§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hill- side)
I beg to move,That this House, recognising the need to protect consumers from unfair and undesirable trade practices and to promote better trading standards, regrets Her Majesty's Government's failure to introduce appropriate measures and take vigorous administrative action to safeguard consumers' interests.Hon. Members will see that the Motion is drawn very widely. If I may labour the obvious, that is because this is a wide subject. We are all consumers, about 50 million of us, and we are shoppers. Last year, we spent about £18,000 million in the shops and stores. We also spent money outside the shops and stores eating in cafes, restaurants and canteens. We drank in hotels and public houses. Some of us have cars and use garage services. We use laundries, shoe-repairing shops and other services of that kind. We travel and use transport services. We buy or rent homes and use gas, electricity, water, telephone and postal services.
33 What we want to ensure is that all these trading activities and the services we use shall be governed by rules which will guarantee us value for money, honest services and reliable information. I am sure that all consumers want protection from unfair or undesirable trade practices. We want to know precisely what we are buying. We do not want to be misled or deceived by dishonest advertising, or false labelling of goods. We are asking that this enormous business of making and selling goods and services of all kinds shall conform to acceptable codes of trading practice.
Many of us would prefer to have voluntary rules, voluntarily accepted, because the vast majority of manufacturers and traders are honest and reliable and desire to improve their trading standards all the time, but experience has shown over the last two or three decades that the honest trader needs legal protection from the dishonest competition of rogues and swindlers just as much as consumers need protection. Therefore, we believe that Parliament has a duty to provide and lay down trading rules wherever they are needed. For this purpose we need advice to carry out our duties fairly and effectively, advice from a consumer council and from reputable trade associations and other bodies.
There is nothing new in laying down rules for the conduct of traders. We have been doing it for centuries. Over the last hundred years we have had basic rules, some excellent basic rules such as those provided by the Sale of Goods Act and the Weights and Measures Acts. We had to introduce control of food and drugs, of hire purchase and protection for trade marks, and so on. We have now reached a point at which it is perfectly clear that most of the rules we have for the conduct of trading are completely out of date. They have not kept up to date with the extraordinary developments in trading practices during the last quarter of a century.
Our shopping habits are changing. We have supermarkets and self-service stores. We have new methods of making, processing and packaging goods. We have many new commodities that were not known before the last war, such as manmade fibres and new forms of electrical appliances for the home. We have new drugs and an enormous increase in 34 chemical products for use in the home. We have to revise the rules to meet new conditions.
Our main complaint against the Government is that they have been far too dilatory, far too indifferent and far too much influenced by trade interests to take the vigorous action which is needed to protect shoppers and shopkeepers from the harmful trading practices which have cropped up during the last few years. The Government Amendment which is to be moved to the Motion exposes their lamentable record. All the Government can think of to boast about is that they are in the process of establishing a Consumer Council. They have not yet finished that job, for there are three vacancies still to be filled. If that is all they intend to do, they should get out of the way and let a more vigorous and radical Government get on with the job.
The Government seem to be blithely indifferent to the fact that our trading rules are out of date and that as a result our trading standards are often far from satisfactory. We have lagged behind most other Western countries in, for instance, our rules about food handling, rules about labelling of products, and so on. Because of the neglect by the Government customers are far too often exploited by tricksters and swindlers. The Government have done little or nothing over the last twelve years to check false advertising, misleading labelling of goods and deceptive packaging. We tried to deal with this when considering the Weights and Measures Bill. We tried to get rid of fraudulent packaging by many manufacturers who put too little into a large-size container which is labelled "jumbo" or "large economy" size and so completely deceive the customer. The Weights and Measures Bill was so drawn that this was outside its scope.
The Government have done nothing about "phoney" guarantees, about worthless guarantees, when in many cases the customer who signs the guarantee signs away his common law right and is worse off, if he has something to complain about, than he would have been if he had had no guarantee at all. The Government have done nothing about switch sales and about such swindles as door-to-door carpet selling, or about the fraudulent "scholarship contest" racket, where the 35 perpetrators pose as students and try to persuade sympathetic housewives to subscribe to magazines.
One of the worst features of these frauds is that all too often they are promoted by Americans who come over here to practise their rackets because they have been banned in their own country and we lag behind in our provisions. There are the doorstep sales of encyclopedias by salesmen who dishonestly pretend that they have the backing of local education authorities; there are hire-purchase deals which no one in the House can defend; and there are travelling salesmen who book village halls to sell cheap carpets at inflated prices with quite dishonest descriptions of those carpets.
These and many other frauds have been going on for a long time. The Board of Trade knows all about them. It has had stacks of complaints, but does little or nothing about these things. In fact, the Government's masterly inactivity in this field has given to many people the impression that there are great legal difficulties in the way of getting things put right, that it is not easy to make new rules, and that we should have to have an army of inspectors to carry out the rules.
This is sheer nonsense. We need very little new legislation to deal with all these swindles and rackets. What we need is an alert and determined Government. For instance, all that is needed to stop the doorstep and itinerant salesman's rackets is a legal requirement that all advertisements, in newspapers, in handbills or on posters, must carry the registered address of the advertiser. They get away with it now because nobody can trace them. If that legal provision were laid down and the person who offended against it were dealt with in the courts, we could, I think, begin to get rid of these rackets quickly.
Again, to stop false advertising and the deceptive labelling of goods ought not to be difficult, because we already have a model law on the Statute Book which deals with this very problem. It is Section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act. If the provisions against false advertising in that Act are satisfactory for food and drugs, why cannot we extend them to all other goods? If they were extended to other goods, we should, of course, need 36 vigorous administrative action to make sure that the provisions of the Act were carried out; and the record suggests that that is something which we shall not get from this Government.
In fact, some of us have a suspicion that the Consumer Council, about which the Parliamentary Secretary will start boasting shortly, has been set up in part as an excuse for doing nothing, because if the Government take it upon themselves to refer these apparently difficult problems to the Council for advice, a long period will elapse before anything is done. We have grounds for this suspicion in the Government's record—a deplorable record.
For example, let us take the Weights and Measures Bill. Ever since 1951, everybody in this country who is interested in this section of our trading operations has known very well that a new Measure was needed. It is twelve years since we received the excellent Report of the Hodgson Committee, advising us how the weights and measures rules should be reformed. Twelve years after that we have the Weights and Measures Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. But even if that Act is passed this Session, it will have been fifteen years before anything is done to carry out the proposals, adapted to modern circumstances, of the Hodgson Committee.
Weights and measures legislation is only one part or consumer protection. The Food and Drugs Act was very greatly needed, but it took about five years to amend the out-of-date legislation and to produce the consolidation Act which we have now. Even so, the provisions for the hygienic handling of foodstuffs are largely ignored, because the Ministry of Agriculture has forgotten that it is also the Ministry of Food and takes very little action to make sure that our foodstuffs are handled properly. This may be one of the reasons why the incidence of food poisoning is far too high.
Incidentally, I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that we let an unfortunate provision go through when we passed the consolidation Act. Of course, as it was a consolidation Act, we could not amend it. Hon. Members will be surprised to know that the Minister of Health has no power to take action against the false advertising and misleading labelling of drugs. The Act puts 37 the responsibility on the public health authorities, the local authorities, and expressly cuts out the Minister from taking any action.
Another important question concerns safety standards. Hon. Members probably know that there are more deaths and accidents in homes than on the roads. It was left—we do not complain of this—to two Private Members' Bills to give the Government power to lay down safety standards for potentially dangerous appliances and goods. The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Sir G. Nabarro) dealt with oil stoves and my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) brought in the more comprehensive Act which would give the Government power to introduce safety standards over a wider field. But in spite of repeated requests from coroners, from local authorities, from health experts and from consumer associations of all kinds for more safety standards, we still have only one safety standard laid down under this legislation, and that is for oil stoves.
To show the Government's attitude about these things and how indifferent they are I remind hon. Members that a week or so ago they received a circular from the Home Office saying:Members of Parliament…may find it helpful to know that the subjects dealt with by the Home Office are now allocated between The Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State in the following way:".The circular gives a long list of things which are looked after by the hon. Lady the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) and a long list of things looked after by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse).
I agree that the police, civil defence and the fire service are important and should come at the top of the list, but there is no reference to safety standards as such. There is a reference to safety in the home among the subjects to be looked after, although the Consumer Protection Act goes wider than that. It seems that the Home Office is restricting its application. It gives the subject such a low priority that it ranks after betting and gaming, liquor licensing, the State management scheme and the protection of animals. If the Home Office had taken it one stage further it would have been among the "Other miscellaneous Home Office matters" at the bottom of the list.
38 Those are some of the reasons why we complain about the Government's inactivity. But during the years in which the Government have done almost nothing, the public have awakened to their lack of proper protection against a whole range of malpractices. The Government have been compelled to take note of public disquiet and demands for action. They set up the Molony Committee with wide terms of reference, which the Molony Committee itself reduced. The Committee decided that it should not inquire into services, laundries and garages, and so on, into price control, into resale price maintenance, into food and drugs, into marketing schemes or into the consumer councils of public industries.
The Committee also left out weights and measures, but that was on the assumption that the Government would do something on that subject without further advice, though the Molony Committee was worried about the way in which the Government act even on the best advice. In paragraph 8 it sums up our views of the Government, by saying:If our recommendations are accepted in whole or in part, we trust that in the interest of the consumer their implementation will not suffer the monumental delay which has characterised the treatment of the Hodgson Committee Report.For all practical purposes, 300 pages of legalistic argument in the Molony Report have produced five recommendations and an order of priority for implementing them. The first is that a Consumer Council should be set up with strictly limited powers; secondly, that there should be amendments to the hire-purchase Acts; thirdly, that the Merchandise Marks Acts should be amended; fourthly, that the Sale of Goods Act should be amended; and, fifthly, that there should be some control of seals of approval.
When the Report appeared with these not very ambitious proposals, the Board of Trade spokesman in another place proudly announced that the Government had moved swiftly and had immediately accepted the recommendation to set up a Consumer Council. Swift action from this Government is a startling innovation. We could not believe it, and we were right. We had the promise of swift action ten months ago, and the Consumer Council has not yet been totally appointed. We have the chairman, the 39 secretary and seven members, but there are still three vacancies to be filled. I must admit, however, that the Council is shaping up much better than we expected, and I hope that, in filling the last three places, the Parliamentary Secretary will impress on his right hon. Friend that working-class housewives should not be unrepresented.
I must confess, too, that I have doubts about having a Civil Service secretary of the Council, because the Council should be, and should be seen to be, completely independent, free to criticise the Government as it must be free to criticise traders, manufacturers, trade associations, and so on. I should have pressed this objection strongly if the secretary had not been such an unusual and forthright civil servant.
We wish the Council well. We will see how it goes, and at the first opportunity we will widen its terms of reference. But I warn the Parliamentary Secretary that if the Council produces the kind of bromides which we usually get from the Board of Trade in response to complaints and criticisms, it will have to face a storm of protest.
Here I must protest myself at the President of the Board of Trade's lack of frankness in setting up the Council. Incidentally, we fully understand why he is not here today, and there are no criticisms on that score. The right hon. Gentleman has made only one statement in the House about the Consumer Council and about which, as I say, the Parliamentary Secretary will soon boast. That was contained in two sentences during the Second Reading of the Weights and Measures Bill. The terms of reference and the name of the chairman were provided in a Written Answer to a contrived Question set down for the purpose. The name of the secretary and other details were given in a Press statement. The seven additional members were announced in a Written Answer last week.
Until we put down our Motion, we have had no opportunity of discussing what is, according to the Amendment, a major piece of Government policy. I must, therefore, ask the Parliamentary Secretary to answer one or two questions about the Council that we have not so 40 far been allowed to put to him or to his right hon. Friend.
Has it been made perfectly clear to the members of the Council that they are completely independent of the Government and that they can say what they like at any time they like and can criticise the Government just as much as they like? How often will they meet? If the Council is to do its work properly, it will have a very full agenda. If it meets only once a month, or something like that, I cannot see how it will get on with its work and finish it in reasonable time.
Will its range of activities be so restricted as to keep within, say, a leisurely monthly meeting? Has the Parliamentary Secretary any idea of the problems that the Council will work on and the order of priorities which it will follow? Why must services be excluded from its activities? If it cannot examine the conduct of laundries, garages, travel agents, and so on, who will do the job?
Why should these be left out of the kind of examination which we think it proper for the Council to give to other forms of trade? Does the President of the Board of Trade intend to refer such important questions as the amendment of the hire-purchase Acts to the Council? If that is what the Parliamentary Secretary proposes this afternoon, I shall personally register a very strong protest. This is much too urgent a job to be left to a leisurely inquiry of the kind which I think we shall get from the Council. I will not ask any more questions, because I am sure that my hon. Friends have some to ask.
It has taken the Government a year to set up the Consumer Council. If this is an indication of the speed at which they propose to work, and if it takes them a year to implement each of the Molony Committee's five recommendations, it will be 1967 before anything is done to prohibit worthless guarantees. But, of course, we expect a change of Government, which will act much more swiftly. In fact, such an incredible delay as seems likely is a strong argument for getting rid of this indolent set of Ministers.
In my view, the Molony Committee's recommendations are sound as far as they go, except on hire purchase. I am afraid that, in view of an article which 41 appeared in the City column of The Times, my remarks on this matter, although brief, will have to be a little longer than I previously intended. Everyone agrees that our system of getting goods on hire purchase is full of faults. It is not straightforward hiring and it is not straightforward purchasing. It is an illegitimate mixture of the two. It turns traders into moneylenders and moneylenders into traders. I do not think that we shall ever have a satisfactory system of buying goods on credit until we have completely separated the moneylender from the trader, except, perhaps, for small transactions.
The present law, the 1938 and 1954 Acts, give some legal protection to the buyer, the dealer and the financier, but it is limited to transactions under £300. This is an indefensible limit these days. It cuts out, for instance, most motor car transactions and puts many other transactions outside the protection of the law. The Molony Committee, in my view, was quite right to propose that there should be no financial limit on such protection as the law provides.
However, the law, even for these smaller transactions, is open to very serious objections. My hon. Friends here and in another place have tried to amend it. First, it was opposed by the Government on the ground that we should wait for the Molony Report, even though the Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) tried to introduce turned out to be very much in line with the Molony Committee's recommendations. In another place, the Government blocked a Private Member's Bill which was actually based on the Molony Committee's recommendations which provided for a 72-hour cooling off period for doorstep transactions and which proposed to raise the £300 limit to £1,000. It was blocked on the ground that the law was in such a shambles that it needed comprehensive improvement. I agree. We cannot any longer tinker with the 1938 Act, because the law is hopelessly out of tune with the times.
In many cases, the so-called hire-purchase charges, the interest that has to be paid, and so on, are disgracefully excessive. They cannot be defended. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was given leave to introduce a Bill to limit the 42 charges to 50 per cent. of the sale price of the goods. We have got into a sorry state when we calmly accept that a 50 per cent. interest charge is an improvement on some of the out-rageous impositions of hire-purchase dealers.
Another big fault in the law is that it encourages dealers to persuade and press customs into taking on hire-purchase commitments that they cannot really afford. The county courts are cluttered up with defaulters. There may well be an even bigger number of people whose goods have been snatched back from them without a court order, because the dealer can take them back without a court order if less than one-third of the hire-purchase price has been paid.
The figures given today at Question time by the Attorney-General show that there must be scores of thousands of people who have entered into hire-purchase commitments and paid out money and, merely because they have got into arrears for a time, have nothing whatever to show for it. What they thought were their goods have been repossessed and they have nothing for their payments.
The situation is far worse, however, for anybody who gets into arrear with his payments if the agreement is for a figure above £300, that is to say, if the value of the goods plus the exorbitant hire-purchase charges exceeds £300. In these cases, the customer's goods can be seized if he is only one day in arrear on his payments. They can be seized at any time. A motor car, for example, can be taken away from a man in the street without a court order. I have had reported to me instances of cars being taken back even though the customer had almost completed his payments; he had only a month or so to go before the care was his, and he has no redress. The law offers him no protection.
I know that reputable finances houses deplore that kind of blatant robbery. If they deal with a customer who gets behind in his payments through sickness, unemployment or something like that, they usually try to help him; they certainly do not snatch back his goods. There are, however, as many disreputable people in this business as there are 43 reputable people and it is fortunate for the public that the reputable ones have most of the trade.
Even so, there is an undesirable element even in the transactions of the reputable firms when they are dealing particularly with cars, and that is the secret commission which they have to pay to dealers to get their business. The Molony Committee strongly criticized these commissions. They inflate the charges, put up prices and, moreover, do not appear in the agreements.
I am a layman in these matters, and I have had to seek expert advice, but with all the considerable advice that I have had, I cannot see how it is possible to amend the Hire Purchase Acts and end up with a wholly satisfactory Measure. The 1938 Act was itself imperfect. It was a compromise and was certainly never designed to control the enormous hire-purchase business that has grown up in recent years and which now runs at about £1,000 million a year. This is too big a trade to tinker with.
I do not think that we can get the law straight unless we start by accepting the simple proposition, which is at the basis of this form of trading, that the customer wants to buy goods and cannot afford to pay cash. He does not want to hire them. If he did, he would enter into a hiring agreement. He wants to pay a monthly sum for a reasonable period until he has cleared off the transaction.
The question which we have to ask ourselves is what is the best, least expensive, fairest and most secure arrangement that we can devise to cover this kind of transaction. It is clearly not hire purchase. For one thing, the charges are too excessive, hire purchase is expensive and many honest customers and traders in the hire-purchase business have to inflate their charges to cover the bad debts which have been promoted by other people. Moreover, the goods do not belong to the buyer until he has finished paying for them. They can be snatched away from him under legal provisions which nowadays cannot possibly be defended, and hire purchase often puts a big burden upon the traders, too, which they have to share with the finance houses, many of whom, I feel sure, dislike the system as much as I do.
44 It seems to me that the best arrangement, if the customer is in a position to adopt it, is not to enter into a hire-purchase agreement, but to go to his bank and borrow the money, to pay cash for the goods and repay the loan to his bank out of income with interest charges that work out at about one-third, or at least less than half, of the hire-purchase charges that he would pay if he entered into a hire-purchase transaction.
The solution to the hire-purchase problem, therefore, as I see it, is to provide facilities to customers to borrow the money that they want so that they can pay cash to the trader. If the customer has no substantial balance at the bank or the institution from which he gets the loan, he should be allowed to pledge the goods which he has bought as security for the loan. This is the American chattel mortgage system, which works satisfactorily.
The reason why I have become interested in that system as a solution to the many problems that all hon. Members have to face when constituents bring their hire-purchase problems before them is that I had the opportunity of witnessing a car sale in the United States on these chattel mortgage terms and it seemed to me to work extremely well. It is a system with many advantages over hire purchase. It compels the bank or the lender to press the customer not to undertake commitments that he cannot afford. It ensures that the customer gets value for money, because the bank or the loan institution will not lend money for the buying of worthless goods and it takes the trader out of the money-lending business. He becomes a cash trader except, perhaps. for small transactions. In this system, it would be much easier to prohibit dealers' commissions.
Obviously, if that system were to replace hire purchase, as I hope it will, the lending side of it could not be restricted to the banks. The finance houses would have to come in as moneylenders, which is their function now. It would not mean a big change in their case, except that they would have to open offices where loans could be arranged. Co-operative societies, friendly societies and other savings institutions would be given the opportunity to become registered as loan institutions. Indeed, one of the conditions that should be laid 45 down if the system is adopted for registering lending institutions is that they must also provide facilities for savings accounts, in the same way as building societies have both depositors and customers for mortgages. Strict rules would, of course, have to be laid down.
§ Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)
The hon. Member seems to be advocating that, under this system, if the borrower defaults the banks would take over the goods and, perhaps, sell them. Is that what he is advocating?
§ Mr. Darling
It would depend upon circumstances. Somehow, the bank would have to deal with a defaulter in the same way as it deals with a defaulter on an overdraft. If the banks had defaulters, it might be that they would have to make arrangements somehow to get the goods or to take other goods, as is often done already under court orders, to be sold to cover the debt. If the lending of money were tightened up as I suggest—because a hire-purchase arrangement is a lending of money, although in a roundabout way—I should expect there to be many fewer defaulters. They could be cut down considerably in number. These, however, are technical problems which would have to be worked out.
But none that so far have been brought to my notice seems to be insoluble. In fact there is only one problem of any substance involved in the administration of this kind of scheme, and that is where to draw the line for the smaller transactions, which I think should continue on the basis of credit trading—not hire purchase.
I do not think that I need develop this, because, as far as I can discover, the law on credit trading, in England and Wales at any rate, is not unsatisfactory and the shopkeepers who go in for it—that is to say, the smaller transactions—seem to keep a pretty tight control on the transactions. They usually give credit terms only to their regular customers, and the interest charges are generally reasonable. But, of course, if any tightening up is to be needed, this can be done in the amending legislation. This also goes for hiring and rental agreements. I believe that the main criticism of rental agreements is that they are allowed to go on for too long, and I see, Mr. Speaker, that I am in danger of doing that myself.
46 May I, therefore, appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary—I do not expect a detailed reply to this proposition today—to have a speedy and comprehensive inquiry into the chattel mortgage system, and measure its advantages and disadvantages against whatever proposals he may have for amending the hire-purchase laws? I also appeal to him not to send this to the Consumer Council, not to get it wrapped up in what is inevitably the Council's initial work which may take a considerable time to sort out.
Finally, I should like to explain briefly how we propose to deal with the administration of consumer protection when we occupy the benches opposite, which will not be very long now. After the hire-purchase laws have been reformed or replaced with better legislation, we think that very little new legislation will be needed. We shall clean up misleading advertising, false labelling and deceptive packaging by appropriate amendments to the Merchandise Marks Acts. [Laughter]. I see that the Minister of State, Board of Trade has obviously not yet read the Molony Report; otherwise, he would see that this proposition is very simple.
We shall clean up "phoney" guarantees and worthless seals of approval on the lines recommended by the Molony Committee. We shall make the Consumer Council a vigilant and vigorous watchdog of consumer interest. We shall make it responsible for advising manufacturers and customers on the need for standard, informative labelling, which is something which ought to have been dealt with years ago, and for supervising consumer legislation, examining consumers' complaints and advising the Government generally.
Above all, we need a Government Department that is primarily concerned with consumer protection, and we think that this is best located in the Board of Trade, a Department which would take over responsibilities—for example, for safety standards, food and drug labelling and food hygiene—which now fall on other Government Departments which have shown that they are not really interested in their duties.
We cannot accept the proposal that consumer advisory bureaux alone should be the local agents of the Consumer Council. The bureaux do very good work. We want them to continue and 47 to extend so that they can help consumers to sort out their problems. But they are too weak, too patchy. They do not appear everywhere in the country to be fully effective. Moreover, we cannot ignore the local authorities, as it seems that the Government are going to do judging from the statements that we have had on this subject. Local authorities have statutory duties in this field—for instance, for weights and measures, public health, enforcement of food and drugs regulations, enforcement of the Merchandise Marks Acts, and the Shops Act.
We should like to see local authorities bringing all these activities together into a public control service—I object to the title, but it has grown up—as some have already done. We should like to see in each local authority a civic information service, as many have already established, which would give advice to customers who have complaints and grievances which they want dealt with. Above all, we want to encourage consumers to take a real interest in their own welfare, to join and take part in the work of consumer groups such as have been set up by consumers' associations and cooperative organisations, all of which we commend.
But, important as these voluntary activities are, and urgently necessary as the streamlining of national and local administration may be, we shall not make much progress towards ensuring a fair deal for all consumers until we have brought up to date and improved the rules for which we in Parliament are responsible; and to make real progress in modernising the laws and regulations, as the dismal record of this Administration has clearly proved, we urgently need a change of Government.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)
I beg to move, to leave out from "standards" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:welcomes the action of Her Majesty's Government in establishing the Consumer Council as a major first step in implementing the recommendations of the Final Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection".I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) upon the extensive knowledge 48 which he has shown of this important subject of consumer protection and on the constructive manner in which he has approached the subject, as well as on some of the constructive proposals which he has put before us. As for the final flourishes, the hon. Member was, of course, merely following the conventional rubrics of an Opposition Front Bench speaker in moving a Motion.
The choice of the subject of consumer protection by the Opposition for today's debate is welcomed by the Government. We are very happy to discuss this important subject. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has asked me to apologise to the House for his absence today. He would have liked very much to have been with us but, as the House will know, and, as the hon. Member for Hillsborough was gracious enough to point out, he is attending a very important meeting of the G.A.T.T. in Geneva.
As the hon. Member for Hillsborough rightly observed, consumer protection is a vast subject, and if I were to do complete justice to it I would find myself speaking at inordinate length. This I do not wish to do. Therefore, I ask the House to recognise that the inevitable omissions from my speech will not be due to ignorance or lack of concern on my part, but rather out of consideration for many hon. Members who may wish to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio, who is to reply to the debate for the Government, will endeavour to repair my omissions.
This is a subject, as the hon. Member for Hillsborough pointed out, on which we can all claim to speak from firsthand knowledge since we are all consumers. It is also a subject upon which I suspect many of us have our own pet theories. But, as a Government speaker, I have to resist the temptation to air my own theories. Subsequent speakers, of course, will not be so inhibited and I hope that we shall hear many constructive, if occasionally "off-beat", proposals during the debate.
