HC Deb 05 May 1961 vol 639 cc1817-40
Mr. R. Edwards

I beg to move, in page 6, line 43, leave out "on premises".

This is a very simple Amendment. It arises fundamentally out of representations made to me by Committees actively concerned with home safety, particularly the Romford Home Safety Committee. I am happy to say that that Committee takes a very active and intelligent interest in the Bill. It suggested that the Bill should be amended in the form suggested so as to allow for search of and control over stalls at markets, and mobile shops. This seems a reasonable Amendment, and I hope that it will be accepted.

Mr. J. Wells

I very much welcome the Amendment. In parts of the country where there are large new towns the mobile shop has become a great feature of post-war years, providing a service to the community on large housing estates. It would be very unfortunate if mobile shops were not covered by this provision.

Dr. Alan Glyn

I am sure that we all welcome this Amendment, but I am a little uncertain about one point to which the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) made. I think he said that the Amendment would have the effect of including stalls—

Mr. R. Edwards

Market stalls.

Dr. Glyn

This is what I am not sure about. I had always understood that one of the features of the marché ouvert was that it was not subject to inspection, that stolen goods or any goods could be sold there, and that it was one place where there was practically no restrictions on the sale of goods whatever. Many of us will know about the market in the Portobello Road and the old Caledonian Market in London. I have always understood that those were places where goods were displayed for sale, almost without any restriction, and that title, for instance, was very difficult to establish once an article had been through the marché ouvert.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maid-stone (Mr. J. Wells) has drawn my attention to Section 49 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, which provides: Subject to the provisions of this section, the council of a borough or urban district and, with the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, the council of a rural district may—

  1. (a) establish a market within their district;
  2. (b) acquire by agreement (but not otherwise), either by purchase or on lease, the whole or any part of an existing market undertaking within their district, and any rights enjoyed by any person within their district in respect of a market and of tolls, and, in either case, may provide—
  1. (i) a market place with convenient approaches thereto;
  2. (ii) a market house and other buildings convenient for the holding of a market."
I think that that serves to illustrate that these markets are part of our institutions in this country.

The first object of the Amendment is to include mobile shops. I am in favour of that, but I should not like to see our ancient and established customs disturbed. These markets are held all over the country, and I should not like the goods there to be subject to inspection so that the whole character of the markets was altered.

I am not sure that I have understood the hon. Member for Bilston aright. I should like to have his comments. Also, I should very much welcome the advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State. He is here only to help and advise us, but I should be greatly obliged if he would let us know whether the Amendment would extend the application of the Bill to the marché ouvert, because that would be a very sweeping change in the common law of this country, a change in an established principle or custom which has lasted, I should imagine, for seven or eight hundred years.

Mr. John Barter (Ealing, North)

Will my hon. Friend agree that the principal reason for markets of this kind is that they provide a place where the buyer hopes to see a variety of objects displayed for sale and pick out for himself a bargain at a bargain price, the whole principle of the system depending upon the maxim caveat emptor, that the buyer must beware of what he is buying if he hopes to find something at an extremely advantageous price? The buyer takes the article at the risk that there are inherent defects in it when he buys it. Is there not a little more at stake here, namely, the question whether it is right for the buyer to be relieved of his legal obligation to beware of what he is buying?

Dr. Alan Glyn

I am grateful for that intervention by my hon. Friend who has put the point much more clearly than I have. There is our well established principle of caveat emptor which, though my Latin is a little rusty, I understand to mean that one must take cognisance oneself of what one is buying. All manner of goods are sold on the market stall, and the intending buyer can go round—I have in mind particularly the Portobello Road and the Caledonian Market—in order to secure for himself a bargain.

I want to know whether this Amendment will upset the machinery which has been in existence for hundreds of years and which is now part of our English way of life. I should be very loth to see inspectors going round our markets and treating them as shops which, virtually, is what would happen. That is how I understand it. Perhaps I have misinterpreted the effect of it, but the word "stall" used by the hon. Member for Bilston leads me to suspect that that was the category of selling place or market at which he was aiming.

I am sure that it would not be the hon. Member's intention to damage that tradition, and I should like to know exactly what it is intended to cover. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State will give us his advice, supported by his weighty knowledge of the law, so that he may be quite sure, when we accept this Amendment, that we are not upsetting the age-old procedure of the marché ouvert which, I believe, has existed almost since the days of the Conquest.

