§ 2.20 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)
I am very pleased indeed to have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, even at this hour of the morning, to raise a subject of very deep concern to many consumers, housewives in particular, who have been the victims of slick salesmen.
This is, I think, the first subject raised on this Bill by Government back benchers. The previous subjects were originally submitted by members of the Opposition. So it can be said that at precisely 2.20 in the morning Government back benchers are now coming into their own. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) representing the Board of Trade tonight, because I know the work he has done over many years, not only more recently as a Member in the Government, but as a Member in Opposition, in leading the campaign for more effective consumer protective legislation.
I would say to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), although he has left the Chamber now, who talked about a filibuster tonight by Government back benchers, that what I have to say now is by no means a waste of time, because I want to raise the whole question of the sales rackets which are being developed in this country particularly on American inspiration.
I want to elaborate a little further a statement I made in the House just over a week ago, when I said that the City of Newcastle, part of which I have the privilege to represent, is becoming a slick salesmen's paradise. I know that in the last few months, in this new Parliament, considerable interest has been expressed in this House, particularly at Question time, and to some extent on the Adjournment, in this question of consumer protection. I believe it is true to say that the whole question of the rights and privileges of consumers is an increasingly important part of British political 965 life, indeed, of British social life. In any affluent society there is an increasing quantity of money to be spent. People spend a greater part of their time enjoying their spending.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I am glad the hon. Member opposite agrees with me.
But, equally, big business and other organisations may seek in some cases to exploit the purchasing power of the consumer in this situation by trading methods which are far from honest and far from decent. That is the theme I want to develop. It is also a social problem, because it is, perhaps, not so widely known that every year, aided apparently by high-pressure salesmen, 6,000 people go to prison because of their inability to meet their commitments. These are mostly women, and in a large percentage of the cases these women leave children behind who then have to be taken, at public expense, into some kind of home.
Another point needs to be made by way of introduction to this subject, namely, that in this country consumers are not particularly well organised. In the nineteenth century, when the producers of goods, the workers, were in need of protection, they worked together, they co-operated, to form their trade union movement to protect their interests. Although consumer protection has long antecedents in this country, going way back to the Truck Acts, the fact is that consumers, as a group of people, have never been organised to defend their common interests in the way, say, the trade unions organised the workers to protect their interests. Because consumers have not been well organised they have been particularly vulnerable, of course, especially in this age of the affluent society, to the tricks of the highly skilled, highly trained slick salesmen, and it is to particular examples which have developed in recent months of exploitation of high pressure sales techniques to which I wish to refer.
Running through all these techniques, or many of them anyway, we find companies of American origin—although I would not want my remarks this evening to be interpreted as an attack on American big business in any general 966 kind of way: it would be grossly unfair. It is significant—I shall make this point at some length later—that American high-pressure salesmen have taken to developing their routes in this country precisely because consumer protection legislation in the United States is so much tighter than ours in this country. It is because they have been driven out of their country by their own laws that they have come here in the last few years and developed some of the methods to which I think the Board of Trade should direct attention.
To take a small example first, an hon. Member opposite some time ago raised the question of the high-pressure sales techniques of book-selling companies in general and of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in particular. I recollect the case because only about two weeks after I became a Member of the House my wife informed me that during the day she had had several telephone calls from a man who said that he was undertaking a research project. He had repeatedly said that he was not selling anything but merely wished to ask us to answer a questionnaire as part of some research being carried out in the the tastes and habits of middle-class people—a complimentary term, of course, which is a subtle way of getting access to what is called "the sales pitch"—who might have an intelligent view of the kind of books which should be published. This is the point of entry into the sales pitch.
I found that the representative had, as it were, got into the "front parlour". I was subjected to three hours of high-pressure sales techniques. I will not detain the House with a long description of the subtleties of the techniques involved. But these people are highly trained and highly skilled. The entry into the sales pitch was by false pretences. The whole object of the visit was to try to sell £200 or £300 worth of books. Three hours later the gentleman left, having perhaps met some consumer resistance, but these people do not always meet that kind of resistance.
§ Mr. loan L. Evans (Birmingham, Yardley)
Is my hon. Friend aware of the practice of salesmen of saying when they meet the housewife that they are from an education department, thus conveying the impression that they are from the local 967 education department, when, in fact, they are actually from a commercial education department?
§ Mr. Rhodes
That is true. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have other evidence that I was not going to mention, but now I will mention it briefly. Persons go to houses and say that they are from the school attended by the children of the household. Again, this is part of the deceptive technique to gain entry to the sales pitch. A constituent of mine living in Heaton, New-castle-upon-Tyne, recently drew my attention to an instance. She wrote:This doorstep salesman said that we could have the encyclopaedias free if we agreed to take part in his research project.After the sales patter had started, they discovered that they were expected to pay 5d. a day for 10 years. They had the intelligence to work it out and found that they would pay dearly for the books that they were going to get.
I mention that as a small example. In fact, the company, after the publicity and pressure put on it by the hon. Member opposite and by a number of newspapers, changed its sales techniques, but the damage had been done. The point that I want to make in relation to book sales is that dishonesty at the point of entry is something to which attention ought to be directed—I am sure it is being done— by the Board of Trade.
I have another example from within my own recollection. While I had the privilege of being a departmental head in a technical college I had an extraordinary example of this sales technique. A representative of a reputable book company, a well known national company—I will not mention its name because what happened does not in any way represent the company—got the names of the students in the college through one of the students who talked to him. He then traced their addresses through the local electoral register. Then he went from door to door saying that he was selling books which the lecturers on the course had recommended to the students. It is true that after considerable correspondence we got this salesman sacked by that company, but if there had been some proper system of licensing of salesmen in this country, his licence might well have been revoked.
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it is difficult to conceive of any circumstances in which this would not want legislation. We can talk about almost anything, but not that.
§ Mr. Rhodes
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. For that reason, what I wanted to say was contained in the one sentence and I do not intend to proceed with it further.
I want also to draw the attention of the House to the activities of another group of companies which has recently established itself in this country, namely, the Concert Hall Record Club Limited and its associates, one of which is Vitasafe (England) Plan Limited. This is a very interesting and intriguing company because, as I shall explain, a company of an almost identical name and with identical directors was prosecuted in the United States for doing precisely the things with which the company is getting away in this country.
There are 5,000 shares in Concert Hall Record Club Limited and David Josefowitz and Samuel Josefowitz each own 1,650 shares in this record club. The names are well worth remembering, because they will crop up again later in what I have to say. The club owns 96 per cent. of the shares in Vitasafe (England) Plan Limited. Recently, the activities of this organisation have been publicised because of the unsatisfactory sales techniques which it employs. Of what is this company accused by those who condemn it?
