§ 2.50 p.m.
§ Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)
I welcome the opportunity that you have given me, Mr. Speaker, to raise this very important subject concerning the need for greater recognition and use of the Kite mark and of British Standards Institution standards, especially with regard to consumer goods. Before I come to the main point of this subject, I should like to mention that paragraphs 43 and 46 of the Interim Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection state that it is of some importance that consideration should be given to the possibility of one Minister being designated to cope with the wide variety of consumer interests and to co-ordinate them. I must make it clear that I am not in favour of a vast consumer Ministry, to which without doubt Parkinson's Law would apply and which would be run in typical Civil Service fashion and would not be of ultimate benefit to the consumer.
In considering the wide variety of consumer problems and interests which affect us today, we must remember, against the background which I wish to discuss, the need for greater recognition of the Kite mark and British Standards Institution standards. There are many subjects with which the consumer is concerned but in which he has very little say. For some years, hon. Members have raised in the House various points affecting consumers, and there is a trend today which shows that people are becoming more determined that they shall receive their fair and just reward. They want to know more about the manufacturing process of the end products which they buy and ways in which they can receive good value and a fair return for their money.
For some years we in this House argued about whether weights and measures should be put on various packages. One firm—I believe that it was Messrs. Thomas Hedley and Co. Ltd.—now pack-weight its many packages of soap powders and detergents. Whether this is to be extended and what has been the value of it is nobody's business. One can go from one Ministry to another and perhaps eventually find someone who may let us 1864 know whether this is the sort of worth while thing that we want.
What about the numbers of concerns awaiting attention under the Restrictive Practices Act? As at 1st January there were still 1,455 registered agreements, and a great number of these contain register-able restrictions not yet dealt with by the courts. I want to draw attention to one or two of them. This only shows how important is the matter. There are several instances of retail traders not being concerned with whether or not a restrictive practice is correct because they know it will never get before the courts because of the long delay. Let me give one example where it is impossible to pass on to the consumer the benefit which there ought to be because the big three companies in zip fasteners are keeping so many of their concerns to themselves and are demanding that everyone who buys for the retail market shall buy only from them. One company, the Seenozip Company, informs me that it could pass on to the consumer a great deal by way of reductions in cost if it could only break into the market.
What about the flammability of textiles? A committee was set up which for some years considered this matter and went on considering the problem of getting agreements while the children and old people went on burning. This was disgraceful. Some firms like Proban went doggedly on trying to provide an answer and making materials reasonably safe in all reasonable circumstances. We have at long last achieved the standard, but it has not yet been applied in its widest sense. The British Standards Institution managed to get a standard put forward. How can we get it applied?
Must we have another tragedy like that which occurred at Ware? Which Minister is responsible for this sort of thing? Is it the Home Secretary or the Board of Trade? With whom should responsibility lie? Oil heating stoves are a typical example. It took a series of horrible accidents to arouse action. The standards applying to oil heaters needed review before these accidents occurred. There had been no tests for draughts which proved to be the cause of so many of the accidents. There had not been a chance to review the standard, and that is to do with the question of money. 1865 Here we come to the crux of the matter—the need for greater recognition of the Kite mark. I cannot ask today for more money. In answer to a Parliamentary Question of mine on 17th May, I was told that £10,000 is given towards the cost of the work of the British Standards Institution for the domestic consumer. This is a pitiable and lamentably low sum. Of course, industry must help, and there are subscriptions from the association of the Consumer Advisory Council, but at this time, when a great deal of stress is laid on the need for understanding of values in the country, it seems very paltry that the Government should tie themselves to such a small sum.
I know that the Government give £160,000 annually to the general resources of the British Standards Institution and industry subscribes as well, but there must be other means of enlivening industry to spend more money through this medium. I believe that one of the best ways to enliven industry would be by the Government offering support to a much greater extent.
If quality standards are to be successful, the Kite mark or its equivalent must be 100 per cent. worth while. The B.S.I., in its leaflet entitled "Mark and Meaning", makes a very interesting point. It states:Many organisations have submitted evidence to the Molony Committee on consumer protection. Some have pubished their views. One interesting point emerges. There is a very wide9pread feeling that these marks need controllingI agree with this 100 per cent. If we are to have quality marks that are worth anything at all, they really must be quality marks. They must not merely be marks which are handed out in haphazard fashion which give the buyer an unwarranted feeling of security. If the Kite mark and the standard on which it is based are to be worth anything, they must be revised regularly and kept up to date. They must change with the changing pattern of life, and this in itself is a very large task. I know that this will cost money, but if they are to be worth anything they will have to be kept up to date.
