend might be aware that the all-party group on Bangladesh visited that country last September to look into the Rana Plaza collapse. One thing that came out of our report was the suggestion that consumers should be able to identify whether garments have been produced ethically through a supply chain that does not use people who work in bonded workshops or sweatshops or who are badly treated and not paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work. That is the driving force. I know the Minister is considering a kitemark for garments so that people can be reassured.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. If we are to seize the benefits of globalisation and embrace our potential to play a role in those emerging markets, we could help set in place a framework in which citizens of the globe can buy products from the global supply chain confident that they are not supporting sweatshops or irresponsible capitalism. That is a deeply inspiring and progressive purpose for this country in the next cycle of growth around the world.

Consumer rights are not the sexiest subject in public debate—it is not something one hears discussed in those terms down at The Dog and Duck—but it sits at the heart of a lot of the issues the electorate, citizens and taxpayers in this country are grappling with. I do not want to be overly partisan, but under Labour we had 13 years of what increasingly—and perhaps surprisingly—became an example of crony capitalism, and the nation is now grappling with that inheritance: an overconcentration of wealth, privilege and power, and in key markets, such as banking and elsewhere, a small number of providers. As a consequence of that crisis—the black hole in the public finances, the structural deficit—we will have to unleash the powers of modern consumer citizens to drive enlightened public services and a more entrepreneurial and innovative recovery. Consumer rights—consumers of public services as well as private goods—sit at the heart of that. Consumers must be able to understand and demand the right standards from all those supplying them goods and services—whether at the till in the supermarket, on a global website or in the public services on which we all rely—and to hold them to account.

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