Numerous complaints have been received by hon. Members from constituents and people in nearby constituencies, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), about the organisation. This is the sales technique. The first consignment of goods is sent as a 30-day free sample, usually as the result of an advertisement in the national Press. Then the customer finds himself under considerable pressure to accept and pay for further quantities of these goods. If he does not pay for the goods because he has not specifically asked for them, he is relatively quickly subjected to a threatening letter implying legal action.
The interesting thing is that these legal action letters are usually in a printed 969 standard form, because this is part of the sales technique. They usually say something to the effect that the customer is informed that unless full payment of the account is received within the next 14 days, the company will advise its solicitors to institute immediate proceedings against the customer and take all steps open to them by law to enforce the collection of the debt and that at these proceedings they will ask for such legal costs as will be appropriate and that it is in the best interests of the customer to make payment right now.
The interesting thing about this is simple—that these people have not specifically asked for further supplies of these vitamin capsules. What happens is that the company sends a card which says:Your next month's shipment of vitamins will be rushed to you automatically unless you inform us before the date on the card.This is a negative way of obtaining a client's commitment. I very much doubt whether that negative kind of commitment of a client would hold force in court, but the interesting thing about it is that sometimes these cards are received later than the date on the card, so that even if people could be expected to negative the offer, it would be too late for them to do so.
The techniques of this organisation were brought to the attention of the American State authorities. I want to mention this case of the Vitasafe Corporation of the United States of America because, when the case went to court in the States, the respondents were David Josefowitz and Samuel Josefowitz. The people running the company there, whose activities were banned there, then came to this country to run this organisation, or put money into it, where they are getting away with this kind of thing.
In the American court action was taken against them by the Federal Trade Commission. The order against them was that they shouldcease representing falsely in advertising in newspapers, magazines, etc., that a 30-day supply of their vitamin and mineral product, "Vitasafe C.F. Capsules,' would be sent free to persons responding to the advertisements.They go on to say in this order thatthe offer was part of a scheme under which, after the 30-day supply, respondents shipped additional monthly supplies to persons 970 answering the advertisements, mailed them statements requesting payment therefor and, when payment was not received, placed the accounts in the hands of a collecting agency and attorney to enforce collection—continuing this practice even after receiving notification from recipients to discontinue sending the monthly supplies.The respondents, these two worthy gentlemen, admitted the facts.
The facts were not disputed, and it was ordered by the American Federal Court that they should forthwith cease and desist from representingdirectly or by implication, that a supply of respondents' product is offered free, when the offer is used as a means of enrolling those who accept the offer in a plan whereby additional supplies of the product are shipped monthly to such persons at an additional charge, unless the conditions of the plan are clearly set out in the offer.This technique and these advertisements are the same methods as are operating in this country at the present time, and the reason why they are operating here is that in 1957 American legislation prevented them operating in the United States.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ 2.39 a.m.
§ Mr. William Yates
I receive records from the Concert Hall Record Club. I have examined the quality of the music provided, and it seems to be perfectly adequate. When I wrote and said that I did not want records sent to me for a period of time, I was not pestered to take further orders of records. In fairness to the firm and to the House, would the hon. Gentleman give examples of where the Concert Hall company has offended any of his constituents, or give examples of where he has dealt with this matter?
§ Mr. Rhodes
I will certainly do as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I was dealing with a subsidiary of the Concert Hall Record Club called the Vitasafe (England) Plan Limited. When I have dealt with it I will deal with the company to which the hon. Member refers.
Before leaving the Vitasafe people, the case in the United States against the company was instituted by the Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Federal 971 Trade Commission Act. The accusation against the company found by the court was of deceptive advertising and forwarding changing and products to their clients after notification that they were not required. I am not in a position to suggest that legislation of a similar nature should be put into operation in this country, as you have pointed out, Mr. Speaker, but I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that there is this defect in the existing law which enables a company which cannot operate effectively in the United States to get away with it in this country.
The Concert Hall Record Club has another subsidiary known as the Corsano Company Ltd., responsible for cosmetics and beauty treatment. It was this organisation that was so bold in its high-pressure advertising methods that it did not take proper cognisance of the kind of clients it was circulating. Hon. Members will recall that it recently sent out literature describing sexual practices throughout the ages, from ancient civilisations right up to the present day. Although the company argued that this was a mistake, it is this kind of irresponsible pushing out of promotion literature which has caused offence.
Hon. Members may recollect that I raised the question—as did other hon. Members—of the advertising of the "Penthouse" magazine. The same kind of thing happened there. Many of my constituents were very offended to receive pictures of naked females through their letterboxes, as part of the promotion technique of that magazine. After I had raised the matter with the Minister the magazine had the cheek to distribute a leaflet in my constituency, saying that it hoped that its sales would rise as a result of the irresponsible criticism made of its literature by the local Member of Parliament. Irresponsible or not, Members of Parliament should try to protect the interests of many of their constituents who object to their children receiving unsavoury and unsolicited literature through the letterbox.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates) invited me to say a word about the Concert Hall Record Club, which has a controlling interest in the other organisations. The criticisms 972 I would make of this company are perhaps not so formidable as those I have made of Vitasafe, but they are formidable enough. People living on Tyneside have drawn to my attention the fact that they have repeatedly received faulty records. The hon. Member may be one of the fortunate ones, but I have received considerable evidence, in correspondence and from other sources, that faulty records have been sent out. More particularly, there are examples of unsolicited records having been received. I have in my possession a letter from a person who says:As this company continually failed to acknowledge my letters to cancel my so-called club membership, I found it necessary to record the correspondence sent in an official manner…I did not get a reply to my letters.He was threatened with legal action.
Another letter says:I purchased the advertised sample records, on the advertised understanding that this purchase placed me under no legal obligation to buy further records. Since this purchase this Company have sent me a monthly record…A letter cancelling membership was sent, but he got a further letter threatening legal action. Again the technique is similar. It follows the pattern of the technique which is not allowed in the United States.
§ Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)
Presumably these customers and constituents get to know of these offers through advertisements in the newspapers. Can my hon. Friend tell me what steps, if any, he has taken—or what steps his constituents have taken—to inform those newspapers who disseminate these untrustworthy and false promises of the facts?
§ Mr. Rhodes
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he is aware, pressure is always being put on by hon. Members to raise the standards of advertising generally in the newspapers, and the Concert Hall Record Club has been exposed publicly in recent weeks, in particular by a statement issued by the Consumer Council. In view of this statement, issued a couple of weeks ago, I hope that responsible and reputable newspapers will cease accepting advertisements from companies of this kind.
There is another interesting point before I leave this particular organisation. In the United States this company 973 Vitasafe were indicted for making unjustified claims. In the advertising which is at present being distributed in this country in newspapers and so on, they state that there is widespread vitamin deficiency from which we all suffer and that therefore we need these pills. I am not a doctor, but I have taken medical advice and I am informed that there is no widespread vitamin deficiency in this country and that this is a falsehood. I understand from medical advice that these pills may be of some value to pregnant women and to children suffering from some deficiencies, but I am also told that such people would be well advised to see their own doctor.