What about the Kite mark itself? I do not know whether manufacturers are afraid of it because of its miserable look. L looks to me rather like a sad, 1866 tired heart at the end of Valentine's Day which has not been taken up by anyone, I thoroughly dislike it in its present form, but I approve of what it stands for. I would not have been spending part of what might have been a pleasant afternoon passed far away from Westminster if I did not feel that this subject was of major importance. Whoever designed this Kite mark must have designed it in a very easy-going way and with no idea of the need for making an impact on the general public. I cannot understand how it has come to be accepted in its present form as the quality seal which, without doubt, it is. Somehow or other, we must find a designer and encourage him to produce a really worth-while design.
Older people look back to the days of the Utility mark as a standard. The Utility mark during the war was essential, and it was a very good thing. Incidentially, it is worth noting that the Utility mark was based on information drawn from branded goods firms who fixed retail prices and standards and were able to provide a basis on which to fix that particular standard. But people like myself, who can remember the Utility standard, do not want to he tied to that kind of standard today. We want our minds fixed on something which has snob value and top value, and not something which is merely a mark which says, "This is not as low as it might be"
The first thing which should be done is to produce a Kite mark or some other kind of mark which really puts across to the public what it is and why it is. The present mark is dreary and dull. It has no impact and it does not carry a proper guarantee or make the public fully understand what it means. Once such a design has been passed—and I hope it will not take the many months which it has taken to get the inflammability standard fixed—we shall be faced with the necessity to let the public know all about it. It will be no good sitting back and hoping that the public will understand.
The public are being gulled by guarantees of all sorts—good, bad and otherwise. How are the public to know? Have the Government any idea of the standard of testing on which these unofficial labels and seals are issued? Do 1867 the Government accept any responsibility in the matter? We have a wide variety of these standards and seals. I am not talking about manufacturers' individual guarantees; I am talking about those guarantees offered by bodies which do not make any testing process known to the public and give no idea to the public of the basis from which their standards are drawn. This is a subject which will become increasingly important as time goes on.
I am here today because I am nervous for the public. I am wondering about the public who accept these guarantees and seals which are issued for lack of a really first-class British Standards seal capable of being understood, recognised and taken up completely by the manufacturers. Those who believe when they buy an article that a certain label gives them security are in many cases left completely in the air. They buy something bearing a large label which means no more than the paper on which it is written. Such labels look impressive. Some are, no doubt, satisfactory and I do not intend to draw comparisons between one and another. I am here today to draw attention to the need for having a basic quality seal sponsored by the British Standards Institution and thoroughly recognised and worth while —something which the public can accept and from which the public can expect reasonable security.
If one looks at a number of consumer goods in a big store one sees the "Good Housekeeping" seal on them. It looks absolutely wonderful, but I do not know what are the methods of testing. I do not know the background. But I am certain that in many cases people buy an article with this seal on it because it looks good and not because there is a guarantee of security. As members of the public, we can only guess. We are living in a country where our standard of living is high and where our goods must be of high quality. We are waiting for a lead, which has got to come from somewhere, whether from the Minister, or perhaps from the Molony Committee when it has finished looking into this matter.
It appears to me that we are still in a muddle between individual manufacturers' guarantees, these different seals 1868 and labels, and the B.S.I. standard which is based on the only satisfactory and fully-known method of testing available in the country. The British Standards Institution label can be found on only a small range of consumer goods and it will take a long time before we get it on a large range of goods. But it is a fair and honest mark. The B.S.I. has its own standards and methods of testing and draws its samples from articles available on the market. It has a properly conducted method of testing, and it has got to be better known and understood.
Here we come to the reason why the public do not demand it more. The chicken and egg theory has been applied to many things, and it can surely be applied to this subject. Manufacturers say, "We can sell this article anywhere in the world. We do not require a British Standards Institution label at all. We are not interested in the Kite mark." The public say, "We do not know what it means. All we know is that we see a wonderful guarantee on the article and it makes us feel that this item is worth while, and we therefore buy it." It may be a worthwhile guarantee; on the other hand, it may not.
How are we to get the public to demand a standard which will give them protection and security? How are we to make the manufacturers realise that the public require this standard? I think that we should introduce a system of graded Kite marks. A number of high-quality manufacturers in the country do not feel that the Kite mark is of a sufficiently high standard for them to use. Certainly the Kite mark provides a satisfactory basis on which all good manufacturers should work, but if I were a high-quality manufacturer I suppose I would not feel interested. It would not have for me any snob value and it would not have a selling point.