Mr. Darling

There is nothing novel here. It is not a new idea. If I recollect aright, the hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) himself voted for a provision of this kind, that stalls in market places should come under inspection in respect of goods covered by safety regulations, when he voted for the Oil Burners (Standards) Bill. That Bill, which is now an Act, provides for the inspection of oil burners sold anywhere on stalls, in markets or wherever it may be. It is rather regrettable—I say this with all due deference—that the hon. Member at this stage should suggest that unsafe appliances could be sold in markets, having regard to the principle we have accepted in previous legislation.

Dr. Glyn

The hon. Member has not quite understood my point. I am not so much concerned with the selling of the goods. The point is that it would upset the whole machinery of the marché's ouverts of this country so that they would be subject to inspection. They would have to be. I agree that we did, perhaps, accept an omnibus power under the Oil Burners (Standards) Act, but I see no reason why that precedent should be followed in another Measure which is much more comprehensive and which relates to almost any conceivable article. The oil burner is but one article. We let the other provision go through without realising, perhaps, that it would mean the inspection of markets. This Bill is very much more comprehensive, as my hon. Friends have repeatedly stressed. As I understand it—I may be wrong—what is here proposed would mean—

Mr. Darling

Is this an intervention?

Dr. Glyn

I am sorry.

Mr. Darling

I will reply very briefly to that intervention. Where there is a choice between the old traditions of markets and the health, safety and welfare of the people, I choose health, safety and welfare.

Mr. Dudley Williams

I always like to show how fair I am when dealing with private Members' legislation and that I am not taking a purely party line. In this case I am not in favour of the attitude taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn), although I understand the force of his argument. I rather favour the view of the promoter of the Bill. I thought that he would be touched if he were assured that he had this support and if he were made aware of the fact that I am approaching this matter without any prejudice.

It would be wise to accept the Amendment. Indeed, it would be unfair not to do so. It would be unfair on the ordinary shopkeeper, with whom I am particularly concerned, if he had to conform to certain regulations while the person who sells his goods in an open market was not subject to similar regulations. For that reason I advise my hon. Friends who have been extremely critical of this Bill—and who I think have been perfectly justified in being critical—that on this occasion it is right that the Amendment should be accepted.

Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will tell us whether he thinks this is a desirable Amendment. In my view, it is, and I shall support it unless my hon. and learned Friend can put forward any strong views to the contrary.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I certainly have no hesitation in advising the House that this is a desirable Amendment, partly for the reasons expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams).

My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) asked me to explain one point, which I gladly will. He asked whether it will be possible to apply this schedule to goods sold in market overt—for example, in the Caledonian market and similar markets elsewhere. The answer is "Yes", but in that connection one must bear two things in mind. First, when making regulations under paragraph 3 of the Schedule it will be for the Secretary of State to decide to what extent, if any, the Schedule is to apply. That is the first modification of the general principle, that the Schedule will apply to goods sold in market overt. The other is that a great many of the goods sold in market overt are goods which are excepted in any event from the provisions of the Bill by Clause 2 (3), and one has to remember that by an Amendment which we discussed a short time ago, an addition has been made to subsection (3) in two respects.

What it comes to is this, that although this Schedule and the powers of inspection which it gives may apply to goods sold in the Caledonian market and elsewhere, there are a good many things sold in that market which cannot be made the subject of regulations under the Bill—or, to put it more accurately, there are goods which are excluded from the operation of regulations which may be made under this Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

3.4 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams

We are now considering the Bill in its final form and we have to decide whether it should receive a Third Reading. I have never concealed my dislike of this Bill. I spoke against it on Second Reading; I spoke repeatedly against it in Standing Committee, and I have done so this afternoon with one exception—on the last Amendment.

In my opinion, this is a badly conceived Bill. If it is to become law at all, the Bill should have been introduced by the Government of the day and not by a private Member. I have said so repeatedly. We have the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act, 1956, dealing with the problems and conditions under which food and drugs are sold, and we have the Firearms Act, both of which important Measures were introduced by the Government of the day. Now we have a Private Member's Bill which affects the retail and manufacturing trades in a most comprehensive manner. I hope that I shall not be out of order in referring once more to Clause 1. Clause 1 gives very comprehensive powers indeed to the Secretary of State. I would mention, shortly, what they are. First, he can prescribe any such regulations as he thinks fit to …the composition or contents, design, construction, finish or packing of… any goods sold. That, as I interpret it, means that he has almost authority on design. He may say, "I am not going to approve this design. It is not in accordance with what I think is the right design for these particular goods." The design may not affect the lethal or near-lethal quality of the goods. He may not like the design of the goods, without any regard to the fact that they may be dangerous. It is a very comprehensive power given to the Secretary of State, and I am against it and always shall be.

