Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear introduction of the SI. All noble Lords have taken his point that the intention is not to change the existing arrangements as they affect UK residents in relation to ADR, but to provide an additional safeguard for the extension of time because of the transition period. However, I am no different from the other speakers in that it raises a wider question about how ADR is conceived and operates in the UK, and what the future might bring.
My first point is directly related to that, because the Minister made a strong plea for ADR as a strong alternative to court proceedings and, therefore, a valuable asset for consumers and consumer rights. That depends on whether the ADR systems in place are active, efficient and serve customers well. Noble Lords will recall that, when the original directive was going through, this side of the House spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to persuade the Government—unsuccessfully, in the end—that, when the directive is transposed, we ought to take a hard line against industries that are either slow to take up an ADR system or produce one with weak and ineffective operations. It may be wrong to require ombudsman services to be set up, but they seem to be a gold standard in many areas. Where they work well—financial services is a good example—they provide a mechanism that has the confidence of consumers and is effective in getting results for them, so they do not have to go into the aggressive atmosphere of courts.
When he responds, could the Minister give us a tour d’horizon of consumer areas, at the moment? The noble Lord, Lord Mann, mentioned some topical areas where he felt there were some doubts, and many noble Lords will be aware of the situation affecting the vouchers that have been offered by airlines and other transport operators when tickets have been cancelled. My personal experience is that this is patchy at best: some are very good and able to respond within a few days; some have been a nightmare. I am still not certain whether I have a voucher waiting to be delivered to me, even though the company—I shall not name it—keeps putting on its website that significant progress has been made in getting through the backlog and that it is all going well. It is funny that no voucher ever seems to arrive.
My second point is a narrow one about what is happening with legislation. As I understand it, this SI amends primary as well as secondary legislation, in pursuit of what is a not objectionable objective. I noticed, in the instance I was pursuing, two primary legislative issues—one in Scotland and another in Northern Ireland. However, when I looked at the consultation process, I could not see anything reflective of the sort of discussion and debate that one might have expected from legislation that affects devolved Administrations, in particular Scotland and Northern Ireland. The reference in paragraph 10 of the Explanatory Memorandum simply says that the department wrote to the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland to seek agreement with the Northern Ireland Executive to make the instrument, and the department confirmed its agreement on 10 February.
Why is nothing mentioned about Section 14 of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, or am I missing something? There would have been a case for the Minister to be in correspondence with his counterparts in Scotland on this issue, even if it was only a courtesy. Presumably it is legislation that took place before devolution, but I think it is important to keep the niceties going on these issues.
My third point picks up that made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, about how this works in practice. Consumers are relying on ADR but, in many cases, can do this only if the issue at hand has been subject to work, particularly by trading standards. We all know trading standards is under considerable pressure and has had additional responsibilities placed on it recently, but little additional resources flow its way. Could the Minister reassure us that trading standards is resourced effectively to do this work and will be able to pick up any additional work that results from this directive? I suspect that it will not be significant.
The point of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, about consumers’ ability to get redress in the EU is important. I appreciate it is not relevant to the strict wording of this SI, but it will be an issue that people pick up. I cannot be the only person who gets nervous—this point was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles —when I buy something from a well-known deliverer of books, the name of which starts with “A”. I often find that the purchase I have made for my Kindle is delivered from Luxembourg.
I had not thought about the connection but the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, made it very clear that that will be a problem if I want to exercise my rights in future about anything that might go wrong. Fortuitously, as far as I am aware, nothing has gone wrong so far, but in an imperfect world we cannot always be certain that that will be the case. Could the Minister give us some words about how he thinks this will develop? Clearly, if the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, is right, we are seeing a considerable diminution in the ability of UK consumers to exercise their rights when they choose to buy from our closest trading partner—the EU. Is that where this is going? Is there anything the Minister can say that would help us?