Therefore, I believe that graded Kite marks would be a good idea. We should have the basic Kite mark—something below which no manufacturer should be allowed to produce—and moving from that we should proceed to various levels from "Z" up to "A" quality."A" quality should be an absolute hallmark of the acme of production in this country, and should be given to only a 1869 very few highly-finished first-class products, and these would be highly competitive. That is the way the standard will have the meaning which it was intended to have when first it was produced.
Today we have seen how the Restrictive Practices Court has removed agreements among carpet manufacturers as not being substantially in the public interest. A system for grading carpets is now being discussed and will soon be made public by the British Standards Institution. This grading brings in another angle, and I draw to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary the rising interest throughout this country in this sort of thing Grading will be much more interesting than a mere basic label. Graded standards and a graded Kite mark will be very important if we are to make the quality of this country's output of manufacturing goods as high as it should be. The public does not yet know the value of the British Standards Institution's standards.
Of course, there are discriminating women who belong to various worthwhile bodies, like the business and professional women's organisations, women's institutes, townswomen's guilds, and so on. Most of those organisations in their own particular groups take in one or other of the two magazines which are available to them at present Shoppers Guide and Which? They carefully study those magazines to see how they can become discriminating buyers and discriminating supporters of good quality. But they are not the vast majority of consumers and we must always try to think of the people who do not look beyond the ordinary rough finished article, and who, if the finished label is big and catches the eye, are more easily caught by it.
Here we have the problem of salesmen. In the last few months, I have undertaken a rather interesting survey. I went round a large number of stores in and around London looking at a variety of bedding. In every store I went to I was told—and I cannot remember all the different names of the bedding manufacturers—that this was "so and so" and "such and such", who were first-class manufacturers and who guaranteed the article for so long. I have no doubt that each guarantee 1870 put out in good faith, but when I studied it, I could not find the Kite mark.
In each case, I asked the salesmen about it and without exception they looked blank and said, "Kite mark?".I said that I meant the British Standards Institution Kite mark. I said that I understood that a particular bedding was up to that standard and carried the Kite mark. On several occasions we found it attached somewhere around the bed, but it was not used as a selling point. It was not an important point and the salesmen had not the least idea about it. Apparently, none of the branded manufacturers has very much interest in it. Here, again, there appears to be an important case for grading, because if a manufacturer feels that his own guarantee on his own label is better than the Kite mark he will not bother to use the Kite mark and yet, if we are to bring standards up to what we require, the use of the Kite mark will have to be something in which everybody joins.
In those cases the Kite mark had not made any impact whatsoever on the salesmen and, apparently, the public did not ask for it. The big stores could do a great deal in this matter by stocking Kite branded goods and encouraging their salesmen to use the Kite mark as a selling point, themselves understanding and expecting the high quality Kite mark on everything they use.
It is interesting to note that local authorities throughout the country are rather laggard in this matter. I attended a furniture trade fair in Cologne this year and I was intrigued to find from the Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian furniture manufacturers that their biggest buyers were the British. A great deal of the furniture which they made was sold to local authorities—highbacked chairs and so on of a cheap quality. It is a great pity that local authorities do not insist that all the furniture they buy, for whatever purpose, should have the British Standard Institution label and measure up to that standard, whether it is bought at home or abroad then being a matter for them.
It is interesting that the United States Air Force has done that very thing. All furniture bought for United States Forces in this country has to measure up to B.S.I. standards, and that is helping us to maintain those standards. Our own 1871 Royal Air Force has yet to take a lead in this matter, but I cannot see that it would cost it large sums of money more than it spends now on these items. However, it would get something in return —a satisfactory standard for all furnishing in quarters, institutions and so on. We have a long way to go to start the idea of quality standards, but they must be standards of quality supported by the public and the public authorities.
The value of these standards must follow opinion. Today there is a mass of outlandish display advertising through the Press or television, pushed on to anybody likely to spend anything. In the Press and on I.T.V. there is high pressure salesmanship at very high cost, which must eventually be borne by the consumer's product. Whether through television or through the enormous and expensive advertisements throughout the newspapers, the pressure is to buy and to buy literally anything.
