§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is of considerable significance that we have recently been discussing three Private Members' Bills relating to the protection of the consumer. This is significant because hon. Members are becoming increasingly concerned that the consumer should be protected against all kinds of malpractices. It is for this reason that in the future the House will have to devote more and more time to the problems of consumer protection. This is inevitable because of the very nature of the society in which we live. We are, fundamentally, a producer society, and we live in an era when great monopolies blanket our economy. Each day groups of firms join together by mergers to form great industrial concentrations, and past legislation has given manufacturers unprecedented power and control over their products right from the factory to the retail shop.
Over the years, the producers, as manufacturers, have exerted great power to protect their interests. They have achieved this by the use of tariffs and the provisions of a whole series of Acts which Parliament has passed. They have formed mighty associations, great trade and retail associations and the Federation of British Industries, while the workers, on the producing side, have formed themselves into trade unions and federations of trade unions—such as the Trades Union Congress—and the factories Acts and similar other legislation have protected them.
808 But now we are moving into a new era when the consuming public is increasingly in need of protection. There is a vacuum in our society which is being filled by consumer organisations and publications, and I am happy to say that a contribution towards filling this vacuum has been made by the B.B.C. with a programme based on the education of the consumer.
The great Co-operative movement is a consumers' movement. The consumers are able to protect themselves by attending quarterly meetings and raising any complaints they have with the managers. The Co-operative movement spends £500,000 a year on consumer education. My point is that although this Bill may—I do not know—have a rough passage today, matters of this nature will be debated in this House increasingly because the whole pattern of trade and commerce has changed.
Every great industrial country today is spending more and more of its national income on services. Great nations are spending an increasing percentage of their national wealth not so much on exports and imports but on consumer services. This creates an increasing demand for legislation. The last two consumer protection Measures which have come before this House have not received the support of the Government; and, of course, it is very difficult to get a Bill into Committee unless the Government are prepared to give it support.
There may be some justification for the contention of Ministers when they insist that there is already a Committee dealing with all aspects of consumer protection and welfare, the Molony Committee. But this Committee will not report until June of this year, and the report will not be published until possibly September. It will not come before the House until next year. In the light of the difficulties that the Government have had over the Weights and Measures Bill, it seems hardly likely that any legislation will come out of the Molony Committee Report until after the next General Election. As there are urgent problems to be dealt with, I beg of the Government not to sweep this modest Bill away with a smile, on the ground that we must wait for the Report of the Molony Committee.
809 There are many consumer demands which we all accept, and there is already considerable legislation on the Statute Book giving the consumer some protection. The first need of the consumer is to be protected from the hazards of faulty and shoddy goods. Next is protection against sickness and ill-health due to the consumption of dangerous foods, drugs and medicines. The third protection that is required is protection from extortion, high prices, poor quality goods and misleading practices.
The Shopper's Guide, a very excellent publication, conducted a Gallup poll among its readers and received 5,000 replies overwhelmingly in favour of dealing primarily with the problem of misleading advertising. That is why the Bill is basically related to that subject. It covers the question of services and descriptive labelling. It is quite true that the first two needs of the consumer—protection against hazards arising out of faulty equipment, and against sickness and ill-health arising from the consumption of dangerous food, drugs and medicines—are covered by existing legislation. Therefore, the purpose of this Bill is to submit suggestions in the hope that they will reflect themselves in the law of the country which will ban misleading advertising, false labelling and other misleading practices.
It is not the intention of the Bill to deal with the whole vast problem of advertising. Every year £450 million is spent on advertising products, consumer goods and services. The president of the American consumers' organisation likened American advertising to "a Roman holiday of avarice and fraud." I would not suggest for a moment that the advertising trade in this country has reached a stage in our affluent society where it could be described in such strong terms, but there are many examples of fraud against the community that can be halted by a small Bill of this nature.
There are, for example, about 400 patent medicines extensively advertised in the national Press and on television which have no curative value at all. They have been tested and have been found to have no medical value whatsoever. The main cost of the product is in advertising or in the bottle or the 810 label on the bottle. Gallons of these patent medicines and tons of tablets can be and are being produced for a few pounds and sold to the people. The production and sale of this witches' brew is a great racket that an enlightened community like ours should have dealt with many years ago.
There are on the market quite expensive and extensively advertised tablets which are supposed to soothe people's nerves and give them renewed energy and vitality. They have no such value at all. They are a fraud on the people. The manufacturers and advertisers depend on the credulity of sick and nervous people in order to sell their products. About £14 million of our national income is spent every year on nostrums of this kind which have no medical value apart from the psychological. I admit that in many cases there is a psychological value.
Since I began to promote the Bill, I have received many letters from constituents and from good honest people all over the country. Operating throughout our land and throughout Europe are so-called hair health clinics. The advertisements displayed on hoardings and in the Press are not misleading, but once the organisers get the customers into their clinics they persuade them that for the payment of £70 they can have two months' treatment which will prevent them going bald. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are taken out of people's pockets by these "phoney" clinics. All the evidence shows that they cannot perform the services they promise. Often enough, after a customer has been in a clinic for two months' treatment, they persuade him to take another three months' treaatment at £70. This is a fraud which should be halted. In several European countries this kind of misleading practice has been banned and the people concerned have been heavily fined.
Another fraud on the public which is continuing widespread throughout our land is the racket in carpets. Auction sales of carpets are extensively advertised in local newspapers, offering for sale high quality Persian, Turkish, Indian, Wilton and Axminster carpets, slightly soiled or damaged as a result of flood or shipwreck. Customers go in and buy inferior Belgian "Wilton" 811 carpets, cotton carpets, some of the carpets are deliberately soiled. Usually, the price paid for them is about double the value. This is a racket which should be stopped.
I have received letters from salesmen who work for some of these organisations. One tells me that he made £90 a week, but he was an honest man who gave the job up as he had a conscience about misleading people. There is a man operating throughout the West Midlands who seems to control about half a dozen firms. One of these firms he calls Staffordshire Weavers. Needless to say, this man neither spins nor weaves but imports low-grade cheap carpets from Belgium or buys cheap, faulty carpets from the manufacturers, advertisng them extensively in such terms as "Flood Salvage Sale of Carpets", saying that £74,000 worth of carpets are to be sold. He has been advertising extensively, giving all manner of details, within recent weeks. I hope that the Board of Trade will investigate this man's activities. His name, curiously enough, is Plotnik, and he operates from Leicester, Nottingham and Birmingham.
Attempts have been made to investigate the activities of some of these carpet auction racketeers. It is very difficult to find just where their place of business is. The address of one slick operator in the south of England selling thousands of pounds worth of carpets was a caravan up in the north of England which he had hired for a few weeks. That was his registered business address.
The advertising trade itself has some responsibility in this matter, but one cannot altogether blame a harassed editor of a local newspaper which is fighting for its very existence in this age of newspaper monopoly for not refusing a good advertisement for which he is paid cash. It is very regrettable, nevertheless, that many editors, after being informed of the misleading and fraudulent practices at these auction sales, have still continued to accept advertisements.
I have a letter here from a little Scottish girl of 13 years of age, Bessie Pyke. She has a very keen mind about events and she complains that she has been writing in response to advertisements 812 for free foreign stamps and has found that the stamps are not free. She gets a packet when she writes, but she is asked to consult her dad about it. Invariably, children buy quite a lot of these stamps. The practice of these stamp agents is to advertise extensively, and in all cases, I notice, the inducement is free stamps. There is nothing free about it at all.
It seems a bit of a scandal that a young girl who is interested enough to write to a Member of Parliament should be disillusioned so early in her life about the intergrity of the British Press. [Laughter.] Hon. Members opposite seem to think that that is funny. There is far too little integrity in our land. It is for us to encourage young people to accept what they read in the Press as the truth, and it is our responsibility in the House of Commons to ensure that people are protected from advertisements which are fraudulent and from people who do not perform the services they promise or deliver the goods as advertised.
There is a kind of sticking material on the market, which is advertised on television, called Unibond. It is supposed to bond anything and everything. This is a "phoney" product which has been tested. It will not bond rubber or p.v.c. It completely fails to stick together pieces of china. Yet it is advertised as a bonding material which will bond anything and everything.
There are extensive advertisements in the Press every week relating to some new method whereby people can slim without dieting, without drugs and without exercise. It is a garment of a kind of plastic material. It is claimed that it will reduce a person's weight on a spot basis. One merely puts it on and sleeps in it, and it is claimed that there is certain to be a reduction in a person's weight. This has been tested by the medical profession, and the report of the profession insists that people using this device will not lose a single ounce of weight.
I could go on giving many, many examples of misleading advertising. The Shopper's Guide has been conducting an inquiry and testing a whole range of products which are advertised nationally. It has tested a bleach which was claimed to be of double strength. It 813 found that it contained 4,485 grains of chlorine per gallon compared wth 6,863 grains per gallon in other brands. Instead of it being double strength, it was actually below the normal strength.
The Shopper's Guide purchased and tested an ironing board, extensively advertised in many of our national newspapers which ought to know better, which was supposed to be of superior finish. It was made of rough wood, the nail heads were exposed and the tacks were rusted. It tested an ice cream supposed to be "more than a treat, a food." It found that it had no food value at all and that a certain amount of the ice cream was equivalent to about an ounce of chocolate.
It inspected and tested a rat and mouse poison, stated to be harmless to children and to pets. It found just the reverse was the case and that it was very dangerous to dogs and cats. It tested a lawn seed which was supposed to be of fine quality and to contain no rye grass. On the contrary, it contained quite a lot of dogstail, coarse grasses and rye grass. It tested an oil stove which was claimed to have a great heat output. It found that the reverse arose from the use of this stove. It tested a glue which was supposed to be of incomparable strength, and again found that just the reverse was the case.
These are just a few examples of the misuse of the Press and of television.
The Milk Marketing Board has had a look at this modest Bill, but I must say in fairness to the Board that it has not considered its provisions. It has issued a Press statement in which it states that, based on its experience, there is inadequate legislation to deal with inaccurate references to dairy products in advertising and in the labelling of margarine. It says that manufacturers are left free to claim that their products are "indistinguishable from butter," have a "creamy taste" and are "creamy fresh as the morning milk," and insists that less well informed consumers are misled by these terms into thinking of margarine as a dairy product.
The Board complains of the widespread use of filled milk, an imitation liquid milk, which caterers are using extensively in cafes, restaurants and hotels. People buy a cup of tea or coffee and 814 hope that it contains fresh milk, whereas it contains this synthetic material called filled milk. The Board also complains about the advertising of imported butter, claimed to be "Pembroke" butter. Regional names are used in the advertising in order to sell the product. It also complains of the misuse in the advertising of cheeses. Advertisements refer to Cheddar cheeses and Stilton cheeses whereas they are not either Cheddar or Stilton. They are Cheddarlike or Stilton-like cheeses.
The Board says that there is an urgent need for immediate legislation to deal with these frauds on the consumer. I believe that we have legislation which can deal with these matters, and I hope that the Board of Trade will look into the complaints of the Milk Marketing Board.
Time passes, and I do not wish to monopolise the debate. Therefore, may I roughly indicate what the Bill is about? So far I have been dealing with the principles and the necessity for legislation. I now propose to deal with the Bill Clause by Clause to try to show how it will prevent some of the misuses of advertising and guarantee decent services to the community. That is the purpose in presenting a Bill of this nature.
First, the Bill does not introduce any new principle into our legislation. The principles in the Bill are already in being to protect people from misleading advertising. But the legislation does not apply in general terms. It is limited. Many aspects of the Bill are covered by the Food and Drugs Act. Most of the Clauses are also covered by the Merchandise Marks Act, the Shops Act and other Measures of that nature. There is nothing written into the Bill, apart from one or two items with which I shall deal, which is not already written into the laws of the land. It has been carefully written and drafted by my colleagues and myself with this in mind.
Clause 1 is extracted from the Food and Drugs Act. The phraseology is related word by word to that of the Food and Drugs Act, but it brings in what that Act does not provide for—provisions of the law to deal with services as well as goods. I hope that there will be no difficulty about the description of misleading advertising in Clause 1.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
How far under the words in Clause 1 (c)falsely describes any service offered for payment …could one prosecute a railway company or the Railway Executive in the event of a train arriving late instead of on schedule? That would be a false description of a "service offered for payment".
§ Mr. Edwards
If the hon. Member will read the Clause again he will see that there is no suggestion of prosecution anybody until that person has had ample opportunity of explaining his difficulties and of dealing with these problems through recognised trade associations or consumer councils. Attached to the nationalised industries there are consumer advisory councils. Attached to every trade in the country there is a trade association. The whole burden of the Bill is to get discipline through the recognised associations. The point the hon. Member raised is a matter which would be taken up by the consumers' advisory council.
§ Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)
Before the hon. Member leaves comparison with the Food and Drugs Act—I think he suggested that Clause 1 is taken from Section 6 of that Act—in fairness he should explain the substantial differences between the two.
§ Mr. Edwards
I have been trying to explain the substantial differences between the two. T think that the hon. Gentleman will find that that is made quite clear in the Clause if he will read it again. This Clause gives protection to newspapers. It gives protection to recognised newspaper agents. It does not suggest arbitrary action against people not responsible but only incidentally involved in any misleading advertising.
§ Mr. F. P. Bishop (Harrow, Central)
Clause 1, compared with the Food and Drugs Act, introduces in paragraph (b) the words "value of performance". It refers to an advertisement which:is calculated to deceive or mislead as to the nature, substance, quality, value or performance of any goods …That, of course, is an addition to the provision in the Food and Drugs Act, a rather important one.
§ Mr. Edwards
Yes, I explained that it went further. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think that if hon. Members read HANSARD they will find that I said it went further in connection with services and further into the whole question of goods.
I admit that it does deal with performance. I also readily admit that in dealing with performance we are dealing with a highly complicated and controversial issue, but, when we are discussing a Private Member's Bill, it is customary to say that if a Clause is highly controversial it can be amended if the House allows the Bill to go to Committee. After all, I am not a solicitor. My colleagues are not experts in drafting Bills. I readily admit that this modest Bill is not a perfect production. I am quite willing to admit this when we come to later Clauses, but I have never known this House to be unreasonable when an hon. Member is discussing the Second Reading of his Bill and is ready and willing for it to be amended, if the House so desires, in Committee.