Of course, the Secretary of State is restricted under the Bill to deal only with those catering for goods which are liable to cause death or injury. But that can be very widely read. On Second Reading, I raised the question of footwear, and I was called to order by the Chair. But some footwear can cause death or injury. For instance, there are the boots made for mountaineers. A badly-constructed mountaineering boot may well cause death or injury. This is the sort of tangle we get into when a Bill of this kind is passed through the House.

It is a very comprehensive Measure to pass, and I do not think that it should go through on a Friday when it is well known that few hon. Members attend. It is not only the powers given to the Secretary of State to which I object. I also object to the impact that those powers may have on vast sections of the population. That is the point that I made in particular in Standing Committee.

I have always taken the view, and I persist in it to this moment, that it is wrong that under the Bill regulations should be made and penalties inflicted upon people who have no responsibility for the goods at all, except that they happen to sell them. It is all very well to say, as one hon. Member who is no longer in the Chamber said, that shopkeepers should not buy goods from travelling salesmen; they should buy them from reputable firms only. That seems to be a bit hard on the travelling salesman with a reputable career. I get salesmen calling at my house in Devonshire from time to time. They sell reasonable goods. Many of them are ex-Service men trying to earn a living. I personally have nothing against the travelling salesmen with a little bag of goods who says, for instance, "I have a new line in washing gloves and I want you to buy them". I do not think that we should say that a shopkeeper cannot buy goods from travelling salemen and that he ought to buy them from a well-established wholesaler.

The Bill will not affect the big chain stores. They are quite capable of looking after themselves. They have departments to see that they keep within the law. They have departments which make certain that the goods they sell conform with ail the regulations issued from time to time. They are not the people who will get into trouble.

But even if they did get into trouble I should be sympathetic towards them, because they are not the people whom we are trying to catch. The people we want to catch are the unscrupulous manufacturers who produce shoddy goods and unload them on the public, and nobody in this House or outside it who has any sense of responsibility would support that kind of person. It is monstrous that that sort of behaviour should be permitted, and I should support the Government if, later on, they introduced legislation to deal with such gentlemen. They are not admirable, and I do not think that anyone supports their activities.

But that is not what will happen under the Bill. Clause 2 gives very wide power to the Secretary of State. It says: Subject to the provisions of this section, no person shall sell, or have in his possession for the purpose of selling, any goods and so on. That is what I object to. I am not concerned about the manufacturer. He naturally must take responsibility for what he manufactures, and if he desires to manufacture an inferior sort of appliance—a firearm, or a piece of electrical equipment—he should have sufficient technical resources at his disposal to make certain that when that article reaches the public it is not likely to cause injury or death. It is right for Parliament to pass laws making it incumbent upon such individuals to see that they do not unload lethal goods on the public.

But it is quite wrong that similar penalties should be applied to those in the distributive trades. It is monstrous to apply the same penalties to the small shopkeepers, of whom we have between 500,000 and 750,000, and to make them responsible for the sins of the manufacturers. Much play has been made of the fact that some of the goods they buy are imported. There may be a case for introducing a Measure to give the Government control of imported goods which are likely to cause serious injury or death. But that is not a responsibility of the distributive trades. Shopkeepers buy the goods, and they must assume that in a law-abiding country such as this those goods are suitable for the purpose for which they are sold.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to the Sale of Goods Act, but he knows as well as I do that if goods are brought in from abroad the chances of the shopkeeper recovering any damages under that Act are remote. There is probably a case for legislation of that nature. But the penalty should be applied to those who are doing the mischief, and not to those who are in no way responsible, but who have taken the goods in good faith and are acting the part of distributors for those goods. I could not give support to a Bill of this nature, and I hope that it will not receive a Third Reading.

It could be argued that action should have been taken before the Bill reached this stage, and that it could have been rejected on Second Reading. You know as well as I do, Mr. Speaker, that some Bills commence their passage through the House when we are so busy that we find it difficult to keep track of what is happening. In those cases it is only when the Bill is presented to a group of Members in Committee, or to the House on Report, that we realise what its impact is likely to be upon society. In those circumstances, there can be no criticism of the fact that the Bill received a Second Reading. That was quite understandable.