This bait, followed by the pressure method of selling, is spreading particularly from the United States, where it has become more difficult because of the restrictive laws of that country. Once you have got an address you pump in the stuff and leave it to the person who receives it to take the positive action of saying they do not want any more. The stuff is pumped out and then there is the threat of legal action. The vast majority of people are scared stiff when they get these letters threatening legal action and they pay up and that is the end of it.
I understand that in France it is illegal to send unsolicited gifts through the post on a sale or return basis, and I will just draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that there is this deficiency in the law in this country.
Another American organisation of which the House has heard a good deal is the Universal Health Clubs, and I think the House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford for exposing this particular organisation. Recently it has established an office at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The technique of this organisation is "come into my parlour", and once they get one into the parlour it is very difficult to get out. The sales manual issued to employees of that company says that they must hammer and hammer away at the potential client, and there is a whole method set out on how to prevent the potential client from escaping, even to standing in the doorway so that there is no way of escape. Perhaps I should mention that one of their special techniques of persuasion is the simple 974 lie of telling somebody that he or she is the last one or two of the 100 needed to get a special offer. Everyone who goes there seems to be one of the last two or three out of the 100—this is the technique of persuasion.
Worse than this is a case I read of which may be subject to legal action, so I will not name the person. It concerns a blind person who, having had the contract signed for her and been told that it would cost 3s. 11d. a week, discovered that it in fact cost 18s. 9d. a week. This is misrepresentation. These contracts have been sold to thousands of people in this country, and they have been subjected to the strongest legal pressure to pay up.
These organisations do not, in my view, provide adequate protection for the safety of health. There was a time when one could not get out of the contract one had entered into even if there were medical grounds for doing so. I understand that they agreed that if a person could produce a medical certificate that they cannot carry on the course the contract would come to an end, but I understand that that is not being operated today. Even today, people who have been made physically disabled in the studios of this company are under high pressure to pay up.
I believe it is true to say that in recent days, since the new management took over—this new management which we were told would have completely different standards of conduct in future from the Bowman-Shaws, who did a moonlight or daylight flit—the new management are putting the strongest pressure on thousands of their clients in this country to pay up so that they can rake in the money. What will happen afterwards, I am not sure. This is interesting, because it is another example of an American-inspired company using methods which I understand were tried out in the States successfully for a while until things became difficult for them under the law of particular states in that country.
I want now to turn to another development in recent weeks, the full impact of which has not yet been felt in this country, namely, the franchise system in retail. As operated in the United States, in the vast majority of cases it is a perfectly honest and legal method of operating business. It is a system where 975 a large national name in America such as Dunkin Donuts uses the small retailer as the focal point of contact with the consumer. The danger is that, in the United States, thugs and gangsters—people known as "the front money boys"—get the small retailers to commit themselves heavily financially to receive the services of the franchiser, and they then find they are left high and dry without any of the services.
Retailing in this country has had relatively high standards in the past. Whether one thinks in terms of the multiples, the co-operative shops or the small retailers, most people traditionally have expected a fair service and to pay a fair price. We know there are exceptions, and there is a danger in the large-scale invasion of American capital into the franchise type of business that some of the less reputable methods that were developing in some franchise organisations in the States will develop here.
I would draw the attention of my hon. Friend to the problem. They are now beginning to establish Dunkin Donuts and other sales outlets in this country and, while there is no evidence yet of any of the thugs and gangsters moving in, it is vitally important to keep the closest eye on the development of the franchise system in this country for fear that there is a repetition of some of the practices which have gone on in the United States.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I believe last week a university of Dunkin Donut making was established in Aylesbury, where people are trained in the process of the Dunkin Donuts Company with a view to becoming franchise holders. I am not accusing this particular company of dishonest trading practices, nor is it my intention to advertise their products.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)
The hon. Member was indeed advertising the product pretty heavily.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I do not see the point of the intervention, because I was merely saying this was one of the large fran- 976 chising organisations in the United States, and I was not seeking in any way to accuse the organisation of malpractice. It is one example of a franchise company coming here, where, in the United States, some franchising organisations did become controlled by thugs and gangsters, and I am merely advising my hon. Friend to watch the position.
Changing from American-inspired practices to one which comes from the Continent of Europe, I would now make reference to the Willie Scheidegger Swiss Typing School. This particular organisation has been establishing its schools in the north-east of England, particularly in Darlington and Newcastle, and they are about to enter Scotland and Northern Ireland. They are recruiting about 2,000 new students every month.
What happened—certainly, what happened before the turn of the year, particularly in Darlington and in some cases reported in Newcastle—is that the salesmen ostensibly were selling a typewriting course but that when people signed on for the course, they discovered to their great surprise that they were committed to buying a typewriter as well. There was no mention on the part of the salesmen, particularly those operating in Darlington, that anyone was buying a typewriter. There was no mention by the salesmen of a hire-purchase agreement.
What was done was that the housewife was persuaded, usually on the doorstep, to enrol for typewriting lessons and, at the last moment, was presented with what was usually a folded piece of paper to sign which committed her to paying instalments on a typewriter. The agreement, it may be said, shows clearly what a signatory signs for and, therefore, people sign foolishly, but it must be said that this firm's publicity in the North-East does not make it clear that the hire purchase of a typewriter is the key to the transaction.
There is abundant evidence, which has been particularly reported in the Northern Press, of numerous people being cheated, misled by salesmen. It can be argued that although a company is responsible for its salesmen, occasional bad salesmen do a company's name a disservice by acting contrary to instructions 977 given by the management. I would not know whether the salesman or salesmen in question were acting in this way. I do know, however, that under the new Hire Purchase Act a three-day turn-back or lay-off is specified during which a person can cancel a contract to buy equipment. It is significant that immediately the new Hire Purchase Act came into force, this Swiss Typing School dropped its hire-purchase agreement system and turned over to a rental agreement system. This means that there is no three-day protection period for people who now sign the documents, because rental agreements are not covered by the hire-purchase legislation. People no longer buy the typewriters; they merely rent them. The course, which is purely a service. does not come within the scope of the Hire Purchase Acts.
I have received perfectly courteous letters from the manager of this organisation, but he let the cat out of the bag when he said that they have an ingenious way of selling typewriters. That is the crux of the whole business. They are selling typewriters under cover of selling typewriting courses.
People, housewives in particular, should be warned clearly what they are letting themselves in for. The people get eight typewriting lessons lasting an hour and a half each, making 12 hours of typewriting, plus a correspondence course and the renting of a typewriter for £30. I was at one time responsible for the business studies department of a technical college at which we had 1,000 girl typists in training. The local education authority provided them with two hours of practice on the same machine, three nights a week, for about 40 weeks a year, or something like 200 hours of tuition, at no cost if they were under the age of 18 and at a charge of, I think, £1 a year if they were over that age.