We ought to be clear that although the subject of consumer protection is very much "in" at present, there is nothing new about it. In some form or other we have had consumer protection for a very long time. We have to go back to 49 the early Middle Ages to trace the beginnings of our own consumer protection law. There has been a steady development and extension of such laws ever since. I had something to say about this on the Second Reading of the Weights and Measures Bill, earlier this Session.
To identify why and how we should improve our measures to protect the consumer, I should like briefly to remind the House of some of the major Acts already on the Statute Book, and which give the consumer a very substantial range of protection. This state of affairs is neither revealed nor admitted in the Opposition's Motion, although the hon. Member for Hillsborough did make some passing references to it.
Hon. Members opposite often speak as if they have only just discovered the existence of the consumer. I do not want to be ungenerous; possibly they have, but in consequence they seem to assume that no one else has ever visited the unknown land of the consumer before them. The fact is that we have on the Statute Book many very important Measures.
First, we have measures of protection against false quantity. The regulation of weights and measures has existed in some form or other in this country from the earliest time. In the view of the Molony Committee,a uniform system of weights and measures…is plainly part of the basic vocabulary of consumer protection.This Session we have been engaged on a new and comprehensive Bill to bring our weights and measures legislation up to date.
Secondly, there is protection against false and misleading trade descriptions. The concept of protecting the consumer in this way is not new. The oldest of our current Merchandise Marks Acts—that of 1887—replaced an earlier one of 1862. We have been building on these ever since. We now have no fewer than nine Merchandise Marks Acts on the Statute Book. Then there is the Trades Mark Act of 1938. The Sale of Goods Act goes a long way to regulate the relationship between buyer and seller, and civil remedies of rescission and damages are available at common law in cases of innocent misrepresentation and fraud.
Moreover, as the hon. Member said, we have an important Food and Drugs 50 Act, which regulates in a variety of ways the sale of food and drugs in order to safeguard the health of the consumer. It was of this Act that the Molony Committee commented:It is difficult to conceive of more far-reaching provisions and powers than this Act contains for the protection of the consumer against unfit or deleterious food and drugs.We have a number of Acts to protect the public against unsafe or dangerous articles. For example, the Road Traffic Acts made it an offence to use or sell a car which is unroadworthy, and the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, which implemented the interim Report of the Molony Committee, empowers my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to require, in the interests of safety, that goods should comply with prescribed specifications or carry prescribed warnings.
The Hire Purchase Act, 1938, as amended by the 1954 Act, gives protection to a hire purchaser in a prescribed way where the hire-purchase price does not exceed £300. I could go on listing further examples of consumer protection in existing legislation, but I have said enough to dispose of the suggestion that nothing has been done in the past to protect consumers, or that past Governments have not cared. What we intend to do, and are doing, is to build on past experience to meet current and future needs.
At this point it may be asked why we need to do more. Where are the gaps in the current range of Measures for protecting the consumer? How should they be filled? In our view, there are two central reasons why, in the conditions of the mid-1960s, we must do more.
The first lies in the enormous technological advances which have been made, particularly since the war, in many fields, which have had their repercussions on the world of consumer goods. In other words, the need for further consumer protection is the result of the remarkable increase in the range of consumer products now on sale. It is, in fact, the result of a higher standard of living. Our need for protection against deception or disappointment is intensified proportionately to the complexity of the goods we buy.
In spite of the substantial progress which we have made, we probably have a 51 greater need today for accurate information, which can readily be understood, about the nature of goods offered for sale. The object of requiring more information to be given is to help us to spend our money to our best advantage and to derive the best service from such goods.
At the same time, we must recognise that it is not the duty of the State to lay down the way in which people should spend their money. We cannot, and should not, attempt to legislate for wise spending. In any case, we could not hope to agree as to precisely what is the wisest way for a family to spend its income. We must stand firm upon the rights of a person to spend his income as he thinks fit—provided that it is upon legitimate things—and upon the principle of consumer choice. Once we depart from that principle we are on the slippery slope which ends in the quartermaster's store.
The second reason why we must reconsider the adequacy of our measures for consumer protection is, in a way, a logical development of the first reason. In the past, it has been recognised to be the duty of the State to lay down some sort of legislative framework for fair trading practices, within which traders should compete. This is still the duty of the State. This framework is essential if prices are to be fair.
It is the duty of the State to endeavour to maintain the equivalence of power in the market at all stages, from the producer of the raw materials, though the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retailer, to the consumer. Today, we are concentrating on the consumer, but in our enthusiasm for the consumer we should not overlook the fact that the other parties—the producer, the manufacturer, the wholesaler and the retailer—have their rights, too, which, in the interests both of sound economics and of natural justice, must not be ignored.
But there is a special reason why the Government should concern themselves particularly with the consumer. The consumer has, in general, had little public voice with which he can speak, or make his wishes and his grievances known. Producers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, on the other hand, are organised to a greater or a less degree, 52 and are, therefore, in a stronger position to make their voices heard. The Government and this House have, therefore, had to assume the responsibility of thinking and speaking for that very large and ill-defined body which we describe as "the consumer", and which Mr. Robert Millar referred to rather unkindly in his recent book as "the affluent sheep". This argument is one of degree, and not of absolutes. Numerically and cumulatively, the potential power of the consumer is enormous, as many a trade bankruptcy will testify.
But even among unorganised consumers the wind of change has been blowing. I think that the House would agree that one of the most significant developments of the last decade has been the emergence of a "consumer movement" in this country. Probably none of us could identify at what point in time this began to take place, or what precipitated it. The fact remains that the consumer has at last assumed an identity, and is acquiring a public voice.
I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in paying tribute, first, to the valuable pioneer work done in this field by the British Standards Institution. Although essentially a body established for the purpose of drawing up industrial standards, B.S.I., both through the formation of its Women's Advisory Committee, in 1951, and of its Consumer Advisory Committee, in 1955, took on the task of spokesman for the consumer, not only in the preparation of standards for consumer goods, but also in the more general sphere of advising and helping the aggrieved consumer to obtain redress.
We should acknowledge the campaign fervour of those who, in 1957, spontaneously founded the Consumers Association, whose speed of expansion has itself been a testimony to the growing awareness of consumers throughout the country that they must learn to speak for themselves. I pay tribute to those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have done so much to get the Consumer Association into the position which it now occupies.
The growing strength of the consumer movement has recently manifested itself in the local consumer groups which have sprung up over the country and have now federated themselves into a central body. 53 We welcome all these developments. Lastly, we must remember the much less publicised work done ever since the war years in the citizens' advice bureaux, to help the uncertain and uninstructed to cope with their individual consumer problems. I shall have more to say about the citizens' advice bureaux in a moment.
We should also acknowledge the part played by the Press, and especially the women's magazines, in helping and encouraging the general public, to which we all belong, to be better informed, more alert, more discriminating and more imaginative buyers.
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
Before the hon. Member leaves the subject of consumer organisations, I am sure that he would wish to mention that vast consumer organisation, which has existed for over one hundred years, of consumers who have got together and helped themselves by serving themselves.
§ Mr. Price
As I was going through the list I remembered the Co-operative movement. For a long time this has been so much an established part of the landscape that I hardly felt I needed to draw particular attention to it, as a novel development, which consideration does apply to the bodies to which I have referred. But I fully acknowledge that the Co-operative movement has been in this field for a long time.
This brings me to the Molony Report—the final Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection. As my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has said in the House on a number of occasions, the Government are very grateful for the way in which Mr. Molony and his colleagues have tackled this work, and for the valuable and far-reaching set of recommendations which they have put forward, and with which the Government are in broad agreement. I repeat that the Government are in broad agreement with the recommendations of the Molony Report, and intend to implement them.
§ Mr. Price
Wait for it.
The central feature of the Molony recommendations was the establishment of a Consumer Council—a recommenda- 54 tion that was promptly and publicly accepted by the Government. We are now in the last stages of setting up the Consumer Council. My right hon. Friend has already announced the name of its chairman, its director and seven of the other members. He hopes to announce the names of the remaining three members shortly—
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)
Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us why it has taken so long, because people are very disappointed?
§ Mr. Price
If the hon. Gentleman will look at the Molony Report he will see that it visualised that the Consumer Council would take some time to set up.
Perhaps I might here say a little about the Government's concept of how the Council should work. We have seen criticism that it will be ineffective, and without "teeth". It is the Government's intention that the Council should be a completely independent body, operating vigorously within the terms of reference which the Molony Committee proposed. I can assure the House—the hon. Member for Hillsborough almost invited me to give this assurance—that the Council will not be subject to any Government direction in carrying out its programme of work, and there will be no complaint if, in the course of that work, it finds itself in the position of criticising the Board of Trade or any other part of the Government.
My right hon. Friend, in approaching those whom he has invited to serve, has made it quite clear that this is the Government's intention. We are determined that the members of the Council shall not feel themselves inhibited from expressing their collective opinions forthrightly and without pulling any punches. Nor is it our intention that they should be a creature of the Government of the day. As for the detailed questions asked by the hon. Member for Hillsborough about how often the Council would meet and what its priorities would be, I think that it would be a denial of our desire that the Council should be a completely independent body if we were to lay down when it was to hold its meetings and in what order of priority it should undertake its work.
We have also seen criticism of the terms of reference of the Council and particularly about those matters which, it is 55 alleged, have been excluded from its functions. The Council's terms of reference follow faithfully the functions proposed by the Molony Committee in paragraph 855 of its Report as being…collecting information about consumer problems, considering what, if any, action is required, and promoting that action.It may be suggested during the course of the debate that there are other matters with which the Consumer Council should deal, but which were not covered by the Molony recommendations. For our part, we feel that the terms of reference given to the Council by my right hon. Friend will keep the Council well occupied—certainly in its early days. However, we do not wish to restrict the Council's work, nor do we claim that we can foresee every new consumer problem that may arise in the future. Consequently, if the Council, once it has got under way, were to find that its terms of reference appeared to exclude a matter of vital consumer interest, my right hon. Friend would, naturally, be prepared to consider extending its terms of reference to include such a matter.
My right hon. Friend will have a little more to say when he winds up the debate, but it might help us subsequently if I were to say now that we do not see services in support of goods being excluded by the terms of reference. I would refer the House to paragraph 875 of the Molony Report, which states:When the time and occasion arises for the Council to look at consumer services we think its field of activity should be voluntarily, if not positively, confined to services linked with the supply or treatment of articles e.g. coal, electricity, laundry, motor car repairs. Services such as national health, welfare and transport would be excluded.As we have conceived the terms of reference, therefore, all those services that are in support of the sale or treatment of an article would already be included, but my right hon. Friend will be prepared to add to these thoughts, when he winds up, in respect to any comments that hon. Members may care to make.
I turn to the exclusions. There are three of them, and these, again, are those recommended by the Molony Committee, namely, a national complaints service, comparative testing and law enforcement. After careful study of the Committee's reasons for recommending 56 such exclusions—they are contained in paragraphs 850 to 854 of the Molony Report—the Government came to the conclusion that the Committee's reasons were sound and that its recommendations should be followed. Nevertheless, I am aware that there has been some criticism that the Council will not operate a national complaints service and will not undertake comparative testing.
The overwhelming reason for keeping the national complaints service outside the Council's terms of reference is one of cost. The Molony Committee gave its opinion that the…administrative effort and the cost would be astronomical, and the expense out of all proportion to the value of the benefits secured. To give the job to a Consumer Council would be to invite it to make wasteful use of public funds, and to expose it—as a publicly-supported body—to undue pressure to pursue unjustified claims by irate taxpayers".We accept those reasons.
I recognise, of course, that were the Consumer Council to undertake this work it might be of some marginal assistance to us as Members of Parliament in dealing with our constituents' complaints, but I think that the House would agree that in this respect our opinion might be said to be not entirely objective. However, the citizens' advice bureaux are already in existence, and of proven helpfulness in dealing with legitimate complaints.
To exclude comparative testing may, at first sight, seem odd, but when one looks at it more closely it is clearly undesirable that in a free society public money should, under normal circumstances, be used for the purpose of guiding the public as to how to spend its money over the normal run of consumer goods where the question of danger or health does not arise. As the Molony Committee puts it:It is manifest to us that it is not a proper function of such a body to discriminate, however delicately, between the products of different manufacturers. Nor do we think that the consumer would relish being told what to buy by any official body.I must here say something about the citizens' advice bureaux.
As the House is already well aware, the Molony Committee envisaged that the bureaux might, because of their very great experience in this field over many years, act as a nation-wide link between the Consumer Council and the individual 57 consumer. The Government have accepted this recommendation, and the National Committee of Citizens' Advice Bureaux has said that it is prepared to take on the task which the Molony Committee suggested it should undertake.
The Molony Committee also drew attention, quite rightly, to the fact that at present there are gaps—sometimes quite substantial—in the coverage of the country by the citizens' advice bureaux. The Government are, therefore, making funds available to the National Committee to help it with its central promotional efforts to extend its consumer advisory work. The National Committee is now, I understand, well ahead with its preparations to bring about this expansion. Individual citizens' advice bureaux, are, however, set up by local interest and financed by local funds. My right hon. Friend will shortly be getting in touch with local authorities individually to enlist their help in strengthening existing bureaux and establishing new ones where none exists at present.
Having set up the Consumer Council—
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
Before my hon. Friend goes further, can he give us a little more information about the part to be played by the citizens' advice bureaux? What additional staff is to be provided so that the ordinary run of the advice given by the bureaux is not seriously interfered with? What money are they to get? Will my right hon. Friend make it quite clear that the burden is not to fall on the ratepayers? We want a fuller explanation of what is to be done to help the bureaux in the big task that they have to undertake?
§ Mr. Price
—that we are making funds available to the National Committee of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. In the current year the grant is to be £27,000 but, as the bureaux progress, we are prepared to discuss each year what the appropriate figure should be. This is the initial figure to get them launched.
Having set up the Consumer Council, where is the next priority? As the House 58 will know, the Molony Committee had its own order of priority, to which the hon. Member for Hillsborough referred. This, we have broadly accepted. This means that, having set up the Consumer Council and having taken steps to enlarge the citizens' advice bureaux service, we turn to amendments to and improvements in the hire-purchase laws.
The Government have already announced in another place that they accept the principles embodied in the recommendations of the Molony Committee. two of the most important of which—and, again, the hon. Member referred to them—relate to hire-purchase contracts concluded with door-to-door salesmen, and extending the range of application of the existing Hire Purchase Acts. As the House knows, there is at present a £300 limit. We have been working hard on these proposals and I can assure the hon. Member for Hillsborough that the establishment of the Consumer Council will not delay us in our work here, and that as soon as possible we shall be putting our own legislative proposals before the House.
I think that the hon. Member will agree that his proposals amounted to virtual abolition of hire purchase as we know it and the substitution of a chattel mortgage scheme. I should just like to draw the attention of the House to the conclusion of the Molony Committee:Our conclusion is that the framework of hire purohase law. as generally understood and applied, and as amended in accordance with our recommendations…is capable of serving the consumer well. We do not think that abuses or weaknesses have been exposed in law or practice that cannot be cured by bringing all consumer transactions within an amended ActI find a good deal of wisdom in this. None the less, I was extremely interested in what the hon. Member for Hillsborough had to say and I can assure him that we shall look at his proposals with interest, but also critically. My right hon. Friend may say more about the chattel mortgage scheme if this is a point which is followed by subsequent speakers.
The third priority given by the Molony Committee was to its proposals for amendment of the Merchandise Marks Acts. These are perhaps the most complicated of all the recommendations in the Report. Our present legislation is in itself complex. We have no fewer 59 than nine Merchandise Marks Acts on the Statute Book already, and to implement the Molony Committee's proposals will involve us virtually in scrapping the legislation we have already and introducing new and comprehensive legislation. This will, of course, cover many of the points about false advertising which the hon. Member raised. This we are prepared to do and intend to do.
It will, however, take time; not least, Parliamentary time. Meanwhile, we have to consult both consumer and trade interests and give careful consideration to their comments. The House may be interested to know that in this respect we have already approached about 200 organisations and our consultations are continuing. This fact alone, I think, belies the Opposition's charge of administrative inaction—unless, of course, the Oppositon suggest that we should not have consulted any of these bodies.
In our view, it would be wrong to try to rush this part of the Molony Committee's recommendations for the simple purpose of being able to say we have put them into effect quickly. When we pass new legislation on merchandise marks it will be with us, and will affect our economic life, for many years to come. We must, therefore, be sure that we get it as right as possible and that the ensuing legislation is not only intellectually elegant but workable in the shops and markets of the nation.
Equally, the House can be assured that the Government will not delay in carrying on with their preparations on all these matters. The same applies to the Sale of Goods Act, which is closely related to both hire purchase and the Merchandise Marks Acts and to the Committee's recommendations about seals of approval and about minor alterations to the Trade Marks Act.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough did make some mention of advertising and, tempted though I am to reply to him, I shall leave the subject to my right hon. Friend. However, I cannot help observing the recent conversion of the Labour Party to the social value of advertising. It is not for me to say how successful the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) will be as the brand image of the Labour 60 Party, but I wonder whether, in being converted by Madison Avenue, the right hon. Gentleman, seeing its political value, may also have been converted to the cult of personality.
There are many other aspects to consumer protection that I should like to touch on, but I have spoken long enough. I have shown the House that consumer protection is not a new idea, that much has already been done over the years to protect consumers, that the Government recognise that, owing, above all, to the changing nature of products and of marketing practices, more has yet to be done, and that. far from being inactive, as the Opposition Motion suggests, we are, in fact, doing a great deal not only by setting up the Consumer Council but by preparing amending legislation to meet the needs of the day. We have a clear list of priorities and propose to make a thorough job of each in turn.
We welcome the establishment of a Consumer Council as a major first step in implementing the recommendations of the Committee on Consumer Protection. Give us the votes and we will carry on with the job.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
The consumer's best friend is a free market. Competition not only allows him or her to exercise choice; competition also protects the consumer from exploitation. But, of course, that is not all the story of consumer protection. The market has to be kept free, the consumer has to be protected against fraud and near fraudulent practices, against misleading packaging, against unfair trade in various forms. But in all such cases as protection of the consumer we should look right at the start to see what has gone wrong, why the consumer needs protection, and how far we can help him by abolishing certain of the impediments to a fair and free market.
I was interested in many things which the Parliamentary Secretary said. I was interested in his defence of the Government's delay, though I did not think it entirely convincing. I was interested in what he said about the need for the Consumer Council, and on this I agree with him. I think there is need for a Consumer Council. I am glad that the 61 Government have set one up. I wish they had done so sooner, and I have certain criticisms to make of the particular form of this Council.
But why is it wanted? I would say principally for two reasons: first of all, to inform the consumer and to enable the consumer to shop more skillfully; and secondly to watch the effect of monopoly or semi-monopoly or restrictive practices or fraudulent or unfair or deceptive practices which have already been mentioned.
I am not convinced that we should slavishly follow the recommendations of the Molony Committee. The Government have been inclined to. I would hope that the Government would have some ideas themselves on this subject, but so far they have followed the Molony Committee at every stage.
I want to restrict my remarks almost entirely to this question of the Consumer Council, and the first point I would make is a simple one, that it must be a consumers' council, As I see it, it is not intended to strike a balance between consumers and producers. Certainly there is a producers' interest as well as a consumers' interest, but this Council is a consumers' weapon. I would say, too, that it is not even concerned primarily with what may be called the national interest. It is concerned to protect the consumer.
We can draw a lesson here from what has happened over the nationalised industries. In my experience, the consultative committees of the nationalised industries have not in the eyes of the public done their job, because they are too closely associated with those industries. In some of those industries the same people actually sit on the Board of the industry and on its consultative committee, and the public feel that this is like being represented in court by an advocate who is also appearing for the other side. I do not deny that they may do some other good jobs, but the public want the bodies which are set up to protect their interests as consumers to be free from identification with the producers and suppliers. I see, though, that this does make it difficult to set up such bodies, because, as has been pointed out, consumers are unorganised and essentially individual.
62 Another difficulty is that the type of people to whom the Government's mind has no doubt been turning are not representative of the consumers. They do not suffer from many of the troubles which ordinary consumers experience. They are privileged. When travelling, for instance, these people are perhaps richer, and may have expense accounts and free travel passes, like Members of Parliament. It is essential to have on the Council people who are really able to feel where the shoe pinches for the ordinary person. That is not the case at the moment. The Government could have made a much better job than they have done over the appointments to the Council.
I want to be frank about this. I am not attacking personalities; far from it. The chairman of the Council, Baroness Elliot, is my step-great-aunt-in-law. I have a vested interest in her. I have the highest regard for her. I can assure hon. Members from personal experience that her housekeeping is of the highest. I am told that it is not always done by her, but that shows the value of delegation. So do not let hon. Members think that I am prejudiced.
Let us look at the members of the Council. They are eminent and able people. But one is closely associated with the retail trade. Another is a director A.E.I.of and Hotpoint. Manufacturers have, of course, an interest in consumers. A master of foxhounds has an interest in foxes and wants to keep the stock up. Manufacturers want a good body of consumers. But there is not a complete identity of interests here. I do not believe that consumers will feel that people, however eminent, excellent and able they are, who are apparently associated with the supply side are exactly the people who will press the consuming point of view.
Going on, we find someone who is associated with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I am sure that he is a good man, but there will be a conflict of interests over shop hours. The union has some 3,000 members, many of whom are employed in the co-operative society. I would not say that that was a union in which the position of the consumers was completely accepted. A conflict may arise, and this may lead to difficulties. There is a businessman-don, 63 and then there is Lord Peddie, an able man, who is a director of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. I find it difficult to know why the Government chose these particular people for this particular purpose. I know that the co-operative society is historically, and to some extent now, a consumers' association, but many consumers do not nowadays look on it as being on the same side as they are when it comes to discussing the type of problem which the Consumer Council will have to discuss.
There is also Miss Betty Ackroyd, a great and able public servant, but I do not think that a civil servant is the right person to be a director of this Council. The Civil Service is inextricably associated with the Establishment, with running things as they are. It is trained to the idea of pointing out to Ministers the difficulties in any suggested change, and it is not trained in making a row. On the contrary, it is a diplomatic body trained to keep out of difficult controversial matters.
It has been suggested that the Consumer Council is a poodle. I do not think so. It is an imposing body, and I think it will look like a large friendly St. Bernard dog. It will dispense brandy widely to all complainants and will certainly be as helpful as possible. But I doubt whether it will have the bite really to get its teeth into controversial problems as it should.
What makes me also doubt the Government's complete sincerity, in spite of what the Parliamentary Secretary said, is the amount of money made available to the Council for salaries and other purposes. In this respect the Government have not followed the Molony Committee. They have fallen behind its recommendations.
Before I turn to the work to be done, should like to put two questions to the Government, and I should be grateful for answers. Apart from accepting the recommendations of the Molony Committee and saying that they will do something about hire purchase, what else have the Government in mind? I was interested in what was said about the Merchandise Marks Act. My constituency has suffered for a long time over this matter, and in respect of the Patent Acts, because of the use of the 64 name "Shetland" by all sorts of people in order to sell goods to which that name does not apply. This is not directly the point, but I should be glad for some information about what ideas the Government may have over this.
Another point is that the Government have for some time had an inquiry going on into the subject of resale price maintenance. It is impossible to discuss consumer protection without mentioning that subject. When will the Government make up their mind about it, and when they have done so, do they intend to tell the House?
To come back to the Council, what ought it to tackle? The Government have said that they want it to be independent, but they must give it terms of reference. They have done that, but I should like more precise information about how the terms of reference are to be interpreted.
In my view, prices are still the things that worry most people in this country. There has been a tendency to justify high prices by saying that with them one gets extra packaging or servicing. But many of the most deserving people—old-age pensioners, for example, and people with families—are interested in the prices of goods. A problem of the type which puzzles people today as consumers—and one which they would like the Council to examine—is why the price of bread goes up when the price of flour goes down. It would be good if the Council inquired into this sort of problem, which is disturbing the housewife.
Today people are finding that, partly through the development of mergers and the growth of monopolies, they are rather being told what they ought to have. I have received some complaints lately, for instance, from people who say that they are having homogenised milk delivered to them more or less arbitrarily. That may not be true, or, if it is, there may be good reasons for it, but that is also the sort of problem that I should like to see the Council tackle.
With regard to services, the Government said that they would follow the recommendations of the Molony Committee and that the Council would, as I understand it, be entitled to inquire into services connected with the sale of goods. Why should it not be left to the Council to see what the public 65 mind about services is and to have complaints sent to it? If the Council wants to do it, why should it not be able to examine all sorts of services not connected with the sale of goods, from bank charges to burial charges? What is the objection to it if that is the sort of thing that worries the public?
I take it that the Consumer Council will not have any power to examine complaints against nationalised industries except in cases where they provide goods. What is the Council going to be allowed to do in that respect? Is coal to come within its remit? Is it to be allowed to discuss and make recommendations about resale price maintenance? Will it be allowed to discuss and make recommendations about shops' opening hours? I am told that in some parts of the country there are complaints that new stores cannot be opened because of certain provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act which hamper the change of use. If that is a genuine complaint raised by the public, will it be within the Committee's terms of reference? However independent the Government want the Council to be, we are entitled to hear from the Government more precisely what terms of reference the Council will have and what scope in its inquiries will be allowed.
