HC Deb 05 December 1957 vol 579 cc757-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Oakshott.]

10.44 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I want to raise the question of coal overcharging, with particular reference to the unsatisfactory reply I have had every time I have raised the question.

There is not a newspaper that does not constantly receive letters from people about stones in the coal, and these writers to the editor always ask what they can do about it. There is never a public relations officer who can reply to these letters. No one seems to know what to do when receiving bags of stone instead of coal.

I would know what to do if I got sand in the sugar or lead in the tea; why have the consumers of this commodity, coal, which is so very expensive and the price of which is a real hardship, especially to old-age pensioners, no protection? It is conspicuous by its absence. I have drawn the attention of the Paymaster-General to this matter time and again, and I have got no satisfaction. In fact, I have been guilty of mentioning that the reply showed great ignorance, I have an opportunity now to prove it.

I got a reply in October. I had asked that the Bradford experiment be extended throughout Britain. I was told that the Minister would now make inquiries into the success or otherwise of the Bradford experiment. I have the "Monthly Review" of the Institute of Weights and Measures Administration in my possession. It is the October issue containing a report of the Institute's June conference. As long ago as June, the Bradford inspector, addressing this conference, said that he had recently had an opportunity of discussing the results of this experiment with an official of the Ministry of Power who had originally opposed the experiment.

On this occasion, the official admitted that he had always thought that inspectors of weights and measures could do their work better than Ministry officials, and went so far as to say that enforcement by the Ministry had never been and never could be more than a gesture. The Bradford inspector went on to say: Since the price could easily be raised by £2 a ton and more by simple misdescription, the admission that present enforcement could be no more than a gesture was, in his opinion, staggering in the extreme. In the circumstances it was difficult to understand the Ministry's continued opposition to applications for similar powers from other authorities. It is more difficult to understand why an official was sent early in the year, and why, more than six months afterwards, the reply should come from the Government benches that the Ministry was thinking of inquiring into it. The Ministry did not even know what its officials were doing. The fact is that they have not the slightest interest in whether consumers are paying Group 1 prices for Group 5 coal. They do not even know the difference between the grades; they are not at all interested. The Bradford experiment was conducted with a weights and measures inspector who has power to board a lorry and check any seller in regard to weight to see that there has been no underhand dealing and at the same time to check the correctness of price. Is it too simple to adopt that practice generally? Probably it would mean that a horde of officials would be dismissed, officials who appear to me to be doing nothing at all.

I spoke to one Ministry of Power official who told me he did not know the difference between Group 3 and Group 4 coal and asked, "Do you, Mrs. Mann?" I said, "No", but the inspectors of weights and measures, who are on the job, do know the difference. The conference report from which I have quoted points out that at one inquiry about weight it was found that coal could have come from Group 4 whereas the consignment notes, which had been examined, were all marked Group 3, with a corresponding increase in price. Since then there had been many similar cases discovered in similar circumstances, which showed how well weight checks combined with group checks. These men are already paid for checking weight; why are they not given power to check grade as well?

The Bradford inspector told the conference that Compared with two prosecutions in the previous five years under the Ministry's scheme in two years since they had obtained the powers 40 prosecutions had been instituted, involving 277 informations and resulting in fines and costs totalling £4,500. Those figures did not include prosecutions under the Merchandise Marks Act for misdescription and other prosecutions for obtaining money by false pretences, but related only to the Retail Coal Prices Order. I have been told that the Bradford system cannot be extended without some amendment of the Defence of the Realm Act. Weights and measures men I have spoken to take a very dim view indeed of that reply. I can understand an objection to an official being able to barge into someone's coal cellar, but that is not what we are asking. We are asking that they should check the grade while on the lorry checking the weight. I ask that the housewife should not be driven from pillar to post but that she can be told that when the inspector is on the lorry he can have a look at the coal. Surely her invitation to the inspector should not require a warrant.

Writers in the newspapers are saying that they are told to get their coal merchant to complain but that when they do so the reply is, "I have to take what I can get. "It is absolutely untrue; yet that reply is accepted by hundreds of consumers. I have examined the National Coal Board Report. I am astonished and disappointed that merchants do not complain to the Board. The Board says, "When a merchant complains, it enables us to trace the pit and possibly to downgrade the coal at that pit, or it enables us to give compensation coal." I quoted the Coal Board Report to my merchant, but he said, "I have just got to take what I can get."