In many cases it is the manufacturers with the most money to spend who can do the most advertising. That is fairly obvious, that it is not always the manufacturer who does the most advertising who is the most satisfactory person in the end for supplying the item to the consumer. What is a man who is making a satisfactory object but unable to compete with that tremendous weight of advertising and sales pressure to do? The one redress he has is to provide goods of a quality standard and to put that standard quality on them, but the public is not yet aware of the fact that very often those who advertise least produce the better items for the purpose in question. We have a great deal of informing to do, because it is only against a known standards, such as the British Standards Institution produces, and a label such as the Kite mark, which carried a proper guarantee, that we will be able to get anywhere in the vast and vexed problem.
Here I come to the British Standards Institution itself. Although it is doing a very good job, there is no doubt that in many ways it needs livening up. There are still a number of manufacturers in the country, and many members of the public, who, although they may know about the British Standards Institution through the organisations to which they belong, and know the value of the Kite 1872 mark, still look upon the B.S.I. as a rather fussy, fuddy-duddy old-fashioned adjunct to some part of the Civil Service.
The British Standards Institution has the reputation of being slightly pompous and stuffy and rather refined in everything it does. It must go out to sell the Kite mark to the public as something worthwhile. First of all, the Kite mark must be worthwhile, and then it must be seen to be worthwhile and must be recognised as such by the public. The B.S.I. has much to do, and it must be more aggressive in doing it. This is no job for the Civil Service approach. This is a job for a vigorous and forward-looking group of men and women who are prepared to put their story across and, in their story, to show the solidity of the background on which it is built.
We must have a new Kite mark, whether under that name or not I do not know, but it must not be the poor, wishy-washy, miserable thing which it is at the moment. It must catch the public eye and attract the public. It must give the public a basic security on which all good manufacturing in this country should be built. We must make this a mark which looks worth while as well as being worth while.
I believe that in the end the public will agitate for this. They will certainly do so if they know that it is worth while. Some manufacturers as yet do not see the importance of investment in this sort of development for their own security and satisfaction, as well as for the security and satisfaction of the customers whom, I believe, the majority of manufacturers in this country wish to serve very well.
There has been a lot of "lone wolfing", and many manufacturers saying, "I can find my own outlets. Why should I worry?" We must show that a manufacturer can have a standard, while recognising that this does not abolish his own individualistic characteristics as a manufacturer and salesman. It is a standard which simply gives the public a basis upon which a manufacturer's own type of output can be built, ensuring that his firm rests on a sound foundation which is fully recognised throughout the country.
I am sure that more recognition of the Kite mark will have to be given soon. 1873 Indeed, there has been better recognition of it abroad than here. Many items which are exported are sold abroad only on the understanding that they carry this Kite mark and measure up to the standards laid down for those items by the British Standards Institution.
We must get out of the lordly attitude of the past. This is certainly a professional job, to be done by a professional body but, as we have found in all trade negotiations, there must be a frank, friendly and helpful approach. This can be no institutional approach. Indeed, the word "institution" intends to put people off. This must be a practical, business, go-ahead campaign if we are to have a first-class result and a Kite mark of quality recognised throughout the country.
Often it is possible to co-ordinate the Kite mark with the manufacturer's own mark. This arose in the case of the Oil Heater Manufacturers Association; its mark was co-ordinated with the Kite mark, and now all heaters must be made to standards laid down by the British Standards Institution. We can point out that this works without removing the individual characteristic of the association or company concerned.
This mark is a protection against poor quality goods. When manufacturers recognise this more fully they will use the mark more fully. I think that they will then agree that as the B.S.I. carry out tests and publish its results in, for example, the Shoppers' Guide, for it is very much better that these goods should be tested, complaints made and weaknesses in the items made known, than that they should be sold abroad, or even in this country, and then have consumers complain about quality after the damage has been done.
We can see the advantage of this standard in motor-car safety belts. The standard for these belts has not yet been published but four firms are already making them to the new B.S.I. standard and a fifth is on the way. I believe that as soon as standards have been published and a certain stage has been reached, manufacturers will get together and have open days to show all they can do in these lines. This also means factory inspection by the B.S.I. before the Kite mark is given. This will make sure that when people buy a safety belt 1874 they will know that it will give them the protection which they require. The same thing happened about safety helmets. There were unsatisfactory and dangerous safety helmets, but a British standard was introduced and applied to all helmets made.
These standards give a guarantee against the manufacture of low-quality goods in this country. I believe that there should be a minimum standard for anything made in this country and that we cannot afford poor quality, whether the article costs 6d. or £600. There should be a queue of manufacturers waiting to have their products tested. Particularly in consumer goods, to which I am drawing attention, in every industry manufacturers who have not yet reached the stage of joining the queue for their goods to be tested should be told about the importance of this. They will not come forward until they see something in it for themselves, and throughout the country too many do not yet see any advantage for themselves in the Kite mark. We must prove to them the importance of ensuring that, whether they are good or not so good, they manufacture at least not to below the level of the standard; and they can manufacture to as much above the standard as they wish.