I am disappointed with the Council as it is set up. But there are three more members to come, and I beseech the Government to appoint people who can make a row—controversial figures. I should also like to see on the Council people representing sections of the community whose budgets are quite different from the middle-class budget, the budget of what are broadly called, perhaps wrongly these days, working-class people—pensioners, and so on. These people are in a quite different field and are interested in different consumer problems than, say, Members of this House, and they should be represented.
My last point is that on the producers' side today a good deal of money is being spent, and rightly so, on research and propaganda. The Government must ensure that this Council is provided with an absolutely first-rate research organisation which can compete with the research done on the producing side, independent and under the control of the Council, but 66 up to standard and provided with adequate funds to make sure that the Council can really represent the consumer, and that when it does so on controversial matters it will be able to do so effectively against the very powerful producing interests in the country.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Dame Edith Pitt (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) in his criticism of the members already appointed to the Consumer Council. I think it is essential, when we are thinking in terms of protecting the consumer, that we should have the contribution of all those who supply the goods, that is, the manufacturer, the distributor and the person who buys them at the end of the line.
I would add one point to those which the right hon. Gentleman listed as being a frequent source of complaint from the people he knows, and I think that he is very right to bring the debate down to this level of the average man arid woman with a limited budget which they want to deploy as usefully as possible. The most frequent complaint which I hear from housewives is that prices rocket up after a period of bad weather, such as after the last winter, and that then it takes very much longer for them to start coming down again. Indeed, some of them never come down to the previous level. This is the point of our debate and I hope that we shall keep it in mind in the course of subsequent speeches.
I enjoyed the opening contribution of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling), and I thought that he put his case very reasonably. He certainly did not dismiss all manufacturers as rogues or all advertising as unnecessary. But he never once mentioned the average shopper, the real consumer, the person on the end of the line. This is what I should like to talk about, because. I believe that to women at any rate shopping is a joy. They like it. Men hate it. They always hope that someone else will do it for them. As I say, to a woman it is a pleasure to be able to go round the shops, even window gazing at times, and I think it socially good for them that they should have this outlet and contact and be able to go round the shops in order to try to obtain the maximum value for their money.
67 I think—and this is a digression which has a bearing on my own train of thought—that we made a mistake in. our housebuilding immediately after the war. We built the houses first, because that was the necessity, and the shops followed. It made for a great deal of loneliness and unhappiness for women simply because they were divorced from the ritual of going round the shops.
The position today, when thinking in terms of consumers, is conditioned by the fact that we have come a long way from those immediate post-war years. We have left behind post-war scarcity. We now have an abundance of goods in the shops, a wide range and choice of goods. Because of this, especially, consumers are subjected to a great deal of high-pressure salesmanship, both at home and in the shops. They are also subjected to all the pressures these days of television advertising.
How often my small shopkeeper friends tell me that they have to stock a particular commodity which then, probably, stays on their shelves for a long time simply because there has been an intensive campaign on television and the consumers come into the shop without really knowing the name of the product and ask for "Some of that thing advertised on the telly" All these pressures are continually operating.
I do not wish to be critical of advertising. I think that it is a very necessary thing in these days when quantity and choice are becoming so extensive. We should never know of the new goods coming on to the market unless they were advertised. We have long ago left behind the days of my mother's generation when it was very frequently said "A good thing will sell itself." Now we need to be told how many good things there are available for our choice.
There is another point in today's position of prosperity, the capacity to buy and the wide choice of goods in our shops. Too many shoppers, particularly the younger married women, have too little knowledge of what is available. I am thinking in particular not of something mentioned in the Molony Report. I wish that more women understood the names of various joints of meat. I think that this is a legacy of the war and postwar years, but they really do not know. 68 I was in a butcher's shop fairly recently, and the woman being served prior to me said to the butcher, "What can I give them for a change, butch? They have had steaks and they have had chops and they do not like sausage." Where does one go from here? I wish that that good lady could have had sufficient education to know what good meat she could buy, probably at much less expense than steak and chops, if only she knew of the choice available to her.
I think, perhaps, that education ought to be part of our discussion today, but how to fit in that particular course I should not like to venture to suggest. Something along these lines is already done in the town women's guilds and voluntary organisations like that. Perhaps this is a point for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education. It could be given greater emphasis in some of the domestic science courses than it receives at present.
I think that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary made an important point when he stressed the necessity of providing accurate information because, again, I am sure, this is now part of the need when we are thinking in terms of consumer protection. I should like to see much more plain marking of goods, a fuller description of goods, and, as have already said, further education to be available to the housewives who are particularly the ones who buy regularly. For this reason, I was glad that the Weights and Measures Bill included proposals to have the weight shown on commodities, because if the weight and content are shown, I think it would do away with some of the guesswork. I hope that it might also do away with some of the inducements to buy particular goods.
I will not take up the time of the House by quoting the classic case of detergents, but I noticed in the grocer's this week that on all the various boxes displayed there was an inducement with every packet of detergent. It ranged from a free carnation to two packets for the price of one. I should like—and I am sure that I speak for the housewives—the real value to be in the commodity that I am buying and not in the extras. If I may spare a moment for the men, their main objection is to the tube of toothpaste which contains a 6d. when they buy it. They would rather have in 69 the toothpaste the full value of the money they are spending.
I think that information for the benefit of shoppers should be given in the simplest possible terms. I am sure that any consumer advice that can be made available is excellent in that it can save money. Almost any commodity could be bought more cheaply if people had the fullest advice on the goods in that range. It would prevent people from wasting their money on inefficient or badly made products. Some electrical appliances tested by Which? recently were shown as not even safe. This again is where information is needed. But Which? can do what the purchaser cannot do—test half a dozen varieties of a product. Hence the need for more information.
It is a very useful journal and the information it gives is very helpful to many people. Perhaps it has a wider circulation than its owners realise, because all the subscribers I know pass it on to their families and friends. Thus, its information is made know over an ever-widening circle. However, I think also that the information is given in rather highbrow terms. I want something which comes down to the more ordinary and realistic level of the average shopper.
I have sometimes wondered whether we should not urge the Government to issue their own publication giving information about consumer goods. But I have come down on the side of some of my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who produced a booklet called Choice and came to the conclusion, in considering the question of whether the work of giving information should be subsidised by the Government, that the manufacturer who was honestly proud of his product would have a legitimate grievance if his money paid in taxation were used to decry, on arguable evidence, his own product. I think that view is the correct one.
But if we do not do it by means of a Government magazine, we should encourage the dissemination of information through other sources. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Consumer Council has been set up and that its terms of reference include providing advice and guidance, particularly through the citizens' 70 advice bureaux. I have a great admiration for the work of these bureaux, but let us not, again, lose our sense of proportion. Information and advice to consumers will only be part of a very wide programme of work which the bureaux do, and therefore they will need to be helped in order to extend their range. To use these bureaux has the advantage that there will be somewhere local to which people can take their complaints. They do not want to write to a remote council in London, hut to be able to drop in somewhere in their own localities.
The very name "Citizens' Advice Bureau" sounds helpful to the average shopper. It is a friendly name and does not suggest a remote body. I wonder how these bureaux will cope with the problems in rural areas. I hope that some of the money my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said was to be made available might be used to extend the services of the bureaux in the more remote rural areas.
It comes down to this: I believe that a large part of the answer in consumer protection lies in education. I do not think that the Government can legislate for everything. Nor do I subscribe, and never have done, to the theory that the gentleman in Whitehall knows best. He does not. There is nothing to replace the sound common sense of the average shopper. But, with such a wide variety of goods, more information should be made available to the shopper, and I think that if the new Consumer Council does obtain this information and make it available, it will spread and gradually make people more critical and more selective.
I do not believe that it is always wise to buy the cheapest article in any particular line. I think that it is sometimes worth paying more in order to get the more durable article. But again, one needs information in order to be able to make a choice. Thereafter it must always be a case of using one's own judgment.
But mistakes can be very costly, especially when a major item like electrical equipment, furniture, or a new carpet is involved. That is why I stress the need for information. But I still come back to the point that personal choice is the most important thing when considering the sale of consumer goods. conclude by referring hon. Members to 71 recommendation No. 210 of the Molony Committee's which stresses:Consumer vigilance must always remain of first importance…For that reason, I welcome the Amendment, in which the Government state their view that the setting up of the Consumer Council is the first major step. I wish to see expansion and development but not by way of strict Government control or legislation. That is not the way to help people who live in a free society to make a free choice. Given education and information, I am quite sure that the average shopper will be well able to obtain the maximum value for the money she is to spend.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
I shall resist the temptation to go shopping with the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt) and deal with the detailed points she mentioned. I want to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) in dealing with the somewhat broader aspects of consumer interest, particularly with the question of the right administrative machinery needed to ensure that the consumer is properly protected.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Government ought not to follow slavishly the Molony Committee in this matter. The Molony Committee took a very modest view of the scope of its task and was equally modest in the recommendations it made. Consumer interest is a very much broader thing than the Committee had in mind. I do not blame it for defining its task within rather narrow limits, and certainly within those limits it did a good job of analysis and exposition and its Report is extremely valuable. But this debate ought not to be, and I hope that it will not be, confined to these limits, and, certainly, the Government's responsibility is not to be conceived as being within them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) reminded us of some of the important matters which the Molony Committee excluded from its consideration. I remind the House again how important these exclusions were. To start with, 72 the Committee decided to deal only with goods and not with services. It jibbed at what it called…such complex and far-ranging investigations…which would be involved if it looked into services. But, as other hon. Members have said, the consumer is facing increasingly sophisticated world in which the nature of the services he has to choose from is as important, very often, as the nature of the material goods he uses. I hope that the new Council, inadequate though it is, will at least endeavour to tackle the problem of services which the Molony Committee left untouched.
Then the Committee decided—perhaps rightly from its point of view—not to deal at all with the question of prices. It excused itself for not dealing with resale price maintenance because the President of the Board of Trade had set up a committee to make a fact-finding inquiry into it. But one cannot think of the welfare of the consumer without dealing with the question of prices, and the Government must face the facts of what is happening in terms of the cost of living. Since 1956, the cost of living has gone up 17 per cent. at a time when the terms of overseas trade have moved in our favour to the extent of 14 per cent. Something is wrong in that situation, and I believe that resale price maintenance plays a not insignificant part in what is happening in the cost of living.
Why has the President of the Board of Trade not published the findings of the Committee which he set up? Is it that the facts reveal that the consumer is getting a very raw deal, and that the Government do not intend to do anything about resale price maintenance, and therefore they prefer to keep this information in their own pigeon-holes in the hope that the consumers will ask nothing more about it?
I believe that the Government are duty bound to this House and to the public to publish the fullest possible range of information on this important subject of prices. There is the constant threat hanging over the head of the consumer of the rise in the price of food. Bread is going up in price, suger is going up. We are to have a debate on Wednesday on agriculture and perhaps the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will then say 73 what he has decided to do about passing the deficiency payments burden on to the shoulders of the housewife. We shall perhaps learn something about that.
Incidentally, why is there no representative on the Government Front Bench of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? The Parliamentary Secretary said that he had received an apology, which we all understand, from the President of the Board of Trade; but did he have an apology from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? There is not even a signature on the Government's Amendment of a representative of that important Ministry. One side of its functions is, or ought to be, the protection of the consumer. I have no doubt that in his guise as Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Gentleman will be here on Wednesday when the interests of the farmers are being discussed. But he is Minister of Food as well, and he ought to be, or someone on his behalf ought to be, present during this debate when the interests of the consumer are being discussed.
I think that this is part proof of what was said from these benches in 1955 when the Ministry of Food was merged with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. We said then—I remember that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough among others who made this point—that in this merging the interests of the consumer would become submerged beneath the interests of the producer.
The Molony Committee decided, conveniently from its point of view, to exclude from its consideration the whole range of economics where statutory consumer councils or consultative councils exist. In other words, the whole of the agricultural marketing boards and the whole of the nationalised industries were outside its purview. Here again, when thinking of the interests of the consumers the House is not entitled to leave these things out of its consideration, because these are a most important part of the whole consumer interest.
It is well known, as the Leader of the Liberal Party made clear, that these consumer committees set up under Statute are completely inadequate to the task which they ought to be doing more effectively, largely because they are not 74 sufficiently independent from the boards whose work they are supposed to criticise. Does anyone in the House, for instance, really expect that the transport users consultative committees are likely to be an effective force in stopping or seriously modifying the Beeching Plan? If it is to be stopped, it will be stopped through politics, through a change of Minister or of Government, rather than through any countervailing power which the consultative committees may bring to bear on the matter.
In recent history of transport we have in British Railways a classical illustration of the weakness of the consumer. I was amused when the Parliamentary Secretary quoted the amount that is to be put at the disposal of the citizens' advice bureaux for their consumer protection work. The figure of £27,000 struck me as being not very different from the salary of one producer-minded executive, Dr. Beeching. This shows how completely out of proportion the whole question of consumer protection is in the minds of the Government.
Other important exclusions from the Molony Report were the whole of food and drugs legislation and the whole of weights and measures legislation. The fact that the Molony Committee did not consider those things does not mean that we ought not to consider them. They are important issues in which the consumer interest is very much at stake.
To leave out the things which I have mentioned—all consumer services, all food and drugs, all weights and measures, all agricultural marketing, all resale price maintenance and all price policy—is to leave out of consideration at least four-fifths of the consumers' interest in society. I am not complaining about the Molony Committee having imposed those limitations upon itself. I can understand that it felt that the investigation of a narrower problem would probably be the best thing, but I complain about the way in which in considering consumer protection the Government hide behind the limitation which the Molony Committee sketched. The Government's responsibilities in this matter are much wider than those which the Molony Committee described.
While I do not complain about the Molony Committee having made these limits. I do complain that it used this limited concept of consumer interest as 75 a standard by which to judge one of the most important proposals put before it by the Co-operative movement and mentioned today by my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough that there should be a newly constituted Government Department, with a Minister at its head, whose concern would be the promotion of consumer interests throughout the economy. The Molony Committee dismissed this with a word. It used the word "grandiose". Of course, this is a grandiose conception if all that one has in mind as needing to be done are the limited jobs which the Molony Committee had in mind. If one has it in mind to do only one-fifth of a job, a full-blown Ministry is not necessary, but if one has a proper concept of what the consumer interest in society is and if one sets off to do the whole job and to do it well, nothing less than a properly constituted Department of Government is necessary.
The Committee gave no reasons for its view. Indeed, it gave no evidence of having thought this matter through. A point which it obviously missed was that a new Ministry set up as we advocate would not involve the establishment of a vast new network of administrative machinery. To a very large extent it would be co-ordinating bits and pieces of machinery which already exist but which are now spread through other Ministries. It is true that it would need local agencies, but in the town hall there is a good deal of local expert knowledge vested in people such as the weights and measures inspectors and health officers and so on who, properly co-ordinated could be a powerful local instrument of consumer protection.
In putting forward these proposals, the whole Co-operative movement conceives of consumer protection as needing to be tackled on a vastly greater scale than anything we have seen hinted at in what the Government are proposing. It is ironic that the Molony Committee and now the Government, in setting up the proposed Consumer Council, are preventing it from doing three of the most worth-while things for consumer protection—testing, receiving complaints from individual consumers, and making sure that the law is enforced. It has been one of the great weaknesses, about which we have complained, that in terms of 76 the Merchandise Marks Acts and so on the Board of Trade has not been sufficiently vigorous about pursuing people who have offended against the existing law. We need much more vigorous agencies which will see that the law is enforced on behalf of the consumer.
Naturally, those of us who think in the terms which I have described are very disappointed by the very minimal effort which the Government are making in these matters. However, I suggest to those hon. Members who agree with this concept of a new Ministry that they should not be too discouraged, though they may need to be a little patient. I have discovered that there was a time when the productive worker did not have a Ministry, when there was advocacy for a Ministry, and yet in debates such as this the productive worker was given as scant and as little and as grudging attention as the consumer is today.
It took 30 years of advocacy that there should be a Ministry of Labour before eventually that Ministry was set up. I have been looking in the Library at the Report of the Royal Commission on Labour which finally reported in 1894. The famous Mr. Sidney Webb was advocating the setting up of a Ministry to combine those parts of the administrative machinery which were in a variety of other Ministries but which were concerned with the welfare of the productive worker. It was a very similar argument to that which we are now putting forward in connection with the proposals for a Ministry for Consumer Welfare.
On that occasion, a minority of the Commission, four trade union members, issued a minority report urging that the Ministry of Labour should be established. More than 20 years later it came. Perhaps it would be worth my while reading through that recommendation.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
Can the hon. Gentleman say what the establishment of the Ministry of Labour has to do with this debate?
§ Mr. Oram
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the earlier part of my speech. I am pointing out that a Ministry of Consumer Welfare is needed and I am giving an illustration from history of how the Government of the day were lust as reluctant and lust as 77 conservative in their refusal to establish a Ministry of Labour as the present Government are in their approach to matters of consumer administration. In deference to the hon. Member's impatience, I will not read the whole recommendation, but I will continue the comparison because it is important.
No one now doubts the value of or need for a Ministry of Labour. If it is necessary to have a Ministry concerned with the interests of the productive worker, if it is necessary to have a Ministry concerned with the needs of the farming population, if it is necessary in the Board of Trade which is a Ministry concerned with the businessman's problems, it is equally necessary that there should be a Ministry concerned with consumer interests.
Just as it is now commonplace and commonly accepted that in every main town there is an employment exchange to which the productive worker can go to seek advice about his employment, so equally there should be a centre with equal status, with equal finance and with equal staffing where the consumer, the shopper, can go to get advice. I do not believe that the citizens' advice bureaux will be adequate for that sort of job.
It is not suffieiently realised that the standard of living in the home does not depend merely upon the wage which is brought home. It does not merely depend on the contract between the worker and the employer. It also depends on the goods which those wages buy—the contracts between the shopper and the shopkeeper. That is as important as the question of what the wage earner takes home.
To make another comparison, the Ministry of Labour is rightly concerned with industrial training. The hon. Lady the Member for Edgbaston pointed out the tremendous need for consumer education. I agree with her, but I do not believe that we shall get the sort of consumer education which she regards as necessary until we have adequate Government machinery which can provide consumer education in the same way as the Ministry of Labour provides industrial training.
The Ministry of Labour is concerned with the health and safety of workers in factories, but, as my hon. Friend the 78 Member for Hillsborough pointed out, accidents in the home are as great as those elsewhere and there should be a Ministry one of whose prime purposes would be to deal with safety in the home. There is a Ministry responsible for this now—the Home—Office but this is only a minor part of its responsibility. If we had a Ministry with this as one of its main jobs, we should feel happier about the job being done effectively.
This range and strength of administrative machinery are entirely necessary if the consumer is to he protected as he should be. Instead we are to have this Council, completely inadequate in terms of finance, in its concept, in terms of the power it will have, and in terms of the jobs it will be called on to do. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party compared it with a homely St. Bernard doe. The simile I use is that; it is like a penny whistle, whereas what we want is a full orchestra. We need a full orchestra for consumer protection, but we are to have this penny whistle. We hope that, at least the tune it plays will be melodious, but I am sure that what the Government are proposing is completely inadequate in the face of the enormous task of protecting the consumer interest in society as a whole.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
Until I opened my newspaper this morning I imagined that we might be hearing a lot about false advertising claims in this debate, but, having looked at certain advertisements, I am not surprised that this subject has taken a minor part in our discussions.
1 thought that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) was a little unfair when he pointed directly at the Leader of the Liberal Party when speaking about people defaulting on hire-purchase agreements. I found the right hon. Gentleman's speech extremely good, and I follow him in his hopes that the Consumer Council will not try to take a balanced approach on all these topics but will speak out on behalf of the consumer and let the balance be struck elsewhere.
I join the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) in hoping that we shall soon hear the Government's proposals on resale price maintenance and 79 exactly what their inquiries have uncovered. One must remember that these are tremendously complicated matters and that a certain delay is justifiable.
One of the reasons why we have had such a tremendous growth in the power of the big retail chain stores and supermarkets is that they have been able to extract very large discounts from manufacturers. For instance, someone like Mr. Wolfson can go to the manufacturer of one type of refrigerator and say, "I can offer you a tremendous outlet for your goods. There are a large number of refrigerators on sale in the market, many of which are pretty good, but if I happen to choose yours this can be of tremendous advantage to you. I therefore demand a substantially larger discount than you give to the small trader in the High Street." This is what happens, and the small trader finds himself at a tremendous disadvantage.
If resale price maintenance is swept away willy-nilly, there is a danger that in a large section of the consumer durable market the small shopkeeper will find it impossible to keep going unless one introduces legislation on the lines of the Robinson Pattman Act in the United States of America, which makes the giving of discounts illegal. On the other hand, this is becoming such an integral part of our commercial practice that the introduction of such legislation here would be an act of major surgery about which we would have to think a great deal before introducing it.
The hon. Member for East Ham, North was a trifle unkind in his remarks about the Molony Committee, no doubt because it quite rightly objected out of hand his ideas for the setting up of a consumer ministry. The Committee has done a remarkable job, which could not be done by any collection of civil servants within the Ministry itself. This project had to be tackled by an outside organisation.
The Molony Committee was in orbit round this subject: it did more than twenty-two orbits round the whole field of consumer protection. It kept going for nearly three years. During that period, except for the production of one interim report on safety, the Committee was in less communication with the world than the last American astronaut during his twenty-two circuits.
80 When one sets up a body of this kind to recommend on a complex matter there is a danger that, because of the length of time that it is necessary to devote to these technical subjects, there will be a sort of blight on action taken by the Government. If we set up highly qualified committees in future I hope that it will become the practice to ask for interim reports on matters that are of current interest.
For instance, during the last Session I introduced a small Bill on the subject of seals of approval. This is not a subject of vast importance, and so it is difficult to find a place for it in the legislative programme. In fact my proposal was not as radical as those contained in the Molony Committee's Report; but if in that time there had been some possibility of discovering the Molony Committee's views on the subject it might have been possible in the available Parliamentary time to get some useful legislation on to the Statute Book.
The answer given by the Attorney-General this afternoon shows that the problems of hire purchase have not grown in the last two years. It ought, therefore, to have been possible to ask the Molony Committee to make this subject its first priority and produce an interim report on it. We could then have saved a year or perhaps more in the introduction of legislation to deal with this highly important trading issue. Indeed, I hope that the Consumer Council, now that it has been set up, will not consider from scratch the whole question of hire purchase but will be asked and will state its views on details of this important matter now that a Bill is being drafted.
I hope, also, that the Council will look very closely into the whole question of services. I am sure that the average shopper does not consider that he or she is being cheated in the grocer's shop, or in the vast range of shops, but when it comes to the repair of a television set or a motor car and some of the other complicated machines with which we deal today, there is a feeling of distrust. Last summer I was driving along a bumpy road when the wheels of the car began to vibrate much more than they should have done. I went to a garage where, after the car had been tested over some bumps, I was told that the steering geometry was faulty. I was asked £12 for 81 having it put right. I had no idea what steering geometry was or whether £12 was a proper charge for putting it right. I immediately had a feeling of distrust as I wondered what on earth the man was talking about.
I was discussing this not long ago with the proprietor of a garage, a friend of mine, who said that it was quite wrong to think that there were many black sheep among garage proprietors. We then got on to the subject of electricians. He told me how when a lorry was driven past a house all the lights in the house flickered and finally went out. An electrician was called and he said that the house needed rewiring. The occupier was alarmed and thought that this would cost him a great deal of money. A guest in the house asked for a screwdriver. When this was produced the guest used it and the lights immediately came on again. As a result the garage proprietor was quite convinced that all electricians are completely fraudulent.
It is difficult to find the correct answer to the problem of restoring trust in services. It is perhaps easiest done hi garages because the A.A. and the R.A.C., two very large consumer protection bodies, are already in existence. They can do a great deal to restore confidence if they take an active role. It is much more difficult to restore confidence about television repair services. It is difficult to see a television set owners' protection society being set up to ensure that proper standards are maintained, but there is enormous scope for the Consumer Council to take action.
There is also room for the Consumer Council to do a considerable amount of its own research. The Molony Committee has taken a very negative view of research. It is silly for such a body as the Consumer Council to go round asking questions about goods. One does not want a large number of Government servants asking people whether they would buy a better mousetrap if one were available. This is something for the shoppers to decide for themselves. But when it comes to the representation of consumer interests on the consumer councils of the nationalised industries, which have already been mentioned, and which is directly within the scope of the Consumer Council as finally set up, it seems to me that a certain amount of research and the use of survey techniques are necessary. It is asking for 82 trouble to have the present arrangements whereby when we look for a consumers' representative we take some large Liberal lady and plonk her down by herself in the council and expect her to represent consumers. What we must do is to find out what the consumer wants. There is great scope here for the use of social survey techniques.
