/ Money, Parenting, Technology

The Bills we want MPs to choose

Parliament at sunset

Tomorrow we pay our annual visit to Parliament to lobby MPs to pick one of our suggested backbench Bills. Why? Because there’s a ballot to choose 20 MPs who’ll be given priority to present a Private Member’s Bill.

Usually 400+ MPs enter the Private Member’s Bill ballot, but who will the lucky 20 winners be? You can watch the proceedings at 9am and later today the list will be published on the Parliament website.

The lucky 20 MPs have to decide what Bill they’ll publish by 24 June, with the top seven guaranteed debating time in the autumn.

Why it matters and what we’re proposing this year

There’s no guarantee any of the Bills will become law but they can influence government policy, as we have seen with our own recent backbench Bills.

For example, in 2013, we successfully persuaded Lib Dem MP Mike Crockart to table our Bill to tackle nuisance calls. Although the Bill didn’t become law, it played its part in persuading the Government to take the problem of unwanted marketing calls and texts more seriously.

The Government published its own Action Plan in spring 2014 and asked Which? to chair a task force looking at how consumers consent to receive marketing communications by phone and text. The task force has published a series of recommendations.

So what is Which? promoting this year? Now the General Election is out of the way, we’re having a second go with three of our unsuccessful Bills from last year but we’ve also got a new Bill picking up an issue recommended by the recent task force on nuisance calls and texts.

Bill 1: holding company directors to account for nuisance calls and texts

Our new Bill would be a measure to help tackle unwanted phone calls and texts by strengthening the powers of the Information Commissioner.

It would enable him to make company directors accountable for corporate breaches of the law banning unwanted calls and textsThis measure was recommended by the Nuisance Calls and Texts task force on consent and lead generation in December 2014.

Bill 2: making complaints count in public services

This is about public services and relates to our ongoing Making Complaints Count campaign. Last year, 5.3 million people who had a problem with a public service didn’t complain.

We think the complaints system across public services needs to change. This Bill has a simple aim. To help give people a voice when they have had problems with a public service and improve the identification of systemic problems so they can be tackled.

Bill 3: better information for students about universities

This is specifically about higher education. Prospective students don’t currently have access to certain information that would help inform their choice of university and course. This is the first big financial decision a young person will make and it should be a well-informed decision.

This Bill will improve the information made available to prospective students through the ‘Key Information Set’ and ensure that universities are complying with the direction from the Competition and Markets Authority on the information that should be made available.

Bill 4: switching mobile provider

Our fourth Bill would make switching mobile phone provider easier and quicker.  In the mobile phone market, the current switching process requires consumers to contact their existing provider to get a code to then give to the new provider.

This Bill would make receiving service providers responsible for managing the transfer of services, meaning that consumers need only speak to their new provider, as is the case with banks and energy companies.

In effect, the Bill would introduce ‘recipient-led’ or ‘gaining provider led’ (GPL) switching across the entire telecommunications sector, making the switching process easier and quicker.

What happens next?

Now our job is to see whether we can persuade any of the 20 MPs who have won the ballot to introduce our Bills by 24 June.

Which of our four Bills would you most like MPs to take up and why?

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

My choice is Bill 1: holding company directors to account for nuisance calls and texts.

Much of what we discuss on Which? Conversation relates to consumers being let down by companies. Fines – if they are ever levied – are just passed on as higher prices, so holding directors to account is the only solution likely to have a worthwhile effect. The same treatment could be given to the directors of companies that break other laws.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

I’m not sure any of these would be the priority I’d choose. I’d like to see all consumers helped by making the Trading Standards an effective organisation to which we could complain directly and see action.

Perhaps complaints against public bodies – but only if they were committed to responding to them quickly. I’m tired of seeing complaints drag on for years.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I think we will have to launch our own campaign about Trading Standards, Malcolm. It does not seem to be on the agenda. 🙁

I’ve just had a gas-powered soldering iron burst into flame because of a leak. Its predecessor (same brand, different model) did exactly the same, a few years ago. I thought of contacting Trading Standards but previous experience suggests this would be a waste of time.

Member
wev says:
4 June 2015

I agree. There should have been a bill to improve Trading Standards and Action Fraud, and the way police deal with fraud complaints

Member
wev says:
4 June 2015

What’s happened to Tivium and other Green Deal providers that missell?

Has Trading Standards or the police done anything?

Profile photo of Mark McLaren
Member

Thanks for the comments so far. Well, today has been a busy day as we have been in touch with all 20 MPs and we now wait to see if any are interested in our proposed Bills. After a weekend of reading, the next two weeks will be key for that. The MPs will probably have had quite a few suggestions sent to them today, and of course they will also have their own priorities and ideas.

