HC Deb 08 December 1952 vol 509 cc202-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Conant.]

11.59 p.m.

Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)

This is not the best night, so far as the weather is concerned, for initiating an Adjournment debate, because it means that I have to stay the night. I should like to apologise in advance to anyone who has to stay and who would not otherwise have to do so but for this Adjournment.

The matter I wish to raise has to do with the labelling of consumer goods and is important because it affects industry very greatly and, obviously, the shopping public of this country. I informed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that I would be dealing principally with textiles, and I should like to say straight away that the Government wish to secure voluntary informative labelling of textiles and have made arrangements with the British Standard Institution to that effect, but I am wondering whether the hon. and learned Gentleman realises that there are no means as yet in the hands of the Board of Trade by which informative labelling can be policed and properly enforced for the benefit of the public. The shopping public and I myself believe that there is no indication on the part of the Government that they are aware of their responsibilities in this direction or of the urgency for more speedy decisions.

The Government have already asked for the voluntary imposition of standards of performance of textiles and clothing sizes and other consumer goods. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that this is purely voluntary. There is a great desire on the part of the shopping public for better standards of consumer goods and for enforcement and publicity about those standards, and I should like to stress that this is a matter held by the shopping public, quite irrespective of party politics.

First of all, I should like to deal with the question of textile trade terms. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary would give me his attention, because I hope he will be able to give me an answer when he replies to the debate. In this matter of trade terms, I think everybody would agree that the modern commercial practice of "writing up" merchandise goods causes the change of technical and trade meaning to move faster than that of the common understanding of the ordinary shoppers.

Furthermore, this change is invariably —and I want to stress the word—from one of quality or precise significance to one of vague significance or no significance at all. This is because sales promotion, in its endeavour to enhance the goods it has to sell, borrows terms of high quality significance or luxury appeal to describe lower grades and imitations.

I will take two very obvious examples. First, shantung. If we go back to 1938, the word "shantung" had a very definite and precise meaning. The word "shantung" conjured up a vision of wild-silk material of certain appearance and known quality and performance. Since then, as perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary realises, this term has been applied to spun rayon cloths so that today shantung has had its meaning blurred, and new terms are now needed to distinguish between the various cloths labelled shantung.

The second obvious example is gaberdine. That is a term which should only be applied to a well-recognised and distinctive cloth structure. Would the Parliamentary Secretary give me his attention for a few moments?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Henry Strauss)

I am sorry, but I hope the hon. Lady realises that I was only seeking to help her by collecting for myself the answers to her questions.

Miss Burton

I apologise and I am looking forward to the answers.

I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary realises that gaberdine has lost its original meaning in the public mind, because of its sudden leap into fashion and the consequent application to almost any loose-twill wool or wool mixture cloth.

I want to go on to the current misuse of trade terms. In retail advertising of clothing, and household textiles I believe it results from three causes—first, ignorance; secondly, carelessness, often coupled with negligence; and, thirdly, deliberate effort to defraud. Investigation shows that by far the greatest preponderance comes from the second cause.

I have had some experience in retail stores, and believe that ignorance usually arises from ignorance of the counter staff. Many stores and shops have recently begun to overcome this difficulty by making a real effort to train their assistants in regard to the content and performance of the cloths with which they have to deal. But we often find that misapplication of the term "woollen" is encouraged by the staff because they know that the public sets great store on cloth being advertised as wool.

If we take linen, silk, wool, and leather, the misuse of trade terms falls under these three headings, but I am sorry to say that intent to defraud comes much to the fore. When advertisers are challenged on any of these four commodities they usually fall back on the excuse of ignorance, although some do blame their suppliers and admit carelessness.

The point I wish to speak of in detail concerns wool, woollen and worsted materials. Everyone, I think, would agree with the following statements. First, it is the right of the consumer to know what he or she is buying. Secondly, it is essential that laundries and dry-cleaners should know the fibre content of any material or garment to be dealt with. It seems to me very strange that any West Riding cloth producer should object to such a proposal. I wish to be fair, but, from the large number of cloth producers from the West Riding who do object, I can only conclude that they fear that their sales will be adversely affected if they have to describe a dress as being rayon and wool, instead of being able to pass it off, lightly, as a woollen dress.