Again, it is a case of the housewife being met on the doorstep, cajoled and persuaded. I have details of people who have tried to cancel their agreement after two or three days, but because it is a rental agreement they have been unable to do so.
Turning to some of the high-pressure sales techniques which have been operated in the last few weeks in the City of Newcastle—here I leave foreign 978 companies and turn to some of our own—there is the technique of going round to houses. A housewife in Newcastle recently informed me that a man goes to the house to service the washing machine, and immediately he sees it he says that it is no good and that the housewife needs a new one. The man spends half an hour trying to persuade the housewife to buy a new one. This experience happened to my wife about three years ago, when she was told that the machine was irreparable and that she needed a new one. We had it repaired and it is still going strong. The fact is that oral misrepresentation of fact, as I understand it, is not covered by the law as it exists at present. The Citizens Advice Bureau in Newcastle issued a statement last Saturday saying that outside firms descend on the city, have a few weeks' campaign with their high-Pressure methods, and then go away, leaving behind a trail of discontent, disillusionment—and perhaps of misery, if their customers are the kind of people, of whom there are 6,000 every year, who have to go to prison because of inability to meet their hire purchase commitments.
Recently, just across the Tyne in Gateshead, there was a case of a man who said that he had been sent by the priest and who called on Roman Catholic families to sell Bibles at highly inflated prices. This kind of activity needs to be clamped down. I believe that it may be done administratively, without a change in the law, but I would not know, and I should be glad to have my hon. Friend's comments. It is because of the Universal Health Studios which I have mentioned in Newcastle, the distribution of records from the Concert Hall Record Club, the rackets in relation to the service of so-called washing machines, and book companies which pretend that they represent official authorities, as well as the spread of the Scheidegger Swiss Typing School in the north-east area in general and in Newcastle in particular, which led me to make the comment a few weeks ago that the city is becoming a slick salesman's paradise. The sooner the housewives of the area become more alert to this kind of practice, the better it will be for the life of the area as a whole.
Another racket which has been operating for some time—my area seems 979 to be a victim of these practices—is the case of a student selling magazines in order to get money to pay for a scholarship who says that one more sale and he has made it. Perhaps other hon. Members know of similar cases. This was, of course, misrepresentation, touting for a sale on the basis of false information. What action can the Board of Trade take within existing legislation to deal with matters of this kind? I understand that Section 165 of the Companies Act, 1948, refers to investigation by the Board of Trade, not only in the case of fraud, but where a company acts oppressively to increase its membership. I think that some clarification of this point of membership is necessary. How far does existing legislation, for example, cover members of record clubs or members of health clubs or members of organisations as distinct from pure shareholders?
§ Mr. Harold Lever
If it would help my hon. Friend on the question of how far the legislation protects them, the answer is not at all.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I am obliged for the answer which my hon. Friend gave me, but I am also distressed by it. While it would be out of order for me to suggest lines of future legislation, I would say that, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission can prosecute on practically every one of the commercial malpractices which I have outlined this evening.
I believe that consumer interests are increasingly important in the life of the people of this country. Future legislation will have more and more to deal with their interests. I hope that it will. This will necessarily involve a number of administrative changes. I believe that the protection of consumer interests should be placed within one Department with a Minister of State at its head who is responsible for consumer protection.
The Minister of State will probably confirm that consumer functions and responsibilities are at present in the hands of a number of Departments—Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Home Office, Scottish Office, Housing and Local Government, Health and so on—and I hope that he will also agree that it would be administratively more convenient if the responsibility here was brought under 980 one roof, within a separate Department with its own Minister of State. Consumer protection is now so important that before long it will have to have its own Ministry, which would be responsible for appointing representatives to advisory and consultative bodies and so on. Perhaps in the various marketing boards and other organisations it would be in the public interest if there were greater Government representation.
I will refer briefly to the work of the Consumer Council. Although I do not agree with those who say that it is ineffective, I do believe that it is not effective enough. It has done good work but those who have studied the problems involved feel that the Council's big weakness derives from the fact that it was not given sufficient teeth with which to bite into certain commercial activities to protect the interests of the consumer.
I admire the work the Council has done in consumer education and I hope that it will be extended. My remarks tonight would not be needed if consumers were so on their guard against high pressure techniques that they could withstand them. The odd thing about consumer education is that the majority of people who are hoodwinked are the working-class housewives. They do not normally attend consumer education groups or read Which. It is generally the relatively well educated, professional and middle and upper-class people who do these things.
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that working-class people are uneducated?
§ Mr. Rhodes
My hon. Friend has misunderstood me. I was saying that on consumer education it is largely people who have had a university or professional education who are mainly interested in these activities. The working classes, for reasons I do not know, have taken practically no interest in the development of consumer protection organisations, although they are, in the main, the group who fall for the high-pressure techniques. Far be it for me to suggest that the 21,200 people of Newcastle who sent me here are uneducated. Their standard of education is relatively high.
I would like to see consumer education developed more extensively, particularly at the school level. A number 981 of schools, particularly secondary moderns, have devoted time to social studies, programming and analysing advertisements in newspapers, reading articles in Which and generally studying high pressure sales techniques.
The Consumer Council has done a great deal of work in consumer education. It has published a number of books and magazines, which it has distributed in recent months. I should like to see it have more resources to do that sort of thing. It has held a large number of consumer conferences, and it has encouraged the development of consumer groups. What is now required is a representative of the Council at every regional centre who would be almost exclusively concerned with the development of consumer education in local schools, adult education organisations, and so on. That would help to solve some of these problems. If it is said that this would cost money, I would reply that the cost would be infinitesimal compared with the tremendous sums "milked" out of innocent consumers who are not educated in the consumer sense to withstand these techniques.
Returning to what my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) said, if it were true that most people were consumer-educated they would not fall for the subtle techniques used by the high-pressure salesmen, but the fact is that whatever the range of one's formal education there is the danger that one is not psychologically prepared through consumer-education activities to withstand the techniques and blandishments of these high-pressure salesmen. If there were time, I would deal with the psychological aspect of the training—
§ Mr. Atkinson
Would my hon. Friend relate what he is saying to Colman, Prentis & Varley and the 12frac12; million people who support the Conservative Party? Surely, this is the greatest pressure group of all, and I am sure my hon. Friend is not suggesting that those are exclusively working-class people who voted Tory at the last General Election.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I say that the voters who were diddled are not exclusively Tory or uneducated, but are uneducated in particular to withstand the blandishments of the high-pressure salesmen. One does not acquire the technique of 982 withstanding those blandishments without some education—
§ Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
Does not my hon. Friend agree that this technique is sometimes applied to good causes as well as to bad? For example, does he not agree that a great many suffering people are helped by the same sort of high-pressure methods of selling stamps to people, and that the people to whom he refers as being so highly educated are probably those who yield most to pressure to help the suffering? Is he not aware that some of these American people have come here to find out what sort of suffering or ailing people do not have a high-pressure sales course on their behalf? Has he investigated that kind of salesmanship?
