HC Deb 24 April 1964 vol 693 cc1788-94
Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I beg to move, in page 5, line 46, to leave out "six" and to insert "twelve".

The effect of the Amendment is to allow a further six months before the date on which the Bill comes into operation. I hope that the House will regard that as fair and sensible. I do not think that hon. Members realise the enormous expense involved in printing stamps. I am informed by as reliable an authority as I can find that one of the biggest companies in this country has to spend £100,000 on a three months' supply of stamps.

The normal holding of stamps by the Green Shield company is as follows: the company itself holds about four or five months' supply; up to three months' supply is in the course of being printed; and its 20,000 retailers hold about a month's supply.

During the course of a year the number of stamps issued by this company reaches the fantastic figure of 10,000 million. We must, therefore, realise that even if we provide a period of six months before the Bill comes into operation there will be a fairly substantial printing order still in the presses somewhere. In the circumstances it would be only fair to provide adequate time for stamp trading companies—and I do not confine my plea to Green Shield stamps—to have their stamps printed. I am not insisting that the period should be 12 months—perhaps it might be nine months—but at any rate it should not be less than nine months.

Mr. Buck

On behalf of the promoters of the Bill I can say that the Amendment is acceptable. There seems to be a convincing case for having a longer period than six months. It is no one's intention to cause difficulties when such a vast quantity as 10,000 million stamps have to be printed. This question could be given greater consideration elsewhere, and it could be definitely decided whether the period should be 12 months or nine months. Subject to that point being agreed in detail, we are happy to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

My final remarks in Standing Committee were to the effect that the Bill then bore little resemblance to its original form. I was, naturally referring to the way in which it was written or printed. In spite of that, much of what the sponsors set out to do has been achieved. I suggest that it now achieves its objects in a much more satisfactory way than it did when it was presented two months ago.

The first object of the Bill was to provide that a cash value should be placed on trading stamps. The second was to make stamps redeemable for cash, and the third was to ensure that catalogues published by promoters of trading stamp companies should state the cash value of a filled stamp book, so that consumers could readily compare the cash alternatives with the gift values in the catalogue. In an earlier Amendment we considered this question in more detail. Not only is it right that a consumer should know what he is entitled to in the way of stamps, but also what can be obtained for those stamps, when he is making purchases in a shop.

The fourth object of the Bill was to see that adequate steps were taken to control and regulate the activities of stamp trading companies, and to ensure that they operated competently and were not set up with the deliberate intention of going bankrupt. Since the Second Reading debate one trading stamp company has gone into deficit.

It was never the aim of the sponsors to abolish trading stamps as such. We merely sought to control and regulate them. We do not wish to take part in a battle between different sets of retailers. As I have said, the main aim of the Bill is to protect consumers and to ensure that retailers have a square deal, especially when confronted by trading stamp companies of the size referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke).

We are all anxious to complete this stage of the Bill. All I wish to add is that it is wrong to say that the Bill has been watered down. We have got nearer half a loaf than a whole loaf in the sense of what we set out to do, but the definition of a whole loaf is a very difficult one to establish. But we have a half loaf, and we believe that the Bill will achieve the two main aims to which I have referred, to protect the consumer and to give the retailer a square deal. I therefore commend it to the House and hope that it will be given a Third Reading.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

I am anxious not to detain the House particularly in view of other business which one of my hon. Friends is anxious to raise, but I should like, on behalf of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, and particularly those who have sponsored the Bill, to congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) on the hard work that he has done and for reaching this Third Reading. But I would add the fact that we are very disappointed because, as he says, the final version of the Bill bears very little relation to what he originally discussed with us.

We think that this shows that even on an apparently innocent measure such as this there are grave dangers in all-party co-operation at least in the House of Commons as it is at present composed. We are disappointed with the Bill as it now is. We think that it is a meagre and ineffective Measure and that the Government have yielded too much to the pressure of vested interests and done too little to protect the consumer. We think that there is great force in the three major criticisms still advanced by the Consumer Council, that the Bill would not secure the financial reliability of the trading stamp companies, that it has not dealt satisfactorily, as I said earlier, with the level of cash option and that it has not dealt with the very serious dangers of misrepresentation.