I should not want to mislead the House, and I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I gave the wrong impression by suggesting that Clause 1 is just the same as the provision in the Food and Drugs Act. I thought I claimed that it went a stage further.
§ Mr. Godfrey Lagden (Hornchurch)
I am very sympathetic towards this Bill, but there is one suggestion which I should perhaps make to the House. It is that the word "quantity" should find its way in in some way or other when the drafting is considered. I have in mind many advertisements one sees in newspapers and magazines and also on television when most attractive goods are shown, many of them eatables. It is suggested, even if the advertisement goes no further, that the product would form a suitable meal for X number of people. It has been my sad experience on occasion when I have bought one of these articles to find that, although the suggestion had been that it was suitable for a meal for four people, the amount contained has proved suitable for only one person, that person being myself. I wonder if that could be considered? We were fortunate in the old days—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The object of an interruption is to elucidate some point in the then current speech.
§ Mr. Edwards
I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden) will have an opportunity to speak in this debate. I am very happy to know that he likes this Bill. I hope that he will not merely speak in the debate, but, if the Bill goes to Committee, that he will be on the Standing Committee and draft a suitable Amendment to cover the grave injustice that has been done to him in the purchase of some product for his family which has satisfied only his personal appetite.
Clause 2 merely extends to the labelling of goods the same provisions as are applied to advertisements under Clause 1. I do not think I need deal at length with this aspect of the Bill. I am sure it is clear to every hon. Member that there is an absolute need for clear labelling. There is need for clear labelling of textiles as to their performance when washed, whether they are inflammable, and the size of sheets and blankets. There is the question of the contents of a tin of stew that is supposed to be filled with meat but which actually contains just vegetable stew with a little bit of kidney introduced. The Clause deals with labelling, but it carries out the same principle as that embodied in Clause 1.
Clauses 3 and 4 introduce innovations in connection with trade associations. Here we put the responsibility of decent practices on the trade or profession itself. My experience when I had my Consumer Protection Bill in Committee was that the Committee desired that the trade concern should be consulted.
Mr. Ian McArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain one point. I understand from my reading of the Clause and what he has said that no proceedings could be taken until the trade association has been informed. What happens in the case of an advertisement in the classified columns, for example? Would it be covered by the Bill, where there is no trade association? What would happen to the retail advertiser who may himself not belong to any association to which protest could be made?
§ Mr. Edwards
The Clause, as it states, clearly puts the responsibility upon the trade association. I was explaining why my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that this was the best way of dealing with the problem that we have been discussing this morning, namely, that the trade itself, through its association, should lay down standards of advertising. It should say to its members, "These are our standards, and we expect you to conform to the standards." It would be the responsibility of the association to watch advertisements in the Press, on television, or on the hoardings. It would not be responsibility of the Board of Trade, which is already overwhelmed. I am not suggesting that the Board of Trade should have the responsibility of studying every advertisement. If the association spots an advertisement similar to the one suggested, it would use the weight of its authority to inform the person concerned with the advertisement that it does not conform to recognised standards. If no action was taken and the advertisement was repeated, then the association would report the person concerned to the Board of Trade and, lastly, the Board of Trade could take action against that person.
I admit that this is a rather new way of dealing with the problem. We have, however, established the principle in the Consumer Protection Act by accepting when that Bill was in Committee an Amendment that before regulations were issued by the Home Office in respect of any household appliance which seemed to be faulty the manufacturer or trader and the trade and consumer organisations would be consulted. The same principle is embodied in Clauses 3 and 4—the principle that it is much better for the trade to put its own house in order rather than constantly to expect the Government to do the job. Fair traders, fair manufacturers and fair advertisers want to do this. This Bill, like most Bills, is aimed to catch the firm or person—the minority—who misleads the public, who is guilty of fraud, or who adopts practices not in accordance with the recognised standards.
§ Mr. Lagden
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Bill would cover a matter such as a box of matches which for years has had "average 50 matches" on the cover, but which has now been 819 replaced by "27 Prize Medals"? Would he consider that as misleading—because I should?
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Is it not a fact that that was done by the Government and not by the manufacturers?
§ Mr. Edwards
Many of the points raised by the hon. Member hardly come within the Bill. Problems which seem to be troubling him arise out of the failure of the Government to get through Parliament the Weights and Measures Bill which they promised. That Bill, which they have withdrawn, is urgently needed, and if the Government came forward with an amended Weights and Measures Bill in the next Session it could take in many of the problems which seem to be disturbing the hon. Member. It could certainly deal with the problems relating to measurements, quantity and numbers.
Clause 5 deals with penalties. The penalty suggested is £100 for the first and £500 for the second offence. It will be noticed that there is no suggestion of imprisonment; it merely relates to fines. This may be a debatable question, but the Bill is purposely drafted so as not to arouse the maximum opposition.
Clause 6 merely states that the Bill does not apply to the foodstuffs covered by the Food and Drugs Act. Clause 7 aims to remove what we consider to be a weakness in the Food and Drugs Act, which was overlooked when the Bill was passing through Committee. Its purpose is that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as well as the local government officers, could prosecute in the case of deceptive food advertisements, but in regard to drugs action could be taken only by the local health authorities, the Minister of Health having no powers to prosecute. The Clause would give powers similar to those exercised by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the President of the Board of Trade.
That is a rather rough summary of the Bill. I have taken longer than I intended and have dealt with some aspects of the Bill rather hurriedly 820 because I think I have taken up a little too much time in dealing with the need for the Bill. I hope the Government will support this modest Measure. If it is not worded as they would like, then I would appeal to them to let the Bill go to Committee, when my colleagues will readily accept any Amendment which they may have in mind. Private Members have not got a department to assist them in drafting Bills of this nature.
I was very fortunate when I submitted my Consumer's Protection Bill last Session, because the Home Office was willing to support the Bill and gave very considerable assistance in drafting and in amending some of the Clauses. I hope that this Bill will not be rejected because Clause 5 has not been correctly drafted. I hope the Bill will not be opposed by the Government merely because they are waiting for the report of the Molony Committee. The consumer needs protection urgently, and we should not have to wait till after the next General Election. I hope we take some action to extend the law to deal with this vast problem of misleading advertisements. Therefore, I ask the House to allow this modest Bill to have its Second Reading and to go to Committee.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
May I first—and, I am sure, I speak for everybody in the House besides myself—congratulate the hon. Member the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) on his good fortune in the Ballot? May I assure him, too, of my cordial sympathy with his aims and intentions? He has a great personal reputation in this field, and I should like to pay a tribute to him for the work he has done in drafting this piece of legislation. The fact that I profoundly disagree with the Bill does not in any way mitigate my feeling of respect for him in introducing it.
Before I comment on the Bill in detail, perhaps I may be allowed to say three things relating to matters which the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech. He referred to the problem of weights and measures in general, and he is quite right in saying that we in this House are anticipating legislation on this subject. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board 821 of Trade here this morning, for it enables me to say something in front of him, and it is this: we certainly are awaiting legislation on this subject at some time, and the Government have appointed a committee of inquiry into the subject of decimal coinage. I have always felt that standards of measurements in the United Kingdom should be considered as a whole, and, therefore, I hope that in framing the new legislation on the subject of weights and measures this point will be taken into account by the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. Speaker
We cannot discuss decimal coinage on this Bill. It is too far from its subject matter.
§ Mr. du Cann
I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker.
I turn to another subject which the hon. Gentleman raised. He painted a picture of us as a nation imbibing vast quantities of patent medicines. Of course, that is true, but I am not at all sure in my own mind that anybody has been done any harm by that, and, indeed, I rather fancy that some people may have been done a great deal of good by it. For instance, after leaving the House rather late last night I took a couple of aspirins before going to sleep, and I think I slept very much better for that.
That is not, of course, to say that we should not do all we can to prohibit advertising which is misleading or which is spurious or which is positively harmful. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but when people are not done any harm and are possibly even done a little bit of good by, for example, taking a couple of aspirins, I do not think that is a matter we should take too seriously as a question of complaint.
Then, again, in giving examples of misleading advertising the hon. Gentleman referred to the question of carpet sales of one kind and another. I think it is well worth bearing in mind in considering this subject at all that anybody who is aggrieved, who is sold goods which are not what they purport to be, has a remedy under civil law, and I think it would be as well to emphasise to the consumer that people who are aggrieved because they have been swindled should take up their civil rights.
§ Mr. R. Edwards
But how can they take action to deal with the tip and run carpet salesman? They do not know even where he lives.
§ Mr. du Cann
If I may suggest it, I would suggest that he should be well and truly tripped before he disappears. There are many Members of this House better qualified than I am to speak on the subject of the law, and I would recommend those Members who wish to make serious inquiries about this to consult them.
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
Would the hon. Member explain to the House why he considers that the consumer should be in an inferior position in this respect to that of the productive worker? When he is subjected to a harmful practice in the factory where he works he finds Government machinery to protect him. There are factory inspectors who are perfectly prepared—and we welcome it—to protect him. Why should the consumer be left as an isolated individual to take action under the civil law? Why should there not be a State organisation helping him and protecting him?
§ Mr. du Cann
I am not suggesting in any way that the consumer should be at a disadvantage, and if the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of listening to the remainder of my speech he may feel, as I hope he does, that his objects, as I deduce them to be from his interruption, and mine are very similar.
One final point I want to make, not a very serious point, in relation to the carpet salesman who has been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston, is that I do not think we in this House should be right in condemning that particular gentleman just because he has a funny name. It seems to me that that is the road to disaster.
I have already said that I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston and his hon. Friends, and I agree with him when he says on this matter of consumer protection that we in this House have a specific responsibility. That is completely true. I would go further and I would say that the Government have responsibility. They have a responsibility to protect the consumer and the 823 community as a whole against frauds and cheats.
As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary knows very well, I have myself been a tiresome campaigner over a long period of time for the protection, for example, of the investor or depositor who puts his money on deposit with companies which are fraudulent or which are ill-managed or which do not give sufficient information to the investor. I hope that we shall have legislation from the Board of Trade in this regard at some time in the future. While we have been waiting for it it is absolutely true to say that many thousands of small investors have lost several millions of pounds which they can ill-afford to have lost, and I do not exaggerate the position in any way.
It is the Government's responsibility to protect the consumer against the fraud and the cheat, and I think, by and large, although there are exceptions, that the Government live up to their responsibility. Thereafter, it seems to me that, having, as it were, laid down the main principles, it is up to the companies and trade associations which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston has mentioned to take on the job and to do the detailed day-to-day work of policing in order to maintain the good name of their trades and industries. It is no good think that that wise uncle, the benevolent House of Commons, the benevolent Government, must be left with all the responsibility. It is up to each of us as individuals. Caveat emptor is indeed an excellent maxim, and if somebody is not able to distinguish between the "puff" and the genuine claim, I think it is high time he had his head examined rather than come to us to complain.
Lastly but by no means least, I should like to pay a warm tribute to the associations, also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston, which produce publications like Which? and Shopper's Guide and so on, and I am glad to have the opportunity of doing that in this House with the support of hon. Members on both sides. They do a very good job indeed. They do not always get the facts quite right, as anybody who read, for instance, the report by Which? on British motor cars 824 a few weeks ago will agree, but they do a very good job, and I want to pay a warm tribute to them. But thereafter it is up to the consumer to take some responsibility in the matter. The ordinary man is a perfectly reasonable person and it is up to him to exercise his judgment and not expect everyone else to do the judging for him.
The hon. Member for Bilston referred in particular to children who were swindled. Nothing could be more sad than that, but here is a precise example where we have an opportunity to say that it is high time that the parents of the children who are swindled saw that they were not and protected their children. Far too often people who have children expect the State to do the jobs which they themselves ought to be active in doing.
I oppose the Bill for two reasons, one a general and one a more particular reason. As for the general reason, the hon. Member for Bilston said that he was not, so to speak, dealing with advertising as a whole. I accept that and I also accept, although he did not say it, that the Bill is by no means an attack on advertising, because he was fair enough to point out that it is only a minority of people who mislead and it is the minority whom he wishes to catch and penalise through the medium of the Bill.
I have no connection with advertising other than that I sometimes place an advertisement in newspapers either on my own behalf or on behalf of the company which I manage, but I feel that increasingly in this House and in the United Kingdom there is denigration of advertising and all that it seeks to do. There is prejudice against advertising and I believe that to be a thoroughly bad thing. Advertising is perhaps symptomatic of a desire to sell and I am strongly in favour of anybody in the United Kingdom who creates a business and then goes out determined to sell his products.
I would only pray in aid that if we had a little more of that spirit in industry and in the United Kingdom our export record would be a jolly sight better. When any man goes out to develop new products and to sell them aggressively at home and abroad, we should do everything we can to encourage him, rather 825 than that it should be assumed outside this place that there are many of us here who feel that there is something wrong with the mere act of selling. It is true to say that "selling" has been a dirty word on both sides of the House of Commons. It has been a dirty word with the Right wing of the Tory Party, some of whom make the snobbish remark, with which we have been all familiar in the past, "Oh, he is engaged in trade," and with the Left wing of the Labour Party who say, "It is true that this fellow has made a success of his commercial life and he has provided employment, but he rides round in a Bentley and I cannot afford one. That is wrong, slap him down if you can." That sort of attitude on both sides of the House is hopelessly out-of-date in modern England.
§ Mr. Darling
We had a debate on this subject which, although I say it myself, is well worth reading. Has not the hon. Member left out one qualification for his salesmen—that they should tell the truth about the product?
§ Mr. du Cann
I entirely agree and I am grateful to the hon. Member for making the point.
If I may deal with it, let us take the question of washing detergents which are sold aggressively in the United Kingdom. Some funny things are said about them but, from looking at television, as most of us here do only rarely when Parliament is sitting, I do not think that anybody is taken in by the extravagant claims made. I do not believe that Mrs. X uses such and such a washing powder in preference to another because she believes what she is told on the "telly." But, even though exaggerated with "puffs," if the effect of advertising is to make life easier for the consumer by introducing him to a new range of products, I am very much in favour of it.