The publicity has been very poor. It is strange to note that the B.B.C. and I.T.V. prefer to show programmes about Cowboy Joe and angry young men and sexy plays than to put across some commonsense to the public. Much more of this could be done by them, and they should provide more programmes which allow the public to see what they ought to have rather than, as in so many cases, allowing the public to see what in my opinion they ought not to see, particularly the younger generation.
I should like to see more discussions in schools in the final year. We hear a great deal about what young people must learn, read and be taught in school in their final year, but some understanding of how to buy as well as how to budget is becoming a necessity for them when they go out into the highly competitive world of today. We could do more in putting this aspect across to the younger generation and impressing upon them the idea that they should not accept something which does not measure up to a recognisable standard. 1875 Many more of our women's organisations should know more about this. I have mentioned some of them who do, but it is a somewhat dreary subject and the Kite mark does not arouse any excitement that it is worth while. Nothing in the publicity which is put across gives the public more than a solid and rather stodgy idea of what the Kite mark means.
The Shoppers Guide has been well worth while and is a great advantage if people want to know what measures up to the standard they want and what is most suitable for the job in hand. As yet, however, it is limited in publication and it is nothing like as popular or as widely distributed as it would be if, first, more money was available and, secondly, the public knew more about it.
Standards are readily available, although not nearly widely enough known, for items ranging from children's wooden cots to eustachian catheters. We must develop a wider sale of the Shoppers Guide and we must recognise that certain compulsory standards are essential, particularly when safety is concerned. I am all against having a vast range of compulsory standards, because in the past we have been clever enough to produce compulsory standards only when they were absolutely essential. We have not been clever, however, when we have produced them far too late. I should like to see an extension by popular demand, except when safety is specifically in question, and then a compulsory standard is necessary.
We need to inform the public more of the value of the standard of the Kite mark and to make certain that it is worth informing people about, is easily recognisable, and is something for which manufacturers will scramble. We have now reached the point of no return in the whole idea of consumer standards. We can go on and be very successful, we can make the country worth-while standard conscious, or we can simply say that we do not care about the consumer and the vast range of unspecified and, in many cases, rather irresponsible standards available to the public will be allowed to range the country and nobody will know where they are. I thank you for the opportunity of raising this subject, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and 1876 I assure you that the time allotted to me has been very welcome indeed.
§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Bell (Bolton, East)
To use a conventional phrase, I am sure that the whole House, and particularly the Opposition, will welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). It was about consumers, and anything to do with consumers should be of intense interest to Members of Parliament. Although we hear a lot about workers and about employees, all people are consumers. Anybody who brings forward a learned discourse on how to help consumers to buy properly earns a great debt of gratitude from the House.
If I might digress for a moment, I am delighted to see my hon. Friend so handsomely contradict that malicious saying of Dr. Johnson, who said, I believe, that a woman speaking was like a dog walking on his hind legs; it did not do it very well, and the marvel was that it did it at all. I am delighted to find that old rascal being so contradicted by my hon. Friend's speech.
I do not pretend to know all that there is to know about the Kite mark, but what is clear from my hon. Friend's speech is that for some reason it is an uphill fight. I can well imagine that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to this debate, may well wonder what we can do in view of rather the difficulties that this good idea has met.
First, what about the manufacturers? If what my hon. Friend has said is true, the Kite mark is sensible and wise and it could be productive, and yet manufacturers are not tumbling over to get it. I doubt whether merely more advertisements on I.T.V. would make them queue up to adopt the mark, or, indeed, whether anything said here would induce them to do so, because commercial reasons are not making it popular to them.
One thing that occurs to me concerning the manufacturers' side is that if too many labels are attached to a bedstead nobody quite knows what label signifies what and the good will that a firm wants to build up it wants for itself. It does not want to build up good will for the Kite organisation, but wants it for itself. I remember as a young man, when I was 1877 concerned with trade marks in Lancashire, the terrific battles we had concerning them and how essential it was that in West Africa cloth stamped with a tiger meant that it was made by a certain manufacturer and woven by certain mills in Lancashire. Everybody was wanting his name to be known for good material and good workmanship. The marks were extremely valuable. Enormous sums were spent fighting to maintain them and not to get confusion. Therefore, marks on merchandise can have, and are generally thought to have, an enormous value.