§ Mr. Rhodes
I have investigated that kind of salesmanship and, with respect, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that fairly highly educated middle-class people, to call them that—people who have been to colleges and universities—tend to be more likely to respond to good-cause high-pressure techniques than do other sections of the community. but it is not exclusively they who have money taken from them—
§ Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)
Would my hon. Friend agree that a large number of working-class housewives have shown interest in consumer protection through the medium of the Co-operative movement?
§ Mr. Rhodes
My hon. Friend has a mind that moves very closely to my own; I had that as my next point in my brief contribution —
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
The hon. Member is falling into the same trap as some others of his hon. Friends by referring to his speech as a brief contribution. As he has already spoken for nearly an hour, that is surely facetious and only shows that hon. Members opposite are using the occasion to destroy the business for tomorrow and so prevent a Bill being passed that would bring immense benefits to old people, and be of far more value to them than some Measures introduced by his own Government.
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)
Before my hon. Friend continues, may I ask the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) whether he has calculated how many times he has been on his feet during this debate and how long he has detained the House in total? He will find that he has taken up more time than any other speaker, and still he has said nothing.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Order. An hon. Member may give way for another hon. Member's intervention. We cannot have an intervention upon an intervention.
§ Mr. Rhodes
Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Member for Bristol, West should try to contain himself a little more. If he cares to check at Mr. Speaker's office, he will find that I submitted this subject early in the week immediately I found that it was possible to raise it. The contribution which I have made is by no means irrelevant to the needs of the people. If the hon. Gentleman really feels that the exploitation of consumers is not a worthy subject for consideration by the House, he can more usefully employ his energies by leaving the Chamber.
§ Mr. loan L. Evans
If the hon. Member for Bristol, West does not think that consumer protection requires the urgent attention of the Labour Government, will he tell us what his party did during its 13 years of power?
§ Mr. Rhodes
It is true that the Co-operative movement has done a great deal in consumer education, through its education department at Loughborough and the college at Loughborough, through the Co-operative Women's Guilds and through its shops, but it is not done on a broad enough front to be felt as widely as is necessary.
I have a suggestion to make about door-step selling which may, perhaps, 984 require legislation. Is it not possible to think in terms of some form of licence for door-step salesmen or a method of identification so that goods may be returned if their purchase is regretted? As legislation might be involved, I leave that point there.
There is not enough consumer protection as regards housing, as is well known. I understand that this is to be discussed in the House in due course, and I hope that it will be possible to take effective action. The enforcement of existing consumer protection legislation must be undertaken by the local authorities. I have in mind, for example, the new Weights and Measures Act, and there is other legislation recently passed by Parliament which is to come into force fairly soon. I am not convinced that the local authorities have either the facilities or the staff effectively to administer the consequences of the laws which Parliament has passed. Consumers must be satisfied that our laws are enforceable, that violations can be investigated, and that there is an effective channel for complaints.
How does the Board of Trade see the rôle of local authorities in implementing existing consumer legislation? Having spent some years as a borough councillor, I believe that borough councils are perhaps more responsive to consumer pressure than almost any other public agency or representatives. Nearly everyone knows a borough councillor or someone who does. For this reason, if the local councils were used more widely in developing the administration of consumer protection laws, inadequate though these may be, they would be a focal point of criticism which would be very effective.
I am sure that what I am about to say will cheer the hearts of hon. Members opposite. I think that the nationalised industries established by the Labour Government after the war do not have adequate consultative machinery. My strongest criticisms of these industries is that they do not have effective machinery for protecting consumer interests. It may well be that the greatest weakness is the inadequate publicity given to the existence of the consultative machinery. It is referred to only in very small print. If one asked the man in the street how 985 he could complain about inadequate service by the railways or the gas industry, for instance, he would not know.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Inadequate though the machinery might be, would not my hon. Friend agree that for the first time these nationalisation Measures introduced a scheme for consumer protection?
§ Mr. Rhodes
I agree. Certainly the interests of the consumer are more effectively defended in many of these cases than they were under the old set-up, but that does not necessarily mean that one is satisfied with the machinery as it exists. In a Labour Party statement a few years ago, there was reference to one industry which said it did not wish to advertise the consultative machinery because it might embarrass local managements. That is the wrong approach. More attention should be paid to consumer consultative machinery in the nationalised industries.
We need more consumer research and market research, which is usually done from the producer's point of view. I understand that the amount of money spent on consumer research has declined while spending on social and economic research in general has risen markedly. More money should be spent by the Government, the universities and research bodies on consumer research, particularly in relation to hire purchase, prices and housing.
In general, I give wholehearted support to the Consumer Council as a body which should advise the Minister and be dependent on him. Local authorities should be able to undertake consumer protection work. I do not believe that citizens' advice bureaux have sufficient resources to do this work effectively. The Board of Trade, as the Department responsible for consumer protection, should be given more money, more power and more officers. Local authorities should be given more power and be able to institute proceedings against dishonest traders.
It is incredible that, whereas the law requires those fitting optical and dental appliances to be properly qualified, there is no control over the hearing aid slick salesman, nor is any doctor's prescription required. Any firms selling these 986 things should be registered. We have heard examples—this has been raised in Parliament—of extortionate prices obtained by slick salesmen from people who have this deficiency.
To summarise, the first point which I made is that there is a growing exploitation of consumers under existing law. I read in a San Francisco newspaper only last week a reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford and myself, who were described as "two Labourites who know that Yankee 'know-how' hurts". The newspaper also referred to an hon. Conservative Member of Parliament, but my hon. Friend and I were apparently not considered worthy of that title. The point which I have been making is that there is a kind of Yankee "know-how" which we do not want in this country because it hurts people's pockets.
Secondly, I said that changes in the law are required. For obvious reasons I did not pursue that. Thirdly, I asked for more active implementation of the existing law and said that a tightening of present administrative arrangements would improve the present situation. I concluded by developing the point of the need for consumer education. If we are to live in a consumer democracy we need more protection from the kind of techniques which are invading this country. Over the next 20, 30 or 40 years, the issue of protecting consumers, serving the interests of consumers and developing consumer legislation will become one of the principal issues of British politics, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider carefully some of the remarks which I have made.
§ 3.27 a.m.
§ Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)
In rising after the remarkable speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes), I am reminded of the man who said that he was speaking for posterity and seemed intent on continuing until his audience arrived. My hon. Friend's speech was no less remarkable and no less informative for that, and I am sure that we are all grateful to him for his contribution.
We are today living in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. Hon. Members on this side of the House have long 987 been concerned about the protection of the people primarily at the point of production by means of trade unions. We ought increasingly to consider the protection of people of this country at the point of sale. For that reason I rise to speak on this subject of consumer protection.