It had a bitter contest in Standing Committee and now it is proposed to take the final step which, if the Bill receives a Third Reading, will result in it leaving this House for another place. I should not like the Measure to leave the House without it being made clear that it still requires considerable amendment. If it is given a Third Reading—and I hope it is not—I hope that noble Lords will take note of these remarks and realise that the Bill requires drastic alteration before it reaches the Statute Book.

If those in another place decide that it needs drastic amendment, I hope that they will give particular attention to the impact of the powers of the Secretary of State on the retail trade by regulations which he can issue under the Bill. I hope also that certain products will be excluded from the impact of the regulations, although I realise that to pursue that subject would be out of order.

It is wrong to give the Secretary of State the powers embodied in this Bill—powers that are so comprehensive that they will hit the small people hardest. For that reason, if a Division is called I hope that I shall have enough hon. Members with me to ensure that the Measure does not receive a Third Reading.

3.17 p.m.

Mr. Darling

I hope that the Bill receives a Third Reading and I hope also that hon. Gentlemen opposite who have been listening, and who perhaps intend to support the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), will bear in mind that most of the hon. Member's arguments were thoroughly examined in Standing Committee. Upon study of the proceedings of that Committee, hon. Members will agree that a substantial case was made for the Bill as it stands.

It is a simple Measure, although it has wide scope, and it is worth while, so that the records shall be kept clear, that I should comment on the arguments adduced by those who wish the Bill to proceed no further. It may be that, in the course of the next few years, we shall see domestic and other appliances on the market which can cause danger. If the need for safety regulations against such appliances is proved—such as oil burners where there were deaths and disasters—the Government have power to introduce safety regulations to apply to those products.

It would be impossible to lay down categories of goods and appliances to which this power of making regulations should apply, because no one knows what kind of goods we shall be dealing with in the future. Perhaps, in the years to come, we shall have infra-red ray cookers, instead of the present types, and perhaps new regulations will have to be enforced. In my view, there is no danger in the comprehensive nature of the Bill, because the regulations which will be introduced under it must have the sanction of this House.

This is a Bill to protect people, not against manufacturers who may be deliberately making unsafe appliances and putting on the market dangerous goods, but against manufacturers who do not know, when they first design their goods, that they are dangerous. That, of course, was the situation the Government faced with regard to oil stoves, when reputable manufacturers were making stoves that were up to the standards laid down by the British Standards Institute. It was not until we had many unfortunate disasters, which I wish hon. Members opposite would occasionally mention, that we knew that these standards were not satisfactory, and new standards had to be brought in. Reputable manufacturers accepted them straight away.

But we are faced with this question: do we make those standards compulsory on all manufacturers? The Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) believe that we should; that is why my hon. Friend introduced the Bill. We believe that all the standards should be made compulsory. There is a very good reason, and it is to ensure that all the appliances on the market are safe.

The Bill gives protection not only to the consumer but to the reputable manufacturer—and that is a point which has not been clearly brought out by hon. Members opposite who criticise the Bill. One of its main functions is to protect the reputable manufacturer, the reputable wholesaler and the reputable retailer, all of whom are in the majority in their various trades. The Bill gives protection not only to consumers but to the reputable people engaged in business.

For those reasons we think that the Bill should have a Third Reading. Speaking for myself, I cannot for the life of me think of any arguments for refusing the Bill a Third Reading and for doing anything to prevent its quick passage to the Statute Book

Mr. Dudley Williams

Will the hon. Member bear in mind that those of us who take exception to the Bill have never said that we want to protect anyone who is unscrupulous? We have said that we should go for the unscrupulous manufacturers but that we do not want penalties inflicted on an unfortunate retailer who may not know that he has bought an article which is below standard.

Mr. Darling

It was made clear to the hon. Member in Committee that anybody who is in that position has a perfect defence if brought into court.

Dr. Alan Glyn

This is the point which fundamentally divides the two sides of the House. In Committee we pointed out that it was far better for the manufacturers to bear the burden and that the administration would be far easier to conduct and to check in that case. We pointed out that the average shopkeeper could not be cognisant of every possible regulation and that it was unfair to expect him to be so.