The detailed reasons why I oppose the Bill are much more than Committee points. If I thought that they were not I would go all the way with the hon. Member for Bilston and support him. He said that Clause 1 was based on the Food and Drugs Act, 1955. He was fair enough to say, and I confirm this, that the words in his Clause are more wide-ranging because they refer to goods and services and value or per- 826 formance. But it seems to me that they are so widely drawn as to be almost intolerable. The position is that the most trivial error must be an offence. Everybody is caught, not only the publisher, but everybody who is party to the publishing, including presumably the office boy who takes the copy from an office to the publisher's office.
When we consider how we are to define any goods and any services and we come to consider the whole range of goods and services to which that applies, I think it justifies my suggestion that the Clause is intolerably widely drawn. It would affect any man who advertised his lawn-mower for sale in a newspaper. It would affect British Railways. "It is quicker by train" they tell me when I travel to Taunton. They should come with me on Sunday and see whether it is quicker by train. I do not criticise them for that, because everybody knows that they repair the lines on Sundays and the trains are bound to be late. One has to distinguish in advertising between description of goods and intention. This the Bill does not do, nor does it attempt to show how words like "falsely describes" can be interpreted. Clauses 1 and 2 are much too widely drawn to achieve even the limited purpose which the hon. Member for Bilston has expressed as his intention.
§ Mr. Oram
In fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards), the hon. Member should recognise the point made by my hon. Friend that Clauses 1 and 2 must be read in conjunction with Clause 3 where no proceedings shall be taken:unless and until the following provisions have been fulfilled …and there follow those certain provisions. It is unfair to take Clause 1 and criticise it without taking into consideration Clause 3 as well.
§ Mr. du Cann
The hon. Member is quite right, and curiously enough I am coming immediately to Clause 3.
My objection to Clause 3 is my greatest objection to the whole Bill, and it is perfectly simple. The "offence" is published before there is any defence or any proof that it has been committed. The drafting of the Clause shows that the "offender" is guilty until proved innocent. I deplore this method and I 827 also deplore that there is no redress for the innocent party. I deplore still more the sort of Star Chamber court of appeal envisaged. I deplore also the fact, which we all well know, that if one throws mud at an innocent man that mud sticks even though he be proved innocent, and this is the wrong way of going about the whole business. I repeat that I am sympathetic to the objects of the Bill but I do not believe that this is the right way to achieve them.
As for Clause 3 (d), where there is a question of withdrawal of advertising, I do not see how that is necessarily physically capable of performance. Supposing I put a misleading advertisement in a periodical newspaper and I am then instructed to withdraw it, and I must do that, how can I withdraw a year-old copy of Punch from several dentists' waiting rooms in the United Kingdom? It is out of the question to do that. I was told recently by a constituent that when he went to a dentist's waiting room he was very pleased to discover that Mafeking has now been relieved.
I now turn to a more constructive attitude towards this subject. Quite frankly, I do not believe that this subject is altogether suitable for a Private Member's Bill. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are awaiting the Report of the Molony Committee. Perhaps there is a difference of approach between the hon. Gentleman and myself and some of my colleagues. We are agreed that protection must be given to the consumer against fraud of one kind or another, through the legislation such as we have on the Statute Book, to which both sides of this House have contributed and in which the hon. Gentleman himself has played a leading part, as he did last Session, and I pay my tribute to him for that. Thereafter, we prefer to rely infinitely more upon the consumers. We want to see individuals encouraged to be more responsible in their selection and judgment.
Admittedly, this is difficult, and I would not under-estimate the difficulties. The fact that we had a Food and Drugs Act in 1955 does not necessarily mean that we are getting better food. It is often true that many women responsible for shopping are too jolly careless and unselective about it. I am reminded by one of my hon. Friends that at the moment I have insufficient experience of 828 this point, but I am likely soon to acquire it. That might well be, but I do learn about these things from my own family and my constituents, and I believe that what I say is absolutely true. The women of Britain should be more selective in their shopping.
We on this side of the House also believe very much in competition, and we also believe that many problems that arise out of misleading descriptions will be solved by competition.
§ Mr. du Cann
I do not think that one should look at the I.C.I.-Courtaulds situation—which has nothing to do with this Bill—in the context of the United Kingdom only. The truth is that we are moving towards much bigger trading amalgamations, both in the Common Market and elsewhere, and we have to judge these matters in that context. A great deal has been said on this subject already, and I do not want to add to it, but I genuinely believe that I.C.I. has done Courtaulds shareholders a very great favour by coming forward with this offer.
Turning to the Bill again, I think that the hon. Gentleman would have been on very good ground if he had said that consumer protection should be considered as a whole. It is profoundly true that there is no proper organisation to speak for the consumer, and, so far as the Government are concerned, consumer protection is divided between different Departments. Home safety is the responsibility of the Home Office, while food and drugs questions are the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and other responsibilities are carried by the Board of Trade. There would be great advantage in endeavouring to make the whole business of consumer protection the responsibility of one Department of Government, and I suggest the Board of Trade.
It is quite right that the Government and all of us should encourage every industry to establish codes for advertising. That is often done, and it is a process which requires to be accelerated. In regard to consumer guides, the Board of Trade could do a very good job by registering some of the associations in order to be absolutely certain that they are 829 impartial. Labelling is certainly very important, and here is a vast field for new work.
Last, but by no means least, it is absolutely clear, though I will not go into details, that a great deal more could be done in the field of protection. For example, certain parts of our legislation are no longer up to date, and they require revision. While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is need for vigilance and activity in new legislation, I regret to tell him—and I hope he will take it from me as quite sincere—that although his Bill is a brave attempt to solve the problem, I do not believe it is the right way in which to set about it.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) was about to acquire information about women shoppers because he was going to be married; at any rate I hope that the lady he is marrying will be a wise shopper and will look after him properly when he gets home. I hope he realises that the statement he has just made is not a very good way to canvass the votes of the women at election time. I am sure he will realise that some of the women in his constituency will let him know by writing to him.
At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Gentleman made the point that when he went home late from the House he took a couple of aspirins which helped him to sleep. I hope that he took a couple of aspirins and not some of the very widely advertised substitutes for aspirin, some of which contain a little aspirin and more of other drugs, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), who ought to know, assures me can be dangerous drugs. Most of these so-called aspirins are widely advertised and cost a lot more to buy than they ought to do.
Another point which the hon. Gentleman made was on the question of the consumer being able to go to the civil law. I ask the hon. Member how can the ordinary housewife possibly face the cost which will be involved in a civil action.
§ Mrs. Slater
We know all about that. Some of us have dealt with people who have been applying for legal aid and have found how difficult it is and how little they sometimes get. If any hon. Member wants to test the statement I have just made, let him read some of the publications of the consumer protection societies, which show how difficult they find it and how costly it is to take legal action against some false claims made about commodities. Only this week, the President of the Board of Trade, in reply to one of my hon. Friends, kept calling in aid the Merchandise Marks Act, but when we come to examine that Act, which was introduced to give some protection, we see how difficult it is to apply it to some of the things with which we are dealing this morning.
I am speaking today as one who has to shop and as one who, I hope, is not too easily taken in by the "glossies", or I.T.V. advertisements. I know, however, how easy it is for people to be taken in by advertising. It is not only a question of I.T.V. If we want to test how effective it can be, let us talk to any shopkeeper when a new commodity is advertised time and time again with a nice little catchy tune attached to it. The advertising fans on the benches opposite know that this is true. Immediately the shopkeepers are asked if they have got this particular kind of coffee or commodity which is being advertised. They get a supply of these articles in for a period, but because another commodity has been put on the market with a catchy tune on I.T.V., or because the housewife has found that the original article was not as good as she thought it was, the shopkeeper is left with the articles on his shelves. That is quite true.
§ Mrs. Slater
That is the sort of argument which the hon. Gentleman put up on the last Consumer Protection Bill, which he deliberately tried to destroy. The hon. Gentleman knows that what I am saying is true. That illustrates the easy manner that some hon. Members have of shoving the blame on to alleged bad shoppers, and is merely a way of 831 avoiding their responsibility for consumer protection.
At the present time even the ordinary shopkeeper, let alone the buyer, finds it extremely difficult to give an adequate explanation about most of the articles which are for sale. There are now synthetic materials and new ways of making up articles. There was a case in the newspapers last night about a fur coat. I shall never be able to buy one costing £700. Even people in that class can be diddled by the type of pressure which is brought to bear on them to buy commodities.
In these days when new synthetic materials are coming on the market it is terribly difficult and often absolutely impossible for the housewife to know whether the claims which are made for them are true. She is not a scientist or a technician. She does not understand the technical claims which are put forward. As I said, even the shopkeeper finds himself out of his depth very often when a buyer seeks an explanation of a claim. Therefore, there is a need—it is a growing need—for consumer protection. Indeed, there is need for protection not only for the consumer but for the trader in respect of many of the commodities now on the market.
Reference has already been made to the use of advertising, for instance in glamorous magazines, and now we are having coloured advertisements in the evening newspapers showing fabulous-looking rooms, and so on. When people see in advertisements pictures of stars whom they have watched on television they tend to build up a sense of trust in them. They feel that a star who looks very handsome or glamorous on the screen and puts on a good show is unlikely to let them down over a commodity. They feel that commodities advertised by television stars must be good or they would not lend their names to them. It is very easy for the public to be deluded in that way. What is behind the appearance of the star in the advertisement is not trust in the article but the amount of money it brings him for the use of his name.
I want to deal mainly with labelling. There are many ways in which a consumer can be protected by labelling. If one buys a reliable make of frock, coat 832 or skirt or buys it from a reliable dealer, one gets a label stating that it should be washed in a certain manner. If a good article carries such instructions, the consumer will know whether it should be washed or whether it should be dry-cleaned, because, if necessary, the label will contain instructions for dry-cleaning. If there are no instructions with a frock, very often the buttons on it disappear completely when it is washed or cleaned. I know that the argument advanced is that the woman should take the buttons off, but she assumes that the buttons will wear as well as the frock will.
There is also the matter of the cleaning of carpets and other household commodities. In such a case the provision of correct labelling would provide guidance to the buyers and also to the cleaners. Even the laundries have brought pressure to bear on the manufacturers to provide guidance along these lines so that the customer will not feel that the laundries may be held responsible—I know that in law they cannot be—if something goes wrong during cleaning.
I know a person who bought a very expensive Burberry for her child as part of the school uniform. She thought she was paying a very good price for it—seven guineas. I think that was a good price. But the first time the child went out in a shower—not a downpour—it got its shoulders and back wet. When the woman took the coat back she was told that the label described it as showerproof, and the shopkeeper argued that it was showerproof only for a light shower. The woman had really thought that the child would be protected in a decent shower of rain. The coat had only a little tab on it. There ought to be protection for a woman such as that one, who had spent quite a large amount of money on the child's mackintosh but could get no redress after what happened.
If any hon. Members want any proof about the need for labelling, they should read Shopper's Guide and Which?. An hon. Member opposite this week raised the subject of blankets which shrank and came to pieces the first time they were washed and did not measure up to the standard claimed for them.
Both the shopkeeper and the consumer want the kind of protection which my 833 hon. Friend seeks to provide in his Bill. These days when prices are high it is absolutely necessary that buyers shall be protected from false advertising by means of correct labelling to ensure that when they buy household commodities, suits, frocks or boots for their children they get value for their money.
When I was a child I was told that cheapness did not pay; that it always paid to buy a good commodity. In those days it was easy. When we went to buy sheets we rubbed them to see whether they contained a lot of lint. We had a standard of measurement. A woman who went to buy her husband a shirt did not just buy it in a packet and accept it as such. She had the package undone and examined the shirt to see whether it was the right length and by rubbing it judged whether it was likely to stand up to washing.
Today that is not so easy. Articles are attractively packed and shopkeepers do not want to undo them. If one wants to have the packages undone, one is regarded as a no-good customer. If one becomes a selective customer, one is sometimes frowned upon. Therefore, we must provide the necessary protection through Bills of this nature.
The United States has passed a law making the labelling of fabrics compulsory. In Sweden, there are all sorts of organisations, voluntary bodies in the main, which have built up a system of voluntary labelling.
I hope that we shall not have on this Bill a deliberate attempt at opposition by persons who are interested in advertising and regard the Bill as an attack upon their living. I say that very firmly, because that is what it amounts to. I hope that we shall not have the kind of opposition to the Bill to which we have been subjected on previous Bills of this nature.
§ 12.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I can assure the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) that I have no interest in advertising. Even my professional body strictly forbids it. If I were to do it, I should be disbarred.
I should like to join in the congratulations which have been offered to the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. 834 Edwards). He said that he thought the Bill would have a rough passage. I must say that I do not think it will have a rough passage. I think it will have a smooth passage, a short life and a quick death.
There is a great deal in what the hon. Gentleman said in his very interesting speech. I am certainly not in a position to speak about patent medicines. I do not use them, not even the aspirins which my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) told us he uses when we sit late at night.
Many commodities are falsely advertised, with intent to deceive. I do not mean the kind of advertisement that says, "This is the best article you can buy; it is better than those of any of our competitors". That is not something which anybody would accept at its face value. We see many advertisements for sherries that never came from Spain and burgundies that would not know France if they saw it. But we are here dealing with people who are well capable of taking action if they think fit, as the champagne people successfully did in the courts only a year or two ago. The law is behind any efforts to stop false trade descriptions of that kind.
The sort of advertisement I have in mind is that of the sherry which has never been to Spain but yet seems to please the bullfighter, according to the pictorial advertisement. The bullfighter is looking at a lovely lady, who is obviously Spanish. That is false, and it is meant to be false. It is meant to make people believe that the sherry comes from the real sherry district.
But having gone that far with the hon. Member, let us consider the best way to protect the consumer. In my opinion, it is not the business of the Government to intervene on every occasion when anybody is misled. People must look after themselves and teach their children to look after themselves. I know nothing about the facts of the case concerning the 13-year-old girl who had a raw deal over some free stamps, but I think that in many ways such an experience would do the little girl a lot of good. It would teach her to be much more careful in future. It is good for people to learn this sort of lesson early in life. We do not want too much cottonwoolling and protection all along the line, for 835 every member of the public. We must learn to look after ourselves to a great extent.