I therefore decided to take action myself. I knew there was some provision in common law that protected people from getting stone described as coal, from getting sand in their sugar or metal cuttings in their tea, and I wrote a letter to my merchant and to the Coal Board. As I was not sure which of them I should sue, I told them that I would sue them jointly and severally. Within two days four officials came along to see the coal and brought my merchant with them. They said to the merchant, "You did not complain about this" and he said "No". "But," they said, "two other merchants in this district complained and received compensation coal." I immediately asked if they had passed the compensation on to the consumer. Nobody knew. The Minister does not know if the consumer gets the compensation coal.

This is utter carelessness in connection with the dearest commodity that is coming into the house at the moment. I may say that I got my compensation coal. There can be no denying that it is not only in Bradford that people opt to be so heavily fined. Are we to assume that all the exploiters and the fiddlers with the grades of coal are in Bradford? I would hesitate to say that all coal merchants were dishonest. I know a great many honest coal merchants who probably have dishonest servants. Delivering bags of coal is not everyone's cup of tea, and sometimes to get the coal delivered a merchant has to take Tom, Dick and Harry. I have every sympathy with the coal merchants, and indeed I know some who do give compensation coal.

However, as was said at the Weights and Measures Conference, it is far easier to make something on the side in regard to price rather than weight. Another merchant, according to the Conference report, who had been approached said, Others are doing it. I thought I might as well. It is laughable to suggest that it is necessary to encourage fuel economy among consumers, as if people need to be enjoined to observe fuel economy with coal at 10s. 6d. a bag. That is enough to instil economy all over the country. But if we are paying that amount for coal, we are surely entitled to be assured that we are getting the grade for which we are paying, and the consumer is entitled to protection from the Ministry which up till now has been sadly lacking.

11.0 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. David Renton)

May I say, first of all, speaking for my noble Friend and myself, that we are glad the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) has raised this matter tonight. She has complained, in the first place, that the consumer has no protection when supplied with stones rather than coal or with a quality lower than the grade for which he has, in fact, been charged.

It is not accurate to say that the consumer has no protection. There are various forms of protection, and I shall remind the hon. Lady of them. In the first place, there is the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, which was established under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, and which has done extremely valuable work in protecting the interests of consumers. The Council is fairly representative of the different parts of the country, and I invite the hon. Lady's attention to the last of its Reports wherein the Council points to the procedure which the hon. Lady mentioned for the making of complaints by the consumer to the merchant and by the merchant to the colliery. The Council points out that the essence of success in making such complaints is that they should be made as promptly as possible.

Another form of protection which the consumer has is one of which too few consumers avail themselves, but of which, or of the threat of which, the hon. Lady, if I may say so—we admire her for it—was right to avail herself. That is the threat of civil action. It is not so much a common law remedy, because the common law was embodied in the Sale of Goods Act, 1893, and, under that Act, there are various implied conditions which form a great protection for the consumer.

There is the further protection provided by prosecution under the Defence Regulations. It is to that principally, that I invite the hon. Lady's attention, because that, I think, really is the most effective method of consumer protection that there is, in spite of what she has said. I hope to show here that that is so by describing the work which is, in fact, being done.

The hon. Lady's suggestion is that local authority inspectors of weights and measures should be appointed everywhere in the country—she wishes it to be general—so that our Ministry inspectors may be helped in enforcing the observance of Defence Regulations. In support of her suggestion, she argues, first, that the practice of upgrading is widespread, and, secondly, that since the local authority inspectors at Bradford were given the powers which she wishes other inspectors to have the number of prosecutions has gone up. Thirdly, the hon. Lady argues from that point that the local authority inspectors of weights and measures should everywhere have the powers which our Ministry inspectors have under Defence Regulations.

The practice of upgrading certainly has caused trouble in certain places, mostly in certain large towns, but I assure the hon. Lady that, according to our information, it does not happen everywhere and is not even widespread. As to the Bradford experiment, it is quite true that more people have been prosecuted in Bradford since eight, I think, of Bradford's weights and measures inspectors were given warrants under Defence Regulations but, surely, that shows that we were right to give those powers in Bradford, and that it was necessary for them to be given there. It does not follow that it is necessary to extend those powers over the whole country.