Mr. Darling

That point was covered in Committee. We agree with the hon. Member that the main point of inspection and the real onus of responsibility must be on the manufacturer. That is implicit in the Bill.

3.23 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I join the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) in hoping that the Bill will get a Third Reading. But we should recognise that this Private Member's Bill will give the Government wider powers than probably any other Private Member's Bill introduced into the House this century. It therefore does not seem to me in the least improper that a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), Maid-stone (Mr. J. Wells) and Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn), have sought to give the provisions of the Bill very thorough scrutiny. The powers are exceedingly wide.

It is a point of interest that although the powers are of such immense breadth very little representation about them has been made by industry or, as far as I know, by the retail trade. There are a number of very vocal trading and industrial organisations in this country and most of us receive a very large post every day, including observations from these various organisations on the Government's conduct and on legislation which is passing through the House. Although I spoke in the Second Reading debate—I was not on the Committee—I have received no representations of any sort from the industrial or retail trading organisations that the provisions of the Bill should be changed. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter in particular speaks on behalf of many shopkeepers, but no official representations have gone out. If there were real concern about the way in which the Bill could be changed for the better, one would have thought that by this stage those representations would have been made.

The hon. Member for Hillsborough referred to the number of accidents to oil heaters which one would not say were caused in any way by a standard that was out of keeping with the times. If, however, the Bill is to be effective, concomitant with it we must have a constant review of the safety standards for a large number of goods. The Government will have to face the fact that this will mean a bigger grant for the British Standards Institution, which will have considerably increased scope and a considerably increased rôle to play.

Mr. Darling

That would be one way of avoiding the introduction of a lot of regulations. The bigger the job that the B.S.I. can do voluntarily to get standards raised, the less need will there be for regulations in Parliament.

Mr. Goodhart

I agree. The Government's duty by no means ends with the enforcement of the Bill if and when it reaches the Statute Book.

Consider the case of inflammable nightdresses. It is theoretically possible under the provisions of the Bill to ban the manufacture of nightdresses made of any material that is non-non-inflammable, if I may introduce a triple negative into the argument, not for the first time today. Clearly the Government will not introduce regulations of that sort. No hon. Member, on either side, would consider the time ripe for such sweeping action.

Meanwhile, these tragic accidents occur. In the last few days, alas, in my constituency, a young woman died as a result of her nightdress bursting into flames. The Government have a positive responsibility, apart from the negative powers given in the Bill, to encourage the use of non-inflammable materials for garments such as nightdresses and children's clothing and to encourage safety in a number of positive ways. Thus I welcome the Bill, which gives the Government the widest possible negative powers. I remind my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary that the Government have considerable positive duties to fulfil also.

3.29 p.m.

Lady Gammans (Hornsey)

I am glad of the opportunity to take part in a debate on this important Measure which affects so many people and will have such far-reaching effects on all sections of the community. As a member of the Home Safety Committee, I have made a special study of the problems connected with personal safety and there are one or two points in Clause 1 concerning chiefly safety measures which I should like to emphasise.

The Bill will give long-term and permanent powers to enable the Secretary of State to make regulations so that there will be no need for a lot of new separate Bills whenever there are new items of consumer goods which we use in our daily lives and which appear to be dangerous. This is particularly important in view of the fact that recently the number of accidents has increased tremendously, particularly accidents in which people are burned. We have all read of the terrible instances when children and adults have been burned by accident.

I hope that strong representations will be made to the Committee which is still sitting to review the subject of inflammable materials and their dangers. The Interim Report of the Committee gave us definite guidance about those materials. I know, however, that the views of one of the major firms producing material for making fabrics non-inflammable, and of another firm which has produced something quite new, were not sought by the Committee. I imagine that was because the Committee was asked to produce a report rather quickly. It seems obvious that the Committee did not have time to take all the evidence about these various new processes. It was set up because of the special need to review the situation owing to the trouble with the oil heaters.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin), who, unfortunately, is not able to be here today, has said, standards generally for consumer safety are laid down but are not in force. To my mind, these safety standards need constant review, not just review now and again, but constant review, because, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) mentioned just now, we are living in a mechanical age when we are handling all kinds of dangerous appliances, things quite different from those we used to have to deal with.