But it is not right that people should be subjected to utterly false advertisements. That was the reason why the Government set up the Molony Committee. Evidence is being given before that Committee, and it will report later this year. I deprecate any attempt to jump the gun. During the first two days of this week we were discussing the Greater London plan. Anybody who sought to introduce a Private Bill on behalf of some county council or borough council would rightly be told to wait for the Herbert Report and for the Government's reactions to it. This is exactly the same sort of thing. There is much in what the hon. Member says, but not only is he prejudging what is likely to be said in the Molony report; he is asking other hon. Members to do so. We must assume that it will be a good report. It will certainly be entirely impartial. As far as I know, none of its members has any preconceived views on the subject.
As the hon. Member truly said—and I took his words down—this House will have to spend more time on consumer protection. I do not doubt that as soon as the Molony report is received the House will undoubtedly do so. It will spend much time, first of all considering the report—we shall undoubtedly have to examine it before any legislation is introduced—and then considering subsequent legislation based upon it.
Perhaps I may tell hon. Members of a very amusing thing that I once saw, just after the war, when food was rather difficult to get. I saw somebody trying to sell tinned salmon. It was really cheap white fish, but he put a notice on the tin saying that the fish did not go pink in the tin. That was definitely calculated to deceive. That kind of deception is over now, however.
When we consider the effort made by the hon. Member to bring his ideas to fruition we appreciate the great difficulties that face him. I do not think that his efforts will be successful, because if we pass the Bill into law it would cause more hardship than it would relieve. The phrase "falsely 836 describes any goods" begs the whole question. Some cases may clearly be on one side of the line, but we have to consider what view we should take of the "puff". Is it wrong to say that a certain motor car is the best than can be bought for the money, or for somebody else to say that the Rolls-Royce is much better value? Is it wrong to say that a certain make of pill is worth a guinea a box, when everybody knows that it is not? These are only "puffs". The phrase "falsely describes" opens too many doors.
What about the travel agents who persuade people that they will be getting good value if they take advantage of the agents' offer of a fortnight's holiday in the South of France. The advertisements may be accompanied by lovely pictures showing the sun shining and the sea looking blue and warm, but a person who takes such a holiday may find that it rains every day. Is he entitled to his money back or to claim damages?
Such a phrase opens the door much too wide. I am sure that the hon. Member will not be able to include a definition Clause at the end of his Bill to explain what is meant by the phrases, "falsely describes," "calculated to deceive," or "falsely describes any service offered for payment."
But it is in regard to Clauses 3 and 4 that I feel that the greatest difficulty will arise. Let us consider the procedure that will have to be followed. Let us assume that a person is thought to have issued a false description in his advertisement of some goods. A trade association recognised by the Minister—whatever that may mean—will write to the advertiser. He is then given an opportunity of making a reply. Let us suppose that he challenges the accuracy of the allegation made against him—as he probably would do. His representations are then considered. Will that consideration take place at a hearing, or behind closed doors, without his being present? If it is behind closed doors, in his absence, he would clearly suffer very great hardship, but if it is at a hearing, when he can support his reply and challenge the accusations made against him, we get back to the private courts.
837 I do not hold very strong views against private courts run by reputable associations, although I know that other hon. Members on both sides of the House do. One of my hon. Friends has referred to these courts as "Star Chamber" courts, but I do not think that they are. They are run by people who know their industry or profession, and know when breaches of practice are made, and they are capable of dealing with those breaches. I agree that that may be a minority view. But I should like to know whether the hon. Member is suggesting that private courts of this kind should be reintroduced, because that is what his Bill amounts to.
§ Mr. Doughty
Yes. This House passed that Act and put those courts out of business. Whether or not that was a good thing I do not know; each of us is entitled to his own opinion on the matter. The fact remains that the House decided that they should be put out of business—and the hon. Member is now trying to reintroduce them.
As I understand the effect of Clause 4, if the person to whom I have referred is unsuccessful in the private court he is guilty of an offence, and has no defence when he is prosecuted—presumably before a magistrates' court. The decision has then been made, and he merely goes before the court for it to decide whether it shall impose the maximum fine or something less. That is how I read the Clause.
§ Mr. Doughty
Whoever prosecutes, the person concerned must go before some court, and according to the Clause he cannot put forward a defence. All that he can do is to speak in mitigation, because the Minister, after hearing representations from the trade association, has decided that an offence has been committed. The magistrate merely has to decide the amount of the fine. That is what the Bill would seem to provide, as drafted.
Because I have been critical of the Bill, and of its timing, it must not be 838 thought that I am critical of all the hon. Member's ideas.
If the Bill goes to a Division, I shall vote against it for the reasons I have given, but not because I am entirely opposed to the principle behind the Bill. I join in the great compliments which have been paid to the consumer oganisations which publish Shopper's Guide and Which?, which give us such detailed and accurate information about various articles sold to the public. I think that they are accurate because, although some of the articles are extremely critical, these magazines have never to my knowledge had an action for libel or slander of goods brought against them, I am sure that if their remarks were not justified, these organisation would have found themselves in the courts very quickly. I would like to thank these organisations for the great assistance which they are to all members of the public. But having said that and having said what I think about the Bill, I cannot go further in supporting the hon. Member for Bilston.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)
I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that too many different Government Departments are concerned with various aspects of consumer protection. Some co-ordination is needed in addition to an alteration of the law. I should like to support the general aims of the Bill.
The object of the Bill is to assist the consumer, a subject with which we ought all to concern ourselves. As the Bill refers specifically to advertising and labelling, I should say at the outset that I do not regard advertising as itself objectionable or necessarily anti-social. I take it that the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) would agree with me. There may be times when there is an appearance of conflict between the policy of the advertisers and that of the Government when the advertisers are saying, "Buy, buy, buy" and the Government are urging the public to restrict its consumption. That is one of the incidental consequences of the kind of economy which we have had since the war, but it would be outside the scope of this discussion to deal with that.
839 It is valuable that advertisers should bring to public attention the fact that a product exists and what qualities it has. I see no harm in that, but the public is entitled to demand truth, even though a certain amount of "puff" acoompanies it. The public is also entitled to ask that it should not be deliberately misled.
It is important to make a distinction between the kind of articles which last for a number of years and those which may be used up by a housewife in the course of a few days or weeks. I agree that the shopper should be selective, perhaps more selective, but while that is all very well in the case of soap flakes or cereals which are used up in a few days or weeks, so that the housewife chooses something else if she does not like one product, it is a little different in the case of a washing machine, or a refrigerator, or furnishings intended to last for a long time. It is also true of clothing which is sometimes meant to last a long time and whose cost represents a considerable part of a family income.
There is a strong case for trying to protect the shopping public because it is not always easy to assess the qualities when there is a choice to be made. I am well aware that assistance is being given by attempts to achieve a code of advertising practice. I have no connection with advertising—is it called a profession?
§ Mr. Wade
But I believe that genuine attempts are being made to draw up a code and I welcome that. There is also the Consumers' Association which publishes Which? and the Consumers' Advisory Council which publishes the Shopper's Guide. All that undoubtedly helps.
I recognise that there will always be the crook in the advertising or selling of goods and there will always be some who are fascinated by the word "bargain". One should always be cautious about the word "bargain", or the phrase "greatly reduced prices". In the annual or half-yearly sales at reputable stores, one may be able to get genuine bargains, but when one finds a shop whose windows are plastered with 840 "great bargains" and "vastly reduced prices" the whole year round, one should be very sceptical. I believe that more could be done to deter false advertising and false labels and I support that object of the Bill. If I offer criticisms, they are intended to be constructive and not destructive.
Clause 1 deals with false advertising. What about advertising on television? If the housewife sees some attractive advertisement on television and as a result buys some goods, she has gained a general impression within a few seconds and cannot cut out the advertisement as she could from a newspaper and, if she finds that she has been misled, take it to the shopkeeper and say, "This is not what I was told it was". Would there be any possibility of dealing with such false advertising on television?
Then there is switch selling, as I think it is called. That is the advertising of low-priced goods, either second-hand or reduced, as a bait to the consumer to buy other goods. There have been several references to carpets and there was a reference to carpets in The Guardian on 8th August, last year, which said:The Retail Trading-Standards Association tells in its annual report of a hawker who prepares his 'flood-damaged' carpets by soaking the rolled ends of tufted carpets.'Great play is made of the fact that the stained ends of six inches or so can be cut off', states the report, 'and the unsuspecting customer is often persuaded to pay over the normal price for a perfectly ordinary carpet which she believes to have been substantially reduced in price.In that case there may be some offence which could be dealt with under the common law, but there are other cases where a few goods are reduced in price to attract customers to buy articles which are being sold above a reasonable price. I do not know whether this would amount to false advertising, or false labelling, but I am doubtful whether it would.
My next point is about guarantees. Very often one sees an attractively worded guarantee on the label, but it may be of very little value. It may not falsely describe the goods, but it may create the general impression that the goods are perhaps of greater value than the price paid and in fact the guarantee may be of practically no value. Sometimes it goes further than that, because 841 it restricts the common law rights of the purchaser who signs the guarantee form.
There is an example of this in the evidence which the Retail Trading Standards Association put before the Committee on Consumer Protection. There is a big headline, "Specific Guarantee," which suggests that the goods in question will be replaced under various circumstances that are then set out but the guarantee then says in small print:This guarantee is limited to fair wear and tear only which, in the event of dispute, shall be decided by our representative.I do not know how many people would read the small print, but I think hon. Members will agree that there is not much value in such a guarantee.
§ Mr. Bishop
Many of us agree with what the hon. Member is saying about guarantees, and the fact that many of them are ineffective and even limit a customer's common law right. I do not see how the Bill will remedy that situation.
§ Mr. Wade
I am putting forward these observations in a somewhat interogatory form, because I am raising the question whether these guarantees, which I think sometimes mislead, would be regarded as a false description of the goods orcalculated to deceive or mislead as to the nature, substance, quality, value or performance of any goods.I think that the Committee ought to consider this point if the Bill reaches the Committee stage.
I deal next with the effect of the Bill on shopkeepers. I think that we must give some thought to the problems of the retailer. The modern retailer has to watch commercial television every night if he is to keep up to date, because he may suddenly find himself faced with a greatly increased demand for some commodity that has been advertised on television. I will not pursue that aspect of the problem, but it appears to me from Clause 2 that the burden of proof will fall on the retailer because it says:… unless he proves that he did not know, and could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained, that the label was of such a character as aforesaid.It may be the intention of the sponsors of the Bill to go primarily for the manufacturer, and I can understand that. He may be responsible for the advertise- 842 ments but the retailer sells the goods. He sells them labelled, and he may, quite unwittingly, be selling goods which will make him liable under this Bill. I think we should therefore consider whether we are being fair to the retailer by placing the burden of proof on him.
§ Mr. Darling
This was discussed when the Food and Drugs Bill was under discussion in Committee, and we were told that the retailer was covered by the words that hecould not with reasonable diligence have ascertained,and so on. In other words, he takes the manufacturer's label or advertisement on its face value.
§ Mr. Wade
I appreciate that, but it may be difficult for the retailer to prove that he could not with reasonable diligence have ascertained that the label was of such a character.
Turning to Clause 3, I understand that the idea is to rely on trade associations. It says:No proceedings shall be taken under this Act unless and until the following provisions have been fulfilled …and the first provision is thatparticulars of the alleged offence have been delivered to the person concerned, or published, by the Minister or by an established trade association. …What about the retailer who is not a member of a trade association? He may well have sold some goods which had an objectionable label, but the particulars of the alleged offence may not be delivered to him. The Minister may have published them, or taken the matter up with the trade association, but the retailer may not know about it. If he does not know about it, he cannot be expected to make a reply within a reasonable period of time, and therefore the advantages of paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) will not arise. This needs careful consideration. I am sure that the sponsors of the Bill would not wish to put difficulties in the way of, or create hardship for, shopkeepers, and I think that their interests should be considered as well as those of the consumers.
I have no doubt the Minister will say that he is awaiting the Report of the Molony Committee. Nevertheless, I think that there is an advantage in considering this problem of the advertising and labelling of goods in a manner 843 which misleads the public, and I hope that the Minister will give the Bill careful and sympathetic consideration and not be an accessary to the killing of it.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
I support the thinking behind the Bill. As the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) will remember from a previous occasion, in common with him I have a great interest in consumer protection, but, like other hon. Members, I have certain doubts about the detail of the Bill.
I should like at the outset to say something about the Measure which the hon. Member for Bilston successfully promoted last year, and the implications of it on this Bill. In my constituency in recent weeks there have been a number of disastrous fires which have damaged property and caused a tragic loss of life among small children. The hon. Member's excellent Bill, which is now on the Statute Book, superseded the previous legislation on the subject of oil burners, and we all welcomed it; but we are in the tragic position today that many oil burners which were made before that Measure became law are still available. They may not be available for sale through the shops, but they change hands at public auctions, or through household furniture being disposed of in other ways.
It is, therefore, extremely unfortunate that we should have this piecemeal pattern of consumer protection legislation. I believe that when we consider the Molony Report, the control of dangerous items such as oil burners should be examined much more closely, whether when offered for sale or already sold. They are one of the greatest causes of distress to many families, particularly to young couples who believe that paraffin oil is a cheaper form of space heating than is electricity or gas. When they are newly married, they probably buy an oil heater for their use in, perhaps, rented rooms.
It is all too often the young couple out of work, or not yet very experienced parents, who experience a tragic fire. We may all remember rather foolish things we did when we were first 844 married, such as leaving fires on with the idea of coming back from work to a nice warm room. It is tragic that these burners should continue to cause loss of life and property.
I draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to this aspect, and suggest that if the Bill should go to a Standing Committee we might consider inserting a new Clause, if that is possible, to deal with the marking of the quality of oil space heaters. The existing legislation is good, but I should like it to go further. I hope that the result of the Molony Report will be to tighten legislation in this sphere—
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Member must recollect that the Consumer Protection Act, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) was responsible, was based on an interim Report of the Molony Committee, which asked for quick action. I remember the hon. Gentleman stating day after day in Committee that that Measure was so very wide that any regulations could be introduced. The Minister does not need further legislation; we passed the necessary legislation last year. The trouble is that the Government are doing nothing about it.