It is in private enterprise that the greatest strides have been made on the technical side of consumer protection. The Consumers' Association has been mentioned. I am a member of its council. It can be argued that the material contained in the magazine Which? should be spread much more widely. One of the difficulties is that the testing of consumer goods is not an exact science. I will not say that it is in its infancy, because the baby has grown to a very large size in the last six years since Which? was launched. This is an area of research where by simplifying the findings too much one can make them inaccurate by leaving out the qualifications, and the question of how far one can go in the qualifications is difficult to decide.
There is now a fresh wave of local interest in new consumer goods. This is a matter of great importance, because local consumer councils can talk at the local level and have their views published in the local Press. They can create a row about local issues. This is of great importance, because it is of relevance to individuals in the very place where they do their shopping. I look forward to a great debate between a national Government-financed and Government-appointed Consumer Council and these clusters of small consumer councils which have come into being on their own without any major sponsorship from anybody.
I was impressed to note that not in the 45 minutes of the very able speech of the hon. Member for Hillsborough or in the speech of the hon. Member for East Ham, South was there a single reference to competition. In fact, competition affords the best protection to the shopper in this country. The women of this country are infinitely better dressed today than they were ten years ago, but this is not due to any regulations we have had about the number of stitches required in the making of skirts; it is due to the fact that a number of highly skilled merchants have been fighting for customers as hard 83 as they can. It is competition, and still more competition, which is the customer's best protection in this country.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
Until his concluding observation, I found myself in almost complete agreement with everything said by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). His concluding observation, it seemed to me, was quite contradictory of what he said in the earlier part of his speech. Shortly after he began, the hon. Gentleman spoke of price maintenance and suggested that, if price maintenance were in any way undermined or abolished, this would quite likely wipe out the smaller shops which are giving valuable service. The hon. Gentleman concluded by telling us that competition afforded the principal protection to the consumer. I cannot reconcile those two arguments.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Fair competition. I suggested that, if the large shopkeeper were able to obtain his goods so much more cheaply than could the small shopkeeper, there would be unfair competition against the small shopkeeper.
§ Mr. Lawson
Always, the justification for that attitude comes back to the question of what is fair competition. Competition in price is a very important matter for the consumer, and one would expect the consumer to be given some kind of protection in the absence of competition in prices. Yet this is what price maintenance means. I take the point about the smaller shop, but there are many other factors. If the hon. Gentleman relies so strongly, almost exclusively, as he appears to do, on the virtue of competition, he should think more carefully about his earlier observations.
§ Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)
Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that there is tremendous competition within resale price maintenance? If there is not competition, recourse can be had to the Monopolies Commission, the Restrictive Practices Court, and so on. There is competition in resale price maintenance between many types of manufacturer.
§ Mr. Lawson
This is what we are always told. If one looks back to the history of British industry and commerce over the past fifty years, one will find that the constant endeavour of industry 84 and commerce has been to escape from competition and to protect itself from competition in all manner of ways. It is a myth that hon. Members opposite believe in competition. No doubt, they think that they believe in competition, but one has only to see how they and their supporters behave to see a constant pre-occupation with ways and means of protecting oneself from competition.
However, this is not the line I wish to follow at this stage. I merely tell the hon. Member for Beckenham that I have had to scrap what I had earlier thought to say to him if I were fortunate enough to be called to follow him because of the contradiction between his opening and closing remarks. Apart from that, there was much which I endorse, and in that spirit I turn now to the matters which seem to me to be of major interest.
The Parliamentary Secretary, in that smiling and confident way of his, said that consumer protection was no new thing. He went back to the Middle Ages, telling us that, over the years, we had built up and still further built up our consumer protection. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman thinks of himself as a person with considerable scientific training and, probably, he thinks of himself also as a person with a certain amount of historical understanding and knowledge. If he goes back to the Middle Ages, he will find a very different state of affairs. The protection then was very much a matter of small guilds protecting themselves. This was quite understandable and excusable.
Coming forward to the beginning of the last century and thereafter, there developed and became established the attitude that the best thing for the people as a whole was maximum competition, the idea being that, if only everyone would get on with it as best they could, everyone would profit to the maximum. This, of course, particularly favoured the powerful and was hard on the weak. In the eighteenth century, laws were passed which were supposed to equalise bargaining conditions between employer and employee. They were disregarded, with the connivance of the Government. This, too, is a matter of consumer protection, buying and selling one's power to work.
85 In fact, when the idea of leaving it all to the businessman, leaving it to competition within private enterprise, became the established attitude of mind of the people who made our laws and set the prevailing atmosphere of morality, and so on, it was found that very many people could not manage at all and consumer protection was reintroduced in regard to matters we are almost aghast to think of now but which were previously left to the voluntary action of private people such as those of whom the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt) spoke.
The Co-operative movement came into existence, among other things, to protect the consumer from sand in the sugar and all sorts of short weights and sharp practices. The consumer had to be protected by the Truck Act against being compelled to buy where his boss wanted him to buy. But these protections were not happily given. There was no benevolent Conservative Government looking round in the interests of the people and saying that we must legislate here and there to give protection. Such improvements as there were at the time were fought over inch by inch, all the way.
One has but to think of the protection of the child from the abuses of forced labour which children had to undertake. This, again, is a matter of consumer protection; people were selling and buying something. The protection of children, too, had to be fought for. We had to fight for protection to ensure that we did not buy diseased meat. In every town the protection of weights and measures and all these other things had to be fought for.
These things could never be left to the voluntary action of well-meaning people. There were plenty of well-meaning people, but there always were sufficient people who were not well meaning. There were always sufficient people to take advantage of what laws there were, or of the absence of laws, in order to get round the difficulties and do the best they could for themselves, irrespective of the cost to others.
Consumer protection has today become a matter of vast importance, and the law lags very far behind the needs of our situation. The law lags behind here just as it does in taxation, the various devices for escaping Income Tax being always 86 ahead of the Inland Revenue. I speak here, of course, not of the ordinary person who pays tax on P.A.Y.E., for every penny he earns is accounted for. The "Smart Alecs" and those who are well off can always find ways and means of getting round it.
The Parliamentary Secretary preened himself on the fact that his Government had done so much. Let me remind him of a practice which has been established in Scotland and which has been brought to the notice of his Department time after time by my hon. Friends and myself. It concerns a firm in Scotland called Napiers. The practice it followed has in some respects been eliminated, but that is not because of the virile protective action of the President of the Board of Trade and the Government. This firm was utilising all the devices, fakes and trick advertisements which deceive the people. It called the system a "personal credit scheme" and it escaped the Hire Purchase Act and the Moneylenders Act. When we brought this matter to the notice of the Government they said that it was not covered by those Acts.
In 1959, I tried to bring in a Bill to bring this practice under the Moneylenders Act. The endeavour to do that was too late. This position still remains in Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) said, my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) sought permission to bring in a small Bill which would limit the amount that such traders can extract to not more than 50 per cent. of the initial price, not more than half as much of what the initial price was said to be. Any hon. Member from Scotland can tell the Parliamentary Secretary that there are many people there still suffering under the iniquitous practices which were allowed to go on for so long. The law is not back-dated. Agreements entered into some time ago are still valid.
Many people such as the person my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian had in mind have already paid more than half the price and have still to go on paying. Many come to me and asked me to explain this. Speaking from memory, I think that they have said, "The initial price for a television set was £75 and I have paid £115. Shall I still owe £30?" I go into it and show them 87 how this comes about. It was perfectly legal, at least so we were assured, but to my mind it ought never to have been permitted.
This firm got away with it for a long time. It charged 2 per cent. compound interest per month on the initial sum. A shop manager came to me and accused me of doing him out of his job. I told him that he was charging more than 24 per cent. per annum. He refused to believe it and I spent an hour trying to get him to see than even at simple interest 2 per cent. per month was 24 per cent. per annum. He could not see it, yet he is supposed to be explaining the system to customers.
Compound interest doubles in three years. Even the proprietor disputed that 2 per cent. compound interest doubled in three years. That sort of thing went on and it was only through the introduction of a Private Member's Bill that it was, in part, limited. Similar practices still go on. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to recognise that large numbers of our people cannot read long legal documents. They can make no pretence of understanding them. They should be given some protection against signing such documents and putting themselves into an impossible position.
I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 18th February. I thank him for handling this matter. I wrote, not about a hire-purchase deal but about a hiring of a television set. This practice is widespread. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman about an old-age pensioner who came to see me. He had entered a transaction in the early part of this year to hire a television set. He thought that he was hiring it for 10s. a week. He signed a document of which I have a copy here. It is in very small type of two foolscap pages, plus another page which I shall mention later. A number of people persuaded him to hire the set saying that they would help him to pay 10s. a week, but they later dropped out of the agreement. He wanted to get out of the agreement.
My wife is hiring a television set for which 10s. is paid week by week. She and I know that we can get out at very short notice but this old man discovered that he had signed an agreement to hire a set for a minimum period of three years 88 and he could not get out of that agreement.
I wrote to the firm, which is a successor of Napiers and is called Scots-vogue. I told the firm that it should recognise the man's difficulties and that he wanted to terminate the agreement. The reply was that he had signed and nothing could be done about it. The old-age pensioner came to me a second time and I wrote a second time. Then the firm virtually told me that it was none of my business. I wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary and someone from the Board of Trade went to see the set. It was found that it had been manufactured more than three years ago and the Control of Hiring Order, 1960, did not apply in any way.
I quote the final paragraph from that letter:Apart from this, the terms of hire are a matter for agreement between the customer and the trader and, much as I sympathise with Mr. Finlay's circumstances, the Board of Trade have no power to intervene.I sent a copy of the agreement to the hon. Gentleman. If ever an agreement was one-sided this it is. It does not permit the hirer to terminate the agreement until or unless three years have elapsed, and he has to pay 10s. a week all the time.
The firm stipulates:The owners reserve the right to terminate the agreement at any time should it be considered by them that it is no longer economical to service the article and in that event the renter shall have no claim whatever against the owners.The owners can terminate the agreement virtually at a moment's notice if the article is no longer economical for them to carry it on. That is a one-sided agreement. It specifies that the owner shall keep the set in working order, but there is written into the agreement that "the renter shall have no right or title to suspend, reduce or delay the payment of the rental before mentioned"— that is 10s. a week—during any time which the article is not functioning or is in the owner's premises for repair.But the owners undertake that in the event of necessary repairs taking more than three weeks to execute, they will replace the article with another.
In other words, according to the agreement which has been signed by this old-age pensioner, he can be deprived of his 89 television set for three weeks. The repairs need not be made in less than that period, but he has to pay his 10s. every week just the same while the set is not functioning. The owners may take it away, and they have three weeks' grace during which to return it to him repaired or to provide him with another set. This is a fantastic position. No sensible person would sign an agreement of this sort if he understood this sort of thing.
In addition, the person hiring the set must pay the money to wherever the owner says the money shall be paid. When this old fellow hired the set there was a shop belonging to the firm in my constituency. The shop no longer exists, and the old chap has to send his money week by week to the firm in Ayr. He has to pay money for the stamp and the duty on the postal order. Hon. Members may say that that is a trifle, just a few coppers, but it is a big item for the old fellow living on his old-age pension. The firm no longer has a repairs service in Motherwell or near my constituency. if the old fellow wants to have the set repaired he has to telephone to Edinburgh. He has been given an Edinburgh telephone number. This is covered by the agreement. One sees that the terms are grossly unfair and one-sided.
This firm operates on the same basis as when it was Napiers. It insists on a guarantor. Some poor chap, perhaps a son-in-law or a friend next door, is asked, "Please sign this statement to enable me to get a television set". He signs it without thinking—and he has signed a guarantee that he will be responsible for all the moneys which may become owing by the person getting the set. Moreover, should the guarantor die, the debt will be passed on to his estate. His next-of-kin will inherit this debt. That is written in twice—the provision to pass on the debt. Many of these people have no idea what they are undertaking—not the faintest idea that they are pledging their income.
There may be other firms such as this, although I hope, and do not think, that there are others in Scotland. There are certain practices which have always puzzled me. In his letter to me of 18th February the hon. Member said:The terms of hire are a matter for agreement between the customer and the trader and, much as I sympathise with Mr. Finlay's cir- 90 cumstances, the Board of Trade has no power to intervene.But the hon. Gentleman will agree that if the old fellow defaults on his agreement, the power of the law will be behind Scotsvogue to see that the agreement is implemented.
If the Board of Trade and the Government have no concern with the nature of an agreement entered into in such circumstances, then they should have no concern to see that the agreement is implemented by law. If these things are outwith the law, or if there is no protection, and if the Board of Trade is not concerned with the matter, why should the law be used in this way? If it is argued that an agreement is a private business, it should be left to the private firm to get its payment as it can on the basis of private associations. But the law can be utilised in many ways. In Scotland, a man's wages may be stopped. In this respect, the law in Scotland differs from that in England. His wages may be stopped on the basis of a debt. His property may be sold to pay such a debt. He can be taken to court and he will have court fees to pay.
A man asks me, "I have paid £110 and I find that I have £30 or £40 still to pay on something which costs £75. How is this?" I look at the statement. I may find in such a case that the man has been in court and that a guinea or £5 has been put down as court fees. These are all added to his debt. This is a fantastic position.
I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to recognise that in this business of buying and selling the parties are vastly unequal. There is some sense in the argument of competition if the parties are equal, but there is no equality in circumstances of this sort. A great many people can scarcely read at all, and it is fantastic to expect them to read a closely typed document. I know that it is difficult to say that we should protect people from their own folly, but we must try to do so, and that is not being done.
The hon. Member must not show the self-satisfied expression which he showed when opening the debate. We are very far behind the man who wants to engage in sharp practices. It seems to me that if we are setting up a Consumer Council 91 we should try to bring into existence a body which will do something to rectify the ill-balance which exists in our society today and to put some organised force against an organised force.
This cannot be left to the education of the people. By all means educate the people, but we shall never sufficiently reach a large proportion of them. We must also recognise that the smart fellow is educated, too. Indeed, he has had more education, and he is all the time thinking how he can out-do the public and how far he can go. That is business, whether hon. Members opposite like it or not.
The great bulk of firms are good, honest firms, but standards are not always set by good, honest firms but by others. If we are to have a Consumer Council of any value it must be able to act and not have to depend on citizens advice bureaux. I have nothing against these bureaux, but the Consumer Council must have access to effective means of checking these devices.
I deplore the fact that the Consumer Council in effect repudiates any suggestion that it will do the testing. Why not do, on a much more effective scale and a larger scale, that which "Which?" is trying to do? We do not leave the food inspectors in a position in which they cannot go into a shop to sample the goods. We do not leave the inspector in the position in which he must wait to receive a complaint about poisoned food before he can enter a shop. He is checking all the time.
If we are to have an effective Consumer Council we must have a body which is able to check, check and check again and to keep its eye on what is happening over the whole field of consumer interest, with ability to sample here and there. I am sure that the honest firm will welcome this kind of thing. But no firm should be in a position in which it feels that it is in no danger at all of such checking. It is the likelihood, or even sometimes the remote possibility, of someone coming into the firm to make a check which is important. The very fact that the Consumer Council repudiates this rôle of doing the checking puts a big question mark upon the Council.
I am not concerned with the relatively well-to-do. They have their lawyers and 92 means by which to protect themselves. I am concerned with the large number of people who do not have those facilities—largely, those who are inarticulate. Very many of our people cannot argue their case. Sometimes, they can scarcely come to the point. How are they to be expected to understand difficult legal documents? We must put them in the position where this is not necessary. The Consumer Council must exist for their protection. If we can be assured that this is what the Council will do and that some of the weaknesses which have been pointed out will be dealt with, I shall be much happier. Otherwise, I will feel that my hon. Friends are right in the terms of their Motion.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)
The whole House will have followed with sympathy the accounts given by the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) of abuses and evasions in what appear to be straightforward contracts between people. We have listened with horror to some of the examples cited by the hon. Member. He made one point, however, which conflicts with what was said in the Molony Report. The hon. Member complained that indebtedness was passed on to an estate at death, whereas in paragraph 534 of its Report the Molony Committee recommended that a hire-purchase agreement should not necessarily be terminated at the death of a customer.
§ Mr. Lawson
I am sure that the hon. Member does not want to misrepresent the position. What the Molony Committee said was that when an article had been nearly paid for, on payment of the few pounds remaining it should remain with the family.
§ Dr. Bennett
I accept that the hon. Member was talking about hiring and not a hire-purchase agreement, but there is great scope for discussion of the subject before we can get equity between the different parties, especially in the world of hire purchase.
What we are trying to do is to give courage to the good operators and, as far as we can, to deter and stop the bad ones. I have given a little study to the subject of hire purchase since the publication of the Molony Report and I have looked with interest at the Bill which 93 was introduced in another place to amend the hire-purchase law of 1938. I was not impressed that the attempts, which were, no doubt, meritoriously made, to improve the law had any substantial hope of achieving what they set out to do.
That Private Member's Bill recommended a "cooling-off" period of something like 72 hours after doorstep sales. I am sure that under the present law that would be an appropriate and proper amendment. The Bill also proposed, however, to increase the existing £300 limit for hire-purchase transactions to £1,000. The hon. Member for Motherwell knows, as we all do, that the Molony Committee specifically rejected that proposal as being completely unrealistic. It would have set an arbitrary line which could be crossed by small amounts of percentage, interest or even Stamp Duty, which might make a difference to whether a hire-purchase agreement for a motor car, for example, was above or below whatever arbitrary limit was set. I certainly came to agree with the view of the Molony Committee that it would be wrong to have an arbitrary figure. Either there must be no limit, or it is best not to mess the present situation about. I am coming more to the view that it is best not to mess it about.
I have long held the view that hire purchase has nothing whatever to do with hiring. It never has had. We need to recognise this fact and to modernise the law. To the best of my knowledge, the idea of hire-purchase stems from Ellen Wilkinson's Private Member's Bill which became law in 1938. I suspect that as a Private Member's Bill it was drafted in such a way to disturb as little as possible the existing law. Private Members' Bills are usually circumscribed because the repeal and amendment of the statute law is not a very popular subject for a Private Member's Bill.
There are two Acts—the Bills of Sale Act and the Moneylenders Act—which would have had to be cut about a fair amount, and I certainly do not regard it as being beyond the competence of this House today to change the law to permit a straightforward moneylending operation for people to be able to buy goods on credit. The Bills of Sale Act contemplated a situation in which people who 94 were very poor and wanted to raise money by pledging their property would sell their goods on a certain basis to "raise the wind". It never contemplated a well-off society whose members would buy goods in respect of their own personal credit, rather than try to "raise the wind" in a state of desperation.
The Moneylenders Act also imposed certain restrictions on moneylenders, such as a prohibition on advertising. When, however, nowadays one sees the personal loan schemes of the big joint stock banks being advertised, what sense does all this make? We have outgrown the whole legal structure surrounding transactions of this type. Both of those two Measures were devised long before the present modern system as we know it.
§ Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)
Does the hon. Member know anything about the interest charges under the Moneylenders Act which became applicable to hire purchase in 1948, not under the terms of hire purchase, but under the terms of long-term and short-term credit, as distinct from hire purchase? The hon. Member must not omit long-term and short-term credit trading as part of what is commonly known as hire purchase.
§ Dr. Bennett
I am impressed by the hon. Member's intervention and I accept it. I was not trying to score off moneylenders, or to put the Moneylenders Act out of court. I was saying that the provisions of both Acts were largely things of the past and that we want a completely new look at this whole matter.
With that in mind, I was pleased when the Government announced in another place that the amendment of hire-purchase legislation was no ionizer a matter for action by a Private Member's Bill but was now a subject for Government legislation. I certainly welcome this and I am sure that the House hopes that this will be a first step on the road to producing the necessary legislation.
But then we have to consider what the legislation should be, and I repeat that I do not believe it should consist of chopping about the hire-purchase legislation as it already exists. We ought to recognise, as the hon. Member for Hillsborough has said, that we are considering an operation for purchasing articles on mortgage, so to speak. similar to the 95 way in which people purchase houses on mortgage. I believe that that parallel is far closer than has been generally recognised.
I believe that if we do this, we shall achieve one advantage which is referred to in paragraph 437 of the Molony Report:He"—that is, the customer—would be surprised to know that the law attaches different implications dependent on which mode of payment he adopts and that his position is less secure if he pays cash.It goes on to say:…the anomaly arising from the divergence between the two branches of the law is much more marked nowadays. We do not think it ought to remain.Bluntly, in paragraph 431 the Report says:the law should be the same on sale and hire-purchase.This may not be a mammoth point, but I suggest that we substitute for "hire purchase" the principle of simple sales with credit, and we should consider the matter from the point of view of ordinary small credit sales, moving over to the bigger scale for which chattel mortgage would be required. We would need, therefore, to have new legislation amending these two older Acts in order to produce the machinery for chattel mortgage, or perfectly ordinary loans for mortgaging against goods other than bricks and mortar.
I believe that there are enormous advantages here. For instance, one advantage of such a principle which is not to be despised is the fact that a finance company would no longer be concerned with the title to the goods. It seems to me to be a fantastic state of affairs that a finance company should be described as the owner from the moment that the agreement is signed. The finance companies themselves would, surely, be happier only to have a lien on the goods up to the extent of the amount due to them. This would stop the notorious "snatch back" activities which we all deplore and which are carried out by the more disreputable companies would be the owner of the goods and
It would also mean that the customer would be in a position to sell them at 96 the best price that he could get. Under the present hire-purchase arrangement, if the purchaser is unable to keep up the payments the articles go back to the supplier and the customer is breaking the law if he sells the goods. They are then sold at a knock-down price because the sale is forced. I think that there would here be a substantial advantage in changing the law.
The negotiations under such a new framework would be direct between the customer and the finance house. In other words, the dealer would not need to know that the customer had to borrow any money. This would be a very good thing, and, in addition, we would cut out any prospect of these disgraceful "backhanders" which are known particularly in the motor trade, where finance houses have been compelled by pressure to allow up to 15 per cent.—
§ Dr. Bennett
I think that they piously hoped for a limit of 15 per cent.—in the form of commission. It is hardly necessary to add that in such a transaction, if conducted in the form that I am advocating, the costs would be a great deal less, and this is a factor which has been mentioned by more than one speaker. I do not think the finance houses would be likely to weep in being able to reduce their costs in this way.
Another advantage, which would not perhaps be so attractive to the Government as it would be to other people, is that any chattel mortgaging under this system would be strictly parallel to house mortgaging. The payments would not be hire instalments. They would be in the form of interest. They would, therefore, presumably receive favourable consideration by the tax inspector, and I feel there is a great deal to be said for protecting the customer against the tax inspector.
There is another thing which we need not shed any tears about, and of which I am sure many people would be glad to see the last. We would be able to free the county courts from being cluttered up with all these cases, because the falling in of a deal under this system would be merely a matter of selling at the best price, the financing company taking what was due to it and allowing the owner, the customer, to have the 97 rest. This would be sheer common sense and in sharp contrast to the world of make-believe in which hire purchase is shrouded today.
That is my view of this subject, and I hope that it will find favour in the eyes of hon. Members. We have come to a point where we are in a strong position to change a specific type of legislation. If we do not do so we shall carry on botching these transactions with the same imperfect Molony said that hire-purchase legislation, suitably amended, can serve the public well. If it can, perhaps we need not repeal the hire-purchase legislation. Let the other system get going alongside it and see which one wins. That is the most sensible way of ensuring that what we so urgently desire comes about.
I have other points to raise, but think that they would be best left to some other occasion. I leave the House in possession of these few ideas, and I hope that hon. Members will think well of them.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)
I hope the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) will forgive me if I do not dwell on some of the arguments that he has submitted in connection with hire purchase. I was rather surprised, however, at his complacency about the subject, particularly in the light of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson).
As I listened to the recital of these dreadful hire-purchase agreements my blood began to boil. If only a few hundred people in Scotland are subjected to this calculated exploitation, this seems to me to indicate an urgent need for legislation to wipe out these modern brigands of our society who are causing so much frustration and hardship.
§ Dr. Bennett
I think the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) said that these dreadful examples, of which we are all aware, tend to come close to the point where we cannot protect people from doing foolish things. People should certainly have redress, and if the structure of the law is wrong we should alter it, but when people sign agreements which do not make sense it is difficult for us to legislate to stop them.
§ Mr. Edwards
Sometimes old-age pensioners want to buy a television set. They are given long and detailed documents, and when they are told by the salesman "This is a straightforward deal", these honest folk, who have never done anybody out of anything in their lives, take the salesman's word as his bond. They are honest people. They think they are entering into an honest transaction, so they sign the document. People must be protected from frauds and exploitation of this nature.
It is a scandal that our society does not deal with the minority of these modern brigands who exploit people—usually the poorest people. The intervention of the hon. Member seems to justify the remarks that I was making about his contribution.
§ Dr. Bennett
I prefaced my remark by saying that hon. Members on both sides of the House wanted to see legislation which would deter this sort of racket and would encourage honest dealing.
§ Mr. Edwards
I do not want my contribution to degenerate into a debate between two hon. Members, but the hon. Member said, "Let us not make any changes in the hire-purchase law. Let hire purchase compete with this new idea of a chattel mortgage system." He concluded with an observation which indicated—if it meant anything—that he was not in favour of any change in the law.