Some of us are not experts and do not understand all these appliances such as electrical appliances, or all the medicines there are, such as aspirins which do not agree with everybody, such as pink aspirins which children consider sweets. Then there are, for instance, polythene hot water bottles which tend to burst; some bicycle lamps and rear lights which do not reflect enough light; a hundred and one other things which we can all think of—sun-glasses with bad lenses which injure the sight; rims of glasses which are, perhaps, impregnated with dye injurious to some people's skins; things like those rotary lawnmowers which cause very dangerous accidents. I myself had an accident with one of those. There are all these kinds of things which we can all think of and which are used in our daily lives.

We all, and especially those of us who are not experts, need the protection of these safety standards, which should be constantly reviewed, because we need to be protected. I have always been against spoon-feeding people. I do not think that people should be helped too much. They should be careful about what they buy and understand what they use and not rely too much on help from others, but, because of all these difficult new things which we have to deal with, I think that we should be helped by having safety standards and having them reviewed continually.

Lastly, I think that there should be some safety kite-mark on as many goods as possible—I would hesitate to say all—so that it will be easier for the ordinary man and woman to know that he or she is buying an article which has been tested and passed as safe. Most of the points that I intended to mention have been made already and I will not repeat them now, but I am all in favour of the Bill and I should like to see it have a Third Reading.

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Barter

I am substantially in support of the important points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), but nevertheless, happily for the promoters of the Bill, I reach a different conclusion about the support that I should give it. The point that we should bear in mind is that the stated purpose of the Bill is absolutely unexceptionable. If one were to ask whether it was generally desirable or undesirable to protect consumers, there is no doubt that everybody would say that it is desirable so to do. Therefore, it is difficult to vote against a Measure of this kind.

We in the House and in Standing Committee have had the duty of considering not only the purpose of the Bill and to ask what are the desirable objectives which it sets out to achieve and whether we are in favour of achieving them. We have also had the responsibility of considering its side-effects. We have had to consider what precisely will be the effect on various members of the community who will be involved if the Bill is to do any good at all.

I am deeply concerned about the position of the small retailer. I know that the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) has said that this has been adequately dealt with in Standing Committee and in the House today and that we have had repeated assurances on the point. I recollect from my attendances in Standing Committee and the many discussions in which I took part that we were given some assurances. They boil down to this—that the powers conferred on the Executive by the Bill will not be widely used.

That may be a comforting assurance to receive. It may be interesting to know that the Government feel that they are in a happy position if they have powers to bring regulations into force if they want them. But how can we who have been elected to the House to preserve the community know that that is the case? How can we be sure that these assurances are valid and that in future retailers, particularly small retailers, will not be inundated by a flood of regulations under this Measure which make their already difficult life more difficult?

This is one of the side-effects that cause me concern. While we may set out with the best intentions to make regulations for the protection of the consumer, in due course, as a result of this Measure being wrongly applied, we may be having regulations made to the disadvantage of the consumer because the small retailers find it increasingly difficult to carry on business under regulations with which they are unable to cope.

If this Bill were to be applied stringently, if the powers conferred by it were used to a considerable extent, I can very well foresee that the small retailers may find it an added burden to the many burdens already imposed upon them. As it now stands, they are the first persons who are responsible for any goods they sell which prove to have produced some danger to the consumer if they are prescribed under the Bill. If, as I surmise, it is possible that the regulations are imposed to a considerable extent, and if it is possible that the small retailers find them increasingly difficult to carry out, the result of that situation will be to the substantial disadvantage of the consumer.

We have also heard this afternoon about another effect which is quite substantial, and that relates to the question of marché ouvert. This Bill will represent a substantial change, in certain respects, in the legal situation with regard to responsibility for the suitability of goods for the purposes to which they are to be put after purchase. I think we all have a duty to consider not only the desirable objective which has been stated as being the purpose of the Bill, but also the many side effects which spring from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) in his speech, to which I listened with great interest, referred to the fact that he had no complaints from any of the retail organisations. I do not think myself that that is conclusive evidence that the retail organisations are necessarily aware of the possible effects of this Bill, or that they are fully aware of the consequences that may spring from it. I should have liked to have asked my hon. Friend, if he had given me the opportunity of intervening in his speech, which he did not do, whether he had received any substantial representations from consumers as to the need for the Bill, and whether, in fact, bearing in mind that there are many more consumers than retailers, the need for the Bill became evident from the number of comments he received. However, he did not give me that opportunity.

Mr. Goodhart

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having given way to him. I did not see him.

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Would the hon. Member please address the Chair?