§ Mr. Wells
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his reminder. That is why, a moment ago, I specifically asked the Parliamentary Secretary to take note of what I have been saying. We want the Board of Trade to consider making regulations, but we are in the difficult position that manufacturers are today probably manufacturing to a higher specification—
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Member, but I hope that he will keep his argument more closely related to the Bill.
§ Mr. Wells
Immediately, Mr. Speaker. I hope that this matter will have been sufficiently ventilated to ensure that auctioneers and others will pay close attention to what they are selling. Incidentally, I travelled here by train this morning with a leading auctioneer in my constituency. He was well aware of the provisions of this Bill, but said, "I only hope that house property does not come under 'consumer goods'".
845 Hon. Members have mentioned many of the types of fraud that are perpetrated on the public, but there are many that no legislation of this sort will catch. A word of praise should be given to our police forces for their close vigilance on bad cases of street touting of shoddy goods. The hon. Member is a great campaigner for consumer protection. He has played a considerable part in the activities of another hon. Member to repress mock auctions and other undesirable near-street-trading practices, and I congratulate him on it.
I am not quite so happy about his attitude to the free stamps he mentioned. Here, I declare an interest, as the father of four small children, all of them keen stamp collectors. These tedious offers that arrive daily at the breakfast table can all be rejected if the child has a careful parent. In the case of legal minors there can be no doubt that firms making these offers will burn their fingers from time to time. We should also remember that if an offer is made by a dishonest firm of stamp dealers, the child learns a lesson from it—and we hope that such dealers will also learn their lesson.
My detailed dislike of some parts of the Bill is concentrated on the difficulties of the smaller trader, in whose defence I said various things a year ago. Clause 2 states that "reasonable diligence" will be a defence, but the small trader has very little time for discovering with reasonable diligence whether some of his goods, for which he is using the manufacturer's label, are really what they purport to be. He works long hours for relatively small profit, he is frequently a rather harassed individual, and I hope that, at a later stage, the hon. Member will consider that man's difficulties. I know that the hon. Member is most sympathetic in this respect—we had a long discussion previously on the distribution of small traders—and Clause 2 puts such people in difficulties.
The great firms are today in a much stronger position than are the smaller ones. With mass advertising media, firms whose products are a household name have only to continue to shout from the housetops, without making any claim for what their products do, and their object of keeping their name before the public is at once achieved. One 846 thinks of the manufacturers of the various detergents, and the great manufacturers of motor cars. We all know that attractive Rolls-Royce advertisement, which does no more than show a photograph of the bonnet of the Rolls-Royce car, and says nothing.
It is easy for the big firms, but this is where the smaller firms find it difficult. In order to break new ground and go in for the competitive, keen selling advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), they must make definite statements. We all trust that those definite statements will be truthful—that is obviously a necessity—but those firms have to put forward their claims, and it is possible that, in trying to give a great push to a new product, they may, through sheer inadvertence, make some claim that is later discovered to be false. They then very properly rectify the situation, and in all future advertising the matter is presented differently, but that may not be the end of it.
Hon. Members have mentioned the fact of magazines and periodicals lying about for years after publication. I have had an instance in my own business. Some years ago, my firm ran an advertisement, which was perfectly excellent and truthful, but there was a mistake in our printed address. About six years later we received a whole batch of answers which must have come from one particular issue of a periodical since the answers were addressed to my company at this wrong address.
This proves conclusively that the buying public looks back for many years over periodicals of the glossy type. Perhaps, in Committee, the hon. Member for Bilston will consider some safeguard for advertisers who may inadvertently—and I stress the word "inadvertently" because we must protect the truthful advertisers—go amiss. Perhaps he could include a time-saving Clause for such firms.
The great companies whose products are household names are in a comparatively easy position. Certain consumer products are known by the name of the company rather than by the name of the product. Most housewives talk about a "Hoover", but the machine may be of another manufacturer. Very few children will ask for sticky tape but for 847 "Elastoplast". We are surrounded by sheets of paper, probably produced by machines of many manufacture, but we almost always say that they are "Roneo-ed".
These firms whose names have become stereotyped are in a strong position to the detriment of the smaller firms. The excellent publications Which? and Shopper's Guide are perpetuating and strengthening the demand for goods from the great firms because they can test only six or seven, or perhaps a dozen, articles. It may well be that the next article down the scale—the one that is not tested—is a far superior item, but because they have limited testing capacity the products of the smaller firms go unnoticed.
One of the greatest difficulties of advertising and consumer protection today is that the housewife may not know the name of the product of the smaller firm which is, in fact, the better one. Thus the smaller firm is forced into this very competitive advertising, when it does advertise. The hon. Member for Bilston made considerable play about carpets. I think we all agree with him about the distasteful advertisements about flood-damaged goods, and so on. But there must be a certain variant in the quality of goods available. The new carpet on the floor of the House is clearly of the highest quality. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Well, we hope it is. [Laughter.]
No housewife would wish to purchase a carpet of that quality if, for example, she required it for a spare room and if the family had infrequent guests. She might deliberately buy a carpet of a very definitely inferior quality for a room that is little used. She would go for the cheaper item, and this is where we come up against the difficulty of such phrases as "wonderful value for money." We are all suspicious of a bargain, but the fact remains that for certain purposes one wants an expensive durable and for other purposes one wants something of a different quality. I would, therefore, deplore any insistence in the Bill on stricter labelling of quality and any prosecutions for supplying something labelled "wonderful value" when it is not of this quality but which is adequate for another purpose.
848 A window cleaner of some considerable ability recently offered me his services. This gentleman works hard and gets around cleaning many windows, and he is in a great social difficulty. We all read from time to time of burglaries and robberies committed by people who at some time have been window cleaners. This is why I think that, in fairness, there should be something to cover the services and quality offered by a window cleaner. A housewife who moves and is new to a district may be suspicious if an individual approaches her and says, "I am the local window cleaner. It will cost you so much a window and I call every month. You can have it a bit cheaper if you engage me on a year's contract." She may not know whether he is a reputable character. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bilston, when considering the parts of the Bill dealing with services, could consider making a special provision for the status and standing of honest and reputable window cleaners.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite have mentioned the difficulty of the housewife today in buying goods of a technical nature, for there has been a great increase in the range of technical goods that are offered. She may wish to buy a new washing machine and is told that one is quicker, another is slower and that a third is a little cheaper than a fourth. She has no method of judging between one and another unless she closely reads all the advertisements and literature. It is in this direction that many extravagant claims may be made, unintentionally, by salesmen.
A salesman is indoctrinated to believe that his own firm's product is the best. No salesman would go out of his way to say that another firm's product is bad; just that his own firm's is the best. He believes in his heart and mind that the product he is selling is the best, and he might, when demonstrating a new piece of technical machinery, be carried away and commit an offence under the Bill by a small slip of the tongue. It may not be a terribly grave offence, but it could count, and for this reason I am worried about the severity of the penalties under Clause 5.
The smaller shopkeeper may have some difficulties under Clause 2. I would certainly not like to see a small shopkeeper fined up to £500 for a second 849 offence. I can envisage a small man committing one offence after another, and this would be a tragedy. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Bilston would direct his mind at a later stage of the Bill to the services offered by watch and clock repairers, which by no means conform to what one would expect. He might also look into the services offered by garages for repairs. One is often told in a garage "We will put it right by the morning", but when the thing comes back a week later there are half a dozen other faults.
There can be no doubt that many extremely extravagant claims are made by watch and clock repairers and garages about what they are going to do to the item requiring to be repaired. The work does not get done, other things are neglected and the consumer gets an extremely raw deal. I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Bilston will consider provisions whereby he might possibly catch that sort of offence.
It is for the reasons I have explained that I dislike the Bill in its present form and would prefer to wait for the Molony Report so that we might consider the whole subject in the round.
I should like to deal briefly with some agricultural products and difficulties experienced by rural communities. The hon. Member has dealt rightly with the views of the Milk Marketing Board and I support him wholeheartedly in everything that he has said. Many of us are distressed that people should be forced to have filled milk when they do not want it. Again the advertising of cheeses can be very misleading. However, those are relatively small matters, because the cup of tea containing filled milk is soon drunk and that is an end of the matter. If the consumer dislikes it he will be wary on another occasion. Cheese, too, is fairly swiftly disposed of.
There is, however, another difficulty which arises for the agricultural producer who supports the view so ably propounded by the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) who spoke in favour of more and better labelling. Many of us are aware of the increased amount of prepackaging of vegetables on the farms or by rural wholesalers. These people are seeking to do a very good job. They 850 insert a slip in their packages stating, "This bag of potatoes has come from Lincolnshire. If you have any complaints please write to …" mentioning the name of the firm.
These pre-packed bags are then sent all round the countryside, and they might well be lying about in the rear premises of a shop, where they become frosted and subject to other damage to which vegetables and other perishable goods are liable. The housewife buys a bag of potatoes or carrots, thinking, "This is excellent. I have got something with a label on it. I have redress if I am dissatisfied." She then finds that half the contents are frosted. What is her redress?
It is the negligence of the shopkeeper which has resulted in the contents becoming frosted. It is not the negligence of the well-intentioned producer or wholesaler who was trying to make an attractively packaged article complete with the label that we all seek. We have in the countryside, therefore, this difficulty in pre-packaging and in pinning down where the responsibility for any fault in the goods should lie.
One is aware of the similar type of label frequently found in a box of chocolates: "If you are dissatisfied, send this box back to the makers with this slip". But I think it is well known that the great confectioners start making Easter eggs as soon as the workers get back from the August holidays. Perhaps this is not a very satisfactory state of affairs for some of the purchasers, but this would appear to be the pattern to which the manufacturers operate.
While dealing with rural produce I would mention a very unfair case which was brought to my notice some eighteen months ago. Some apple growers at that time had embarked on a considerable advertising campaign on television of their extremely fine product, their Laxton Superb and other apples of the highest quality. These were intended to be only the finest English fruit on the market. But because of the inevitable width of their advertising programme, a number of unscrupulous dealers cashed in on the bona fide advertising and put on the market extremely poor quality apples indicating that they were as advertised on television. The poor quality apples were certainly not as the farmers had 851 advertised on television. The farmers had put forward a good product and had advertised it fairly, but other business people cashed in on their advertising.
Under this Bill the action would lie against the farmers, the people who had taken the advertising, which, of course, is all wrong. They were the people who had done the advertising, but somebody else had cashed in on their advertising.
§ Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)
Would this not come under Clause 2—"False labelling of goods"? My hon. Friend will see that it says:A person who gives with any goods sold by him, or displays with any goods exposed by him for sale, a label, whether attached to or printed on the wrapper or container or not, which—(a) falsely describes the goods, … "—that is to say, when they were advertised on the television.
§ Mr. Wells
I gather that it is my hon. Friend's contention that the second dealer would be held to be responsible. If that is the case, I am grateful to him for pointing it out to me. We had this great difficulty in advertising such a general product as apples, and it was a source of great distress to the respectable fruit growing community that villains were cashing in on their advertising.
I have mentioned that the person who puts an advertisement in a newspaper or periodical has difficulty in withdrawing it after a certain period has elapsed. This applies not only to newspapers but to television advertising. After all, a mistake could well be made in a television programme. The firm responsible for it would seek to make a withdrawal, but the people who had watched the programme when the advertisement first appeared might be completely different people from those who watched it a second time. There would, therefore, be no real redress for the aggrieved people.
I cannot accept the provisions of this Bill as really affording consumer protection. In my view, the only good Clause is Clause 7, which I welcome wholeheartedly. I therefore suggest that we might in Committee delete the whole Bill, except for Clause 7 and Clause 9, and try again later.
§ 1.37 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
We have had several debates 852 lately on advertising and matters connected with advertising, and I am afraid that the repeated observations that we get from the Parliamentary Secretary to wait for Molony have certainly killed all interest in the matter, for the time being at least, on this side of the House, because we know very well that however strong our representations and however well-reasoned a case we put forward for immediate legislation, we shall be met with this stubborn opposition and this request to wait for Molony.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) should be congratulated not only on introducing a Bill—and I stress this—that aims at raising the standards of advertising in this country and consumer information as a whole, and is, therefore, in line with the aspirations of all reputable advertisers and trade associations, but also on attempting to put into legislation what I consider to be a very novel proposal which I am sure will have widespread support from all reputable trade associations.
It may be true, as hon. Members have pointed out, that Clauses 3 and 4 are not correctly drafted—perhaps that is an under-statement—to achieve the purpose that my hon. Friend has in mind. Of course, it would be easy to substitute a better Clause for those two in Committee if the Government were sincere in their professed desire to protect housewives and shoppers from people who go in for fraudulent practices.
In my view, the purpose behind Clauses 3 and 4 is extremely important, but its importance may well be overlooked in this debate. What my hon. Friend is seeking to do is give official backing to responsible and reputable trade associations which try to lay down ethical standards in their own trades for advertising, the way they deal with their products, and so on. There are trade associations which try to impose discipline—call it voluntary discipline, if one likes—on those traders who offend against the accepted standards of the trade.
This is a new departure in legislation of this type. In a sense, it removes from the Board of Trade the responsibility for initiating action against manufacturers or traders who may deceive the public with false advertising or fraudulent practices. We recognise that 853 the trade associations are prepared to do the job themselves. My hon. Friend was quite right in saying that his is a modest Measure. What he aims to do by Clauses 3 and 4, as I see it, is to provide for the final sanction of legal action where voluntary discipline or the attempted corrective action of a trade association has failed or where a trade association does not exist. All we are left with to check an unscrupulous operator from perpetrating frauds on the public is to charge him at law with the offences he has committed. This new approach is very desirable and certainly well worth discussing in Committee, and my hon. Friend is to be congratulated for it. However, I fear that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be so enthusiastic as to give the Bill his blessing and suggest that it should have a Second Reading and go to Committee.
I was not much impressed by the legalistic objections raised against the drafting of Clauses 3 and 4. It is extremely difficult for a private Member seeking to introduce a Bill who has not the backing of a Government Department to have the help of Parliamentary draftsmen. They are not here for that purpose, of course. This is a weakness in our Parliamentary system, and I hope that, in time, private Members will be afforded more help in this connection. It is no criticism of my hon. Friend or his Bill to say that legalistic arguments about drafting can be brought against its terms.
