Clause 6 - Provision of information etc. to the public

Enterprise Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:45 pm ar 16 Ebrill 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment made: No. 11, in page 3, line 20, leave out 'in its opinion'.–[Mr. Waterson.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I am happy to say what I can on the clause. We have covered much of the ground already. Clause 6 will give the OFT the function of promoting to the public the benefits that competition has for

consumers and the economy and providing the public with information or advice on matters relating to its functions. It enables the OFT to publish educational literature or take part in educational activities and to provide support to others producing such literature or carrying out such activities. It enables the OFT to continue to provide a wide range of information and advice helpful to consumers and business. In publishing any literature, the OFT is obliged to have regard to the need to exclude information that is seriously prejudicial to a person or business.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Ceidwadwyr, Eastbourne

I have only a fairly narrow point to make on the clause. I want to elicit information from the Under-Secretary. The matter also relates to clause 5, but it seemed inappropriate to make the same point twice. It is raised in a briefing from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which says:

''we are disappointed by the absence of any duties prescribed to the OFT. Duties are so often the guiding lights for regulatory bodies.''

It also points out that there should be a general duty to protect consumers, a duty to educate consumers and a specific duty to investigate complaints made. I am not wholly clear what the difference is between a function and a duty. If the Under-Secretary wants to intervene now she may be able to put me out of my misery.

I can see the difference between a power and a duty: a duty presumably means that one is under an obligation to exercise a power, but I am not sure how a function differs. It may be a distinction without a difference, but it seems to exercise NACAB and if it is good enough for that organisation, it is certainly good enough for me. NACAB makes a related point, which I throw in now for what it is worth, when it says:

''We would also urge the Government to ensure that the new powers for the OFT are accompanied by sufficient resources to enable the new OFT to fulfil all of its functions satisfactorily.''

We will deal with that issue in more detail later. Could the Under-Secretary help me on functions?

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I am advised that function covers both powers and duty. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman and NACAB.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Clearly, the mirroring of the amendments in the different clauses with different implications has caused some confusion. We are talking about the provision of information to the public. Clause 6(1)(b) refers to

''giving information or advice in respect of matters relating to any of its functions to the public.''

Companies could try to use such provisions for fishing expeditions on their competitors. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify to what extent the Bill, in conjunction with other relevant pieces of legislation could be used by competitor companies. We are dealing with competition and aiding consumers and it would be unfortunate if the legislation could be used to gain an unfair advantage over a competitor. That is of great concern and is relevant in countries such as the United States that have greater freedom of information than we do. The clauses talk about publishing information. What about unpublished information? How long would the OFT keep the information after the investigation cleared the

company concerned, and when would it have to disclose it to the public? Would the OFT have to destroy the information that it holds at some point?

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I hope that I can help the hon. Gentleman. Specific merger market information and consumer investigations are restricted under part 9. The main function of the clause is the provision of information to the public, as it says. That is unlikely to give rise to the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. The OFT would not publish anything confidential to a company without first consulting it. As we discussed, clause 6(3) aims to give companies the protection that they need and Opposition Members share that aim.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.