I hope that these grave defects will be put right at a later stage in another place, and that we shall see a very much improved Bill when it comes back to this House. With those qualifications, again I must say that on behalf of my hon. Friends and particularly the sponsors of the Bill, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who apologises that he has had to leave to speak at a meeting in Bath this evening, we congratulate the hon. Member for Hallam on bringing in the Bill.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Maddan

I want to say only a few words. I was not able to be here on Second Reading but I have followed and read all the debates in great detail, and I welcome the opportunity to support the Bill and to be present during its Third Reading.

There is one observation which I want to make, and which, I think, it is well to put on the record. As I said earlier, in a discussion on an Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker), we have to take a view about the good sense and alertness both of the shopkeepers and of the public. I do not wish to see a trend growing up whereby both these classes of people are regarded as fools, or ignorant people, in need of care and protection. In passing this Bill, which, indeed, in the form in which it now is, has some very proper regulations to govern the actions of stamp trading companies, we are also in danger of extending the area covered by the skirts of the grandmother State.

The grandmother State, I fear, is casting its shadow wider and wider in our national life. This is something which is contrary to business enterprise, and contrary, in my view, to the sturdy independence of the individual people of our country. We must always watch carefully that we do not turn people into a lot of mollycoddled and ignorant people, unable to stand up for themselves because we have cast such a penumbra over them in the form of the grandmother State's skirts.

With that general proviso and warning, I welcome the provisions of the Bill, but I hope that we shall not perpetually bring forward Bills that really do not treat citizens with respect and which do not encourage in them the qualities which we wish to encourage.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris

I wish to add my congratulations to those already expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield. Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) on producing the Bill, which has not been easy. There have been many discussions because my hon. Friend had to find a course which went half way between those who wanted to abolish stamp trading altogether and those who did not want anything done at all. Some of the opposition to stamp trading was, in the early stages, both hysterical and ridiculous.

I have here a document produced by the committee set up to fight the abolition of resale price maintenance. The same people were very much against stamp trading. In an absurd document they said that stamp trading was a moral issue. What nonsense! Stamp trading is just another form of sales promotion. It may not be a good form. If it is not it will not last. The best arbiters in the matter are the public, but, subject to that, the right thing is that everything should be done to promote trade in the country.

It is always strange to me that hon. Members on both sides of the House who are urging British manufacturers to go abroad and get stuck into aggressive selling hold up their hands in horror if some do it here. Our greatest danger at the moment is surplus capacity. Nevertheless, despite this the Government have just announced a record low unemployment figure of just under 400,000. This figure will only be maintained if the people whose job it is to manufacture and sell goods in fact sell them. This must be good for the public, and I therefore hope that we shall get the whole thing in proper perspective.

As I say, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam on introducing the Bill. I am sure that he has done a good thing. I hope that whatever misgivings there may have been have now been allayed.

3.58 p.m.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I join with other hon. Members who have praised my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) for introducing the Bill and on the way in which he handled it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) as well. I am sure that the Bill is a great deal better on leaving the House than it was when it was first introduced.

It is a pity, perhaps, that the document to which my hon. Friend referred had not been published before the Bill went into Committee. It is the book published on retail trading competition under the auspices of the Institute of Economic Affairs. The Consumer Council should have a great deal of interest in the Bill and I feel that it would be well advised before saying anything more about the subject to study the Bill, because it is so much better now than when it was first brought in.

Mr. du Cann

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) and his hon. Friends who have worked extremely hard on the Measure. It is the opinion of the Government that it is a useful and workable Bill for the protection of consumers. I feel that the remarks of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) were much exaggerated. With these words, I am sure that we all wish the Bill every success in another place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.