The Bill is useful and necessary at this time, and I object to the idea that we should wait further for the Molony Report. Not only would the Bill help manufacturers, merchants and advertisers to raise the standards of their practices but it would help them to abolish the bad practices which now cause so much concern to reputable people in many trades. It would bring within its scope practices which the best manufacturers and the traders themselves condemn, which we condemn on both sides of the House, and which can be stopped, as we have discovered, only by some sort of legal action.
It would be wrong to exaggerate. Considering the whole range of consumer trades and services in this country, the offenders are very few indeed. Let us be quite clear about that. However, this is 854 an argument in support of the approach which my hon. Friend has made. Because they are few, because reputable manufacturers and traders want to take action against the few, we should help them and their trade associations to do so.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) spoke of the very good codes of standards and practices which have been introduced by some reputable trade associations. During our discussions about advertising, we have from time to time attacked manufacturers of drugs and patent medicines. It is a fact that the code of standards laid down by the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, the trade association concerned, contains standards which are very much more strict than anything contemplated in the Bill. First,It is a condition of membership of the Association that this Code of standards must be strictly observed by members and any persistent infringement of the provisions of this Code may render a member liable to suspension or expulsion".That is all right, but, of course, the manufacturer who offends and who is expelled may still continue in business. The association cannot stop him putting out false advertisements in spite of its very strict standards. Also—this is very important—It shall be a condition of membership of the Association that all advertisements shall be submitted to the Secretary for approval before they are released by the member. Similarly, before the issuing of any new product, details of the formula, claims, packaging material and copies of proposed advertisements should be submitted to ensure that they do not conflict with the requirements and conditions of the Association".I will not read all the requirements and conditions. The first, which is really the preamble, provides thatMembers of the Association should bear in mind that, in advertising, they owe a duty to the public and to their fellow members and, consequently, advertisements should not mislead the public or contain statements which would justify criticism of proprietary medicines".There are thirteen very strict rules about advertisements alone. The first contains the substance of them:No advertisement shall contain any matter which in any way, directly or by implication, departs from the truth. …Those are fairly strong rules. We are all in favour of them. But what will happen when a manufacturer in this 855 business who is a member of the association offends against its very strict rules and is expelled because of his conduct in advertising? Unless we pass legislation, the matter will rest there, apart from the possibility that an aggrieved customer will take action on the ground that he has suffered damage as a result of fraudulent advertising. We on this side of the House do not agree that that is the right way to deal with people who practise frauds on the public.
The right way to do it is through a Bill of this kind which, first, gives to the trade association responsibility to lay down proper codes of practice and, second, in order to support the association in its task of policing its own trade and getting its good standards applied generally, provides as a final resort a sanction at law by the person offending being charged with an offence if he does not alter his conduct. That is all that the Bill does.
I agree that the wording of parts of the Bill may be wrong and could be improved in Committee. However, I should like to answer one or two criticisms which have been made about the wording. It is quite true, as has been said, that the wording of Clauses 1 and 2 is based on Section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, with the additions that my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston mentioned, namely, services are brought in and the words "value or performance" have been added. I imagine that the reason why the words "value or performance" come into the matter is that the Food and Drugs Act was not concerned with the type of behaviour about which we are talking.
In the case of foodstuffs, the reason why so much advertising and false labelling had to be dealt with was that we did not want adulteration of foodstuffs to the detriment of the health of the public. In the case of drugs, again we were concerned not so much with price and performance in the way that we are today but with the health of the country. We did not want anyone to be poisoned or to get the wrong type of drug. Therefore, the misleading advertising of drugs had a purpose slightly different from that which we had in mind in the Food and Drugs Act, 1955.
856 Here, in dealing with consumer products, as the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) made clear, we cannot talk about quality without relating it in some way to price. As the hon. Member rightly said, it goes both ways. We must not stop a person who wants to buy a cheap article from doing so, even though it may be a worthless article. What we say is that the article should be truthfully presented to the person as a cheap article.
The word "quality" in the 1955 Act related not to price but to health. Therefore, the word "value" has been quite rightly inserted in the Bill for this reason. The same applies to the word "performance", because we are concerned with whether the advertised carpets will wear, whether advertised furnishing fabrics will shrink, and so on. I am assured—and I have asked Questions about this myself—that, unless the retailer changes the label on a product or unless he issues an advertisement, he is protected under the saving provisions in Clause 2. He could not know, with reasonable diligence, that the manufacturer's label was wrong unless he took the product to pieces. He is merely an agent who has no responsibility for the label on his goods which he has not affixed.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
Whether a person is a printer, a distributor or an errand boy, he is part and parcel of the process known as publishing. I think that the trader would find it difficult to escape that process.
§ Mr. Darling
I do not think so. These two points were well considered in the Food and Drugs Acts and the words in the Bill have been taken from that Act.
§ Mr. Darling
No. He is not a party to the publication. At least, that is what I am told. Since the Parliamentary Secretary will do all he possibly can to ensure that the Bill does not go to Committee because he prefers to deal with whatever recommendations may be made by the Molony Committee, this is a rather academic argument. Nevertheless, it is one which we should consider. I 857 am assured that the retailer would have an absolute defence.
I now wish to refer to two points raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade). I think that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston had in mind—when I discussed the matter with him he assured me that this was the case—was to try to cover publication in trade journals which is the right way to get to someone who is committing an offence or is alleged to be committing an offence, so that it is stated in the trade journal, "So-and-so's advertisement should be cleaned up", or words to that effect. This is another Committee point. I suggest that the reference to the withdrawing of an advertisement is, for the reasons given, wrong in this context. What it means is that there should be no further publication of the advertisement.
Even though the Parliamentary Secretary will probably tell us that we should wait until the Molony Committee has reported, I suggest to him that we should be clear about the time-table of legislation which may result from the Molony Committee's Report before we turn down every constructive proposal, which has happened over the last few months. As I see the time-table, the President of the Board of Trade will have the report in May, June or July—something like that. He will then study it—for how long, we do not know.
When the Molony Committee was first set up, the then Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers), spoke to a trade association of some kind, whose name I forget. But I remember perfectly what the hon. Gentleman said. He said, "Do not expect much from the Molony Committee". He prophesied that what the Molony Committee would do would be to confirm that there is little wrong with trading practices in this country. Since then, however, the members of the Molony Committee have had a long, arduous and intensive education. They have been bombarded with suggestions and evidence of bad practices. The Government are now faced with the possibility that they may get a very big and comprehensive report. Many more suggestions about what the Committee should cover in its investigation have been made in the last four or five years.
858 The Molony Committee has been working for years. If its report is published and in our hands before the Summer Recess, we shall be very lucky. Then what will happen? Will we have a White Paper on the Report, discuss the White Paper in the next Session and then wait until the following Session for legislation? As I see it, we shall have waited at least five or, perhaps, six years before any legislative action results from the setting up of the Molony Committee.
Of course, if we get the Molony Committee's Report in six years, it will be pretty good going for this Government. If we have legislation on weights and measures in the next Session, we shall have waited twelve years since the publication of the Hodgson Committee's Report. We on this side think that this is an important matter, but we are merely reflecting—and this must be understood—the growing opinion among all sections of the public that something should be done about what we generically call consumer protection. If we have to wait the length of time that I have prophesied, I think fairly accurately, before any action is taken by the Government, the people will be deeply concerned and will think that Parliament refuses to function on their behalf. The Bill deals with something that is very much needed.
There is a gap in what might be called protective legislation against false advertising, deceptive advertising and bad trade practices. We have, on the one hand, the Merchandise Marks Acts which—when anyone is prepared to take action—deal very largely with trade marks and trade descriptions. They are "common informer" Acts, because someone has to inform and take action under them. On the other hand, we have the provisions in the Food and Drugs Act which are on the right lines to stop misleading advertising and labelling of food and drugs. We have this gap concerned with all other merchandise for which we have no legislation. My hon. Friend is trying to fill that gap, and I think his proposals are very good indeed.
I shall add one or two examples to those which he brought forward to show how necessary it is to get some kind of legislation on the lines suggested. We have agreed on both sides of the House that we want trade associations to do as 859 much of their own policing as they can. Some time ago we came across an example of the manufacturer of a fire extinguisher who went to an advertising agent and asked him to take on an advertising campaign. The manufacturer made claims for the extinguisher. The advertising agency, a reputable one, sent the extinguisher to an independent testing house to make sure that the manufacturer's claims were correct.
I shall not go into detail, but the report which the agency received was that the extinguisher set off fumes and could in fact poison the person using it. The agency told the manufacturer that it could not handle, the account if the manufacturer insisted on the claims being made. The agency—which, as I say, was a reputable one—dropped the account, but another agency took it up and there was no means of dealing with a person who offended in that way. My hon. Friend is saying that the advertising association should have authority to deal with this kind of thing and that if its authority fails the sanction of the law should be brought in.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Niall Macpherson)
I am not certain whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) is contending that one of the claims made was that the appliance was safe to use. Would not this kind of thing come under the safety regulations in relation to the last Measure brought forward by the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) rather than under this Bill?
§ Mr. Darling
In the case I have mentioned that would be so, but I mentioned it as an example. I agree that this case would do so, provided the Government introduced regulations about fire extinguishers, which so far they have failed to do. I know that is not the responsibility of the Parliamentary Secretary. I should say on his behalf that if those regulations were being handled by the Board of Trade instead of by the Home Office we might have got some action before now.
I give another example, which is concerned with the question of timing withdrawal of advertisements. A toothpaste 860 manufacturer was told by a trade association to modify the claims he was making. He agreed to do so but allowed that advertising campaign to continue for three or four months before any action was taken. One can see that in the present context of doing things that could happen. We require a little more authority on the part of the trade association to make sure that its quite good and considered views shall be implemented. We want the sanction of the law to deal with those people who will not behave.
Despite the obvious need for this Bill, I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us once again to wait for Molony. I hope that he can give us some idea of the timetable. Even if as a result of his intervention we cannot make further progress with the Bill, I think it will be generally agreed on both sides of the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston has raised proposals which, although they may not be properly phrased in the context of the Bill—which is not his fault nor the fault of anyone but because we cannot have the help of Parliamentary draftsmen for Private Members' Bills—certainly are well worth consideration. On that ground alone the Bill ought to go to Standing Committee.
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Niall Macpherson)
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) on his remarkably good fortune. It is not for me to say whether he was wise to back the same horse a second time running. I think he recognises that the odds have lengthened a bit since the last race.
No one will disagree with the purpose of this Bill as expressed in its Long Title. I say straight away that, whether or not we are temperamentally antagonistic to advertising, hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed sympathy with the motives of the hon. Member in bringing forward this Bill. The debate has ranged very widely indeed, but, as many military commanders know to their cost, it is one thing to state an intention in clear, bold and imperative terms, but quite another to devise and state a method which will lead to the attainment of that objective. 861 Everyone is inclined to say that something must be done, but exactly what is to be done is the difficulty.
The method starts by appearing to be deceptively clear. Any person is to be guilty of an offence if hepublishes, or is a party to the publication of, an advertisement whichfalsely describes any goods, or … any service offered for payment, oris calculated to deceive or mislead as to the nature, substance, quality, value or performance of the goods … or as to the nature and performance of any service offered for payment.That sounds fine, or nearly sounds fine. As the hon. Member indicated, the words—or some of them—have a respectable parentage. They are taken from Section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act. In effect, the hon. Member argued that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gantry, the garment and the grand piano—it spreads very widely indeed. If the words fit the needs of food and drugs, why should they not fit the needs of any other goods, and indeed any services? I think that is his argument.
We could argue for a very long time in Committee about the words "value" and "performance". It seems that we ought first to get the advice of the Molony Committee and clarification on this issue.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) said that it is only a comparatively small minority of people who offend. I say this about prosecutions brought under existing legislation. It is difficult to be definite about prosecutions brought under the Food and Drugs Act because they are brought, in the main, by local authorities, at least in England and Wales. I had inquiries made and the results, which may or may not be representative, showed that the prosecutions could equally well have been brought under the Merchandise Marks Acts, which make it an offence to sell or expose for sale goods to which a false or misleading trade description is applied. The term, "false or misleading trade description" means one which is so in a material respect and the description must relate to particular goods. A good deal of what has been said, especially by my hon. Friends behind me, is really related to the Merchandise Marks Acts rather than to the Food and Drugs Act. An example I found is that of a proprietor of a restaurant who 862 advertised on the menu, "Smoked salmon sandwiches" but who actually served sandwiches which contained sliced saithe. He was successfully prosecuted under the Food and Drugs Act. Probably he could have been prosecuted equally successfully under the Merchandise Marks Act.
The Bill does not refer to particular goods. It makes it an offence to publish an advertisement which falsely describes goods in general—any goods at large—whether or not they are offered for sale. A misstatement in a guide book published by a local authority or in a museum catalogue would be caught by the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said, the most trivial error, the slightest misstatement, might be visited with the full rigour of Clauses 3 and 4. A false description need not be material or substantial.
Perhaps I might deal with what was said by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) when she argued in favour of compulsory labelling. I see that there is no provision in the Bill for compulsory labelling, and, indeed, I think that such a provision would be outside the scope of the Long Title, but this, no doubt, is a good opportunity to air the matter, and I think that the hon. Lady did it very well. There is, however, the provision that if a label is provided with the goods it must not describe the goods falsely or be calculated to deceive or mislead. Complaint was made about the use of television stars in advertising goods, but it is not unreasonable to employ the best advocate one can, whether to save one's skin or to sell one's goods.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) asked whether it would be equally easy to get evidence about television advertisements as about advertisements in the Press. Admittedly, one cannot go along with a piece of paper in one's hand and say, "I want this", but I do not think that there is any great difficulty about getting evidence, and, of course, it is the duty of I.T.A. to supervise advertising in general. He also raised the question of guarantees, and that, I think, would be one of the questions covered by the Molony Committee's Report.
863 The Bill certainly breaks entirely new ground by extending the offences to services. Admittedly, it is difficult to determine objectively the quality of a service, and I think that the hon. Member for Bilston was quite right to leave that out. If one cannot determine quality, one cannot very well determine its value in objective terms, and, of course, services have no substance, unless they are spelt with a capital "S".