It does not help for a manufacturer to confuse the mark. It is not much good having a lion leaping about over a wall and then a kite stuck on the corner, so that nobody quite knows that the mark is associated with the goods. One of the difficulties about the trademark is that a good firm wants to establish its own good name and does not want to share it with anybody else or to get it lost.
We talk about the standards that were introduced during the more restrictive days when we had minimum standards, and that is the danger. I can well understand the Kite mark being compulsory, as my hon. Friend said, on certain safety devices. It means that they are up to a minimum standard. People think, however, that if they are obtaining an article which represents a minimum standard, that is another way of saying that it is a low-quality and not a high-quality article. Take the example of having the Kite mark on safety helmets for motor cyclists or on stoves or appliances of that nature. Everybody takes it to mean that the article qualifies and is reliable. If, then, the Kite mark is put on expensive furniture, people say, "That is queer. I thought it was a good type of furniture, but I see that it is just minimum". There are, therefore, great difficulties in propaganda. I have every reason to believe that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is an expert in propaganda. He has been trained in it. Even his propaganda, however, will have great difficulty in overcoming the reluctance of the manufacturers.
The other thing that worries me—and I say this quite frankly because I like the idea of helping the consumer to be protected—is that he can only be pro- 1878 tected in the things which he cannot possibly leave to his own judgment. There are some things which the man in the street cannot form an opinion about, for they are too scientific and too complicated. In those cases he must either take the word of the firm or ask his friends.
I know that many people pay attention to the Good Housekeeping certificate for domestic appliances, and that can have some use in a limited field. But I find it difficult to believe that it could be spread very far, because people, rightly or wrongly, trust their own judgment on many ranges of goods. Very often people foolishly buy shoddy articles, but by and large they trust their own judgment. If they do not do so in buying such articles as a refrigerator or a gas stove, they ask their friends and take a kind of census of opinion. I do not think that a mark on such goods in most cases has a very great effect.
We must not overplay protection of the consumer. We are supposed to be an educated democracy. People should be told how to buy, but one should not do that by telling them not to examine an article itself but to examine its label, and that if a certain label is affixed, then the article is all right. The minimum standard label does not state that the article is, for instances, the best refrigerator. It may stop one buying a bad bargain but it will not necessarily get one a good bargain. People go for a good bargain and not necessarily for a minimum standard.
Perhaps all this is depressing for my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West, but my object is to get her to direct her campaigns to the real obstacles. On the whole, the idea of a popular mark guaranteeing minimum standards has great attractions, but the uphill fight which she is having shows that there are commercial difficulties which may be insurmountable, and which make it necessary to cut down her campaign to apply, for instance, to safety goods. These could have a minimum qualification, such as a guarantee that electric light bulbs would not break in pieces when switched on, and stoves would not blow up when lit. These are things of potential danger and could have a mark, but I am not convinced that, apart from safety devices, a better service generally could be obtained. 1879 I shall not detain the House any longer, for it is anxious to get away for its well earned vacation. I will conclude and promise not again to weary the House with any long address from me.
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)
This is far from being the first occasion on which the Kite mark has entered our debates, and I shall be surprised if it is the last. That is an indication of the interest which is taken in the mark as a protection for the consuming public—and rightly so, for the well being of the consumer is something which is very properly the concern of Members on both sides of the House. I must comment, however, after all the noise we have had from the party opposite about the need for a Ministry of Consumer Protection and the way in which it talks about this at election times, that the fact that there is not a single representative on the benches opposite now is a sad commentary on its real interest in the consumer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) made certain observations about weights and measures and registered agreements under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act into which it is not appropriate for me to go today. Nor do I wish to go into the matter of tests for inflammability of textiles, which we debated on Monday. I do, however, take up one controversial point which arose when she said that those who advertise least produce the best standards. That may be so in a limited field, but it is not true of the economy overall. I should not like anyone to be under any misapprehension that I share the hon. Lady's views about advertising. I think it performs a most valuable function.
§ Mrs. McLaughlin
What I wanted to make clear was that it was not always necessarily the manufacturers who advertise who produced the best goods, and that there were many others who produced as good or better who did not advertise.
§ Mr. Rodgers
What my hon. Friend is saying is that those people should advertise more, not the others less, and I agree. 1880 The Kite mark represents a serious, sustained, and, in my own personal view, wholly praiseworthy attempt to help the consuming public. I think we all agree that the Kite mark has a good deal to commend it.