As regards the comments about the role and funding of trading standards, we do understand your concerns but addressing that via a private member’s bill (PMB) is not possible (as a PMB can’t cost public money, other than in very limited ways, while the issue is a complex one for government – local and central – to address). Though it does not get much public attention, concern over the status and future of trading standards is a live policy issue, not least to the wider trading standards community. In March 2015, the Government published a report with the Trading Standards Institute about ‘the impact of local authority trading standards in challenging times’ https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/420218/bis-15-139-the-impact-of-local-authority-trading-standards-in-challenging-times-r2.pdf)
while later this year we are expecting the National Audit Office to review the way consumer law is enforced and managed by the key players, such as the National Trading Standards Board, Consumer Protection Partnership, CMA, Citizens Advice, local Trading Standards Depts, etc, since the consumer landscape changes were implemented from 2013-14.

We will post an update to this Conversation on or around 24 June by which time we will know if a MP (or MPs) have agreed to table our PMBs.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

Mark, Thanks. I hope Which? will be taking part in any work to look at improving the effectiveness of trading standards, since their role impacts so heavily on consumers.

Looking quickly at the report is worrying. It says TS are now reactive, not proactive, have reduced testing, now focus on income generating tasks (OK providing other tasks are not neglected), have reduced weights and measures checks, analysing food and product safety testing! Just examples.

Budgets are the problem as they have been heavily cut – in England authorities allocate between £1.99 and £12.45 per 100 referrals from CAB. No wonder they are ineffective. You are far better off in Scotland where the allocation is £7.43 to £81.39 per 100 referrals.

Typical county budgets are £1-£2 million a year. Our county takes in business rates of £16m. Increasing those by 2% would provide a 15 to 30% increase in funding for trading standards. Since businesses are a large part of trading standards function – and many will benefit – surely there is a source here to begin providing extra finance?

“Something must be done”. Are Which?, as representing consumers, able to focus effort on helping get the system reformed?

Member
wev says:
4 June 2015

Mark, thank you for talking about Trading Standards. It would be nice if you could next say whether the way police and related bodies handle fraud and are effective against it is a live policy issue.

When fraud happens, it’s confusing for people to know who to turn to. Do they go to the police, or Trading Standards, or someone else? Or everyone at the same time? There’s no clear guidance. And each one provides a different outcome.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I’d like to speak up in favour of a much more active trading standards service accessible locally without having to go through the hoops of Citizens Advice. Local authorities are retreating from their electorate and leaving an undisciplined market place wide open to abuse. It is surely not just a coincidence that in the wake of the decline [not to say demise] of trading standards the number of problems of counterfeiting, misrepresentation, miss-selling, denial of statutory rights, sale of unsafe products, outright fraud, short weights & measures, deception, unfair trading practices, and other consumer wrongs have risen but are largely going unprosecuted. Traders have noticed the void and are exploiting it. I understand that a private member’s bill is not the way to address the problem but somehow the profile of this issue has to be raised with the Government. The failure to appoint an under-Minister to hold a consumer protection brief was an early indicator of the direction that the new Government was taking. What worries me slightly more is that I suspect local authority environmental health services are going down the same road with a reduction in food inspections and food hygiene inspections of premises, and they are backing away from dealing with insanitary and unfit housing and substandard conditions in houses in multiple occupation [many of which are un-inspected and therefore unlicensed at considerable detriment to the occupiers].

I know the Treasury has an enormous distaste for hypothecated revenues but it would strike me as sensible to allocate a percentage of the total VAT yield to trading standards and make sure it is spent on that function [taking one year with another].

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

” It would enable him to make company directors accountable for corporate breaches of the law banning”

Doesn’t that sum up a lot of gripes? Limited companies shield Directors from the responsibilities for their actions . This needs to be changed . When the original case law established companies as legal entities most Directors would be men of some substance and reputation.

This is no long er the case. DIrectors and senior executives need personal liability – the law needs to extend further this concept.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

DT, the difficulty is identifying the real culprits. They may not be directors – although of course they should have overall control of what managers do. But look at the Libor scandal where individual traders (mavericks maybe) were on the loose. We’ve seen the same sort of difficulty when Health and Safety have looked at prosecutions for corporate manslaughter. Which directors (boards can be quite large) do you target? They may all agree on a way of working (Co-op bank fiasco when appointing their CEO?).
The whole company needs to be punished in some way, so all its members share in the responsibility. It is a culture that needs to change. But how could this be implemented?