How can a rayon dress normally be described as anything else? Surely it seems to the ordinary shopper that wool is wool and rayon rayon. If we are not careful, and if the Parliamentary Secretary does not intervene, we shall find soon that rayon may well be described quite legally in wool industry terms.

For some time now some manufacturers from the West Riding have been fighting strongly for the legal interpretation of the word "woollen" to mean merely a process of spinning. If this were accepted the terms "worsted" and "woollen" would be acceptable in the courts as describing rayon suits and dresses. Representations against this have been made to the British Standards Institution by many organisations. There have been not only representations, but counter-proposals for the labelling of wool and mixture cloths, and one has only to give the names of these organisations to see how reputable and responsible they are.

Under the auspices of the Retail Trading Standards Association the following organisations have added their names to this counter-proposal: The Association of Wholesale Woollen Merchants, the Bespoke Tailors Guild, the British Mantle Manufacturers Association, the Drapers Chamber of Trade, the Institute of British Launderers, the International Wool Secretariat, the National Association of Outfitters, the National Chamber of Trade, the National Federation of Dyers and Cleaners, the Retail Distributors Association, and the Wholesale Textile Association. Briefly, those associations believe that a cloth should only be labelled as wool, woollen or worsted if it contains 100 per cent. wool on which they would allow a manufacturers' tolerance of 3 per cent. and a maximum of a further 7 per cent. for visible decoration.

Obviously, those names carry weight, and in view of this opposition, reinforced by the principal women's organisations and the Co-operative Wholesale Society, the manufacturers have retreated a little, but only a little. They still want the term "woollen" to mean only a process of spinning, but they now suggest that those of them who are prepared to adopt the British Standards Institution standard will always follow the word "woollen" by some such words as "wool dominant" or mixture containing wool."

I think that that is a clumsy phrase designed to conceal from the public the nature and extent of other fibres than wool. It means simply that under this plan any manufacturer not voluntarily adhering to the British Standards Institution standard would be in order in describing his goods as woollen although they contained only 15 per cent. of wool, and nobody could touch him because the term "woollen" would be a technical one indicating a spinning process.

I submit that this is not good enough and I think Parliament should step in to see that it does not happen. How did it arise in the first place? The British Standards Institution has a Wool Industry Standards Committee which includes 16 representatives of the Wool Textile Delegation, two of the Textile Institute and one of the Society of Dyers and Colourists. In that list there is not one consumer or one distributor.

When it became obvious that the trade associations were getting restive, the British Standards Institution appointed a technical committee. On this they included most of the important trade associations and representatives from the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution. This Committee met once, on 21st May, 1952, and I believe that at that meeting there was prolonged criticism of the proposed labelling and definitions which I have mentioned, and strenuous efforts were made to obtain agreement that the mixture cloths would be labelled according to weight of fibre content.

After this meeting those suggestions and proposals went back to the original Wool Industry Standards Committee and, being judge and jury, this Committee ignored practically every comment that had been made and re-circulated its previous proposals—perhaps with an odd "t" crossed and an odd "i" dotted, but they were the same. When that happened the Retail Trading Standards Association and its other associated bodies protested. They said that their suggestions involved counter-proposals and they asked for a reply. I believe that an acknowledgment has been sent but nothing further has been done, and I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that the Wool Industry Standards Committee itself should be opened up to include representatives of the distributor and of the consumer.

Time is getting on and I wanted to mention the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887, but I know that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Speaker, if I went into that, so I shall have to leave it. Before coming to my final recommendations, however, may I say that there are seven points that I wish to bring to the notice of the hon. Gentleman.

The first is probably the most important. It is that today we have with us a new problem of the strong synthetic fibres, two examples of which are nylon and terylene. I expect the House knows that these strong synthetic fibres are used with wool to give specific benefits to the users of the fabrics or the articles made therefrom and they are of two kinds. First, there is the direct benefit which is obtained by using from 25 to 50 per cent. of strong fibres to improve the actual properties of the fabrics concerned.