It is based upon British Standards which have been voluntarily arrived at after the most careful consideration by those concerned. The standards are—the British Standards Institution stoutly contends and as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Philip Bell) has said—not just minimum standards or a common denominator but good pass marks indicative of a good honest product. Anyone who bothers to inquire can find out just what they cover and what they do not cover, and where the Kite mark is used the consumer and the retailer have an assurance that an independent and impartial body has taken all the necessary steps to verify that this particular product deserves a good pass mark.
As my hon. Friend has said, the Kite mark is a safeguard against shoddy goods, and is a check on extravagant claims. It guarantees that spot checks are continually being made. The Kite mark is not a once-and-for-all award, but it does guarantee that there is an underlying standard and method of supervision freely open to anyone who inquires.
We have heard today from the hon. Lady the disappointment that British Standards are not more widely used. I suggest that we should not allow ourselves to forget that there are instances of widespread use and acceptance of the Kite mark. It is used on the great majority of electric blankets made in this country, and many manufacturers of these blankets are glad to include the mark in their own advertisements. It is widely used on electric light bulbs, on furniture, on bedding, and on pressure cookers, and there are other goods in connection with which it has made useful progress. It has played a part in these fields and is accepted not only by small manufacturers but by large ones also whose names and brands are nationally advertised and nationally known. Let us remember that, even if it is not used as widely as its supporters would wish, there are these significant fields in which many manufacturers 1881 welcome it, some retailers insist upon it, and many consumers derive real benefit from it.
But there are, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bolton, East said, two schools of thought about the value of the Kite mark. I have enumerated some of the advantages, but there are those who feel that it really is the lowest common denominator, that it is not a standard of excellence. Manufacturers often explain their unwillingness to seek a Kite mark licence, or to use a Kite mark, with the argument that their own brand names, vigorously promoted and jealously guarded, are the consumers' best protection. I must confess that there is a good deal in this argument. Or they argue that the use of the Kite mark on a product of appreciably better standard than the British Standard will suggest to the customer that it is not really better than all the others and not worth the extra price even though the Kite mark is added. That was the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bolton, East. Certainly, some manufacturers hold strongly to such opinions, and in many cases they are among the leaders, producing first-class merchandise well suited to meet consumer demands.
Another difficulty is that it is not always easy to produce an agreed British Standard on which the award of the Kite mark can be based. There are cases in which the consumer organisations would dearly have liked such a Standard established but in which the manufacturers do not think it practicable to produce one. This may be because there are variations beyond their control, in the basic materials which they use; perhaps because quality depends on intangible craftsmanship and know-how; perhaps because no consistent and satisfactory tests can be devised to verify compliance with a standard.
My hon. Friend suggested that one of the things to do would be to have a graded Kite mark. Certainly, I should be glad if the B.S.I. would consider this idea, if, indeed, it has not already done so. But without anticipating any conclusions it might come to on the subject, I would think that it is one of those ideas which are not quite so 1882 easy to carry out in practice as one would like them to be.
What I fear might happen if there is no clear distinction in the Kite mark between the better and the ordinary grade is that the public would have no means of knowing which was which. If the ordinary grades were distinguishable by the public from the better grades, and that after all would be the essence of such arrangements, then very few—indeed I would say no—manufacturers would want to proclaim that their perfectly respectable produce was merely of the ordinary grade. But, possibly, there is a way to get over these difficulties and I am sure that B.S.I. will continue to examine them. The point that we want to stick to here is that the B.S.I. Kite mark is a good pass, and I want to emphasise the word "good".
I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be all to the good if the Kite mark were more widely known and recognised. The approach which I believe the British Standards Institution now regards as most promising is to make the Kite mark and its merits so well known to members of the public that they will increasingly demand in the shops that they be supplied only with Kite marked goods. Under such pressure, the argument runs, the retailer will press in turn until the manufacturer recognises that use of the Kite mark has a positive sales value to him. I confess that this seems to me an eminently sensible and practical approach to the problem, and I know that the British Standards Institution has already done a great deal in this direction.
I recall that an excellent display was staged in Regent Street last summer. The Institution has arranged numerous others in large stores and has been encouraged by the Co-operative Wholesale Society to participate in the Society's well-attended exhibitions at various places throughout the country. The efforts of the Consumer Advisory Council and of the Women's Advisory Committee, through their lectures and conferences, may be less spectacular but no less fruitful, and the daily Press has shown increasing interest with references to the Kite mark, both in news items and in special articles. The Press has shown a more forward-looking policy in this respect than have radio and television.