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Malcolm – Punishing the whole company would punish the innocent, which would be unfair. As Dieseltaylor says, directors should not have special protection.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

There are many cases where Directors are punished and that is normally on Health and Safety grounds and this area has been expanding.

The extension has been based on the not impractical observation that Directors can and do arrange things that induce unsafe acts, or recklesss behaviour. An easy example might be delivery schedules that require drivers to exceed speed limits, do without breaks for food and comfort. Thereby putting other members of the public at risk. Or famously depart a port with the bow doors not closed.

When looking at Banks you might take it that paying larger and larger salaries to successful dealers may encourage the gaming of the system – and that Directors should be aware of this and govern against it. However there is no doubt that they did not do this and paid lip service to the rules in place.

The provision of penalties and rewards in the company were out of kilter. If we were to go back to basics and say Directors were actually directly responsible and could be penalised and jailed then I suspect there would be less flirting with edges of sensible behaviour.

Given the size and complexity of a business you may have the head of a division as the fall guy for anything that happens on his watch. And this liabillity is not extinguished by changing firms [as they frequently do]. So five years down the line you sins may seek you out. This will encourage incoming divisional heads to make darn sure they have a clean department.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

As has been said, fines against companies count as business expenses and unless they grow to an excessive extent rarely put the company out of business, although they can cause reputational damage in higher profile companies which could be critical to their commercial performance and ultimately lead to takeover or collapse. So corporate fines probably do have a restraining effect over time but the link with the offence is highly diluted and the people responsible for the improper activity might remain in post. Fines against individuals rely on being able to accurately pinpoint the person(s) directly responsible for the offence and would keep the lawyers in clover for years. Directors and top executives could also be in a position where they can have their ‘compensation package’ adjusted in order to neutralise the fine so they are no worse off in the long run. Taking the directors and key executives out of the boardroom and the top floor altogether is probably the only way to have a lasting effect on corporate behaviour – and not just out of their own company’s establishment but disqualified from holding such positions in any company for a period commensurate with the offence and their culpability. There should be no corporate defence that “we didn’t know what was going on in that section”. They are remunerated to know what is going on, to have management structures and reporting systems that identify non-compliance, internal audit arrangements that can examine all transactions, and personnel procedures that root out people using corrupt and illegal practices. In the pyramidal reward system in many companies it has suited the upper echelons to be oblivious [whether actively or passively is irrelevant] to wrongdoing as they were contingent beneficiaries of the malpractice. It is the culture that has to change and the only way to do that at the top is to replace the people in charge [without enormous golden parachutes as well].

Profile photo of alfa
Member

My vote goes to Bill 1 as more needs to be done to stop nuisance callers as they are an invasion of privacy and cause distress to so many people.

Call centre nuisance calls have dropped but there has been a big increase in recorded message calls usually from a withheld number that often say they are calling on behalf of the government or they start “It is a legal requirement that we inform you……”

Many people ask where nuisance callers get their numbers from.

Today I missed a call from a mobile phone that I didn’t recognise. I goggled it and found it with a name and location I didn’t recognise on a website uk-community dot com.

I goggled our mobile phone numbers that are registered with TPS and one is also on this website and the other on another website ukphonebook dot mobi. Our names and locations were wrong on both websites.

Why are websites allowed to list phone numbers? There are other websites that list every conceivable landline number, many that will be registered with TPS. Our phone numbers are also listed on foreign websites.

These websites are very useful for looking up unknown numbers and discovering more about your nuisance caller but I think they should only be listed and reported on a government website where those responsible for cleaning up nuisance callers can get a clearer picture of the extent of the problem.

Member

Beware! I have looked at ukphonebook dot mobi and many other similar sites. My number appears on several of them, all incorrect. They are in fact just scams to gleen your mobile number. The site generates fictitious lists of contacts which vaguely look as if they are taken from peoples mobile phone contacts but are in fact just randomly computer generated. If they hit on your number and you look it up, they then say to contact them to “remove it” but all you are doing is letting them know it is a genuine number so they can start spamming and cold calling you

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

wavechange, just a thought – it is a company culture that needs changing. People lower down the chain also knowingly take part in the failings of a company. The problem I see is that, as with Health and Safety, identifying the real culprit (if there is one) can be very difficult in a large organisation. People in companies do act on their own account, not instructed or encouraged by directors. This occurs in public as well as private organisations – take health service scandals for example. Just how do you take a proactive approach, rather than reactive? Too late when the damage has already happened and retribution is the immediate plea.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I’ve no experience, Malcolm, but I have no doubt that you are right. The only proactive solution that I can think of is to make ‘whistleblowing’ more acceptable and widespread in every sector. When I was exams officer in a large department I had to request investigation of suspected cheating, reported by fellow students. We went to great lengths to ensure that the identity of the informant was never made known to anyone other than staff.