Services are a particularly difficult field. We have been asked today about garages, watch and clock repairers, window cleaners and persons who receive deposits and pay interest upon them. This is a wonderful field for litigation and legal interpretation. What about "invisible mending", for example, or "chimneys swept clean"? What about "Come to sunny Zedmouth", and what about "Heaven for happy holidays"? What about, "All-Star Cast"—sometimes including "cast" stars and actors who ought never to have been cast at all.
In passing, I would draw the attention of the House to a curious anomaly Anyone who falsely describes goods commits an offence, even if the goods are not offered for sale. But a person who falsely describes services commits an offence only if the services are offered for payment. Apparently, advertisers of services are to be allowed to be as deceptive as they like provided they make no charge. This is one of the difficulties that we run into. This anomaly calls for some explanation and possibly some definition of the word "services". I think that it would be very difficult to legislate for services at large without at least some definition of the word. But I fully recognise the difficulties which hon. Members opposite are in in drafting the Bill.
I do not wish to suggest that difficulties of interpretation would be confined to services. Where does one draw the line? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) talked about "puffs" and the difficulty of saying what is the difference between the trade "puff" "The best value in town"—and the description, for example, "Genuine Antique". If we say, "The best of its type for £12 10s." in which of these two categories does the description fall, especially since "value 864 and performance" are specifically set out in Clause 1 (b) of the Bill. It is a difficult field.
What about the well known phrase already referred to, "Worth a Guinea a Box"? I assure my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East that I might have thought it this morning, truth to say, when I was innocently afflicted. I might on occasion think that this is true. But what might a trade association think of it, sitting in sober and solemn conclave? And, of course, who is to decide?
Here I recognise that there is a real difficulty. The hon. Gentleman from the kindness of his heart, did not want an advertiser to be haled before the courts for the first offence or for trivial offences. He wanted him to be given a second chance—perhaps many second chances. No proceedings, therefore, are to be taken before certain steps are taken. I propose to go over those steps because I think that it is important to see exactly what is proposed here.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough has quite rightly made a lot of the matter of giving responsibility to trade associations. All the same, I am bound to deal with the terms of the Bill. In Clauses 3 and 4, the hon. Member for Bilston leaves it to the Minister or an "established" trade association—perhaps an unusual word because one wonders whether it should be nonconformist or not—recognised by the Minister to tell the advertiser where he has gone wrong. I must say that the alternative of the Minister or a trade association is an odd one. Who decides who is to act?
I think that the hon. Member's intention—which was perhaps explained by the hon. Member for Hillsborough much more than by the hon. Member for Bilston himself—is that he really wants trade associations to be responsible for this and to discipline their own members much as the trade unions do. The difficulty is that some advertisers belong to no trade association—there is no National Union of Advertisers in the agony columns—or at least to no "established" trade association. So the argument is that the Minister must be brought in willy-nilly, rather in the same way as wages councils fill gaps in the ordinary pattern of wage negotiations, where for one reason or another 865 associations of employers and employees cannot do the job. But will it work?
An association alleges an offence. It notifies the advertiser. The advertiser does not repent and retract, or he makes unsatisfactory representations—one does not need much imagination to envisage the sort of "representations" that an association's rebuke might evoke—and he fails to comply with a request to withdraw the offending advertisement or label. The alleged offence then becomes an offence, not through proof before the courts, but because the advertiser has not complied with the association's request. All that appears to be needed, then, to secure under the Bill a conviction in the courts and a penalty not exceeding £100 for the first offence or £500 for any subsequent offence, not to mention a good deal of adverse advertisement, is to prove that these steps have been taken, not that a false or misleading description has been published. Perhaps at the same time it would be open to the association to prosecute the advertiser alleging an offence under Clauses 1 or 2. It seems to me that would be a separate offence under the Bill for which presumably the court could fine the advertiser a second £100 for the first offence or £500 for a subsequent offence. I am not sure of that, but that is how it looks to me as the Bill is drafted.
There are, of course, obvious difficulties in these procedures. For example—I think my hon. and learned Friend referred to this—Clause 3 (a) provides that the association or the Minister may either deliver particulars of the offence to the person concerned, presumably the advertiser if he can be found and, if not, the publisher, or may publish it. Is it really tolerable that an advertiser should be publicly pilloried, possibly at the demand of competitors, before a single thing has been proved against him? What if the advertiser is later proved right? Again there is no redress, and mud might stick to him, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) said.
However, the main point is—and it has been commented on by several hon. Members—that it is the association which is deciding that an offence has been committed. Does not that mean 866 that Clauses 3 and 4 are creating private courts or at least enabling the Minister to create private courts by "recognising" trade associations, or, alternatively, to be a private court himself?
§ Mr. R. Edwards
There is no comparison whatever between private courts and what is suggested in these two Clauses. Private courts are like the Star Chamber. It may be that these Clauses are not correctly worded, but certainly it is not the intention to set up private courts, which Members on this side of the House certainly are very much against. The intention is that the trade association should have discipline over a member who is not accepting established standards. If this discipline failed the association would suggest to the Minister that the Minister should take action. It is not suggested the association should take action, which would be a violation of all our understanding of the law. The Minister would take the action.
§ Mr. Macpherson
I am very much obliged to the hon. Member, and I am very interested to know what his intention was, but in actual fact the Bill makes it quite clear that it is to bethe Minister or … trade association".That is in Clause 3, and that runs on throughout. If this was not the hon. Member's intention, that, of course, does put a rather different complexion on the matter, but it would need very careful sorting out and close consideration of the powers which the Minister should have and the powers the trade association should have. If it was intended that the association should simply reach a conclusion that there was an alleged offence and then notify the Minister and leave it to the Minister to decide whether or not to prosecute, that would be quite understandable, but all I can say is that that is not what is in the Bill, and we are bound, in considering the matter, to deal with What is in the Bill at the moment.
§ Mr. Darling
Surely this is perfectly clear in Clause 8? At least, I understood from my hon. Friend that it was so.
§ Mr. Macpherson
No. Clause 3 merely saysby the Minister or … trade association".867 Clause 8 simply decides who that Minister is to be. It designates that Minister. It does not say that no prosecution shall be instituted except by the Minister, the President of the Board of Trade. This again may be a drafting point—
§ Mr. Macpherson
—but one is bound to deal with the Bill as it is even though that has conveyed a meaning different from the hon. Member's. As it is down here it seems quite clear that the result is different from the intentions of the hon. Member. In the normal case it seems to contemplate that any person who publishes a false or misleading advertisement will be "tried" by the Minister or an established trade association in respect of the advertisement, and that is what one means by a court.
I ask the House to note that no goods need be offered for sale or sold on any particular occasion to attract this inquisition. What would happen in practice? Might we not find that a trade association would publish details of a so-called offence before consideration of the explanations of the advertiser had begun? Could it not then require withdrawal of the advertisement on the grounds that the association—not the courts, not even the Minister—was not satisfied with the explanation?
Here one runs into a particular difficulty. I know it is not what the hon. Member for Bilston intended. Far from it. But what is going to be meant by satisfaction? What are to be the conditions for satisfaction? For example, would the Association be entitled simply, as the Bill is now drafted, to levy a fine? It is not clear in the Bill, and it is not at all clear that the Association would not, as the Bill is drafted. It would not call it a fine, but these things are done in other ways.
If the offender did not comply with that request for withdrawal then, as I have already pointed out, the courts are approached and are invited to impose a heavy fine because the advertiser—and this is the point—has flouted the trade association. It is not because of the offence. It is because he has flouted the trade association. If the trade association's view of the advertisement is at 868 fault, then I say again there is to be no redress at all, it seems. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East that plainly that will not do.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston will not feel that I have dealt too harshly with his Bill. It has not been my intention to do so, but I am bound to point out what appear to be the weaknesses in it. None of us wants to see what the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West called deliberately misleading advertising, and I have every sympathy with the wish of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bilston to bring deceivers to book, but I really do not think that the way he has chosen is the right way.
Moreover, when one comes to legislate for something like advertising, which involves the expenditure of £500 million a year, one has got to be as near right as humanly possible about both the framework and the drafting. The coverage, to use an advertising word, is so large, that the drafting really must be right if injustice is not to be done and confusion caused.
I have considerable sympathy with the idea of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough that trade associations should have codes of their own, and, of course, if they have codes of their own they must have some means of ensuring that their members adhere to them. The hon. Member stressed the tremendous importance of that, and of encouraging associations to seek to ensure that their members act responsibly, but how are these trade associations to exercise their authority?
How is the exercise of their authority to be supervised, if at all? What safeguards are there to be? These are very delicate and intricate questions, and very far-reaching ones, which are inherent in the administration of a Bill of this sort. It would be quite wrong, in my view, to pass into legislation this kind of Bill without also dealing with these points.
I would say that the aims of the Bill go right to the heart of the subject which the Molony Committee is at present examining, and it would be somewhat previous, to say the least, to legislate just when the Report is expected. The hon. Member for Hillsborough asked me 869 to peer into the future and say what the programme would be. I think that he realises that at least until one sees the Report it would be quite impossible to map out any programme of future legislation on it. I think he also realises that it is equally impossible, when the Report is about to be presented, to legislate at the moment.
I hope therefore that the hon. Member for Bilston will not take offence if I say in all good humour that the Bill seems attractive by its very simplicity. True enough, Clauses 1 and 2 are modelled on existing legislation, but I am afraid that the hon. Member did not succeed in describing accurately the nature, substance, quality, value and performance of the Bill. He referred to £14 million which he said was being spent on advertising valueless medicine. He also mentioned filled milk, margarine, ice cream and so on. Food and drugs are already covered by the Food and Drugs Act. He rather gave the impression that the Bill in some way would help in these things, but the Bill makes no advance on the food and Drugs Act except in Clauses 3 and 4 and possibly Clause 7. The Bill merely seeks to extend the provisions from foods and drugs to other goods. If the Food and Drugs Act has failed to prevent the sale of drugs of which he complains, the advantages of extending the provisions of the Act to other goods are not as great as he suggests.
The hon. Member said that the Bill introduces no new principle but, with respect, it seems that Clauses 3 and 4 introduce at least one new principle, if not more. The hon. Member argued that the principle had already been accepted in his own Consumer Protection Act, that is the principle of consultation, but as the Bill is drafted there is a wealth of difference between consultation about regulations, and initiative in discipline and prosecution. Therefore, under his own Bill I am not at all sure that the hon. Member would not be judged guilty of an offence, but no proceedings could be taken under his Bill if he were to comply with a request from a Minister to withdraw it. I am therefore, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, inviting him to do so. If he will not heed my request I must invite the House to request the hon. Member to withdraw it.
§ 2.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)
We have already had a full debate on the Bill and I do not want to detain the House for long. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) on his good fortune in the Ballot. I go a little further by saying how much many of us appreciate his introducing the Bill, even if we do not support it in detail, in order to give the opportunity for the debate which we are having today. I support entirely the principle that underlines the Bill but I cannot see how it would work. Detailed comments have been made on that by other hon. Members. Nor do I believe that the Bill is necessary at this time.
At this stage I must disclose what is, in a sense, a double interest in questions of this kind, firstly a business interest in that I am an associate director of an advertising agency and, secondly, a general personal interest in matters affecting the consumer. There has been a great development in consumer protection interest over the last few years. It could almost be described today as a cause, and we have had a series of Bills dealing with one aspect or another of consumer protection.
Two other recent manifestations of the political interest in the question were the publication of two pamphlets, one by hon. Members opposite and one by the Conservative Political Centre. It is interesting to find that some of the recommendations in the two pamphlets are identical. I think that the Conservative pamphlet called Choice, produced under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), was more readable and altogether a better pamphlet than the Labour pamphlet, but I confess to some degree of bias in my judgment—I was one of the joint authors.
The hon. Member for Bilston outlined some of the worries that are on his mind. He described some practices which I think all of us would regard as undesirable. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has already pointed out, many of the fields to which the hon. Member for Bilston referred could already be covered by existing legislation, and there are other undesirable practices which 871 have been referred to in the debate which it is very difficult for the law to control. The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) referred specifically to switch-selling and carpet sales. I agree that switch-selling practices are undesirable and I raised the question of the sewing machine swindle in this House. I investigated it myself and I am glad to say that both companies involved are now out of business.
It is difficult to control switch-selling by controlling advertising, in that the swindle, if one analyses it, follows the publication of the advertisement. The advertisement may appear to be quiet fair and it may be accepted in good faith, but it is the method of selling that follows it which is disreputable. To some extent this also applies to the carpet swindles, because there one finds the "flood-damaged carpet" advertisement put in the newspaper and it is difficult for the newspaper advertising manager to know whether or not it is false. He must accept the assurance of the advertiser who has appeared out of the blue. The advertisement appears and the sale takes place and it is only there that one sees that the sale is bogus and that to some extent the advertisement that preceded it was definitely misleading.
How could this Bill stop that practice? I understand that already advertisers have been trying to take action to stop this sort of activity. The basis of the problem is that these carpet salesmen are fly-by-night operators who work from no registered office and thereafter cannot be traced. If they cannot be traced, the notice required by Clause 3 of the Bill cannot be served.
I have referred to the two pamphlets on consumer protection produced by the Labour Party and by a number of private Members and others in the Conservative Party. Having read the Labour Party's pamphlet, I was interested to hear the reasonable tone of the arguments advanced in debate today. It contrasts very much with some of the statements which one or more hon. Members opposite made in their pamphlet "Fair Deal for the Shopper" to a wider audience. Today we have heard very fair statements that the number of misleading advertisements and dishonest practices and so on is very small in total when 872 set against the whole field of commercial practice. This compares strangely with the more public declaration in the pamphlet a few months ago where it is stated in the introduction that:Consumers are widely exploited. Deception, false advertising, misleading claims for products, sales of unsafe and poor quality goods, dishonest service and other malpractices are commonplace.That was the view of the party opposite a few months ago. I suggest that observations of this kind distort the true picture of commercial life in this country, and that indeed actual harm is very often done by spreading the false idea that British products are shoddy in their manufacture and that British manufacturers are dishonest.