We were given ample evidence of fraud by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) in his Bill to reform our hire-purchase legislation and, in a recent Ten Minute Rule Bill, by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell gave us overwhelming evidence of the need for urgency in making a change in the law relating to hire purchase. However, it was not my intention to dwell on the subject of hire purchase. I want to get to the fundamentals of consumer protection and welfare.
The Government have had eleven years to do something to protect the consumer against exploitation and misleading advertisements and against the new hazards in their homes which arise out of faulty machinery and equipment. They have had eleven years to protect 99 the consumer against the dreadful dangers of the new drugs that have caused nightmares in the lives of thousands of pregnant mothers and have brought into the world little children who are deformed and who will never be able to lead a normal life.
When we consider the many new problems, difficulties and hazards that arise in modern life, we cannot but conclude that the Government's suggestions to deal with them are very feeble. I have little faith in the Consumer Council. It is a very feeble weapon indeed to deal with some of the great problems that now need to be dealt with if we are to protect the consumer. There are far too many professional committee sitters appointed to this Council. We want live wires—people who are full of indignation and who believe in social protest. We want people who are aware of the problems of the ordinary people. We do not want the professional people who constantly seem to be pulled out of retirement or the Civil Service to man these committees.
Our society is fundamentally a producer society. It is organised almost at every level to protect the producer. The Federation of British Industries is now calling together all the producer organisations which protect the employers' interests in order to form one centralised organisation of producers so that they can act together. The Trades Union Congress is now dealing with the problem of creating new structures for its movement in order to centralise its activities. I am the general secretary of a trade union, but I am also a producer, as are the members of my trade union. On the producer side, therefore, we have two vast concentrations of power, organised deliberately to protect producers' interests. If consumers' interests are to be protected we want organisations which are powerful enough to balance the present overwhelming power of the producers.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) talked about the need for competition. He thought that this afforded the best protection to consumers, and he praised the activities of the Government in this respect. But it was he who submitted an excellent Bill last Session with the object of rationalising guarantees 100 so that consumers could place some reliance upon them—and it was his Government who rejected it. The Government gave no assistance whatever to the passage of his excellent, though modest, Bill. Similarly, the Government would give no assistance to the Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington introduced, and when I introduced a modest Bill entitled the Fair Trade Practices Bill the Government would not look at it. They said, "We will have to wait for the Molony Report." My Fair Trade Bill sought only to deal with misleading advertising. Many of the rackets and frauds that now take place in our society are possible only because the people who are responsible for them are able to advertise. If they were not able to advertise in the Press, on the hoardings, on television and by circulars, nobody would know about the services they are supposed to offer and the goods they wish to sell.
If we brought in legislation to deal with misleading advertising, we should go a long way towards eliminating the present patent medicine racket, by which 400 preparations of no medical value are sold over the counters of our chemists' shops. These witches' brews, the cost of which are contained in their corks and bottles and not in the contents thereof, are able to be sold only because of expanding and misleading advertising. If such advertising were banned we should be able to get rid of the so-called hair clinics, which promise treatment which will give a bald person a lovely mop of hair.
In every woman's magazine I see advertisements for slimming garments—plastic garments which are put on various parts of the anatomy and which, it is claimed, cause the wearer to lose inches and pounds. This is a fraud from beginning to end. It is condemned by the medical profession, and it can do great harm to teen-agers. Yet, in our civilised society, we allow every woman's magazine to advertise garments of this nature which do not fulfil the promise of the advertisements. We need simple legislation to give the advertising profession, or trade, or whatever it is, some kind of sanction against the minority of advertisers who defy every decent standard it sets up.
101 To say that competition is the consumer's greatest protection is nonsense, because our society is based on the elimination of competition. Year by year we have take-over bids, with the Government refusing to take any action to prevent them. The classic example was I.C.I. and Courtaulds when, far from refusing to take any action, the Government refused even to inquire into the deal. I hear an hon. Member say that that deal did not come off, but now controls 36 per cent. of Courtaulds.
I.C.I. has exclusive control of the patents for the manufacture of nylon and Terylene, and has eliminated all competition in synthetic textiles. We have only to look at half a dozen shops in any of our main thoroughfares to find that we have very little selection at all. In each shop we find the same mass-produced goods, and it is extremely difficult to buy a present that has any value at all, or any attraction.
That is a development in our society. Great power is moving more and more into the hands of a few hundred businessmen and, of course, the Government are of the party of the business men. It is strange to hear hon. Members opposite talk about competition being the one protection of the consumer when they themselves encourage this greater concentration of private industrial undertakings. However, I am letting my thoughts flow, so I will only say that consumers need to be protected in a number of directions.
They need to be protected in their rehousing. In the next twenty years, six million houses will be built, and it should be our duty to see that they are fit for people to live in. We need legislation to protect those who purchase new houses, and also to protect the older occupiers from the jerry builder who repairs—plumbing, electric lighting, and so on. A great deal of sub-standard work is being done today, and a great deal of jerrybuilding. It must be halted. Unfortunately, it can be halted only by Government action and legislation. Of the 140,000 houses built privately, literally thousands are sub-standard and jerrybuilt.
We know from our own constituents that this real and urgent problem is increasing. In an estate in my constituency I found that five houses had actually fallen down. They were built 102 over a disused mine. Some of the occupiers are tied up with mortgages, yet have nowhere to live. In some houses in another estate, the doors would not close and in others they would not open. The garages were not fit for use. I myself pulled a brick out of the wall of a house that had been completed only three months earlier.
I visited an estate in Surrey consisting of houses that cost £6,000. They will be permanently damp because of the whole structure of the roof. I talked to an old lady who, in the first three months of her occupation, had spent £180 to keep her home free from dampness, and in the first few years had spent nearly £700 to have a leaking roof put right. She cannot do anything because the builder has gone bankrupt. Like thousands of others in a similar situation, she has no redress whatever.
I do not think that the Government really mean business in protecting the consumer. They have had ample opportunity in the last eleven years to do something fundamental, and to set up a council that really means business. To deal with the great new problems of consumer protection and welfare, we need a Minister of Consumer Protection with a Department having the special job of watching the new problems arising in our modern complex society, of issuing a constant flow of reports to the Departments concerned, and introducing the half-dozen new, modest Bills required to give the consuming public the protection it certainly needs increasingly in our modern society.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Matthews (Meriden)
I welcome the publication of the Molony Report and the formation of the Consumer Council. I also welcome the idea that consumer protection should be brought right down to the locality through the medium of citizens' advice bureaux, but I am disappointed that such a small grant is to be forthcoming for their formation. They lack publicity, they lack funds, and they are very scattered and patchy throughout the country. Even to provide the premises necessary for them we shall need more money than the amount at present envisaged.
Publicity, too, is important, and will cost money if we are to make these 103 bureaux a success. Publicity is needed, particularly amongst the younger age groups, but that is not all there is to it. Professional or semi-professional staff will be needed to operate the bureaux, which must also have specialised organisations behind the scenes to which they can pass the various consumer problems coming their way. They will have to be organised in depth, and I hope that the reason for the Government suggesting such a small sum is that they are not yet in a position to outline the machinery that will be necessary behind the scenes to make the bureaux effective. I hope that a little later this evening my right hon. Friend will be able to give an assurance on this point.
As I see it at the moment these advice bureaux, where they are established, are doing some very useful work, but they are duplicating a lot of the work which is being done by other voluntary or statutory authorities. This is something which will have to be straightened out. The various functions will have to be defined, sectionalised and specialised, I believe.
For instance, take the numerous family problems which come along. Obviously, many of them have not much to do with consumers' problems. They surely would be better referred to the Family Welfare Association or the Marriage Guidance Council, or a specialised body of that kind. I think that I am right in saying that about one-fifth of the problems which come to the citizens' advice bureaux at present have anything to do with consumers' problems, and these are mainly questions of hire purchase and of credit in one form or another. I do not want to waste the time of the House in talking about hire purchase, because it has already been dealt with adequately by other Members, and it is an extremely important matter.
I should like to suggest that in the early stages in developing these advice bureaux we should endeavour to put the existing bureaux in first-class order before we start to open up new ones elsewhere, if, in fact, we are to be limited for funds. I thoroughly approve the idea of using the citizens' advice bureaux as channels for information and complaints, but I should like to see them backed up by 104 having the Board of Trade or some other centralised authority—but I think that the Board of Trade would be best—to supervise national advertising and also to enforce safety standards. These are, to my mind, things which ought to be dealt with centrally on a national basis.
Then I should like to see the independent testing organisations registered. They have been doing excellent work. I myself feel that the Molony Committee was a little bit unkind to the Good Housekeeping Institute, and there ought to be another look at that, because I should like to see some kind of testing organisation connected with every trade, to give eventually coverage to all kinds of commodities and services. I should also like to see the registering of guarantee seals and certification marks so that there is some recognised machinery which the advice bureau can go to as soon as they pick up a complaint.
Then there is the idea of enforcement. I recognise that this is not included in the terms of the Molony Report, but I think that every encouragement should be given to men like Mr. Roger Diplock, of the Retail Trading Standards Association, who has been so active in enforcing the Merchandise Marks Act which has helped honest traders throughout the country. The same thing might be done with regard to the Sale of Goods Act in preventing manufacturers from limiting their liabilities by means of bogus guarantees. The Hire Purchase Act and the Food and Drugs Act could be dealt with in similar ways.
I should like to make a plea, in contrast to what has been said by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), and say that the Consumer Council and advice bureaux would be more effective if they were to include people representing interested parties. I myself have had a great deal of experience in the retail trade, working amongst public-spirited retailers who have taken an active part in trade associations and chambers of trade and other such bodies. The majority on the Council and the other committees should be genuine consumers, but I believe that a minority of public-spirited men who know the problems of the merchandise being discussed would be helpful and would strengthen the advice bureaux 105 and committees which deal with these matters at local level.
I suggest, too, that the policy should be to offer advice only, and not to endeavour to help people to make their choice. I think that the essence of it is that people should be educated to make their own choice and that the education of consumers is the most effective form of their protection, because there is no other way of protecting a man from being penny wise and pound foolish than that of educating him to be more sensible. There is no other way to ensure that the weak-willed will not buy when he does not really want to. There is no other way than by educating people about these things so that they may use common sense. I would say that the education of the public is probably the least expensive way of protecting the public and certainly the most reliable in the long run.
I think that it is a good thing sometimes to allow people an opportunity to make mistakes, even when it comes to purchasing things, in the hope that they will make their mistakes in making small purchases, and that then, from the experience which they gain from those mistakes, they will be wiser when it conies to some of the bigger purchases which one has to make later in life. I believe that by paying the penalty of making small errors we probably do, in fact, learn more effectively than in any other way.
So I should like to see consumers' education. I believe that it is just as important as protection in other forms. because no public authority, however enlightened it may be, can really dictate what is the right balance between price and quality when one is buying something. Nobody can really tell the individual what is most suitable for his needs. Price and quality have so many different meanings for different people. What is best for one householder is not necessarily good for his neighbour, and common sense alone can produce the answer, and the final choice must rest with the individual.
We have got to guard against too glib a use of the phrase "consumer protection", because I believe that the consumer's best protection is a form of self-help. Give him the information, teach him to use his common sense, and then let him do the choosing.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)
There were some things I liked about the speech of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews), and I refer to one in passing, namely, the question of trade marks, as I want to make my first point on the problem of trade marks. When I consider the establishment of the Consumer Council I wonder what its function will be. I wonder what it is going to do. I wonder what powers it will have and how effective it will be.
The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the Merchandise Marks Act and the hon. Member for Meriden also mentioned trade marks. In 1933 an Order in Council provided that the country of origin must be stamped on every separate part of an umbrella coming into this country from abroad. The result has been that the shopping public have known immediately whether the umbrellas they were purchasing were British or of foreign manufacture. This has been a subject of great difficulty. Indeed, there have been several prosecutions because umbrellas have come into this country without a stamp of the country of origin. Woolworth's were prosecuted in 1961. The case went to the Appeal Court before three judges. Woolworth's lost the case.
One wonders whether or not the influence of some of the bigger retailers has played its part in the advice which the Board of Trade receives about the orders which are made, for in April of this year an order was made—an emergency order, it is true, for 12 months—which laid down that an umbrella need only be stamped on the handle with the country of origin. But that may be loose. Anyone can imagine what can happen when an umbrella needs only to carry the stamp of country of origin on a part which is not permanently affixed.
Our umbrella manufacturers and the individuals who make umbrellas are grievously concerned. What will the Consumer Council do? What will the Board of Trade do? Will the Board of Trade accept the advice of its committee which has recommended an emergency regulation, or will it accept the advice of the Consumer Council? I address those questions to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I thank the hon. Member for Meriden 107 for helping me to raise the question of trade marks.
There is something else which could be mentioned along with the problems which should be put to the Consumer Council, in respect of which I should find it difficult to say categorically that it would arrive at a recommendation, or, at any rate, one which would be effective. We have a great deal in the way of protective clothing in this country. Miners buy special boots for their work, and grocers and butchers buy special aprons and smocks. I could go through a whole list of such garments, but it will be sufficient to say that some of this protective clothing is subject to Purchase Tax. If in the interests of safety in industry the Consumer Council begins to examine the protective clothing situation, I believe that it will inevitably condemn the imposition of Purchase Tax.
I will give an illustration to prove my point. The national Consumer Council may be a reflection of local consumer councils. The consumer council in Sheffield last week issued a statement in which it advocated that Purchase Tax should be removed from protective clothing. But Purchase Tax is not a problem for a consumer council. It is the problem of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May we know from the Government who will be responsible in respect of the recommendations of the Consumer Council and whether we may expect them to be put into practice?
I have been very interested in the discussion which has taken place so far. I should like some of those who have spoken to have been employed in some of the jobs that I have had to do in the past. They would then not have made the speeches they have made today.
One of the country's problems in terms of credit trade is not so much hire-purchase for cars, washing machines, refrigerators and so on, but ordinary day-to-day short-term credits conducted by about 600 check credit firms. In addition, there are direct credit firms which are not only themselves providing credit but are actually selling their own goods to the consumers. That is direct credit; the other is check credit. It would be a good thing for the Consumer Council to examine check credit trading.
108 An agreement arrived at by the Board of Trade under an Order in Council in respect of short-term and long-term credit allowed a charge of 1s. in the £ on short-term credit for twenty weeks. I was concerned with the negotiations and know something about the matter. Ever since then the check credit firms have charged 1s. in the £ as poundage. Every one of the firms which do not charge any poundage at all or charge only a very small amount is to be found, I should say, within the Co-operative movement, and that is to the eternal credit of the Co-operative movement.
The rate of is. in the £ for twenty weeks represents £2 12s. a year, which comes as close as possible to the allowance for the moneylender of 48 per cent. But that is not all. These peopletoil not, neither do they spinYet, in addition to that, about 20 per cent. is being given to the man who provides the finance with which to buy motor cars. But these people get a rebate of from 12½ per cent. to 17½ per cent. from the poor old shopkeeper. If hon. Members talk about consumer protection in distribution, they ought also to talk about protecting not only those buying the goods but in some cases those who are selling the goods.
There are shopkeepers who are tied hand and fist by the operations of check trading companies. They do not get their money until thirteen weeks after the transaction is completed. If an average of 12½ per cent. has been applied, they have 2s. 6d. deducted from the money which they get. If one begins to reckon that up in terms of profit to the check trading companies over a twelve months period—percentages are usually taken on an annual basis—it comes to nearly 1,000 per cent. These matters in relation to the credit trade should be examined.
There are other things which ought to be examined. At the moment I am very interested in the price war between the petrol companies. I do not mind how they cut one another's throats so long as they do not cut the throats of ordinary consumers. If the reductions which result from the price war in petrol are genuine and sincere, there will be no complaint from me. But if the early 109 signs are that the price war is to continue, then I should think that the Consumer Council will have more than its hands full in dealing with the petrol problem alone. We have hundreds of small gas ages. Pipes are being laid from the worst quality and medium quality tanks into the best pumps. It is claimed to be cheaper petrol, a reduction to meet the challenge of petrol from the Sahara and the Soviet Union. In reality, it is merely the old grocer's trick of mixing two commodities, charging the same price and saying that he has actually reduced it.
If the Consumer Council examines this problem aright, I believe that it cannot but conclude that every petrol pump should have stamped on it the octane nature of the spirit it holds. If that is done, it may avoid a great deal of falsification and something which is often very closely akin to trickery.
I believe in hire purchase, but we must ensure that a reasonable rate of interest is charged and avoid the accumulation of interest values. We should ensure that interest is calculated on the basis of the calendar month. Unless we do that, we will never cure the fundamental difficulties of hire purchase.
Hire purchase and credit trading cannot be eliminated. Even if that were a good thing from the point of view of pounds, shillings and pence, a good many shopkeepers would go bankrupt while many people, I am sorry to say, would be unable to get goods they badly needed. Let the Consumer Council get its claws into reality. Let us have an assurance that it will have power behind it and that it will be able to deal not only with the simple problems I have pointed to, but with the hundreds, indeed thousands, of problems arising in our complicated system of distribution.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)
We have heard a number of very interesting contributions to the debate. One thing which has emerged clearly is that on both sides of the House the point of view of the consumer is carefully considered and that we are all of one mind in trying to achieve the best means of giving the consumer a fair deal. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter, for it is something which 110 affects in our daily lives everyone in the country.
I am pleased that Lady Elliot of Harwood has been appointed chairman of the Consumer Council. She is fearless and will be determined to see that the task she has undertaken is carried through satisfactorily. However, I am a little disturbed that it is not a full-time appointment. At least, at the beginning it is surely necessary to have a full-time chairman and, if possible, at least some members serving full-time, in order to get through what must be a very large quantity of material and matter before the Council starts on its priorities and the way in which it intends to work.
What exactly will the Council do? We have heard about it in general terms from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. It will carry out what was laid down in the general terms of reference. When the terms of reference state:to consider, after consultation where necessary with other affected interests, the action to be taken to deal with such problems, or to further or safeguard such interests and to promote that action.I presume that this means everything, including legislation. I would like clarification of that point, however.
I hope that it will also be made clear what the Council is to do in terms of positivity. I would deplore it if there were any question of a negative approach, of snooping, or of reducing the Council merely to the job of carping at manufacturers and creating further differences of opinion and understanding between consumers rather than trying to match the needs of the consumers with the competitiveness, fairness and the rights of honest traders of whom there are so many.
Because of this, I am glad that there is to be no national complaint service, for that would take this idea out of the context of dealing with a thing where and when it happens. A complaint will be made locally, understood locally, although I hope that, if there are a number of complaints about a certain item from all over the country, it will be possible for some action to be taken by the national Council. But I am glad that it is not necessary first to refer a matter right up the line.
I am particularly anxious to know how much the Government are impressing on the Council that it must use 111 strong firm teeth in what it does. It must grasp problems sharply and deal with them as positively as possible. How will it be able to enforce the things it suggests otherwise than by legislation? There must be other ways. How much direction will it be given? Will it be thrown the whole problem and left to get on with it? If that is so, as part-timers the members of the Council will not be able to get their jobs done satisfactorily.
The Council must not give the impression of being dowdy and old-fashioned, or of being merely preventive. It must be positive. It must deal with the rights of both sides of industry and in the light of consumer needs. It must draw those needs together and not separate them. There must be the possibility of research, or of calling upon research organisations to help, to find out what is needed.
This does not necessarily mean testing goods, but in finding out public reaction and the ways in which the public wants things to be done. Otherwise, it will take too long to get to the heart of the matter. The Council must find out how to get the best service for the consumer, including the best after-sales service, and to get explanations, which are also very important to the public. Long delays in any of these matters will cause larger troubles.
We have heard about many problems worrying consumers. The longer they are left unchallenged, or to go by default, the greater they become. We want to feel that the Council can get its priorities right, settle down to the job and begin to find channels through which it can work satisfactorily. We are all consumers and are all very much concerned. We must particularly emphasise the fact that we are trying to create a race of common-sense consumers, people with more knowledge of their needs and of what they are buying.
It is true that the younger generation is more discriminating. I am always impressed by the fact that the younger shoppers seem much more intelligent than I was at their age. They are out into the world at a much earlier age. They have everything thrust on them by the time they can read. They think much more about what they are buying than their parents do. We must foster this 112 attitude so that they will become commonsense consumers able to choose carefully and well for themselves.
We have wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers who are, in general, geared to trying to serve the public satisfactorily. It is the minority of them who cause the difficulties, and these are the people on whom we must use the preventive approach, if at all. We must never do anything to prohibit the development of new trade and new products. In this, of course, we must keep before us the positive approach.
It is value for money whether it is a 6d. article, a £6 article, or a £600 article that is important. It is value for money in the context of what we are buying, and this is where, I believe, the majority of the traders today try to do their best. It is those who fall down on it who give the rest of the traders a bad name.
This is important today in the context of our trade abroad. We have to send things abroad that are the best possible value for money. In some cases the buying public abroad is more discriminating. Many housewives in this country go out to work and have, as I know from experience, very limited time in which to do their shopping. They do not necessarily have time to peer at all the vegetables and poke at all the various pieces of meat, which seems to be allowed more on the Continent that it is here.
They do not have time to argue with the salesman, and in many cases they are not perhaps such favoured customers. On the Continent, the customer is the important person. But whether that is because the housewives on the Continent take more time, or their husbands are more particular, or whether it is because the national characteristic here is not to be too fussy, our average housewife is inclined, I think, to take what will do.
We have some very discriminating people, but we want more people who will not take the article that will do, but take the particular one which is right for their purpose. They need more help and knowledge in deciding this. The various ways in which they can get more knowledge are by knowing that there are standards available for many of these items. Labelling should be available, and, if it is not available on the various commodities, they should 113 buy only those which have labels understandably marked or the kite mark system of the British Standards Institution.
Let 113 take, first, the standards generally. The Molony Committee was able to report at length on standards, and in one case, for instance, children's shoes, it recognised that the standard set up in 1953 is generally regarded as inadequate. Ten years ago this standard was arrived at after much controversy and today I understand that the manufacturers do not want to reorganise it. Since then there has been a great deal of change.
Despite the fact that we still use traditional materials, there are many new materials. Higher standards should be demanded and if the standards are to be acceptable they have to be modern. One of the objections about standards for domestic items is that, first, there are too few standards, and, secondly, it is far too long before they are reviewed, and brought up to date.
We have to be careful that if we have standards they mean something and that they will not mislead the consumer. Today, I believe that to accept the B.S.I. standard of children's shoes would be to accept a very low minimum indeed. This is not satisfactory, although there are other B.S.I. standards which are very good and up-to-date.
On the question of labelling, there is need for regular review. Manufacturers of textiles, in particular—and the Retail Trading Standards Institution has been mentioned—have their own set of laundry marks and labels for their own trade use alone, and these, I believe, are very satisfactory indeed. There are other labels, some copied from the Continental system and some developed by individual firms. Where these are clear and understandable they are very valuable and helpful.
But when there are many man-made fibres and the blending of these fibres with all the new types of dyes, finishes, and synthetic furs which are put on manmade fibres, the consumer has a very raw deal unless it is clearly stated what should be done about cleaning. I shall not weary the House about this, because people can find this out quite simply from the 'Women's Advisory Council, the B.S.I., the citizens' advice bureaux, the Women's Institute, and so on.
114 So many garments are spoilt by the wrong kind of cleaning; not because of the cleaners but because there is no label to tell them what to do. Because a garment has been washed when it should have been cleaned, and vice versa, it has been ruined and is virtually unusable. This kind of thing should not happen in our modern times, and it is one of the things which is being gradually improved. The new Council will have to seek a definite line on these matters. While we are encouraging our own manufacturers, makers-up, retailers, and so on, to go in for proper labelling, stating what should be done clearly and simply, we are importing a whole mass of textiles with no marking on them. We do not know what the standards are, what the quality is, or anything about them.
We cannot expect our manufacturers to spend time and money on research, producing good labels telling us what to do, hoping, at the same time, to educate consumers to do exactly what they are told to do on the label, without giving some protection to the trader against all these imported goods without labelling or marking. This will defeat the object. We must somehow or other find a means of making this kind of labelling a set standard which is usable. I believe that in time the minimum type of labelling ought to be made as far as possible enforceable.
We have today many individual trademarks. We have companies which say, "I always put a full statement of everything on my materials or garments". People selling a far wider range of items say, "My trade mark, my brand name, is my guarantee of the fact that you know who made it, you know the standard to expect and you know that if anything goes wrong we will, under the guarantee, put it right or repair it for you".
I do not want to get involved as to whether one loses one's rights under the Sale of Goods Act, because this has already been discussed, but, generally speaking, reputable manufacturers honour their guarantees. However, we must challenge the right of any producer to make poor goods of any category. When we have given them a satisfactory background on which to work and a definite demand, then we know that we can write 115 the poor, the sloppy, the rotten type of producer completely off our market and in this way the standard will improve and not only our home consumers will gain, but the variety of goods in competition will be as good as possible.
On the question of imports, there is a European Bureau of Consumer Unions, which sits in Brussels and which is working actively and on which we need more representation. We need to keep abreast of what is happening in Europe, America, Sweden, and our Consumer Council will have to follow all this colossal number of standards being set up internationally and followed by other countries. The result must me looked at and a great deal of research must be done before any active steps can be taken here. I hope that we shall hear something tonight of the priority which is in the Government's mind, because it would not be fair to hand to the Committee the entire responsibility for consumer protection and to say "Get on with it".