Mr. Goodhart

I would have given way to my hon. Friend if I had seen him, but I should like to say to him that surely the time for consumers to make their representations in very large numbers was when the Molony Committee was considering this point. I understand that very wide representations were made by consumers at that particular time. I should have thought that the terms of this Bill are drawn so clearly by the hon. Member for Bilston that any organisation of retailers would be able very easily to understand the very wide implications of it.

Mr. Barter

I should like to comment on what my hon. Friend has just said to this extent. The observations which we have made in the course of the Committee stage and other stages of this Bill have been such as to give adequate notice to everybody affected by the possible consequences which might flow from it. For my part, I commenced my observations by saying that I had reached a different conclusion from that reached by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter.

That different conclusion is based firstly upon the assurance given by my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary that he does not anticipate that it will be necessary to use the powers very widely, and, secondly, on the assumption that the needs of consumer protection are so considerable as to warrant some attempt to regulate them in the way laid out in the Bill.

However, I should like to seek an assurance—I hope that it may be possible yet to receive it, although many attempts have so far been made and have failed—that if it is found that the effects of the Bill in operation are too wide and that the consequences which I have suggested are taking place as a result of this Measure and the other Measures which are confronting the smaller retailers, the opportunity will be taken at a later stage to reconsider it. In the meantime, I am very happy to lend my support to the Bill, with the reservations which I have put before the House and which I am sure will be clearly understood.

3.46 p.m.

Mr. J. Wells

Like other hon. Members, I support the concept behind the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) not only upon his luck but upon having got the Bill so far, and also upon his very hard work today and before today for the idea on which we are all so keen. But from there on I am afraid that I differ from him. There are many details of the Bill which I still dislike. I am, however, most grateful to the hon. Member for his assurances that he will endeavour to get certain matters rectified, in particular the substantial matter in the last Amendment that he moved. I am also very sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), who was so helpful to us in the Committee, is so ill that he is not with us this afternoon.

On this very important Bill the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) has dealt at some length with the idea that there will be new items of equipment and goods as yet un-thought of, and that there is constantly a change in the type of goods which may be dangerous. I fully realise that we are living in times of great technological advance. It might well be that twenty years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Lady Gammans) might not have cut her toes in a rotary lawn-mower because rotary lawn-mowers were not then in existence. In a further twenty years' time the mechanical gardener may have some other hazards.

Times change, and I appreciate the hon. Member's point that a Bill to protect the consumer must be so worded that there is scope for alteration. Even so, I dislike some of the vagueness of it. I dislike these large nebulous powers which have been given to the Government by a Private Member's Bill. I have great objection to that. Furthermore, I do not believe that one can protect a fool from his own folly. That is quite impossible.

I am the father of a number of small children, and I know the hazards that we all have who are parents. [Laughter.] I am being very serious about the hazards which arise when one is bringing up a small family. One may cook by electricity or gas. There are many risks which parents see their children taking every day. No amount of legislation will stop, nor should it, a small girl learning to cook working alongside her mother, and occasionally there is a disaster. It is a great tragedy that that sort of thing occurs. We are anxious that such protection as is reasonable should be available; but it is the protection of the wise and well-informed parent, the protection of the sensible person going shopping on his own behalf, and not that achieved by specifying a lot of goods which are potentially dangerous.

I am sorry to return to the subject of the rotary lawn mower, but it is an item of equipment with which most of us are familiar. I am sure that my hon. Friend was doing her best to work the machine as well as possible, and she knew the risks of using it at all. Within the next 48 hours I shall probably be using one myself. I shall do so as carefully as I can, but the fact remains that if I come to the House on Monday with no toes on my left foot, no amount of legislation will put them back again. Therefore, I do not think that the Bill, as it stands, is effective.

It has been suggested by various hon. Members that our debates on this Bill may, or could possibly, do damage to our export trade, and that is another of my great objections to the Measure. I do not like the idea of imputations that British manufacture is not what it ought to be. That just is not true. British manufacture is of the very best and finest quality in the world, and it would be a tragedy if our debates should give a wrong impression to the countries to which we export.

I am also very anxious that those countries that send goods to us should not gather from what we have been saying that they, in turn, can send us shoddy goods. Different standards apply in different parts of the world. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham made some point about the British Standards Institution. That very excellent body should, if possible, have more Government support, and I suggest that it is by a raising of standards and not by means of a Bill like this that the consumer should be protected.