Sometimes, I wonder if the basis of the assault that some people make on advertising and commercial practices generally is inspired not so much by a dislike of the practice itself as by a dislike of competitive enterprise, of which advertising and selling are the ever-present symptoms. If one accepts a free economy, in which people are free to choose and have goods to choose between, it follows that there must be a channel of communication between the mass producer and the mass of consumers. This channel is provided by advertising, which is an integral part of the marketing organisation of British industry, and which must be counted as one of the necessary costs of selling.
It is right that any force that seeks to mould public opinion should be watched, and it is right that advertising should be kept under this surveillance. We must ask ourselves to what extent advertising is dishonest, and whether or not there is a real need for this Bill at present. I agree that there is some misleading advertising, just as there may be politicians who, deliberately or otherwise, make misleading statements, but it is wrong to suggest that an Act of Parliament can put this right. We cannot make people honest by Act of Parliament, and so long as there are crooks, there will continue to be crooked commercial practices and crooked advertising, too. It is wrong to suggest that the public is being continually deceived by large-scale operations of this kind. The average housewife has some experience, and she believes, I think rightly, that advertised branded products 873 generally will give her satisfaction and a fair deal. If one does not, surely, she has enough common-sense not to buy that product again. The advertiser is equally aware of the simple truth that his business cannot be built on disappointed customers.
I doubt if misleading advertising, that is, advertising calculated to mislead, accounts for more than 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. of the total expenditure, and that is probably an exaggeration. I concede the point that 2 or 3 per cent. of some hundreds of millions of pounds is still a lot of money, and that we all want to stamp out these practices. Perhaps, at this stage I should refer to the figure of £450 million which has been quoted by the hon. Member for Bilston as the sum of money spent on advertising for the sale of goods. In the Labour Party pamphlet, it was stated that no less than £450 million was spent last year, and I think the figure related to 1960—through the Press, commercial television and bill boards to persuade the consumer to buy manufactured goods.I should like to say that that figure is far from correct.
The actual figure spent that year, according to the best estimates—through the Press, commercial television and bill boards, to persuade the consumer to buy manufactured goodswas £243 million, and even that is somewhat exaggerated, because that figure includes prestige company advertising, which was not exactly directed towards the selling of a particular product. The difference between £243 million and £450 million, which latter figure is very often quoted in the House, is represented by window displays in shops, catalogues, leaflets, free samples, classified advertisements in the newspapers, announcements in the births, marriages and deaths column and so on. I cannot believe for a moment that hon. Members wish to extend legislation of this kind to cover classified advertisements, births and deaths and so on.
It is important to get figures of this kind right. Very often, those who are interested in matters of consumer protection are referred to as "do-gooders," a phrase which is not, perhaps, very offensive. I think, however, that if the "do-gooders" are trying to do good, they should try to find out first what 874 makes things tick and get their facts right.
The advertising bodies themselves, and this point has been made from both sides of the House today, are just as anxious as hon. Members to stamp out dishonest advertising—the 2 or 3 per cent. or whatever small figure it may be. A new code of advertising practice is about to be published which we trust will at last provide a comprehensive and understandable code to which all media can adhere. An Advertising Standards Authority is also being formed, and details of this organisation are expected to be made known shortly.
On balance, therefore, I suggest that it is better to wait and see what the advertising business itself can do to stamp out the little that remains of what we all here regard as undesirable advertising. I believe it can be done by the advertising business, which over the years has done a great task in stamping out undesirable practices generally. Let us see what it itself can achieve over the next year or two with the aid of the new code and the new authority.
Again, the Molony Committee is considering questions of this kind at the moment, and I agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that it would be wiser to wait for its Report before we introduce any further legislation. It may well be that some changes in existing legislation would cover many of the points which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The Food and Drugs and Merchandise Marks Acts, in particular, could be simplified and extended and this perhaps would meet the point which the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North has in mind. I agree with her entirely that words like "showerproof" "rainproof", "dye-fast", and "unshrinkable" can be actually misleading, and that it would be helpful to the consumer and to the manufacturer also if there were some statutory definitions of these words. I recognise the difficulty in making a statutory definition of that kind.
The Hire Purchase Act is obviously another Act which could be amended for the benefit of the consumer, and the hon. Lady's point about guarantees would be covered by some amendment 875 of the Sale of Goods Act. On balance, while I welcome the underlying principle and the desire to get rid of what is undesirable, I feel that it would be better to wait for a while to see what the advertising business itself can do to put its own house in order and what the Molony Committee recommends in the way of further legislation, if indeed any further legislation is truly necessary.
§ 2.49 p.m.
§ Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)
This debate has demonstrated the very great difficulty in balancing care for the consumer, as exemplified by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), I thought to the extreme, in that consumers should act extraordinarily carefully in the way they chose their goods, as against the other attitude that things are now so complicated that, since people cannot look inside and examine the items they wish to purchase, they are, therefore, entitled to believe in integrity in advertising.
We have seen already how difficult it is to ensure that advertising is completely accurate. I should have the greatest sympathy for the copywriter who is writing advertisements for goods displayed for the female sex. I mean all this business about "This product will make lovely you lovelier", which, presumably, is misleading. However, if the copywriters had to abandon that, they would be rather short of copy. At the same time, we ought to have general integrity in advertising.
The Parliamentary Secretary spoke about an all-star cast. Would it not be a welcome change if we abandoned the practice of referring to those taking part in little provincial shows as all-star casts, for that is clearly quite ridiculous. I do not think any harm would be done if there were a little more truth in advertising.
§ Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)
What does the hon. Gentleman mean by speaking about provincial casts like that? Most of us here represent the provinces and we think that there is a good deal of merit and talent in these casts in the provinces.
§ Mr. Allason
I still do not think they should pretend to be all-star with the 876 implication that every single member of the cast was a West End star.
§ Mr. Allason
Perhaps it would be bad advertising as well as misleading advertising to describe them as all-star casts then.
The Minister did not reply to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) about oil heaters. I should be grateful if he would answer it. I have a considerable interest in this because the B.S.I. testing station is at Hemel Hempstead and I have seen oil heaters being tested there. I think that with the new B.S.I. Standard the new oil heaters are all right. However, there is a point there.
§ Mr. N. Macpherson
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) for not dealing with the point. Since the last tragedy about two and half years ago a new British Standard for oil heaters has been agreed between the manufacturers. In addition, regulations, which are a matter for the Home Office, are under consideration at present and should be available shortly.
§ Mr. Allason
Advertising has been discussed a great deal today. "Publishing" is the word actually used in the Measure. I think that the writing of letters may be similarly classified. I am thinking in terms of circulars which may be distributed, over which the advertising business would have no control at all.
I want to mention an individual case which I hope will demonstrate the need for a change in the law. As I understand it, this case is not covered by the existing law. The example that I have in mind concerns Information Exchange, of 62, Oxford Street. It sends out circulars to members of the public saying that it provides information relating to stocks and shares, the commodity market, real estate, football and so on.
It states that the person has been approached because the organisation is in need of additional telephone 877 assistance, that in spite of its existing numbers of telephone operators it is unable to deal with all the calls coming to it. It states that the selected person will be paid at the rate of 10s. a call if he will assist. There is, in fact, a guaranteed £5 per week which it is stated can be made in this way simply through the person answering telephone calls. There is a fee of £5 for joining, for the "secured income policy", which sounds very nice.
The person sends his £5, and it then turns out that each weekend he is going to be supplied with the names of two horses. He is, in fact, to become a racing tipster. There is nothing whatever about it to do with stocks and shares or commodity deals. He has, in fact, to be a tipster, and he has to advertise his services as a tipster in the local Press; and that will cost more money. Also, he does not get the 10s. per call from Information Exchange; he gets it by trying to charge it to the customers whom he may get through advertising. In fact, he then has to pay further money to Information Exchange. Clearly, there is not in this very much of a guaranteed income, which people are led to expect.
Apparently, there is no offence in offering that service as it stands. However, I suggest that under the Bill it would become an offence, and I think it right that it should. I imagine, too, that there is a remedy at common law, and that if each of the persons concerned—there must be many hundreds in the country who have parted with their £5—would sue Information Exchange they might be successful. Nevertheless, I am sure that that is not the way to deal with an abuse. If there is an abuse in large or small measure—we have heard many abuses mentioned, particularly by the hon. Member for Bilston—it ought to be remedied. It is no good saying that there are only a few abuses; if there is any offence, it ought to be remedied.
The Bill may be wrong in many respects at the moment but, clearly, it could be improved in Committee, and for that reason it ought to be supported.
§ 2.56 p.m.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
I should like in a very few minutes—I know that hon. Members wish to bring other Bills 878 forward—just to say that I felt very much in sympathy with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) when he said that there was a case for this legislation. I think he based his case on the fact that while our consumer protection legislation—the Food and Drugs Act and the Merchandise Mark Act—covers certain fields, there is still a large area in which further legislation is required for the protection of consumers.
I also sympathised with the hon. Member when he said that we ought to await the Report of the Molony Committee. Yet I see the point made by my hon. Friend, in that the Report should shortly be available.
I urge upon my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that when that Report is issued we ought to consider the whole field of legislation in this respect. I ask him to ascertain whether it would be possible to have comprehensive legislation covering all the fields of consumer protection which could possibly be embodied in one Act, for that would be much easier to follow, and it would make it much less costly and more simple for those who wish to proceed under it.
Nobody wishes to pour cold water on the Bill, but I think it is killed by Clauses 3 and 4, because they are far too vague. As I see it, a prospective Member of Parliament advertising his campaign might himself be liable to penalties, though I do not know what tribunal would hear the case.
The main objection is that the Bill is setting up a new code under which the verdict of a commercial court would virtually have to be accepted by a court of jurisdiction, and I think that would be a wrong principle to introduce into our legislation.
I urge my hon. Friend very carefully to consider the possibility of merging all these branches of legislation and, furthermore, of having one Department, possibly the Board of Trade, responsible for the administration. It should be borne in mind that when one is introducing legislation of this type one cannot protect every single fool in the land but must leave something to people's common sense.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. F. P. Bishop (Harrow, Central)
I shall not detain the Committee for more than a few moments at this late hour. I spent many years in days gone by in efforts to regulate and control the advertising business and the problems that we have been talking about today, and I should like to say a few words on the matter.
It is thirty-five years since I became chairman of the first committee appointed by the then newly formed Advertising Association to look into the question of advertisements of patent medicines, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards). On that committee we had independent members and representatives of the British Medical Association and manufacturing chemists, among others, and I remember our labours and the hours we spent in collecting ad examining every specimen of patent medicine advertisements that we could find. We produced a report which led to the first of all the many codes of advertising practice which have since appeared. It had its effect, in leading to the passing of the Pharmacy and Medicines Act, in 1941. A good deal has happened since then to control the admitted dangers which exist in the free exercise of the power of advertising.
I want to make only two points. The first concerns the question of legislation and the other the subject of voluntary controls. Various Acts of Parliament have been mentioned. It was a great surprise to me—and it might surprise other hon. Members—to find, from a list of the Acts of Parliament restricting, controlling or otherwise affecting advertising—provided by the Advertising Association—that 34 have been passed, of which no fewer than 22 have been passed since the end of the last war.
Many of these Acts, such as the Food and Drugs Act, the Merchandise Marks Acts and the Television Act, are major Acts of Parliament which deal with advertising only incidentally. Others are Acts which deal specifically with certain aspects of advertising, such as the Advertisements (Hire Purchase) Act, 1957. The hon. Member for Bilston said that it was the duty of Parliament to deal with the protection of the consumer. It could not be said that we have failed 880 to carry out that duty in respect of the quantity of legislation passed since the war. If it is necessary to have another Act now it would seem that there has been something wrong with the quality of the work that we have done.
If, on an examination of the legislative position of advertising, it should appear that a further Act is necessary, that would not be rejected by those who are concerned with the control of advertising today. For example, in a Memorandum of Evidence submitted to the Molony Committee by the Incorporated Practitioners of Advertising—they used to be called advertising agents in my day—the I.P.A. envisages the desirability of new legislation to codify and clarify the mass of Acts which regulate advertising. The Memorandum pointed out the difficulties of construing and interpreting the many Acts governing this subject.
I do not think that the Bill will achieve that purpose. Where there is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding it would have the effect, I am sorry to say, of making confusion worse confounded. But if, after the Molony Committee has reported and the other inquiries which are now going on have made their findings known, it appears desirable to have some new legislation codifying all the rules and regulations now governing advertising, then that would be a subject to which those professionally engaged in advertising would be very happy to make whatever contribution they could.
I want finally to refer to the voluntary control of advertising. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) referred to a new code which is about to be produced. I should not like it to be thought from what the hon. Member said that the production of this code is something entirely new. Far from it. There are many codes by which those engaged in advertising, the advertisers themselves, the advertising agents, the newspaper and other publishers, and the I.T.A., have laid down rules to regulate and govern their activities.
What is now in contemplation and, I believe, very near to fruition is a new code which will codify all the codes now existing, revising and consolidating them into one document which would be accepted as the governing code for all those engaged in advertising. I think 881 that all hon. Members agree that, to the extent that it is possible for an industry like this effectively to regulate and control those of its members who are liable to over-step the mark and violate principles which we all regard as just and sound, that is the best way, and that legislation should be in the background for use solely when it becomes impossible for the industry itself to control those who refuse to abide by the rules laid down by the industry itself.
I am sorry that I cannot support the Bill because, like others who have spoken, I recognise the good intentions behind it. But I cannot think it right to have a Bill which gives a trade association, under the authority of the President of the Board of Trade, the power to act not only as the prosecutor, but as judge and also as a court of appeal if any protest by the accused is made. I do not think that the Bill in the form in which it is presented to the House is capable of being dealt with by Amendment in Committee, and I therefore feel that it should be rejected on Second Reading.
However, I say so without in any way opposing the principles which have actuated the hon. Member for Bilston in bringing it forward. My view is, as so many hon. Members have expressed it, that we should wait for the results of the various inquiries which are now going on and then examine the matter to see whether some new Bill consolidating a vast mass of legislation is desirable. If so, I am sure that we would all go into it with a desire to bring about the best result possible.
§ Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put and negatived.