There are many reasons why this is becoming an increasingly important subject. There is a far wider range of goods from which the buyer can choose, and the average housewife and her husband are not experts in selecting goods. This is particularly true where large amounts of money are being spent. It is no exaggeration to say that the way in which we teach consumer education, the attention which we pay to the protection of the consumer has a direct effect on our standard of living.
Another problem which arises from the wider range of goods is that people are not familiar with many of them. We can buy such complicated goods and machinery in the shops that it is impossible for anyone but the technical expert to understand the complexity of the articles. The failure of a single small component in a transistor radio may cause the failure of the radio. The average consumer connot understand this problem. Modern trends in retailing also have led to a big increase in the range of pre-packed goods, and the housewife can no longer assess the value of goods as she might have done with loose commodities. Pre-packed goods do not always contain an accurate statement or description of the contents inside the wrapper. Consumers are increasingly subjected by producers to high-pressure sales techniques and to television advertising, and this is something with which I shall deal later.
There is the wider use of credit, and consumers are constantly being urged to spend not only their current earnings but their future earnings because the nature of capitalism in the 1960s is that what is produced has to be sold. Markets have to be created even if the goods that are sold are of no value to the community. In order to sell these goods, all sorts of advanced psychological sales techniques are used so as to stimulate consumption. We have a sort of magic circle by which products are bought not only for their own intrinsic value, but because of their 988 association with status or sexual attraction, or with the image of ourselves that we would like others to believe in. As a result of this, we tend to be perverting the normal common sense approach to buying. We do not judge an article by its quality.
Another feature of this is what was termed by Vance Packard as "planned obsolescence", both as regards durability and desirability. So that sometimes we wear an article out not only physically but because the manufacturers are making it outmoded and are changing the fashion from year to year. This, of course, leads to a great deal of waste of our resources. Because everything is based on profit, those services which are essential to the community tend to be neglected in favour of those which make a profit. This is why our railways, our schools, our hospital service, our council houses and all these things are neglected in this mad rush to sell, in this mad rush for individual consumption.
Also, despite the existence of the Monopolies Commission and the Restrictive Practices Court, there are still very grave dangers to consumers from these organisations of producers and distributors, who fix prices and extract very exorbitant profit margins. Today every consumer naturally seeks value for money. Consumers want, and I think they are entitled to, the best quality of goods for the price that they are prepared to pay. But quality in itself is very difficult to recognise in a legal sense, and although certain protection, which I shall deal with later, is afforded to the consumer by the medium of, say, the Sale of Goods Act, this cannot in any way take account of the question of quality.
The quality of some goods may be very apparent on inspection, particularly if the buyer knows what to look for. But in many cases the quality is concealed by the finish or by the packaging. For example, in the case of a television set, it may well be that there is an excellent cabinet with an excellent finish, but this is no guide to the quality of the machinery inside. Although in the case of weight the net weight may be printed on the label, customers tend to judge by sight, and so we get false bottoms in bottles and bottles with long necks. We have the problem of the salesman who puts his 989 thumb on the scale, the problem of the little bit of dirt in the pan, the problem of giant-sized packs, of economy-sized packs, of king-sized packs and all the rest. All these things tend to confuse the average consumer.
Traders have also appreciated that the housewife today is willing to pay a little extra, if she believes that she is going to get something of a superior quality. They have exploited that willingness, very often, by fixing prices at a level far higher than necessary, very often in order to indicate some sort of spurious quality attached to the goods. Even without any intention to deceive, the prices do not necessarily bear any close relation to the qualities that the shopper appears to expect. Also, changes have taken place over the last 20 years in the pattern of consumer spending. No longer is the greater proportion of the housewife's money spent on the simple necessities of life. More and more money is spent on holidays, on scooters, no motor cars, on transistor radios, on beauty aids and all the rest.
There is increasingly a need for action to aid the consumer. There is an overwhelming case today for urgent action to be taken for the protection of the consumer against traders who abuse their powers, and this can be done by action on the part of Government, by the sort of educational activities to which my hon. Friend has referred, and by the housewife, the consumer, taking an intelligent interest in this whole question of the quality of goods.
It is apparent that interest in this question of consumer protection is increasing, and this is made particularly apparent by the nature of the debate we are having tonight. It is most astonishing that during a debate on an important subject of such interest to the housewives of this country there are only five hon. Members opposite present. The rest are prepared to sleep while the housewives suffer because of slick salesmen.
§ Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)
I wonder whether the hon. Member will remember that it is not long ago that at this time of night I was speaking and there was not a single person on any of the benches on his side.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
Does my hon. Friend realise that there was a reason for what the hon. Member opposite says happened? It was because the hon. Member was speaking.
§ Mr. Rose
Far be it from me to be discourteous to the hon. Member. I am sure that hon. Members opposite will be far more acquainted with this particular problem.
There are already, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East said, several non-Governmental bodies which are concerned with consumer protection and which the housewives can approach if necessary. I would mention in particular, as I mentioned it before in an intervention, the work of the Co-operative movement, because unlike other retailers this organisation is, of course, an organisation of consumers and is particularly concerned with consumer protection. [Laughter.] I wonder, when hon. Members opposite scoff how many private firms spend money and devote time as the Co-operative movement does to educating consumers, in trying to create a properly educated body of consumers able to discriminate between different goods which are offered.
Other organisations concerned in this are the Consumers Advisory Council of the British Standards Institute. There is also the Retail Trading Standards Association, the Consumers' Association—
§ Mr. Rose
I pay particular tribute to the work of the Consumers' Association and the excellent information service which it provides through its magazine Which? I do not know, but I understand that the circulation it has achieved is already about 250,000, and it may well have passed that figure. It is one of the channels through which information may be imparted to the consumer. I wonder if this sort of service could not be extended through the radio and television. I understand that in Norway, for example, there are regular information services given over the radio in order to guide consumers and to warn consumers against faulty goods and against the sort 991 of sharp practices to which my hon. Friend referred. Now I will give way.
§ Mr. Fell
The hon. Member was speaking of co-operative societies. I wondered if he had noticed advertisements on television by which co-operative societies are offering Minis—I am delighted to say they are British Minis—to anybody who can produce certain evidence of Danish goods they have bought. In other words, they are bribing the British public to buy Danish food.
§ Mr. Rose
I find it remarkable that hon. Members opposite who not so long ago were criticising the Government because of the Government's relations with E.F.T.A., should criticise stimulating trade with E.F.T.A. countries, and particularly with co-operative movements in countries like Denmark, which produce excellent food for the housewives. I am sure that there is no harm in the action taken by the Co-operative movement.