I turn to the question of where the burden of responsibility should lie. The hon. Member for Bilston very rightly said that he did not wish to harass the small retailer. We quite appreciate his sincerity, but the fact is that there are three substantial categories of people who ought to bear any burden that emerges from legislation for consumer protection. The first is the manufacturer, the second is the substantial wholesaler, and the third is the substantial importer.

My hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary told the Standing Committee that he was an honorary member of his local small retailers' association, and spoke of the very good work done by these people. That is perfectly true, but many small retailers are in grave difficulties with regulations. They are short-staffed, and are harassed by Government and local government rules and regulations at every turn. I should be very loath to see any further legislation brought in that would have any further adverse effect on the small shopkeepers' way of life and mode of business. The small shopkeeping community provides a great and useful service, particularly in the remote areas. Both the hon. Member for Hillsborough and myself have spoken of the very excellent and valuable service provided by mobile shops. Those providing services like that should not be harassed. They should be free to do their best.

It has been said that no regulations will be made under this Bill; that it is a nice big threat. I do not like nice big threats, and I should be very upset if I thought that as a result of this Measure it would be within the power of the Government or anyone else to threaten any section of the community. The small business community does its best, and the manufacturer does his best. Therefore, if the Minister really thinks that as a result of the very excellent provisions of Clause 1 (5) no orders will ever be made, I urge him to spend more money on the British Standards Institution and on voluntary negotiations, and not get involved in such a Bill as this.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I make an appeal to that small but valiant body of my hon. Friends who have been opposing the Bill. They have been doing so for three reasons. First, they say that it is not fit for private Members' business. On that may I say that we had a discussion of five hours on Second Reading, seven hours in Committee and more than four hours on Report, while we have been discussing the Third Reading for the last three-quarters of an hour. For a Bill of this size, even if it had been a Government Bill, it is not likely that more time would have been provided. I congratulate my hon. Friends on the opportunities which they have made, but I appeal to their sense of fair play and sportsmanship to let the Bill have a proper Third Reading decision this afternoon.

Their second ground of objection is that the powers in the Bill are very wide. The promoters and all in favour of it have never denied that it is wide. It contains a useful reserve power which will provide a valuable protection to the public. Obviously, the ideal circumstances would be that that power would never have to be used, but it is quite inconceivable that it would have to be used very often and we need to regard it in the light of that proposition.

The third ground of objection is that there is not enough safeguard for the small retailers. When the Molony Committee was considering the matter—and it was the Report of the Molony Committee which led up to the Bill—the retailers gave evidence and made various representations which have been met in the Bill. I remind my hon. Friends of the safeguards in Clause 3, when there are civil proceedings taken as a result of Clause 3 (1), or criminal proceedings when the proviso provides a most valuable defence whereby the retailer has only to show that he had reasonable cause to believe that the requirements were satisfied, when he gets off. I do not know that it would be possible to do more.

My hon. Friends have felt, subsidiary to that point, that the manufacturers should be made liable in all cases. Of course the manufacturer can be made liable in many circumstances, and it would be for the prosecution to decide whether to sue the manufacturer or the retailer when the option to sue was there. But to write into the Bill that the manufacturer must always be the person to be sued, when the retailer might well be liable, would not be reasonable, and we could never carry the House with us.

The Bill also happens to have been introduced by a Member of the Opposition and it is supported by the Opposition. It also has the support of a vast number of my hon. Friends and I would say the great majority. It also has the full support of the Government. In those circumstances, while fully appreciating the zeal which my hon. Friends have applied to the matter, I earnestly appeal to them to allow the Bill to have a decision on Third Reading this afternoon.

3.59 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn

I cannot agree with everything which my hon. and learned Friend has said. This is a private Members' day. My hon. and learned Friend said that the Bill had full Government backing, but I must put my objection to it very shortly. The Bill places heavy weight on a section of the community which is not capable of bearing it. It would have been administratively much easier and far more just if the burden had been put on the manufacturers. In that case we could have checked the goods at the source of issue rather than at millions of points throughout the country.

Many of us endeavoured with reason to put forward Amendments in Committee but, I am sorry to say, we were not supported and no give and take was allowed in Committee. I am convinced that the feeling behind the Bill—the protection of the community—is perfectly correct, but I must register my protest in no uncertain way about the manner in which it has been carried out.

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

As one of those who have not taken part in either the Committee stage or in the debate today—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday, 9th June.