I don’t like the idea of being checked up on but knowing that it could happen should act as a deterrent.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

wavechange, “whistleblowing” is one remedy I have commented on in other conversations. I believe people should have organisations to which they could report misdemeanours or inadequate standards, or what they regard as such, in a confidential way. Those organisations should collate and when necessary be obliged to take effective action. Companies and public sector organisations might then learn that malpractice will be dealt with and they should think hard before encouraging or overlooking it. The best solution is to nip it in the bud by changing culture rather than only trying to penalise when it is too late.

It apparently works in the airline industry.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

A fairly recent example of whistleblowing was when a former employee passed on a video to the Guardian newspaper, making the public aware of appalling standards of hygiene in chicken processing plants, reflecting badly on the supermarkets that use these plants.

Looking at the nuisance call problem, we are long past the deterrent or nipping the problem in the bud stages.

Thinking of a private members bill to tackle nuisance calls and texts, what useful suggestions can we come up with? The numerous Conversations about this topic could provide plenty of evidence to support a need for urgent action.

Profile photo of Beryl
Member

Corporate company directors are responsible for making board decisions that will improve their profit margins. Middle management with kids and a large mortgage to pay, are responsible for implementing those decisions. Company directors who are well acquainted with company confidential top secrets in which they themselves have, rightly or wrongly, doubtless played a part, often leave with large hand-outs or pensions in return for their loyalty to company practices and procedures and, more importantly, their silence. Remuneration packages need to be substantial to ensure whistle-blowers don’t speak out.

This makes is very difficult to investigate shoddy company practices where consumers, and especially the elderly, are being systematically hassled and exploited by unsolicited ‘phone calls and mail, and in my view, only government intervention can generate change. So I agree, for these reasons, Bill No.1 has to be my choice.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

Bill no. 1 is specifically for nuisance calls and texts. If there were a bill on offer that made all underhand employees responsible for their misdemeanours – whether in private companies or public organisations – then I would support it. Having worked in private business I have seen practices carried out not sanctioned by a board, and many public sector scandals are perpetrated by those below top executive level. The perpetrators need to be held accountable, not others used as scapegoats. The difficulty, as in all illicit activity, is the fair investigation to try to uncover the real perpetrator(s). I understand the wish to always punish directors. Which one? The MD or CEO has overall responsibility, as does the CE of a public body. Is it always to be them? Do we only punish headmasters or vice chancellors for transgressions in their educational establishments? Local authority chief executives for failure of their social services director (to whom they are responsible)? I see the wish for retribution, but not the fair way to achieve it.

Perhaps a private business’s activities could be temporarily restricted? Cancel or prevent bidding for public contracts, withdrawal of licences or ability to take new business, public exposure. If we all feel strongly enough we can vote with our feet – overcome apathy first. I don’t think this has an easy solution though.

Profile photo of Mark McLaren
Member

I am pleased to report that a MP has taken up one of our Bills. After a period of negotiation, Heidi Allen, the new Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, has agreed to table our bill to require universities to provide students with more information and greater transparency in how tuition fees are used. We will now be lobbying BIS to support the Bill, even though Ms Allen was 15th in the Ballot, and help ensure it passes Commons stages in the Autumn. Unfortunately our three other suggested Bills were not adopted though there was some interest in them all. We will be thinking about how to promote the issues they sought to address by other means.

At 12.30 pm today, all 20 Bills will be presented to Parliament (this is called their 1st Reading). You can watch it here: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/ff692179-ca58-4e0a-b0f1-7cc089e35596
A list of all 20 Bills will be available here: http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/bills/private-members/ (or under the Bills and Legislation tab on the House of Commons website).

Of the other 19 Bills, the number 1 Bill is to legalise assisted dying, which will be controversial as it has been in the Lords where a similar Bill has been presented more than once. Many of the other Bills have a housing, transport or health/disability theme. Of interest to consumers are Bills to exempt carers from hospital parking charges and tackle pavement parking.

We’ll do our best to keep you informed of our little bill on higher education!

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

Mark, I suggest the Lords have a more than direct interest in the number 1 Bill. 🙁

Member
john hogg says:
2 August 2015

pension providers are not following,the new 2015 pension rules ,people are not being allowed get at their pensions,lets see the goverment force them to follow the rules.