All this interest in consumer protection culminated in the appointment of the Molony Committee on 24th July, 1959. The terms of reference were:to review the working of the existing legislation relating to merchandise marks and certification trade marks, and to consider and report what changes if any…are desirable for the further protection of the consuming public.In all, it considered 472 written statements, and 1,918 members of the public wrote letters to it. It is a sad reflection that so few members of the public were willing to submit their private evidence to it. This is perhaps one of the unfortunate features of the British public. We are polite and do not like to offend, and so we often tolerate practices which ought to be stopped.
I shall always remember something I was told by a Scandinavian friend. He said that when he goes into a hotel and finds that a cup from which he is drinking is cracked, he breaks the cup. He takes that direct action to show his attitude towards that kind of shoddy service and bad hygiene. I am not suggesting that one should always try this. On one occasion I attempted it but the cup would not break, and that circumstance can be most embarrassing.
§ Mr. Harold Lever
I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that that practice should be emulated in this House. If it were, there might be difficulty in obtaining tea and coffee.
§ Mr. Rose
I am not for a moment suggesting that in our refreshment rooms we would ever be served with cracked cups.
However, I point out that the Committee did not consider certain very important factors in relation to consumer protection. It did not consider the question of services. One of the most important grievances of the public is with regard to services, such as repairs to television sets and cars, servicing of cars, and so on. How often do we send our car to the garage and when we get it back wonder exactly what has been done to it, if anything? This is a frequent cause of complaint by the public, but it was not considered by the Molony Committee.
There is also the question of price control. In spite of action taken recently by the Government, in spite of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, in spite of the existing state of the law, we know that recently manufacturers, particularly of chocolate, have forced retail traders to put up their prices.
§ Mr. Edward M. Taylor
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I draw attention to the fact that there are fewer than 40 Members present.
§ Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I drew your attention earlier to the rather disgraceful practice, when we are listening to a debate, of continually getting interruptions—
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ 3.45 a.m.993
§ Mr. William Yates
On a point of order. Is it in order for an hon. Member opposite to refer to an hon. Member on this side of the House, who drew the attention of the Chair to the fact that fewer than 40 Members were present, as having rudely interrupted?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think that it is an improper remark to make and the hon. Gentleman should withdraw it.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I willingly withdraw the remark, but I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so touchy.
§ Mr. Rose
I was referring to the fact that the Molony Committee did not consider certain aspects of consumer protection and one of these was the subject of weights and measures. This was dealt with by the Hodgson Committee and an Act at long last found its way on to the Statute Book. However, about that the Molony Committee said:…we never doubted that before our Report was completed there would be a new Weights and Measures Act on the statute-book. We have been disappointed about this. If our recommendations are accepted in whole or part, we trust that in the interests of the consumer their implementation will not suffer the monumental delay which has characterised the treatment of the Hodgson Committee Report.We had monumental delay by hon. Gentlemen opposite in respect of the Hodgson Report and the same sort of procrastination about the rest of consumer protection. It is now left to the new Government to deal with the whole subject.
There are certain Acts which afford protection, one of which is the Sale of Goods Act. I had intended to enumerate the various Sections which afford some protection to the consumer, but I will not weary the House and I will only very quickly run through them. Section 12 lays down an implied condition that vendors have the right to sell and there is also the implied warranty that the buyer shall have quiet possession. Section 13 provides that where goods are sold by description there is an implied condition that they shall correspond with the description and, if by sample, with the sample and with the description. 994 Section 14 provides that in certain conditions goods should be fit for the purpose for which they were bought and, most important of all, that in certain circumstances must be of a merchantable quality.
I draw the attention of the Board of Trade to the widespread practice of contracting out of these provisions. Although these are implied condition, implied warranties, they are susceptible to being contracted out of and the vendor often does this by stating that all conditions of warranty expressed or implied by law are excluded. That does not matter in the case of a manufacturer because, the manufacturer so doing cannot interfere with the relationship between the retailer and the consumer, but it causes a great deal of difficulty, for example, in the sale of cars where distributors act as the agents of the manufacturers. One very often finds that the rights under the Sale of Goods Act are taken away by such spurious warranty and lesser rights substituted. One may have the right to have certain components replaced within a period of, say, six months, but this does not usually include the cost of labour in changing and replacing those parts.
Very often, of course, the labour cost is by far the major part of the total cost. I draw the attention of the House to this particularly reprehensible practice, and suggest that wherever it occurs, as suggested in the magazine Which? we should attempt to strike it out. One may not always be successful, but this action resulted in one large firm of car manufacturers altering its contract. Even liability to negligence may be ruled out on that ground.
In deference to the House, and because many other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall not deal with a large number of topics with which I had intended to deal, but there is an over-riding need, and the Molony Committee felt this as well, to protect the consumer against what it called reprehensible pressures exercised in his own home. The Committee put forward various suggestions in respect of hire-purchase agreements signed at a place other than a retail establishment, and I am delighted that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) pioneered a Bill on precisely this matter.
995 I should like to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the fact that recently a constituent of mine wrote to me in respect of this Act. He pointed out that the provisions with regard to credit sale agreements apply only when the agreement involves a sum of more than £30, and of course most items sold on the doorstep cost less than that that amount. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would look into this matter.
While on the subject of doorstep salesmen, perhaps I might mention that in my constituency I have come across these reprehensible activities of door-to-door book salesmen, one of whom masqueraded as the secretary of a religious organisation whose object was to sell religious books. In fact this was a spurious organisation set up for purely commercial interests. Then there was the case of the man who said, "I have come from the Moston College of Further Education, where your son is about to take a course and where he will need certain books". He had just come from the College. He had probably walked there from his firm, and then walked to the house.
This sort of conduct is very widespread, and in these cases the average housewife who signs such an agreement thinks that the books are necessary for her child's education. She finds herself in a difficult position, and I hope that action will be taken to prevent this sort of thing happening.
There are a number of matters which I should like to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend concerning consumer protection, and the lack of protection given to the consumer by the existing law. I mentioned the question of warranties which took away rights under the Sale of Goods Act.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Order. If the hon. Member is now proposing to discuss matters which are not covered by the existing law, and their remedy would involve new legislation, this is not the debate in which he can do that.
§ Mr. Rose
I am trying to avoid suggesting future legislation, but I would refer to the fact that the Merchandise 996 Marks Act was passed long before the days of television advertising, and, without suggesting any changes in legislation, one wonders whether the Act as it now stands could be enforced more stringently. Why is it so often left to voluntary bodies to enforce the law rather than action being taken at a more official level?
A lot could be said about more stringent requirements for labour. A lot could be said about the Consumer Protection Act of 1961, which was pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards), and under which a great many products can be required to conform to certain standards. I wonder whether the House would agree that this is particularly important in respect of dangerous articles such as fireworks.