1883 All this must surely have the progressive effect which the Consumer Advisory Council and the Institution desire. I am sure that they would like to do more and progress faster and I would be the last to wish to obstruct them. But as I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West today—and she was very guarded in what she said—she was hinting that the Government might do more to encourage and assist such efforts. I can assure the House that the Government recognise the value of the work which the B.S.I. is doing.
The Board of Trade makes an annual grant-in-aid to the Institution, which in more recent times has been supplemented by a sum specifically for its work on behalf of the domestic consumer. Our grants are in no way sought or given for the execution of specific projects. The Institution is rightly jealous of its independent status. It depends on the Government for less than one-third of its total income. It has always been understood that, having made known to us its broad plans and financial estimates, the Institution is at complete liberty to apply its total income as it thinks fit.
For the present financial year we are giving the Institution a general grant of £160,000, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and a special grant of £10,000 in support of its work for the domestic consumer. The former sum is greater by £10,000 than any previous grant to B.S.I. The latter is maintained at last year's level. It is, of course, true that there are always, many projects of importance clamouring for attention, and that what is desirable has to be related to what is practicable. But this is a problem which we all face in our lives. How the Institution will decide to allocate its resources this year I do not know, but since its grants from public funds are greater than ever before it certainly seems reasona0ble to suppose that publicity for the Kite mark can be maintained at or above the useful level of last year's activity.
On the question of special assistance for publicity, let me say at the outset that the Board of Trade has had no request from the Institution for a special grant for the specific purpose of publicising the Kite mark. But, even sup- 1884 posing that such an idea were advanced for serious consideration, I frankly confess that I do not see what could reasonably be done about it at the present time. This issue of the Kite mark is not self-contained. It is part of the whole question of consumer protection which the Molony Committee has under review. I believe that it would be out of the question to take action on one aspect of the problem without the Committee's advice, and equally out of the question to expect the Committee to give advice on that one aspect in advance of its overall judgment. I do not know which horse the Committee on Consumer Protection will back, but I do know that, having invited the advice of as competent a body as one can find, it is the height of folly to invest large sums of the taxpayers' money in advance of that advice.
It has also been suggested that the Government should make the requirement of the British Standard compulsory. This, again, is within the province of the Molony Committee. I would have the gravest doubts in suggesting in advance, even if it were in order this afternoon, the possibility of legislation on these lines. If such a suggestion were made, it would doubtless prove controversial, and I can well see that strong opinions would be held on both sides as to whether compulsory standards were or were not required.
I now come to the suggestion that there are a number of British Standards which are, in the light of today's knowledge, obsolete. The hon. Lady mentioned particularly oil heaters in this regard. I think that her general contention may very well be true, though we ought not to exaggerate the magnitude of this problem. What we have to remember here, I think, is that a British standard incorporated in a Kite mark can be regarded only as a "good pass". With improvements in practice and in our knowledge of how to make and use things and the evolution of new methods of testing things, the standard of the "good pass" can be, and should be, raised.
No doubt the technical committees of B.S.I. are already exceedingly busy in devising standards for things at present not subject to standards, and it may therefore be necessary for the public at large, and I would add, such organs of 1885 B.S.I. as the Consumer Advisory Council and the Women's Advisory Committee to bring to the notice of those concerned in B.S.I. the need for bringing some particular standard up to date.
The hon. Lady mentioned the popularity of other seals of approval, such as the Good Housekeeping seal, and the Lux Washing Bureau, and I have noted what she said on the relative popularity of the Kite mark and of other seals of approval. I would ask her, and the House, however, to excuse me from commenting on this point, because it would be difficult to do so without becoming involved in a matter which is, I understand, at present the subject of litigation. Therefore, I do not propose to say any words on that.
In conclusion, I should like to congratulate the B.S.I. on the work it has already done on consumer standards. It is not working alone in this field and I do not wish to attempt the invidious task of assessing the relative merits of its work and that of its colleagues. For the reasons I have given, we must await the Molony Committee's Report before we can decide on any changes in Government policy.
In the meantime, there is much that the Institution and manufacturers can do to further this useful work, and I wish them every success. I am sure that the whole House will join with me in thanking the hon. Lady for raising this very important subject on the Adjournment today. Equally, I should like to say to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bolton, East that, if his remarks about this being the last time he will address this House are true, this is a sad day for us all. We have enjoyed his speeches. He has enlightened our debates, brought great powers of oratory and great common sense and wisdom to them, and I, for one, shall miss his voice in the future.