There is also the indirect benefit obtained by including as little as 3 to 5 per cent. of these strong fibres to improve the manufacturing efficiency. The inclusion of as small a percentage as 3 to 5 per cent. aids the spinning and weaving, but makes no difference to the quality of the cloth. Therefore, there is no need to declare its presence; but, if its presence is declared, then the percentage should be stated in order to protect the purchaser from descriptive claims concerning the performance of the cloth. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary knows that today we have cloth described in the most flattering terms as being of "wool and nylon" but where the actual nylon content is less than 5 per cent.?

Secondly, the other day I saw two pieces of material; one of viscose rayon taffeta, and the other of embossed rayon velvet. Both had a pattern arranged by pressure processing which would disappear completely the moment the garment became wet; if it was put in water, or even if tea was spilt on it. Many women have sent in complaints about these dresses after contact with water or perhaps because a cup of tea has, unfortunately, been spilled over them. That would not have happened if acetate rayon had been used; and I would say here in passing, that in the United States manufacturers are compelled to disclose which type of rayon has been used.

Thirdly, recently I saw a piece of rayon material with various shades of red and green dye on it. When this had had a little use, or had been sent to the cleaners after short service, the red and green parts would disintegrate and go into holes. There was nothing to warn the purchaser of that.

Fourthly, I saw some pit socks which were composed of so much "waste" material that when the men wore them for their hard work in the pit, the "waste" disintegrated and simply meant that there had been money thrown away by these miners on something which wore for so short a time. Here again, there was no indication of how much "waste" had been used in the socks.

Fifthly, any woman can now see a lot of lizard handbags on the counters. I do not expect the Parliamentary Secretary to be an authority on those, but he may know there were many so-called "lizard" bags. At first they were called "plastic lizard," but the retailers were told that they could not use that term because it was a false trade description; a bag was either "lizard" or "plastic"; it could not be both. Then, they became termed "lizard grain." Why could they not have been called "plastic"?

Sixthly, I saw that in the courts recently, a decision was sought as to when a fishcake was not a fishcake, and the answer was when it contained less than 35 per cent. of fish. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that that might be borne in mind, although it is not included in the labelling of textile goods.

I come now to the last of my seven points. If anyone breaks a leg or seriously injures himself by falling off a step-ladder in future will he take comfort from the fact that, although the British Standards Institution has drawn up a set of minimum standards for step-ladders. there is no compulsion on manufacturers to observe them? What a ridiculous situation.

I should like to put forward four recommendations. First, that the British Standard definitions of textiles and other commodities should be produced. A small nomenclature committee sitting under Government auspices, and representing all interests, should lay down "market place" definitions of the principal trade terms used by the retailer in his dealings with the public. There is, in addition, a growing need to cover the growing field of man-made fibres and cloths.

Secondly, there is the need that British Standard definitions, as agreed, should be accepted by Parliament as definitions acceptable by the courts. Thirdly, the Board of Trade should hasten its investigation of the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887, whereby offenders can be prosecuted and punished for applying false descriptions to goods. Fourthly, if necessary as a prelude to introduction of British Standard definitions and necessary amendment of the Merchandise Marks Act, labelling of consumer goods, and not merely textile consumer goods, should be generally introduced.

On 20th November, the Parliamentary Secretary, in reply to a Question by me about the description of napped cotton goods and about the term suede, said I do not think that any requests from my Department are necessary to the British Standards Institution. They are certainly getting on with the job."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1952, Vol. 507, c. 2025.] I do not think they are getting on with the job fast enough and I would quote from the Council of the National Hosiery Manufacturers' Federation, which stated in notes on Fair Trading Codes on 28th November last: The Council of the Federation, desiring to establish and license a characteristic Mark for hosiery, and deterred by the likelihood of considerable delay or even frustration if the British Standards Institution proposals were adopted, finally decided that we should proceed with our own Code and Mark. The labelling of goods must be hastened by the British Standards Institution. It must be made compulsory on all traders, and, if necessary, we shall have to have some Parliamentary legislation on the matter, because then at last wool would be wool, rayon would be rayon, fish cakes would be fish cakes, and words would mean what they said.