In my division we have a hospital which contains the burns unit for the whole of the Manchester area. Many tragic cases are admitted to it. It is a children's hospital, and if any hon. or right hon. Member were to walk through its wards and see the results of accidents caused by fireworks, or see the films that have been taken of this kind of accident, I am sure that he would agree that much more should be done to protect children against this danger. I note with pleasure that talks have taken place between the fireworks manufacturers and my right hon. Friend, and that the fireworks manufacturers have agreed to put a cap on bangers. I wonder why it is impossible for them also to put a plastic cap on sparklers, because one of the most serious forms of accident is that which occurs when these fireworks are in the pocket and are accidently ignited.
I hope that swift action will be taken on this matter and that there will be no yielding to the vested interests of the fireworks manufacturers, who are not concerned with the lives and safety of children. Far too much is subordinated to the interests of private profit and private greed rather than the welfare of the community. Under the Consumer Protection Act one has to prove that regulations are necessary. This usually means that some accident has to happen before any action is taken by the Government. Regulations can be made by the Home Secretary, but I wonder why this matter is not dealt with by the Board of Trade. I suggest that the powers 997 provided by this Act are not great enough.
I now turn to the question of hygiene standards. Could not there be many more prosecutions than there are? We should enforce the present legislation more stringently. Could we introduce a form of quality labelling, and minimum standards below which it would be illegal to produce certain types of goods? Could not we study the action taken in Scandinavian countries in consumer welfare?
There is one aspect of the law relating to consumers which ought to be mentioned. Not long ago I took one of the few suits that I possess to the cleaners. Unfortunately, they lost it. When I read my contract carefully I found that there was a provision in very small type at the bottom of the form that I had signed saying that the firm would not take responsibility for the loss, and in any event would not pay more than £10 towards the cost of the suit. These standardform contracts are iniquitous, because the two parties concerned are not on an equal level. One party is entirely at the mercy of the other.
The high-water mark of this was the case of Thompson v. L.M.S., where a poor lady bought a railway ticket and went on an excursion. The ticket said, "For conditions see back", and on the back it said, "See conditions on time-table", and on the timetable it said that the railway company would take no responsibility for accidents. The lady stepped off the train before it arrived at the station, with disastrous results. As all those who are familiar with this case know, that lady failed to obtain any damages because of the provisions on the ticket.
The law on this matter is very complicated. It would be possible to spend hours discussing it. I have no such intention, but the point is—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it seems to me that he will only get his suit back by amending the law, and he cannot propose to amend the law in this debate.
§ Mr. Rose
I respectfully accept your Ruling, but I would like to draw this to the attention of my hon. Friend. I would also like to deal with the question of mis- 998 representation, where again one may feel that the existing law is inadequate.
I would like to say a word on the subject of television advertising. This does come very strongly under the head of consumer protection. Indeed, the whole matter was dealt with thoroughly in the Pilkington Report, but the Maloney Committee thought fit to point out:Although it has been recognised that the impact of television is so forceful and intimate, especially on the young, that this requires a heightened standard of restraint peculiar to itself it is questionable whether a proper level of restraint has been achieved.Of course there is a great difficulty here because of the financial pull of the advertiser. But the Committee said:We have viewed with disgust an advertisement in which a manufacturer of toilet paper deliberately played upon fear of poliomyelitis in order to suggest—very vaguely—that his product might offer a certain amount of protection.Some sort of machinery is needed to safeguard the consumer from advertising of this kind.
In the last 100 years the growth of advertising has been such that far from being the simple art of the small manufacturer or retailer it has now become a major part of business organisation. It is increasingly a source of finance for a whole range of media of mass communication. Our major television service is prone to the pressure of advertising, and newspapers and periodicals cannot exist without it. It is going further than merely advertising the goods. Advertising today tends to touch our personal values and become the visual art of our contemporary society. It is sometimes a perversion of our economy and it is wasteful. It is almost an insidious form of totalitarianism with its peculiar psychological brain-washing techniques, and it is very often harmful culturally.
It is not my intention to make an indiscriminate attack on advertising. Certain forms of advertising are helpful, but one questions £400 or £500 million a year spent on advertising when some of our public services, such as roads and hospitals and the rest, are neglected. It is true that contemporary society cannot function with advertising, but it leads to skimping on the product in order to pay for advertising costs. Advertising must produce customers, just as factories 999 must produce goods in a growing economy. The extent of advertising is increasing every year, and 25 billion dollars is spent annually in the United States on advertising. What I am concerned with primarily is the method of putting these things over—someone is not using Amplex, this kind of car, this kind of girl. The whole question of human relationships becomes a matter of commercial commodities to be bought or sold, and we buy things because they are correct status symbols, not because they are the best articles. We buy beer not because it is a good drink, but because it will make us virile or neighbourly.
Most of advertising today is an irrelevance. We buy a car not because it is a pleasant or useful means of transport, but because of the aura round the car, the hotel canopy, the gloved hand or the girl around the car. So what we are buying is not the reality but the image of the article.
Perhaps I might deal with that very well-known item that "Top people take The Times." That is again a typical example of appealing to status. The acquisition of material possessions is not something to be despised and it is not something to be opposed. But material possessions have a use. We buy a car because it is useful, not because it gives us status. There are reasons for being successful in one's job, quite apart from the question of status. My submission is that the influence of advertising is very harmful in giving the wrong social values to the community and, in particular, to our children. I do not want to blame indivdual advertisers or people caught up in the advertising industry, because most of us in our private lives have to do our jobs, whether we like them or not.
I would like to go on from advertising to the question raised by my hon. Friend in relation to the Consumer Council. The best known of the Molony Committee's recommendations was the recommendation for the setting up of a Consumer Council.to review the problems experienced by the consumer, and to advise and advance the means of resolving them.1000 it may be said that the best safeguard of the consumer is a knowledge and understanding of the products bought. But a great deal can be done by the Consumer Council, and I would like to go a little further and follow up the suggestion that was made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East that it is about time we considered the possibility of a Minister of Consumer Protection—a whole department devoted to the question of consumer protection which would funnel out information to the consumer, perhaps by some of the media that I referred to before.
In Norway, for example, they have a State Consumers' Council, established as a result of pressure from women's organisations. This submits reports on consumer interests in matters under consideration by the Government. It promotes research, it promotes standardisation, it promotes the quality marking of goods, and so on. It also provides information services for consumers, and, as I have said, it gives radio warnings of worthless goods.
They also have a Minister of Consumer Welfare with Cabinet rank, and I wonder whether perhaps we might not progress in the near future to the position where we have a Minister of Consumer Protection, perhaps with Cabinet rank. As I said at the outset, we are becoming increasingly a consumer orientated society. The movement represented on the Government benches should be particularly concerned with the protection of the consumer. Throughout the past century we have fought in every way for the advance of the worker on the shop floor. We have fought for the rights of the individual against vested interests and against those who seek to exploit the individual. I wonder if, in this highly consumer conscious society where there is an increasing level of consumption which will go on increasing, we might not direct our attention more to this method of helping our people, to this method of helping the individual.
I hope some at least of these comments will have been helpful to my right hon. Friend in deciding what action to take in the years to come.