Safety is one of the most important of the matters concerning a consumer, but it is often a consideration which is left to the last. Designers look for the right styles and the right colours and the best way to sell a product, but the safety element is often forgotten although it is of paramount importance. Earlier, I mentioned the disadvantage of having standards which were not enforceable. There was a 1952 British Standards Institute standard for oil heaters, but it was completely out-of-date when we came to have a new standard because it was found that oil heaters no longer used the very old-fashioned wick but had become the radiant type with inherent dangers which neither manufacturers nor the B.S.I. had recognised earlier.
Because of the emergency, B.S.I. had to work out a new standard very hurriedly—hurriedly for B.S.I.—and produced a new standard in about one-third of the time usually taken. Manufacturers had been happily working to the old standard which bore no relation to new styles of oil heater which could cause accidents when placed in a draught. When the Oil Burners (Standards) Act, 1960, became law, the difficulty was wiped out because the Government were able to enforce safety regulations as they saw fit. What I want to know now is whether matters 116 such as these will be drawn to the attention of the Council and whether it will be able to give its opinion on many outstanding safety matters about which many of us are concerned.
For instance, the interim Report of the Molony Committee was produced in a hurry because of the oil heater problem, but the question of the flammability of textiles was largely skated over and no definite recommendations were made. The British Standards Institution brought the manufacturers and designers and other interests together and eventually came up with a very poor standard of flammability, far below that which one would like to see. Nevertheless, it is a standard, but it is only voluntary. The majority of manufacturers making non-flammable materials suitable for nightwear and party wear and garments for other occasions when dangers from flammable materials can arise have often been unable to get their goods on the market, perhaps because they have had a poor advertising campaign, having spent the money on research, or because the amount of advertising which they have done has not got through to the public. Apart from that, the materials are dearer because they are sold in smaller quantities.
The Molony Committee got out its interim Report in a hurry, but it afterwards admitted that it did not even contact some of the leading firms which make the chemicals, or the materials which would ensure safety for dangerous materials, such as untreated winceyette; and the Committee's final Report paid but little more attention to this serious problem. We are being inundated with untreated winceyette from various foreign countries, and large quantities of other dangerous materials are coming in. The garments bear no labelling or other kind of marking to tell a mother that she is putting her child in danger if she buys such a garment or material. That state of affairs will continue until clear labelling has to be affixed to all types of material sold in this country.
Another example is electric blankets. Under pressure, the B.S.I. has produced a new standard. Electric blankets are like the gentleman with the beard—those which go on top are left on and those which go under are turned off. But there is no question of compulsion and there will still be people who will be 117 duped into buying electric blankets which do not measure up even to that standard. Because there is no compulsion, there will be many more accidents with blankets which are unsatisfactory. So we have to ask whether the attention of the Council will be given to this matter.
Pressure cookers, electric fire lighters and spin driers are among the many other articles for which a standard would be of tremendous help and great value to the consumer and at the same time protect the unwary and the unknowledgeable. The British Electrical Approval Board has brought out its own seal of approval which the majority of reputable manufacturers are now using. It is very good as far as it goes, but it does not cover imports. It is impossible to import an oil heater which does not measure up to the safety standards, because those standards are compulsory, but there is no compulsory standard for imported electrical equipment. We have to have some sort of definite line to be followed by every organisation. It would give help and guidance to the manufacturer so that he would know what he was expected to do, and he would know that other manufacturers had the same commitment.
Among the many other items are toxic and corrosive substances, as was mentioned in the Molony interim Report. So many goods and containers are potentially dangerous in the homes—fluids and other things which we use for keeping our homes lighter and brighter and many of the aerosols for doing away with insects. Many of these substances are not correctly labelled. We need far more information to be supplied with them and I hope that the new Council will consider this aspect of consumer protection.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham. Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt) spoke about education and said that consumers needed more knowledge. I suggest that we need efficiency. Efficiency is the key, because it is in the efficiency of the manufacturer and the seller and buyer that we shall find the answer.
Incidentally, I am very sorry that Shopper's Guide is now to close down, so that only Which? will be left. I understand that B.S.I. set up Shopper's Guide with part of the money used by the 118 Government for consumer protection. I would like to know why has let it slide out of its hands in what seems to be a rather slipshod fashion. It has now been passed on to someone else, presumably because it was not paying its way. Which? does very valuable work, but I am afraid of what will happen in future when there is no alternative to it. I believe in competition and I think that there is room for two consumer magazines.
The loss of Shopper's Guide will be greatly felt in the months and years ahead. Shopper's Guide did not attempt to produce a "Best Buy", as Which? does. On the other hand, Shopper's Guide produced the facts and figures and left the choice to the consumer. Although the consumer might buy something a little less valuable than the best buy, it might be more suitable for the individual. It is a pity that we are to lose this magazine on which we had built such high hopes and on which so much work had been done. It was a very useful magazine. Surely there is still testing work and education to be done which could never be done by one magazine alone.
Most of the hire-purchase companies are reputable, and do a very good job, but we must wipe out those which are not so reputable. We must remember that although for every one disgruntled or badly treated consumer, there are 100 who are well looked after, the 100 who are well looked after are usually looked after just well enough. There is room for a great deal more efficiency, but we cannot get that efficiency from the manufacturers and the consumers unless they know where the co-ordination is. That is the great challenge facing the Consumer Council.
If the members of the Council make up their minds, positively and determinedly, to do their job, they will do a good job, but if they carp and cavil and compromise they will be useless. Manufacturers and consumers and all of us must work to produce the answer. It will not be easy, but I hope that the debate will have cleared some of the lines. I hope that the citizens' advice bureaux will have direct contact with the Council and that there will be none of the peculiar red tape which may be necessary in the Civil Service proper. I hope that in time we shall have a new look in our approach 119 to consumer matters, so that it is not the consumer on one side of the fence and the manufacturer on the other, but both working together to produce the best they can for the benefit of the consumer, which, in its turn, will increase our trade abroad.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)
I have sat through almost every minute of this debate, and that has had its disadvantages as well as its advantages. From the point of view of it being a disadvantage, I have had a headache for the past hour and a half. From the point of view of it being an advantage, I can now look back on the debate and say with confidence that the Government can have derived little pleasure from it. Hon. Members on both sides have expressed doubts about whether the Consumer Council will do the job that it is intended it should do.
In opening the debate for the Government, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade made it clear that from his point of view there was very little idea about what might be done. His speech was in sharp contrast to the brilliant analysis made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling), who for many years has made a detailed study of this subject and certainly showed up the threadbare speech of the Government spokesman. I echo what my hon. Friend said. We hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will give us some information to enable us to decide whether the instrument which is to be set up is one in which we can have confidence.
The final report of the Molony Committee was issued in July last year, yet this is the first opportunity we have had to debate it. If it was felt that this was an important report, I would have thought that efforts would have been made to bring this matter before the House long before now. The Parliamentary Secretary, who is always courteous and very efficient, did his best, but hon. Members on both sides are far from satisfied with his explanation. I fear the worst, and I got this feeling when I heard the Parliamentary Secretary going right back to the Middle Ages and talking about consumer protection. I could not help thinking then that we were still in the 120 Middle Ages, and it was my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough who made it clear that the consumer's only hope of this problem being tackled efficiently lies in the Labour Government taking over and putting in charge of the problem someone like my hon Friend the Member for Hillsborough.
The Government Amendmentwelcomes the action o Her Majesty's Government in establishing the Consumer Council as a major first step in implementing the recommendations of the Final Report of the Committee on consumer protection".If it takes as long to implement the final recommendations of the Molony Committee as it is taking to implement its first recommendation, that of setting up a Consumer Council, I am afraid that I shall not live to see that.
When the Parliamentary Secretary was challenged about this, he gave no explanation of why it has taken so long to take this step, and he therefore cannot blame us if we have come to the conclusion that this is a smokescreen to keep the consumer quiet. The Observer in its issue of 29th July, 1962, said:The Government has at last discovered that to scratch a consumer is to find a voter.Once again we are getting near a general election. It is time that some promises were made, but are they to be implemented? I therefore ask the Minister who is to wind up to be more explicit than the Parliamentary Secretary was in opening the debate and to answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). I should be much more confident of the outcome if at the Board of Trade, or speaking on behalf of it, we had my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom), who showed that he had a good idea of what is needed for consumer protection.
Who can be satisfied that this Consumer Council can do the job? I do not think any hon. Member is satisfied that a part-time chairman can cope with all the problems that have to be overcome. Further, a salary of £1,000 is quite inadequate for this appointment. I am not saying that there is not a citizen in the country who would not do his best even if he received no salary, but this small sum gives us some idea of what the Government think of this job. They 121 propose to pay £1,000 to the chairman, yet they do not mind splashing money around on many other items. I remember the Questions and Answers about Army boots. The Government lost £1¼ million in the most stupid transactions that were ever carried out. That money was written off as a! no account, but protecting the consumer is an entirely different matter. The Parliamentary Secretary said that he accepted most of the recommendations of the Molony Committee. What about its recommendation on the salary to be paid to the chairman? The Committee recommended a salary of £3,000.
Ten months after the publication of the Report the Consumer Council has not yet been set up, and we have not had the dynamic action we were all expecting. The Minister will no doubt say that we have to be careful; that we have to take time to get the right people, but why is it that the Government waited until the final report was published before starting to look for suitable people to do the job? Did they think that the Committee's inquiries would never reach finality? Why did they not set about getting some idea of the sort of people who would be needed to do the job before the final Report was published? Because of this we can have no confidence whatever that the Government have shown the necessary dynamism in tackling the problem. I for one never expected it from this Government under whom racketeers and profiteers have flourished for the last eleven years. Our only hope lies in a change of Government at the earliest possible moment, and I believe that this is coming.
I pay tribute to the person who has been appointed chairman. She is an exceedingly able person, but there are grave doubts about the appointment of Miss Elizabeth Ackroyd as the first director of the Council. There is a feeling that this will not be an independent board which will ensure that things are done to protect the consumer. We want a lot more information before we can have the necessary confidence in the board and this view is held not only by Members on this side of the House. The Financial Times of 2nd April, 1963, said:In certain fundamental respects the Consumer Council as constituted seems to fall short of its creator's intentions.Its financial grant for the first year is £60.000, or less than half what Molony sug- 122 gested should be its budget by the end of the second year. The chairman is to be paid only £1,000 a year instead of the £3,000 put forward as the right sum for an important halftime post.The article also criticises the appointment of a civil servant.
I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he look at the booklet, Ministry of Consumer Welfare, produced by the Co-operative Party. The suggestion contained in it was dismissed by the Molony Committee as a grandiose notion. What does the Molony Committee suggest? It sees great virtue in the suggestion that the activities of different Government Departments touching the consumer might be advantageously coordinated and possibly centralised. I suggest that this is one of the strongest arguments for the establishment of a specialised Ministry. This was the idea advanced by the Co-operative Party, and I believe that nothing less than a Ministry of Consumer Welfare will do the job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) has made several attempts in recent years to help consumers. All his suggestions have been rejected. There is a great need for research. There is a great need for some organisation with some teeth in it, and the Consumer Council does not seem to fit the bill in any shape or form.
One of the proposals is that the citizens advice bureaux should be given the job. The Parliamentary Secretary did not make a great deal of that, but the facts suggest that a great deal more must be done before these bureaux could ever begin to touch the problem. I do not believe that they can do the job. This does not mean that I do not appreciate the work they do. I know many of them and I pay them the highest tribute. They are doing a wonderful job now, but I doubt whether in this respect they could do what we would ask of them.
I understand that there are 420 local bureaux scattered patchily over the country. Three-quarters of the staff are volunteers and many of them are women. It is said that the maximum need is for a further 90 bureaux, but if there is to be a bureau in every town of 10,000 or more population to cover each catchment area a further 400 bureaux are needed. This is a tall order. I ask hon. 123 Members to remember the loss of £1¼ million on army boots which I mentioned earlier, and I emphasise that to do this work the Government give the National Council for Social Services £27,000. Even if they had magicians on the job they could not create an efficient and independent organisation in those circumstances to match the present activities of the trade unions and the associations acting on behalf of producers. It takes a pretty tough man to say at the Dispatch Box that he really believes that this job will be done now. I thought that the Parliamentary Secretary's argument was exceedingly threadbare.
The second recommendation related to hire-purchase laws. If I thought that the Government had really studied the problem I might feel that something was going to be done. We are told that there will be changes in the hire-purchase laws, but cannot we be told something more about them? In January, 1961, in a debate on this subject, I drew attention to some scandalous cases. I mentioned how it was possible under the law governing hire purchase for a finance company to re-possess a car and sell it for £45 and then charge the hirer £90 for repairs. This sort of story continues. There is need to give much more thought to hire-purchase conditions.
In these days there is a great deal of redundancy and short-time working, but tens of thousands of decent ordinary people have bought motor cars believing that in a prosperous society they would be able at least to obtain a car to travel to and from work. After the Beeching Report has been implemented many other working people will want to a buy a car if they are to get about at all. But the situation in the hire purchase of cars is a matter of legal robbery which has been going on for a long time. Why are the Government holding back if they have any time for the consumer at all?
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) brought a most scandalous case to our attention, and I should like to give a classic example to bring the matter up to date. It has been said many times that there is protection for the purchaser of a car costing up to £300 under legislation passed in 1938 and 1954, but beyond that figure there is legalised robbery of which the Govern- 124 ment must be well aware. The law enables companies to sell cars which they repossess to a nominee at a low price. If we all believed that companies which repossess would not play a dirty trick it would be all right, but the law is wide open. They can resell a car which they sold only twelve months earlier for £400 for as little as £45 to £50. If an aggrieved person goes to court he can ask for the names, but agreements can be made in such ways that they will stand up in a court of law.
The classic case which I have in mind is that of a constituent of mine who bought a car in June 1961. The total cash price was £416 15s. He paid down £104 15s. and the balance left was £312. Hire-purchase charges of £74 17s. 7d. brought that up to £386 17s. 7d., which he agreed to pay by 30 monthly payments of £12 17s. 11d. This man paid right at the beginning of the month for 19 consecutive months and then his wife lost her job and the following week he too become redundant. He then wrote to the finance company to say that he could not keep up his payments. He had already paid a great deal of money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell said that there were people who could not read and write, but I would emphasise that there are others who can, and I should like to read to hon. Members the words on the "green card" which my constituent was given. Clause 8 on the card says:If before the expiration of two-Thirds of the term the hiring be determined or the Owners retake possession of the goods under the provisions hereof the Hirer shall pay to the Owners by way of compensation for depreciation of the goods in addition to any other sums payable hereunder such sums as with the total previously paid for rent hereunder shall make up a sum equivalent to two-thirds of the Balance as set out in the Schedule hereto.Therefore, having paid 19 payments out of 30 the purchaser believes that by paying the 20th sum he will have paid two-thirds of the cost of the car according to the agreement. But not on his life. There are other tricks to be played.
This man, having written that he could not keep up the payments, the firm took possession. Where a man writes to a finance company saying "I cannot pay" the courts have held that he is breaking his agreement, not exercising the right to terminate it. If he exercises that right, 125 expressing himself in different words, he has to pay only two-thirds, but because he is honest enough to tell the company that he cannot keep up the payments he is considered to be breaking the agreement.
Hon. Members may think that there is something wrong and that I have failed to ascertain the facts, but I have had a lengthy correspondence with solicitors and the managing chairman of one of the biggest finance companies in the country so as to get the facts down in black and white. These show that the law is in such a shocking state, as a result of decisions made in the House of Lords, that the finance companies can do practically anything they like when it comes to repossessing. In fact we have a situation where if a man is honourable and says that because his circumstances have deteriorated he cannot continue to pay he is in a worse position than the man who refuses to pay any more instalments and whose car is repossessed. I have the card here if anyone wishes to see it, but this is what is said by the finance company in a letter to my constituent:Further to our representative's recent visit to your address, we confirm that the 1956 Vauxhall Velox has been collected as requested and has now been sold".Although it cost £416, the finance company says that the best possible price which could be obtained was £75, and it adds:We must hold you responsible for the remaining balance and your proposal as to how you will liquidate this amount would be appreciated.The two-thirds did not apply.
In a further letter, the finance company argued that the House of Lords had held that a hirer who was not exercising an option to terminate the agreement but declared his inability to pay was in breach of the terms of the hiring contract.
A later letter says:We understand that you maintain that you are not liable to make any more payments under Clause 8 of your contract. However, we would respectfully point out that as the cash price of the vehicle was over £300 this is not covered by the Hire Purchase Acts and therefore you are liable for payment of the full outstanding balance after the sale of the vehicle".Then the solicitor comes to the rescue of the company and says—I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to take particular note 126 of this because it is the law which is wrong and, if the law is not altered, these things can go on—It would obviously be inappropriate for me to comment by way of implied criticism on the recent decisions which the courts have given, but in trying to apply them in practice, it is proving extremely difficult to formulate a rationalised approach and I am quite certain that the courts in coming to some of the decisions they have reached recently could not have been aware of their full implications when the decisions were applied to every-day practice".That is an indictment of the law. Such is the state of the law that the solicitor for a finance company says that the courts could not have known when giving some of its decisions what the consequences in practice would be.
When the law is in a state of confusion, it operates, with very rare exceptions, to the advantage of the finance companies, which have the money and legal skill to browbeat the hirer. Some of the people I have tried to help in this way are in great distress. They have lost jobs and are in such a situation that, as some of them have said, they feel like suicide. People like this cannot go to the courts to fight. Time after time, they are beaten by a decision in law which is said to apply to their case. It has been shown that, whether the courts decide that the hirer has broken his agreement, or ended it in accordance with a right given by the agreement, the finance company does not lose and it often gets more money than the hire-purchase transactions cost.
The managing director of the firm wrote to say:As far as finance companies are concerned, it must be accented that the recent decisions have left the legal position in some confusion, and, as Lord Denning pointed out in his judgment in the Financings case, a hirer who genuinely wishes to exercise his right to terminate an agreement in accordance with the terms he entered into may find himself liable to pay a much larger sum than another hirer who simply defaults, leaving it to the finance company".This is what I complain of. Through bad luck having overtaken him, even after having played the game for nineteen months, an ordinary decent person who tells the company that he cannot carry on and honour his agreement finds himself, under the law, having to pay back every penny of the balance between what he has paid and the value of the car, despite the two-thirds minimum payment under the agreement. Therefore, whether a person 127 can read or not, there are those who need to be protected, and this is the Government's job.
There have been references to the Merchandise Marks Act. Some years ago, I took a great interest in this and found out from the Board of Trade how many times it had instituted prosecutions. I was astonished to discover what I regard as the ineffectiveness of the Board of Trade in prosecuting even though there were many cases which called for it. Whoever is dealing with consumer protection, there must be a greater sense of urgency. There must be a greater desire to ensure that the producer gets a square deal. Whatever the Government do, this Government or the next one, it must be understood that, in this country's best interests, the consumer must at long last have somebody on his or her side against the powerful corporations. Consumers must have a square deal. They have not had it yet, and there is no sign that they will get it under this Government.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough. This Government have had nearly twelve years to do something. They have done nothing. The sooner they get out, the better it will be for the ordinary man and woman who, in 1963, deserve much more protection than they have had these past twelve years.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Shepherd
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I think that he has spoken in the interval and I ought to have known that his constituency had been changed. When the hon. Gentleman rose, he said, with a sense of grievance, that the debate had given him a headache. If it is any satisfaction to him, I can tell him that I now have one.
This has been a field day on the benches opposite for the co-operative societies. I find it rather ironical to have "Co-op" to the left of us, "Co-op" to the right of us, and "Co-op" in front of us, because, of all retail organisations in this country the one which needs the 128 greatest geeing up is the "Co-op". If this discussion today does something to that very desirable end, I shall have a real sense of satisfaction.
I strongly approve of the setting up of a Consumer Council, and I hope, as most reasonable people do, that its powers will be sufficient to be effective. We shall have to see how it goes and play it by ear.
I wish to put the subject of today's debate into perspective. On the one hand, we have had a host of allegations from hon. Members opposite about the wickedness of trade and commerce. On the other, there are people in business and advertising who are quite unmindful of their responsibilities and who resent the reasonable efforts which this House and people elsewhere are making to put business on a more satisfactory footing. If evidence of this is wanted, I will quote part of a journal which is sent to me in the course of business by a firm called Brunning Advertising. This is what is said about the efforts of the community to improve business arrangements:Now we are going through a moralising phase. Politicians of all shapes, sizes and colours are wallowing in a warm bath of anti-commercialism. Alongside their vote-catching activities there runs a so-called voluntary structure of consumer protectionism, much of which is dictated by busybody interference.That is the comment of an advertising agency which has grown substantially over the past six or seven years and which sends me this journal with the idea of getting my custom. I wrote to the chairman and complained about this article and he was good enough on this occasion to reply and to say that he supported what had been said in the article. We have one attitude of mind on the part of business which is harmful to what we are seeking to do, while, on the other hand, we have the views of those who want to condemn all business for the shortcomings of a few.
The situation is, I suggest, unsatisfactory today, because on the whole conditions in the United Kingdom have been better than in almost every other country in the world. Our goods have been of good quality and our traders have been honest so there has not been the need to enforce in this country the standards which other nations have found it necessary to enforce. In the 129 same way we have not found it necessary to enforce standards about retailing experience. I do not know of any retailer who is trained and forced to train, whereas in other countries that is a regular practice. We are moving from a period in which we had little or no ordered protection, for the simple reason that on the whole our business is conducted on a satisfactory footing.
When some hon. Members opposite talk about exploitation, let them remember that on the whole the cost of goods sold in shops and stores in this country is lower than in any other country. If hon. Members like to go to the International Association of Departmental Stores they will find that the markets obtaining in the United Kingdom are probably the lowest of any country. Take the case of a simple thing like chocolate. If one buys a bar of chocolate on the Continent one is surprised at the cost. The answer is simply that the vendor gets 50 per cent. profit, whereas in this country the vendor gets 25 per cent. profit.
We ought to recognise that, on the whole, in this country there have been good moral standards in business and the cost of distribution has been lower than in any other country. Why should we now move to some form of protection on a statutory level? One of the reasons is that we have the invasion here of American methods of business, some of which have been wholly undesirable—"phoney" clinics, "phoney" dance halls and high pressure salesmanship. All these things have created a relatively new condition which is harmful and in which it is necessary to seek some statutory protection for the consumer.
I do not want to give the impression that it is only the trader who ever cheats, however. The country is full of consumer cheats. Some horrifying stories have been told today about what some traders have done. I wonder what would happen if certain traders, even Co-op. traders, were to recount to the House their experiences with consumer cheats and the incredible ingenuity, the complete lack of any sense of decency, the inveterate lying which goes on among consumers who think that any trader is fair game for their malpractices.
When we are talking about consumer protection let us remember that there are consumer cheats and that they are very 130 nasty, disagreeable people. Unfortunately, there are many of them. I do not want to dwell on this for too long because, in the main, the public are honest and the trader is honest. There is a narrow margin on both sides which makes it necessary for us to take some action.
One hon. Member said that he did not think that consumer associations were of very great value. I do not agree. I think that their effect has been greater than most people imagine. It has caused manufacturers to have regard to the details and the design of their products. That has been of benefit to the people of this country and also of immense value to our export trade. There is no doubt that in this country six or seven years ago many consumer products, particularly durable consumer products, were very unsatisfactory in minor detail, in finish and consistency. The fact that very well-known firms were seen in the reports of Which? to be guilty of most remarkable lapses had a very salutary effect on the quality, type and standard of goods produced. We should congratulate the consumer associations on the work they have done.
It is not enough merely to be an intelligent buyer. There are plenty of products which the most intelligent buyer cannot fully assess merely by looking at or handling them. There are plenty of products in which the value is not inherent in their appearance. It is desirable to have consumer associations doing this work for the public. One hon. Member suggested that services should be dealt with by a consumer council. There is a lot to be said for that view. We tend to neglect services in our legislation. For example, it is not possible even today to deal with services in monopoly. The Restrictive Practices Court cannot deal with services.
It is time that we dealt with services, but I do not relish the task of individuals who have to deal with the determination of services. For example, how would one deal with complaints about a service which is very widespread today—women's hairdressing? Who is to judge whether the work is well or badly done, whether the style is according to the wish and desire of the customer?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I run away from that. I should not like to be drawn into it. I appreciate that there is a case for consideration and that we should bring services within the scope of the Monopolies Commission.
The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford spent some time discussing hire purchase. I agree with him that the £300 limit is absurd. I support the Molony Committee in the view that it should be eliminated entirely. I am glad that we have now reached a situation in which we shall have legislation to deal with these malpractices. I am disappointed and sorry that the hire-purchase organisations have not themselves had enough wisdom and foresight to enforce some of these changes without legislation having to be enacted. It would have been a good thing from their point of view if they had tried to do something to protect the consumer when he needed to be protected.