12.20 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Henry Strauss)

The hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton), as is her wont, has said a great deal and much that is interesting in a very short time, and I cannot pretend that I can, on the spot, give her an answer to it all which will satisfy her, but I do want to refer to some points on which I agree with her and some points on which I do not.

I do not differ from the hon. Lady at all in the importance that she attaches to the question of standards of quality. The importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to that was made known in his speech last March. It was and is his desire that voluntary standards should be prepared by the industries concerned in consultation with the British Standards Institution, and that in due course the public should have the opportunity of buying goods bearing the mark showing that they comply with British standards. But it is an essential part of that scheme that they should be voluntary standards. I should be out of order if I discussed matters involving legislation, but an essential part of the scheme is that these should be standards voluntarily negotiated. These voluntary standards are being prepared on a number of the topics with which the hon. Lady dealt. One of these matters on which the industry and the British Standards Institution are working is the very matter of which she spoke, namely, the glossary of wool terms.

I agree with the hon. Lady that important differences have arisen. There has been a difference on this subject between the proposals originally put forward by the wool textile industry's representatives in the B.S.I. Committee and the retailers' representatives, and there have been counter-proposals by the retailers' representatives which have not been agreed by the manufacturers.

I have, however, no reason to think that agreement will not eventually be reached, and I certainly do not propose tonight, by expressing views on the proposals that in the course of these discussions have been put forward by one body or another, to make agreement or compromise more difficult. In fact, I think that would help to defeat the very object that I believe the hon. Lady has in mind. She is wrong in thinking that there is objection on the part of the wool industry to labelling and indicating the wool content. Indeed, as I understand it, they have undertaken to do so. There are, however, I admit, differences of opinion which I hope are in course of being resolved.

I agree that many of us hoped that further progress would have been made by now, but the scheme is largely novel and it is difficult. I think that all of us who wish to see these quality schemes put into operation know how important it is that the standards should be satisfactory, that they should be accepted and that they should work, even if that involves waiting rather longer than we had hoped.

I have not got time to go through all the causes which make this a somewhat lengthy matter. Before proposals are presented to the British Standards Institu- tion, agreement must be reached between representatives of the spinners, weavers, finishers and dyers. Then in the appropriate B.S.I. Committee agreement has to be reached between representatives of the particular textile industry as a whole and the clothing manufacturers, distributors and consumers. All this has had to be carried on during a period when a great deal of the energy of the industries concerned has been devoted to meeting the urgency of the textile depression. Now trade is improving, and I hope that energetic attention will be given to the work of bringing these standards into use.

What has been achieved—because we ought not to speak as though, in all this time there has been no advance towards securing agreed standards of quality? I should mention one case where not only has agreement been reached, but a marking scheme is in operation. Bedding, including mattresses, pillows, and bolsters can now be bought with the Kite mark of the British Standards Institution. This is a matter in which the public can help by buying goods so marked. In the case of safety boots and shoes for men, likewise there are standards agreed and a marking scheme in operation. Another standard completed and in course of being printed, covers rubber footwear. I can mention others, but I agree with the hon. Lady that textiles have not yet advanced so far. I hope that will be remedied— and I believe it will. I differ from her entirely—and I wish to make this absolutely clear—in the view she apparently holds that the British Standards Institution is in any way to blame for any undue delay. I do not believe that that charge is right.

The main part of the hon. Lady's speech was devoted to the question of trade terms. Although I cannot discuss legislation—a rule from which she herself suffered—I should like to remind her that successful prosecutions have taken place under the Merchandise Marks Act. The Act already makes the application to goods of a false trade description or the sale of goods to which a false inscription has been applied a criminal offence. Trade description includes any statement or other indication, direct or indirect, as to the material of which any goods are made or produced or as to the mode of manufacturing any goods. It is, therefore, an offence to mis-describe the fibre content of textiles, and successful prosecutions have taken place.

Some of the matters the hon. Lady mentioned might, in certain circumstances, I think, be remedied even under the Sale of Goods Act. The hon. Lady has made many suggestions of what some of the standards should be. I hope she has made them to the industry, and to the British Standards Institution, because I think the Institution, in particular, are far more competent to consider the merits of some of her proposals than any Minister at the Board of Trade.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes past Twelve o'Clock, a.m.