Let us just consider what happens under the present law. Under the Weights and Measures Act, the local authorities have power to prosecute only when coal is delivered at short weight. About that, the hon. Lady is perfectly correct. That does not apply, however, to coke, and there is power to prosecute for short weight coke only when the local authority has taken powers under a private Act. Defence regulations, however, apply to both coal and coke. It is an offence under Defence Regulations for a merchant to deliver to a consumer or for a consumer to take more than the maximum permitted quantity of house coal for the area of the country in which the consumer lives. That is proved by the checking of the merchants' records of deliveries.

It is also an offence under Defence Regulations for the merchants to charge more than the maximum retail price for the grade of coal, and a schedule of prices is published for each region. To enforce those Regulations and to prosecute for those offences, warrants are issued to give our Ministry inspectors power to do things which, quite honestly, we should not lightly give and would not give unless really necessary, namely, to enter and inspect merchants' premises and to require merchants to give information and to produce records.

Those are fairly stringent powers. They are conferred by emergency legislation, and I would remind the hon. Lady that, under the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945, by virtue of which Regulations can be extended annually, and have been for coal rationing, those powers can be used only when the Minister is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to use them. The enforcement staff of the Ministry of Fuel and Power—now the Ministry of Power—has never, since the beginning of coal rationing, exceeded 50 officials for the whole country. At this moment the number is just under 50. Each inspector has a fairly large area, but they keep at it pretty assiduously—

Mrs. Mann

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman understand that that is one of the reasons why I complained of lack of contact? Each inspector covers such a wide area that the consumer cannot get in touch with him.

Mr. Renton

Perhaps the hon. Lady will listen to what I am going to say about this. They keep going pretty assiduously, and last year nearly 20,000 checks were carried out by those inspectors on coal merchants' delivery men, and 10,000 checks were made of merchants' records of retail sales. In the past three years the work of our Ministry inspectors alone, leaving aside help from local authority inspectors, has resulted in prosecutions for over 500 offences against coal control orders, of which 400 were for price offences and 41 of those were in Bradford. Also, the inspectors sent out 450 warning letters, 250 of which were for price offences.

In spite of all that work which is being done by our Ministry staff, we do acknowledge that there are particular places where, owing to clear evidence being given of malpractices by a minority of merchants or their employees, our inspectors need to be helped by local authority inspectors, and that is why we have issued warrants under Defence Regulations to local authority weights and measures inspectors at Bradford. Glasgow, Manchester, East Ham and in Kent. We have refused the applications made by four local authorities and the applications of four other local authorities are now under consideration.

Mrs. Mann

I just wanted to ask if the three following Glasgow and Bradford had been given recently.

Mr. Renton

Bradford and Glasgow were, if I remember rightly, both appointed early in 1955; Manchester earlier this year, and Kent and East Ham fairly recently.

It should be borne in mind that these are powers for the exercise of which my noble Friend is responsible. One would expect that it would be his own officials who would exercise them and that they should not be extended lightly. Therefore, we consider carefully in each case put to us whether there is need to extend them. We consider the local evidence and consult closely with the local authority through our regional officer, who has acquired a very great deal of local knowledge about the need of our inspectors for help.

The hon. Lady mentioned that the chief inspector from Bradford quoted a Ministry official, mentioned anonymously, showing that enforcement by the Ministry was never more than a gesture. I deny that. That is obviously quite wrong, from the facts which I have given about the number of checks made and the number of prosecutions by Ministry officials. The hon. Lady also said that she knows of an official, again anonymously mentioned, who said that Ministry officials do not know the difference between different grades of coal.

Let me be the first to concede that it is not easy to judge by a quick, superficial examination to which grade a bag of coal may belong. It is necessary to make a detailed investigation. We have found by nearly fifteen years' experience of the operation of the Defence Regulations that the powers under the regulations to inspect records, and to get right to the bottom of the matter by finding what the merchant has to say and by entering premises, is often necessary to check the grade.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult matter, and I acknowledge freely that there has been a considerable amount of public anxiety about it. I grant that the experience of a not very large but appreciable part of the coal consuming population is not what they wish it to be, but among those who complain there are not so many who take the trouble to find out what remedies are available to them. I hope that as a result of what I have said tonight there may be a better understanding and for that reason I am grateful to the hon. Lady for having raised the matter tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.