I am glad that the idea of a 72-hour pause is to be enforced. That is essential, because high pressure salesmanship at the door has become a menace. Thousands and thousands of women are forced, by one means or another, into signing agreements which they had no real means of fulfilling and this, in the end, means disaster for everyone concerned. I hope that the Government will realise that hire-purchase business has its value, but it is important that it should never get out of hand. We must never allow hire purchase without a deposit. No-deposit trading is one of the worst forms of trading that could be conceived. It is no good for the man or the woman who buys the goods, for the man who sells the goods or for the man who makes them, and it is no good for the country. I hope that the time will come when we shall have legislation which will cover the question of deposits in respect of all traders.
A point about hire purchase ought to be borne in mind by hon. Members opposite who quoted percentages of returns on money. This is not the question. If one sells an article for £10, and the payment is spread over a year, the interest on that money is insignificant compared with the administrative cost. Even entering the transaction into a ledger, or doing it on a machine and sending out reminders and receipts, is a very expensive proposition. In fairness 132 to hire-purchase firms, it is not enough to consider merely whether a given percentage is high or low. We must bear in mind that in most cases administrative costs are much higher than the cost of the money.
One of the reasons why trade is sometimes not as satisfactory as it should be is the power of advertising. In many ways the power of advertising is too high. It could be reduced in two ways and I should like to see it reduced in two ways. First, it could be reduced by more intelligent buyers who will not be fooled by "Whiter than white" and all that nonsense. If we had more intelligent buyers, the power of advertising would be diminished.
Secondly, it could be diminished by more intelligent sellers. The old craft of the shopkeeper has almost passed away. He has become a hander-on of pre-sold goods, and he fulfils what is almost entirely a mechanical function. This is no good for the small shopkeeper, who is hopeless against the "big boys" if he is merely the hander-on of goods which are pre-sold. As has been said, the prize positions in every high street in England are occupied by the same 20, 30 or 40 firms. The ordinary small shopkeeper cannot exist against this sort of competition. But if he were a man who knew his craft and who would not necessarily push only the branded product but gave the consumer the benefit of his advice, then he might be able to get an edge over the big multiple stores which now enjoy such a monopoly.
§ Mr. Shepherd
The hon. Member knows that it cannot be done with 1 lb. of sugar, but even he knows that 1 lb. of sugar is not the only commodity sold in the United Kingdom. We can do with more intelligent shopkeepers—and more intelligent Members of Parliament.
Advertising has its disadvantages, and I am rather worried whether the Advertising Standards Authority which has recently been established will do the job which it is intended to do. The maintenance of standards in advertising is a moral issue. Up to now there have been six or seven different bodies, trying to maintain six or seven different standards. 133 As the morality of a newspaper varies with the increase and diminution of its circulation and revenue, this has not been an easy task for any of them. I am driven to the conclusion that the only effective way of maintaining adequate standards in advertising is by some form of statutory authority set up by the Government and even having some Government representation on it.
I have had a recent case in which the Advertising Standards Authority clearly countenanced an advertisement going into a weekly newspaper, Reveille, because it was a very large advertisement, about an 8-in. double or treble column, and refused an advertisement of the same kind but of a very small nature. It is simply not good enough for the Advertising Standards Authority to bow to that sort of thing. If the Authority is to mean anything it must stand for what it believes to be the proper standards of advertising irrespective of the financial pressure which may be exerted on members of the Authority, and it must do better than it is apparently now doing.
After some experience of trying to raise the standards, I reached the conclusion that it will be no good until such time as we have a statutory authority which is able to lay down a standard which must be compulsorily accepted by all the papers. If any variation is allowed, and as long as one big periodical is able to say, "Why should we go without revenue when the other periodicals take it?", we will never get a satisfactory standard established.
I do not share the feelings of some hon. Members that the Consumer Council will not be effective. It is merely a co-ordinating body and it depends upon how well the component parts of consumer protection play their part. It is quite conceivable that if we could get the advertising side tidied up, if we had legislation dealing with the malpractices in hire purchase and we had effective competition, the situation would be largely remedied.
I am surprised that hon. Members opposite complain that competition is not the answer. Competition is the answer if we have intelligent buyers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) said, the younger element is much more intelligent than its peers in matters of purchasing. It is more 134 intelligent altogether, but in matters of purchasing' it is much more intelligent. If we have a Consumer Council, with the various ancillary elements working for and through it, together with an intelligent buying public, we shall get among the highest standards in the world.
I repeat, however, that the great majority of traders, manufacturers and advertisers are honest, decent people who are trading fairly and squarely. It is only a minority who damage the national reputation. I am convinced that by the steps taken by the Government in setting tip the Consumer Council, the work of the citizen's advice bureaux and the other ancillary organisations, we ought in the next decade to be able to eliminate the existing minor defects.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Mr. W. T. Rodgers (Stockton-on-Tees)
The Motion refers to the lack of positive action on the part of the Government. If I may introduce a note of disharmony at this stage of the evening, I do not believe that this Government or any other will take positive action as long as they use the Molony Report as their text.
In the first place, the Report is practically unreadable. It is a monument to the worst Victorian prose, the sort of English which should never appear in an official document. It is not, however, the language which matters, but the tone, and the tone is at best cautious, restrained and conservative. For a large part of the time, it has overtones of Samuel Smiles and his "Self-Help".
The key sentence of the Report appears in paragraph 849, in which the Committee states thatWe are well aware that any addition to the apparatus of bureaucracy is open to criticism and requires a powerful case to justify it. We have found after careful deliberation that such a case exists.For the Molony Committee, therefore, the new Consumer Council is an addition to the apparatus of bureaucracy. I should like to know whether this is the Government's approach or whether they take a more positive view of its functions, welcome its establishment and believe that it is not simply a watchdog in this very conservative and unenterprising sense in which the Molony Report uses the phrase.
The Report reaches heights of pompous paternalism when it discusses comparative testing. It is quite true that it 135 has some pleasant things to say about the Consumers' Association. It admits thatcomparative test reporting is a very useful aid.It is fair in this respect but condescending.
But may I draw attention to paragraph 383, which says:…such reports are, we believe, of immediate value only to the section of the community which has the necessary intellectual and critical capacity to use them wisely; and we are as conscious of the dangers as of the advantages of disseminating them—in present or in simplified form—to consumers of lesser wisdom.If the Minister can find a phrase which excels that in pompous paternalism, I should like to know what it is.
Later Molony talks about the importance of consumer education and refers to the importance of using all the methods of mass communication to inform the consumer. This is a very good idea. Let us use all the methods of mass communication, but, in view of this opinion, surely the Report might have been expected to say how important it is to use television and radio for these purposes. It might have said that the use of radio and television to give publicity to comparative test reports was "an exciting prospect", "a bold attempt", or, if I may use language more appropriate to the Report, perhaps "a welcome endeavour".
In paragraph 384 it says:…we cannot but view this venture with a certain amount of trepidation.Well, the language is right.We hesitate to say whether it would be beneficial to the consumer for commercial television to follow suit before the soundness and value of the B.B.C. programmes has been established.This is the approach of the Report throughout—cautious in the extreme and not welcoming the things which ought to be welcomed if this is really the beginning of a new consumer movement.
Look again at what the Report says about the Consumers' Association, the publishers of Which? It draws on reports published in Which? in a number of cases, and it mentions comparative testing as "a very useful aid". I should have thought that after all this a pat on the back, if not a really big 136 hug, for the Consumers' Association would have been appropriate.
But I draw attention to paragraph 388 headed "Qualms about constitution". It starts as follows:It must also be said that we view with a certain amount of misgiving the Association's oligarchic and self-perpetuating form of government.That is surely the prize sentence in the Report. Dealing with the consumer and the need to protect him, it says:The concentration of so much power in so few hands must inevitably give rise to concern…What about the power concentrated in the hands of the British Motor Corporation, E.M.I., Unilever and I.C.I? These are surely great concentrations of producer power, and these corporations spend as much in a year on advertising alone as the total income of the Consumers' Association. This is an extraordinary view.
When the Report goes on to consider the question whether a Consumer Council should be responsible for comparative testing, it says:We consider it undesirable…and then comments that a significant minority of taxpayers would not like it. Presumably this is a sufficient reason, that a body of taxpayers would not like the idea of a Consumer Council undertaking comparative testing.
The result of comparative testing is not that an individual is told what he has to buy. No instructions are given to consumers; they are merely informed. Free choice remains. A consumer can choose a product which is shown to be inferior. There may be a very good reason for his choosing such a product; he may not have the resources to buy that product which is given as the "best buy". I do not see that it is a question of giving directions to consumers, and I see no reason why comparative testing should have been so positively excluded from the terms of reference of the Consumer Council.
We must get the philosophy of this matter right. I believe that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) who said that organised force had to be placed against organised force. This is the simple truth of the producer-consumer equation. There is an alternative—the alternative of restriction. It is argued by some of my hon. Friends 137 and others that there should be strict restraint on advertising, but if we find that control or restriction has its disadvantages, countervailing force surely is what ought to be provided.
Here again, towards the end of the Report, the Molony Committee says that the Council should not be a "partisan mouthpiece". But what else is it supposed to be? It is supposed to represent and speak for the consumer. Is it meant, somehow, to embody the consumer and the producer at the same time and, out of this curious compromise, yet do the things which the Parliamentary Secretary said it should do? It must be a partisan mouthpiece.
This does not mean that it should be irresponsible. But it should speak hard and strongly. In this respect I agree with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). I do not like commercial representation on the Consumer Council. Its members are honourable and able men and women, but consumers should be represented by people who have only a consumer capacity, and are not linked in any way with the retail trade, or with manufacturing industry. This is a mistake, and I hope that in the future it will be remedied.
I have not the opportunity to explain in detail how much I agree with the remarks made about the amount of money available to the Consumer Council and to citizens advice bureaux, but I remember that in rejecting the idea of a complaints council the Molony Committee said, in its usual fashion, that it would cost too much. Apparently complaints cost between £4 and £5 each. It would mean that £27,000 would have to be divided by £4 or £5, and this would mean that the bureaux might have to deal with 6,000 complaints a year. That would amount to 10 complaints for every constituency represented by an hon. Member. Surely that makes nonsense of the whole idea that citizens advice bureaux could possibly do this job.
I had hoped that the outcome of the inquiry which began when the Molony Committee was set up would be a Government decision that we require to make a positive move forward in representing the consumer in his widest sphere. I remember that about thirteen years ago a pamphlet was written by Dr. Michael Young, who was largely responsible for 138 the starting of the Consumers' Association, entitled Small Man—Big World. This, surely, is the overall question, of which the matter of the Consumer Council is an aspect.
In the world today accumulations of power, whether commercial power or the power of officialdom, are increasing. This is part of the penalty that we must pay for the larger scale on which we operate. Perhaps it is the penalty both for greater affluence and more and rightful Government intervention, but if this is the case the small man must be looked after. The small man, who does not know the ropes; who cannot write a letter; who is faced with questions that make him afraid, and with which he does not know how to deal, must be helped. This is part of the case for the Ombudsman.
I know that this is not what we are now discussing, but the theme of the consumer protection movement ought to be, "small man—big world"—and the small man needs helping. The verdict that will be passed on the Government's decisions will be how far the Consumer Council, with this in mind and with this as its theme, rises above the dismal Report produced by the Molony Committee.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
The debate has ranged over many subjects, and has proved that the time has arrived when we need to tighten up the laws and methods by which the consumer can be protected—and I use the word "consumer" in a very wide sense. We tend to think of the consumer as the woman who buys groceries, drapery or household commodities when, in fact, she is the person who buys anything she needs whether it be an article or a service. The debate has also shown that we need a new view of the whole problem, and a greater willingness on the Government's part to assume more responsibility than they are, apparently, prepared to take at present.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that it appeared when we on this side chose this subject for debate we had suddenly discovered that there were consumers and a consumer problem. I must tell him that it is because many hon. Members of the House and outside it have for many years realised that there is a consumer 139 problem and a need for consumer protection that the Government were finally forced to appoint the Molony Committee. It has been the work of those in the Co-operative movement, of women's organisations, of trade unions and other bodies that has proved the need to take up this problem.
The Parliamentary Secretary also told us that the Government intended to do something about hire purchase and that there were gaps in what could be done for consumer protection, but when asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) how much consumer protection work the Consumer Council would do, he gave us the impression that it would work just as and when it was required to do so. That is not the kind of attitude we need in a modern age.
The Molony Committee had very many representations made to it by individuals, oral evidence from well over 250 organisations, written statements from all kinds of people—traders, people interested in consumer problems, town clerks, amongst whom I am very proud that my own town clerk had something to say, scientific workers, the T.U.C., women's organisations, women's guilds and women's advisory committees. It made a great number of recommendations—some of them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. W. T. Rodgers) has said, being parsimonious—but the only two recommendations about which the Government have decided they can do anything at present is that setting up the Consumer Council and that recommending local work being done through the citizens' advice bureaux.
If we compare what the Government are prepared to give to the Consumer Council and for local work through the National Council of Social Service with the approximately £500 million spent last year on advertising, we find that the Government recommend for consumer protection work a grant of not one-thousandth part of the amount spent on advertising. In the light of that, and in the light of the kind of advertising which is taking place at the present time, and to which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) referred, how can we really think that the Government have any real intention to implement even Molony, never mind adequate pro- 140 tection of the consumer, and how can there be any hope on the part of the masses of the consumers that the Government really are taking any vigorous or effective action in their proposals tonight or in the carrying out of these recommendations?
The so-called affluent society about which we hear so much from the Government, the "never had it so good" life we are all living, supposedly, at the moment, just fails absolutely completely unless the consumer gets value for money. We maintain in many fields the consumer is just not able to get value for money. The hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) said that what we wanted today was to breed a new generation of intelligent shoppers, and I think it was the hon. Member for Cheadle who said he thought that the young people today were more intelligent shoppers than our generation or our parents' generation.
I suggest that our parents' generation had to be intelligent shoppers, because they had not got the money to be anything else but intelligent shoppers. They had to make the money go round and make their small amounts do a lot of work. So what we need is not just breeding or educating intelligent shoppers, but we want to see that they have the facilities not only to be intelligent shoppers but to get a fair deal for the money which they have to spend.
The Molony Committee refers to lots of places where protection is necessary, none of which we need to go into in detail. There is the question of textiles. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the magazines doing a job. There is one thing which the magazines do, and that is try to encourage women to be glamorous and to buy glamorous things. And what of some of the glamorous things they buy? Take, for instance, curtains. They do not always match up to the glamour in the advertisements in the magazines. Many women have bought curtain material which shrinks in the first wash, or gets holes in it, or has not colour fastness. It is protection against that sort of thing which the consumer wants—not just buying by glamour, but by value.
We come to furniture. When I had to buy my furniture when I was a young married woman I had a small amount of money to spend, but I got value for 141 money. Perhaps I did not get a lot of polish, a lot of veneer, but I got durability. I was not obsessed by advertising such as goes on nowadays.
Then there is the question of household goods, which, as the hon. Gentleman will remember, I mentioned in our debates on the Weights and Measures Bill. There are questions such as the sizing of blankets and towels and sheets. I was as a meeting the other week when a gentleman suggested that today many of these things are sold by "cellophane subterfuge": they are so wrapped up that one cannot really feel whether they are good or not. When I went to buy sheets when I was young, or my mother went to buy sheets, we rubbed them to see how much lint was in them, whether they would wash well, whether we were getting merely pieces of rag, or what would stand up to the wear we wanted it to do. We used to do the same with shirts, to see whether they had got lint in them.
Today, one would have to be a very awkward customer to ask the people behind the shop counter to take the things out of the cellophane bags so that they could be given that kind of testing. The Molony Report does say that in many cases the consumer is a confused consumer who will only be helped by external aid. On the question of household commodities, the Report says that the requirement to see that there is proper sizing and measuringis so easy to fulfil that if widespread compliance is not achieved in the near future, compulsion should be actively considered.But I do not think that the Government intend to try to enforce action by compulsion.
Then we come to the question of labelling. The hon. Member for Belfast, West went into great detail about this. Paragraph 139 of the Molony Committee's Report says that it will not generally be adopted without compulsion. Are the Government prepared to bring in compulsion to enforce labelling on important household commodities and clothes? The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews) suggested that the consumers' best friend was self-help, and said that perhaps it would not hurt them if they made mistakes. It is a very serious mistake if someone buys a carpet for £100 and then finds that 142 because of wrong labelling it is not the right size for the room.
§ Mr. Matthews
I made it clear that it was a good thing if people could learn by making small mistakes so that later, when they came to a big purchase, they would have learnt the lesson and would not make mistakes.
§ Mrs. Slater
As a consumer, I do not want to learn through even small mistakes, never mind big ones. It depends upon one's values what a small mistake is. If an old-age pensioner buys a coat in a sale for £5, and has made a mistake, it is a very serious mistake. It would be a serious mistake for me if I bought a carpet for £100 and found that it was not the right size for the room. The Scunthorpe Co-operative Society has undertaken the labelling of carpets in order to protect consumers. It has done this voluntarily. This is the sort of thing the Government should insist upon—making it compulsory if it is not done voluntarily.
There is also the question of food and drugs. I notice that the Molony Committee excluded them. I have a shrewd suspicion that the Government are also prepared to exclude them. But today we live in an age when it is sometimes extremely difficult to know even what food we are buying. All kinds of dyes, colouring matters and chemicals are added. About 30 colourings and dyes are approved under the Food and Drugs Act, but a very responsible person has said that not all of them have been tested to see whether they are safe. Yet we allow manufacturers to continue to add these substances which make our food appear better. Because of this we may be condemning many people to suffering side effects of the chemicals.
There is a very common food commodity—I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) would have mentioned this—of which we must consume many thousands per year in this House. I refer to sausages. In this country, we consume 400,000 tons of them each year. It represents 3 per cent. of all food buying. Yet there is no standard, and the Government have no intention of laying down one, for the meat content of sausages or pies. We were told that in the House only last week. Food analysts have said that they have to report adversely on the meat content of one in 143 five of the sausages tested. If ever there should be consumer protection, it should certainly be in regard to food.
Take the problem of the chemicals used in agriculture and the effects which they have on our food. A tremendous amount of consumer protection needs to be done here, and I suggest the Council could start on that if nothing else. We should have many more safeguards. Our public health inspectors do a great job but they, too, are limited, because very often they only find out about these things when there has been a drastic and dangerous mistake.
Then there is the question of imported food, over which there is little control. Those of us who serve on health committees very often encounter the problem of how to deal with it. The Food Standards Committee, appointed in 1947, does help Ministers to make regulations but I disagree with the Molony Committee when it claims that this is really effective. What is needed is quicker and safer action.
The consumer also needs protection against many aspects of drug sales. We live in the age of the pill. One can get a pill for everything—to go to sleep, to keep awake, to make one better or to make one worse. But the questions to be asked about every drug are: is it safe? Does it do what it professes to do? We can have accidental or criminal poisoning, addiction, side-effects and unjustified claims associated with drugs. The consumer is entitled to know what the composition of a drug is, to be warned against misuse and overdoses, and to have adequate directions as to use.
At present, however, the Government do not seem to have a real determination to tackle this problem adequately. I know that the Minister will point out that there is a committee dealing with food and drugs and that we had a White Paper on drugs recently. But we only get this sort of action when there has been a tragedy like the thalidomide cases. Then we all get into ferment about it. But the fuss dies down and nothing more is done until a further tragedy occurs.
The hon. Member for Cheadle mentioned what happened to him, and made a very pertinent point about advertising. 144 There is colossal power in advertising. It is no good saying that no amount of advertising will continue to sell a bad article. The case is that no amount of advertising ought to be employed to sell a bad article. Today, the whole point of advertising, whether it be on television, in the Press, or in pamphlets shoved through our doors, offering a penny or twopence off something, is to aim at breaking down the resistance of the consumer.
Another aspect of advertising is one to which the National Union of Teachers drew our attention last week, when it published a little pamphlet called, "A Teacher Looks at Advertising". It is a very good pamphlet. This pamphlet comes from a group of people who are concerned with the standards of values of our younger people. It points out that most of the advertising which is directed to young people aims at appealing, first, to the sex instincts, and, secondly, to the love of material possessions. It makes the point that such advertising is directed at these young people at the most difficult part of their lives, adolescence, when they are easily influenced, when a girl wants to look as nice as the girl round the corner and when a boy wants to impress. The pamphlet then goes on to discuss advertising of smoking and drinking. The N.U.T. has done a good job in showing the power of advertising over young people.
The Government give half an impression that they are prepared to do something about slick salesmanship—the sort of thing where one is told, "You have been selected to receive goods on approval". Then the poor woman gets the goods and finds that if she wants to send them back she must do so at her own cost, even though she did not want them in the first place. As Molony says, the door-to-door salesman is a great social evil.
The hire-purchase agreements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) referred are something about which the Government ought to be concerned. After all, they tell us that we have a better standard of living than ever before. Let them see that the people really have that standard by not being deluded and robbed when they try to get some of the things which the 145 Government have told them they ought to be having.
I want to deal with the question of the Government's proposals. The Government have proposed, and are now in the course of setting up, a Consumer Council. They are hoping that at least it will quieten some of us, or quieten the public, into believing that they are really doing something about consumer protection. But, as already pointed out, some of the representatives on this Council have not an idea of how ordinary people have to do their shopping and how much they get with their money. There does not seem to be any effort to put ordinary people on the Council.
I am not talking about the professional woman, because I do not believe that some of the professional women are the kind of people we want on it. We want the ordinary housewife and the ordinary man shopper—the Parliamentary Secretary often told us in connection with the Weights and Measures Bill that it was not only the woman shopper but the man shopper who was concerned. Let us have some honest to goodness working people on the Council who really have to know how to make the money go round. I hope that for the last few people whom he has to appoint to this Council the Minister will look for those who can keep the others up to scratch to see that they are really tackling the problem.
Unless very much more power is given to it, the Council will be extremely weak and ineffective. It is said that it will collect information about consumer problems and will consider what action, if any, is required and then make attempts to promote that action. We believe that this Council should not be a part-time body, as at present proposed, but that it should be a full-time body, because the job which it has to do is full time, and, unless it it itself, its work cannot be done effectively.
I understand that the lady who is to be the chairman was offered £3,000 a year for the job, but said that she had not enough time to do that amount of work and was, therefore, prepared to accept £1,000. That is a very bad start for the Council. We believe that it should have trade panels which it could call in for consultation with a larger association to receive and discuss its reports. We hope that it will work in close co-operation with all the bodies 146 concerned with consumer problems, and I would have hoped that it would have had the ability to do testing and research work.
If the Council does not and cannot bring in other bodies to do it how will it know that some of the things considered have the qualities professed? I would hope that it would also be able, more effectively than appears to be the case, to be able to advise the Board of Trade on amending legislation if necessary. Unless these powers are given to the Council, it will be weak and it will not get to grips with the problem and it will have no effective control.
I may cause trouble as a result of what I am about to say, but I now deal with the local level. The Government and the Molony Committee have proposed that the citizens' advice bureaux should be the persons at local level to do consumer protection work. I do not believe that. There are not enough of them and they are often in the wrong places. If they are to cover their areas effectively, many more bureaux will have to be established. I have great respect for the work which the citizens' advice bureaux do, but only one-fifth of their work is consumer protection and they did not start to do anything about advising on consumer protection until the Government took this decision.
The local work should be done by the local authorities, the only bodies who can do it effectively. Local authorities should set up committees with representatives from the watch, health, housing and other committees in any way responsible for consumer problems. Such a committee should co-opt people from all kinds of organisations in the authority's area who are interested in these problems, and that committee, in the town hall, should be the body to which the consumer would go for protection. At one time we left it to voluntary bodies to give advice on rent cases, but we had to set up rent offices in town halls for people to get advice on rent cases. In the same way we should have a statutory body with power to protect consumers.
The Government have said that they hope that local authorities will give financial aid to the citizens' advice bureaux, but if the local authorities are to pay they should be responsible. The Government propose to give the citizens' advice bureaux only £27,000 and local 147 authorities are to have to pay the rest, another way in which the Tory Government are putting on local rates a burden for which they should be responsible.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) said, there should be a Minister for Consumer Welfare, or a Department of the Board of Trade with a junior Minister responsible for consumer problems. The Labour Party has promised that when we are returned this is one job which we shall do, so that the shopper will get a fair deal. The Government have not taken any vigorous action to implement the proposals of the Molony Committee or actively to start to give a fair deal to the consumers who need it so badly. The Amendment says that the Government have taken a major first step. It is a minor first step and what we want is an intention to do a massive job.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Minister Without Portfolio (Mr. W. F. Deedes)
This debate, which the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) has just concluded for her side with distinction, will have left us in no doubt as to the scope and range of the subject under discussion. Clearly the potentialities of consumer protection are practically limitless, and so is the task of the Minister who has to wind up the debate. In preparing myself for this debate, I was reminded of my very few experiences playing roulette. There are 36 numbers which may come up. There are rather more in this topic. To back them all is unprofitable, and I seem to have made a small stake on about half the board.
We owe a debt to many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have obviously given this debate the fruit of much time and special study of this subject, and the best return that I can make is to spend as much time as possible in answering their ideas and not in proffering anything of my own. This is a tempting field for ideas, but perhaps I might begin by saying this in general; consumer protection, as the Molony Committee said, may be an amorphous conception that cannot be defined, but it is recognised now, and every speech that has been made in this debate from both sides has recognised it, as an indispensable social service in the 'sixties— 148 I do not know about the 'seventies—and there is no argument about that.
The argument is how this service is best fulfilled; how much should be left to the consumer himself or herself; how much can be best done by voluntary bodies and other organisations; and how much ought to be regulated by statute and be the responsibility of the Government? A sensible apportionment between those three spheres is really the problem which runs through nearly every chapter of the Molony Committee's Report, and it has run through most of this debate.
Listening to the debate today I have had some insight into the principal dilemma which must have confronted Mr. Molony and his colleagues—that there is no lack of proposals on how the consumer should or may be safeguarded. The greater part of this enormous Report, which we have all admired, some have read, few have assimilated, is really taken up with examining and sifting these ideas, and inevitably a large number are rejected. That in itself has been the subject of some criticism.
In effect, we have had two main streams of criticism. First, that the Government have not been swift enough or vigorous enough in implementing—Molony and I shall come to that because it is indeed the substance of the Opposition Motion—and, secondly, that the Molony Report itself is deficient. It has even been described, I think wrongly, as defeatist; that it was wrong to drop the idea of a Ministry; wrong not to accept more public expenditure; wrong to limit the responsibility of the Consumer Council; wrong to omit testing, and so on.
On all those matters, hon. Members have expressed their own ideas. I think that Molony had respectable reasons for rejecting many of these apparently attractive notions for limiting the field of action, and I believe that we are right to reflect this. As the Molony Committee made clear, these measures do not aim to relieve the consumer of the duty to look after himself or herself. The Committee said that no system of protection could avert all the consequences of folly, or eliminate every possibility of hardship, and I would have thought that there would have been no real disagreement about that.
Elsewhere the Committee makes clear, and I think that this has not been made 149 clear in every speech today, that action must not merely be justifiable. Action if it is to be effective has to be practicable and enforceable, and that very often is where the problem starts. I think that that goes very near to the heart of this problem.
A clear duty lay on the Molony Committee, and I consider it now lies on the Board of Trade or the Government Departments involved here, to balance the need to protect the weak, which is not denied, against the evils of proliferating regulations and restrictions which may not only curtail the freedom of the honest majority but which must either remain largely unenforced. and that is bad law, or will require contingents of officials to enforce them. It is not complacent to stress that, because that really ought to be, and is, a sovereign principle in deciding what legislation it is appropriate to introduce.
The growing need for this social service, as the Molony Report stresses, is clue to the immense changes of recent years in manufacture, materials, techniques, and ranges of choice. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) acknowledged this. These changes, we had better realise, will continue just as fast in the future. There is one new factor, which perhaps the Molony Report did not mention, but which is certainly for rejoicing and not for lament, and that is the greatly increased purchasing power of the consumer. More today have more money to spend on goods beyond the necessities of life than ever before. This, of course, imposes a new social obligation upon us. We accept that. The argument is how it should be accepted.
A great many speeches today have referred to the Consumer Council, and rightly so. It was the most considerable of the Molony Committee's recommendations. The hon. Member for Hillsborough said that he thought it was shaping up better than he had expected, but we have had a certain number of criticisms and a great deal of doubt expressed, and I think that I should try to meet some of them. I can assure the hon. Member for Hillsborough, and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) who raised this point, that the Consumer Council will be free to be critical and outspoken. I have thought that the characters of the chair- 150 man and the director would be reassuring on that point.
The further criticism is made that the Committee's terms of reference are inadequate. My instinct tells me that in what is already prescribed the Council is not going to want for work. Our view on whether the terms of reference are adequate or inadequate depends on what we think the Council's main function ought to be. The Molony Report put it in two lines:collecting information about consumer problems, considering what, if any, action is required, and promoting that action.We have accepted that definition, and in my view we have a first-class team to implement it. They will be backed—and this answers a question asked—by a staff of at least twenty to thirty for a start, but this will have to be treated as we go along. The suggestion that a civil servant has been appointed as a director as a kind of Government stooge is not an acceptable one, and I do not think that it is one that anyone acquainted with the new director would readily entertain.
As to the point made by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), there is certainly a difference between what the Molony Committee recommended on payment and remuneration and what we are proposing. The Committee envisaged a chairman with heavy and more or less continuous responsibilities giving half his time to the Council. We take the view that there should be an adequate and competent secretariat under a high-ranking director. Given this, the chairman would not need to give so much time to the work and we thought that an honorarium would be appropriate. I see nothing contradictory of the Molony Committee or of good sense in this. The Molony Committee foresaw the need for a competent secretariat with a head who would needan appreciable but not readily definable status.In other words, the Committee did not specify exactly what the head should be. It added "director rather than secretary", and that is what we have provided.
The Molony Committee put the Council's need financially at £125,000 a year, after two years of its existence, and it suggested that the subvention ought to 151 build up to this level over that period and would then be adequate. I should have thought that £60,000 estimated for the current year, which is somewhat short of the financial year, was not unreasonable, contrary to the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.
There have been references to the citizens' advice bureaux. I am sure that the hon. Lady the Member fox Stoke-on-Trent, North accepts that this was a recommendation of Molony, and it did not propose that the local authorities should shoulder the work. There are now 420 of these bureaux in existence. I think that there is a gap of about 90, mainly in the rural areas. This will be one of the first things to remedy, and it is for this purpose that the sum of, I think, £27,000 has been provided, in order to get the machinery going.
Turning to the range of duties likely to fall on the Council, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt) thought that there should be more information for the average shopper. I am sure that she is right there, and this will emphatically be one of the functions of the Council. My hon. Friend thought, as others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews) did, that education will have an increasing role to play. I envisage the Consumer Council, by one means or another, not least by publication, going a long way to meet this requirement. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) that the Council will be positive. It will have priorities, and in those priorities we shall take the closest interest. My hon. Friend was perfectly right to say that this cannot all be lumped on the council without guidance, and we do not expect that to happen.
More than one speaker has regretted that services were excluded from the Molony Committee's Report. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) referred specifically to this. We are all familiar, as Molony acknowledged, with shortcomings in the repair of fairly complicated goods, and for most of us disappointment is aggravated very often by total ignorance of the mechanism involved. In terms of its own inquiry, Molony saw no satis- 152 factory solution here, and in two paragraphs explained why it had to omit it from its inquiry.
On the other hand, in paragraph 875, the Committee gave reasons for thinking that the Consumer Council's field of activity should be voluntarily, if not positively, confined to services linked with such things as laundry, motor car repairs, and, it added, coal and electricity. We have accepted this. Thus, in this sphere of activity, that is, services, the Consumer Council will embrace the nationalised industries.
It is not unfair to add on the subject of services that there are firms, and they predominate, which will carry out these services and repairs honestly and reliably and for a reasonable price. What is said elsewhere in the Report about the virtues of competition and competition as the customer's best friend certainly applies in this respect.
The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. W. T. Rodgers) and the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) both expressed disappointment that consumer research, a subject which has been attracting a great deal of public attention recently, had been excluded. The Molony Committee described this as a consumer luxury and not an essential feature of a system of protection. It gives good reasons for this view. I shall not go into the matter at length, but I think that the question might be asked: is it desirable that a Government-sponsored body should engage in testing products for the purpose of guiding the public on how to spend its money? Would the customer relish being told what to buy by an official as opposed to an unofficial body?
One or two speeches from the Opposition implied that our scale of approach here is inadequate and put forward the idea of a Ministry of Consumer Protection, of which some of us have already heard a great deal from a particular quarter. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford and the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) both spoke in favour of this. The Molony Committee looked at the idea and rejected it. We are sure the Committee was right. I do not believe that the great part which voluntary organisations ought to and will play in this work would flourish under such a Ministry.
I acknowledge what my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said about such 153 bodies as the Retail Trading Standards Association. It does not do the subject justice to omit the long list of organisations working on voluntary lines in advertising, retail labelling and the rest which are achieving measurable results, although not so fast as everyone wants. More than one Government Department is involved, and it is possible that the coordination could be improved. I hope we shall achieve it, but that in itself is not sufficient justification for having an entirely new Department.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Bright-side (Mr. Winterbottom) asked who would be responsible for the recommendations of the Consumer Council. The answer is: the Government Department to whom the recommendations relate or, where it is involved, the industry or voluntary body concerned. He asked: would the voice of the Council be heard? Its composition apart—and no one has attempted to dismiss that as negligible—there are compelling reasons why it should be heard. I think the course of much of today's debate—I say this in all sincerity—will greatly fortify the Consumer Council when it starts its work, because everything said from both sides of the House today has indicated that it has to be strong and has to be given every chance to do its job properly.
The Government, like the Molony Committee, regard this as a principal instrument in consumer protection. They are to publish an annual report, which I envisage will become the subject of future debates in this House. I can assure the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North that the Consumer Council will emphatically not be a tranquillizer. The Molony Committee seemed to be aware that to overload the Consumer Council with all the ideas which some people would like to inflict upon it would defeat its usefulness. It will not only be able to act but also to give advice. A great deal of its work, we envisage, will be persuasive, in particular on quality standards.
Hire purchase, which is second in the list of Molony and our own priorities, has been mentioned in a number of speeches, absolutely justifiably. I understand that there are today 8 million agreements and the credit debt is around the £900 million mark. As the hon. Member for Motherwell observed, not all the 8 million debtors have read the little 154 writing. The Molony Committee put this reform as second priority, and so do we. The Molony Committee proposed three main steps, the extension of present protection to all consumer transactions by raising the £300 limit—this of course would bring in motor cars—the imposition of a cooling—off period in which the customer who bought the goods at his home, not in a shop, would have the right to withdraw from the contract, and—this answers a point made by the hon. Member for Motherwell—a uniform law for Great Britain. This would bring Scottish law into line with that of England and Wales.
All this is desirable and a great deal of it is complex. Everything which was recommended in this sphere, together with a good many other suggestions, has been fully discussed already with the interested parties, and these consultations are very nearly complete. Comprehensive legislation on hire-purchase is being prepared and it will be promoted as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough was good enough to suggest that we might like notice of the subject of chattel mortgage which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). I shall avail myself of this kind offer. It is a technical subject, and I should weary the House if I gave the problem in relation to the existing law particularly for the consumer under the alternative of chattel mortgage.
Some of the things said by the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North embolden me to say a word on a subject which I do not think has been raised in the debate—quality control. The Molony Committee referred to this and said that there was no doubt that a higher standard of quality control would give the consumer far less cause for complaint, adding,The essence of this important idea lies in the attainment and maintenance of a specified standard of product.In a world of automation, that is a very important subject, and I notice with interest that Lord Marks, of all men alive probably the best qualified to talk about quality control, referred to it in another place recently. I mention this because Lord Marks acknowledged the amount of work which the Department of Scientific 155 and Industrial Research has done and the amount it could help industry in this all-important field. D.S.I.R. has some 50 research stations which were estimated by Lord Marks to cover two-thirds of our national production. I do not think that this is a point to be made lightly, because this is at the point of origin. This is where quality begins. I know, as does anybody else who buys his shirts from Marks and Spencer, that the development of quality merchandise is a speciality of Lord Marks. I think that as the resources of D.S.I.R. became more widely recognised and more widely used this would meet at the earliest stages one of the main roads to better service for the customer.
A debate of this kind, concentrated on problems of consumer protection, is bound to dwell heavily on examples of bad trading practices—not to put too fine a point on it, cheating. But it would be a mistake to suggest that this social problem arises mainly because of a decline in trading standards and trading morality in this country. There is nothing in Molony to justify that assumption. This problem arises not so much from failure as from success, not from poverty but from prosperity—prosperity, I may say, after twelve years of this Government. The achievement of modern manufacture in bringing within the range of many a bewildering choice of items formerly the prerogative of the few is an advance which I should have thought would bring the acknowledgement of some voices among hon. Members opposite. Of course this produces problems, but I believe that it is permissible to see some of these problems in the right perspective.
Molony asserted a firm belief in the probity and honourable standards of the great mass of British manufacturers and traders. I am sure that this is right and, after a debate such as we have had today, we ought to recognise it. I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West mentioned it in her speech. With all respect and with due acknowledgement to hon. Members, on both sides, who have given a great deal of time to probing abuses in this field, I think it will not be disputed that such field work can give a less than fair impression of our industrial and commercial standards. A country which lives upon exports for a livelihood must be careful to strike a fair 156 balance. Cries of stinking fish are apt to be heard overseas.
I come, finally, to our stewardship in implementing the recommendations of the Report. The Molony Committee laid down its legislative priorities and we have followed them. The first is the Consumer Council. As to the delay, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, the Molony Committee pointed out that because, on the most favourable view, the assembly of the Council's personnel and the organisation of its efforts would take a considerable time, it should come first. Secondly as a legislative priority is hire purchase, about which I have described what we will do; and lastly, the merchandise marks law, which will involve new and comprehensive legislation. It is misleading to underrate the amount of preparatory work and the amount of parliamentary time which some of these Measures will take when they come before us.
It bears stressing—and this is the point of the Amendment—that the Consumer Council was seen by the Molony Committee as a major organisational reform and was so described. It is the largest of the reforms advocated by the Molony Committee and it is now under way.
In these circumstances, I question the terms of the Opposition's Motion and ask whether they are justified or whether they have been substantiated in the course of this debate.
§ Mr. Deedes
I shall not make heavy political noises about it. Oppositions have to do such things; we all know that. The Government, however, have a responsibility for striking the right balance in all this, a balance between helping those who need help and hindering those who trade on our behalf, between the protection of the consumer against fraud and protecting the consumer against the consequences of his or her own folly.
It is absolutely certain—this debate has made it abundantly clear—that we shall never succeed in striking a balance which pleases everyone, but I am certain that we are nearer to the right line than some of the proposals—not all of them—which have come from the benches opposite, which is why I ask the House to reject the Opposition's Motion and to support the Government's Amendment.
§ Question put, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question.158
§ The House divided: Ayes 176, Noes 234.159
|Division No. 116.]||AYES||[9.59 p.m.|
|Albu, Austen||Herbison, Miss Margaret||Pavitt, Laurence|
|Allen, Schelefield (Crewe)||Hewitson, Capt. M.||Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)|
|Awbery, Stan (Bristol, Central)||Hill, J. (Midlothian)||Peart, Frederick|
|Bacon, Miss Alice||Hilton, A. V.||Pentland, Norman|
|Baird, John||Holman, Percy||Prentice, R. E.|
|Barnett, Guy||Hooson, H. E.||Price, J. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Beaney, Alan||Houghton, Douglas||Proctor, W. T.|
|Belienger, Rt. Hon. F.J.||Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Pursey, Cmdr. Harry|
|Bence, Cyril||Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)||Randall, Harry|
|Bennett, J. (Glasgow, Bridgeton)||Hunter, A. E.||Rankin, John|
|Benson, Sir George||Hynd, H. (Accrington)||Redhead, E. C.|
|Blackburn, F.||Hynd, John (Attercliffe)||Reid, William|
|Blyton, William||Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill)||Reynolds, G. W.|
|Boardman, H.||Janner, Sir Barnett||Rhodes, H.|
|Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A.G.||Jeger, George||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Bowden, Rt. Hn. H.W. (Lelcs, S.W.)||Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)||Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon)|
|Bowen, Roderio (Cardigan)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Robertson, John (Paisley)|
|Bowles, Frank||Jones, Elwyn (West Ham, S.)||Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)|
|Boyden, James||Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham)||Rodgers, W. T. (Stockton)|
|Braddock, Mrs. E.M.||Jones, T. W. (Merioneth)||Ross, William|
|Bray, Dr. Jeremy||Keiley, Richard||Royle, Charles (Salford, West)|
|Broughton, Dr. A.D.D.||Kenyon, Clifford||Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E.|
|Bulter, Herbert (Hackney, C.)||Key, Rt. Hon. C. W.||Short, Edward|
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)||Lawson, George||Silverman, Julius (Aston)|
|Carmichael, Nell||Lee, Frederick (Newton)||Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)|
|Cliffe, Michael||Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock)||Skeffington, Arthur|
|Collick, Percy||Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.)||Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield)|
|Craddock, George (Bratffbrd, S.)||Lubbock, Eric||Small, William|
|Crosland, Anthony||Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson||Snow, Julian|
|Cullen, Mrs. Alice||MacColl, James||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Dalyell, Tam||McInnes, James||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)|
|Darlingn, George||McKay, John (Wallsend)||Stonehouse, John|
|Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.)||Mackie, John (Enfield, East)||Stones, William|
|Davies, Harold (Leek)||McLeavy, Frank||Strauss, Rt. Hn. C. R. (Vauxhall)|
|Davies, S.O. (Merthyr)||MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling)||Stross, Dr. Barnett(Stoke-on-Trent, C.)|
|Deer, George||Mallalieu,J.P.W.(Huddersfield,E.)||Swain, Thomas|
|Delargy, Hugh||Manuel, Archie||Taverne, D.|
|Dempsey, James||Marsh, Richard||Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)|
|Diamond, John||Mason, Roy||Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.)|
|Dodds, Norman||Mayhew, Christopher||Thornton, Ernest|
|Donnelly, Desmond||Mendelson, J. J.||Tomney, Frank|
|Edelman, Maurice||Millian, Bruce||Wade, Donald|
|Edwards, Robert (Bilston)||Milne, Edward||Wainwright, Edwin|
|Edwards, Waiter (Stepney)||Mitchison, G. R.||Warbey, William|
|Fletcher, Eric||Moody, A. S.||White, Mrs. Elrene|
|Foot, Dingle (Ipswich)||Morris, John||Whitlock, William|
|Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale)||Moyle, Arthur||Wigg, George|
|Forman, J. C.||Mulley, Frederick||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton)||Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)||Willey, Frederick|
|Galpern, Sir Myer||Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip(Derby, S.)||Williams, Ll. (Abertillery)|
|Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)||O'Malley, B. K.||Willams, W. R. (Openshaw)|
|Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Lianelly)||Oram, A. E.||Williams, W. T. (Warrington)|
|Grimond, Rt. Hon. J.||Oswald, Thomas||Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)|
|Hale, Leslie (Oldham, W.)||Paget, R. T.||Winterbottom, R. E.|
|Hannan, William||Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.)||Woof, Robert|
|Harper, Joseph||Pargiter, G. A.||Yates, Victor (Ladywood)|
|Hart, Mrs. Judith||Parker, John||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hayman, F. H.||Parkin, B. T.||Mr. Charles A, Howell and|
|Healey, Denis||Mr. McCann.|
|Agnew, Sir Peter||Bishop, F. P.||Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn)|
|Allan, Robert (Paddingon, S.)||Black, Sir Cyril||Carr, Compton (Barons Court)|
|Allason, James||Bossom, Hon. Clive||Cary, Sir Robert|
|Arbuthnot, John||Bourne-Arton, A.||Clark, William, (Nottingham, S.)|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Box, Donald||Clarke, Brig Terence(Portsmouth,W.)|
|Awdry, Daniel (Chippenham)||Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. John||Cleaver, Leonard|
|Barlow, Sir John||Braine, Bernard||Cole, Norman|
|Botsford, Brian||Brewis, John||Cooke, Robert|
|Baxter, Sir Beverley (Southgate)||Bromley Davenport, Lt. Col. Sir Walter||Cooper-Key, Sir Neill|
|Bell, Ronald||Brown, Alan (Tottenham)||Cordeaux, Lt. Col. J. K.|
|Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Cos & Fhm)||Browne, Percy (Torrington)||Cordle, John|
|Berkeley, Humphry||Buck, Antony||Corfield, F. V.|
|Resins, Rt. Reginald||Bullard, Denys||Costain, A. P,|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Bullus, Wing Commander Eric||Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne)|
|Bingham, R. M.||Burden, F. A.||Crawley, Aidan|
|Birch, Rt. Hon. Nigel||Butcher, Sir Herbert||Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. Sir Oliver|
|Cunningham, Knox||Kerr, Sir Hamllton||Rees, Hugh|
|Currie, G. B. H.||Kershaw, Anthony||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Dalkeith, Earl of||Kimball, Marcus||Renton, Rt. Hon. David|
|Dance, James||Langford-Holt, Sir John||Ridley, Hon. Nicholas|
|d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry||Leather, Sir Edwin||Ridedale, Julian|
|Deedes, Rt. Hon. W. F.||Leavey, J. A.||Roberts, Sir Peter (Healey)|
|Digby, Simon Wingfield||Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry||Roots, William|
|Doughty, Charles||Lilley, F. J. P.||Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard|
|Drayson, G. B.||Lindsay, Sir Martin||Russell, Ronald|
|du Cann, Edward||Linstead, Sir Hugh||Scott-Hopkins, James|
|Eden, Sir John||Litchfield, Capt. John||Sharples, Richard|
|Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carehalton)||Lloyd, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey(Sut' nC' dfield)||Shaw, M.|
|Errington, Sir Eric||Longbottom, Charles||Shepherd, William|
|Farey-Jones, F. W.||Longden, Gilbert||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Farr, John||Lucas, Sir Jocelyn||Smithere, Peter|
|Fisher, Nigel||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Smyth, Rt. Hon. Brig. Sir John|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Stanley, Hon. Richard|
|Foster, John||MacArthur, Ian||Stevens, Geoffrey|
|Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D.||McLaren, Martin||Stodart, J. A.|
|Gammans, Lady||McLaughlin, Mrs. Patricia||Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir Malcolm|
|Gardner, Edward||Maclay, Rt. Hon. John||Storey, Sir Samuel|
|Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, Central)||McMaster, Stanley R.||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham)||Macpherson, Rt. Hn. Niall (Dumfries)||Summers, Sir Spencer|
|Glyn, Sir Richard (Dorset, N.)||Maddan, Martin||Talbot, John E.|
|Goodhart, Philip||Maitland, Sir John||Tapsell, Peter|
|Goodhew, Victor||Markham, Major Sir Frank||Taylor, Frank (M' ch' st'r, Moss Side)|
|Cough, Frederick||Marples, Rt. Hon. Ernest||Taylor, Sir William (Bradford, N.)|
|Green, Alan||Marshall, Douglas||Teeling, Sir William|
|Grosvenor, Lt. Col. R. G.||Marten, Nell||Temple, John M.|
|Gurden, Harold||Mathew, Robert (Honiton)||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Hall, John (Wycombe)||Matthews, Gordon (Meriden)||Thomas, Peter (Conway)|
|Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough)||Mawby, Ray||Thompson, Sir Kenneth (Walton)|
|Harris, Reader (Heston)||Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.||Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S)|
|Harrison, Brian (Maldon)||Maydon, Lt.Cmdr. S. L. C.||Thornton-Kemsley, Sir Colin|
|Hastings, Stephen||Mills, Stratton||Tilney, John (wavertree)|
|Hay, John||More, Jasper (Ludlow)||Touche, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon|
|Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel||Morgan, William||Turner, Colin|
|Heath, Rt. Hon. Edward||Nabarro, Sir Gerald||Tweedsmulr, Lady|
|Henderson, John (Cathcart)||Nugent, Rt. Hon. Sir Richard||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Hicks Beach, Maj. W.||Oakshott, Sir Hendrie||Vane, W. M. F.|
|Hlley, Joseph||Orr, Capt. L. P. S.||Vickers, Miss Joan|
|Hill, Dr. Rt. Hon. Charles (Luton)||Osborn, John (Hallam)||Wakefield, Sir Wavell|
|Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk)||Page, Graham (Crosby)||Walder, David|
|Hirst, Geoffrey||Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)||Walker, Peter|
|Hobson, Sir John||Partridge, E.||Walker-Smith, Rt. Hon. Sir Derek|
|Holland, Philip||Pearson, Frank (Clitheroe)||Wall, Patrick|
|Hope, Rt. Hon. Lord John||Peel, John||Ward, Dame Irene|
|Hopkins, Alan||Peroival, Ian||Webster, David|
|Hornby, R. P.||Peyton, John||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Dame P.||Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth||Whitelaw, William|
|Howard, Hon. G. R. (St. Ives)||Pike, Miss Mervyn||Williams, Dudley (Exeter)|
|Howard, John (Southampton, Test)||Pilkington, Sir Richard||Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)|
|Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral John||Pitt, Dame Edith||Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)|
|Hughes-Young, Michael||Pott, Percivall||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Hulbert, Sir Norman||Powell, Rt. Hon. J. Enoch||Wise, A. R.|
|Hutchison, Michael Clark||Price, David (Eastleigh)||Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick|
|Iremonger, T. L.||Price, David (Eastleigh)||Wood, Rt. Hon. Richard|
|James, David||Price, H. A. (Lewisham, W.)||Woodhouse, C. M.|
|Jennings, J. C.||Prior, J. M. L.||Worsley, Marcus|
|Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle)||Proudfoot, Wilfred|
|Johnson, Eric (Blackley)||Pym, Francis|
|Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.)||Quennell, Miss J. M.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Kaberry, Sir Donald||Ramsden, James||Mr. Chichester-Clark and|
|Kerans, Cdr. J. S.||Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin||Mr. Fiolay,|
§ Proposed words there added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House, recognising the need to protect consumers from unfair and undesirable trade practices and to promote better trading standards, welcomes the action of Her Majesty's Government in establishing the Consumer Council as a major first step in imple- 160 menting the recommendations of the Final Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection.