§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In view of the time which has been spent after Questions I will try to truncate the remarks which I intended to make in introducing the Bill, although not to truncate them to a state of incoherence. The Bill is concerned with trading practices and its main purpose is to protect consumers, the buyers of goods and services, from swindles, unfair practices, misdescriptions and false claims which are perpetrated by a relatively small minority of traders. A some what disreputable fringe of the trading community. It has another purpose, too—to help the best traders to maintain and perhaps improve their good standards of service to their customers. They are helped in part by our putting a stop to the unfair and sometimes fraudulent practices of their competitors. But we are also making provision for better standards of advertising and labelling which, if considered necessary, could be legally enforced.
A measure such as this, with the aims which I have briefly mentioned, has long been needed. We have had some protective legislation on these lines for about 80 years, in successive Merchandise Marks Acts, which have given protection regarding certain trade descriptions. It is true that our Victorian predecessors put some stern concepts of integrity and fair dealing into their Statutes and over the years offender have been duly punished by the courts. But these Victorian laws have served their purpose. The basic legislation has been amended and extended to meet changing conditions on several ocasions. The whole of this protective legislation is very much out of date. We need a new start and new legislation—in my view, legislation which looks ahead and provides a charter for fair trading which will serve as basic law for a long time to come.
The Bill is needed, too, because we have to take account of many new pro- 676 ducts, new methods of trading and improved standards of living, which bring such articles as radios, television sets, refrigerators and washing machines, and a wide range of all kinds of goods and services, within the means of the majority of families, which the Victorian law makers had never heard of and never imagined. As ordinary domestic products become more sophisticated and are mass produced and widely advertised, the opportunities for unscrupulous traders to exploit customers and consumers are also widely increased. Very few shoppers today are skilled or knowledgeable enough to know whether they are getting honest value for their money. They do not always know what is inside the elaborate package and they cannot always trust the words on the label.
I must make it clear that most manufacturers, traders and providers of services are completely honest. They value their goodwill and their reputation and they know that there is little future for them in business if they fail to maintain those standards. But in our complex trading system it is far too easy, as things are, for unscrupulous, often fly-by-night operators, to deceive people, to pass off shoddy goods as high-grade goods, and to misrepresent the services which they offer. We have a duty to bring our protective legislation up to date.
Many hon. Members know that I, for one, did some campaigning from the early 1950s from the Opposition side of the House for the introduction of a Bill such as this. Eventually we persuaded the then Government to set up the Molony Committee on Consumer Protection to make recommendations for new legislation. I want to get that on the record. If I had had the support which I should have had from the then Government, it would have been done much earlier.
One of the Committee's main recommendations was that new legislation was needed to replace the various Merchandise Marks and other Acts, and this Bill carries out that recommendation. It goes further than the Molony Report in one or two respects. Incidentally, because the Bill arises from the Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, we properly called it the Consumer Protection Bill and those words appear in the 677 first paragraph of the Explanatory Memorandum. I think that that is an appropriate title. But it was changed in another place. However, it is the substance of the Bill that matters. We can consider the title as we go along.
I will not explain in detail all the provisions of the Bill. When she concludes the debate, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to any points raised in the debate. For her, this is something of a family affair, because Lady Phillips took a leading part in the debates on the Bill in another place. The Bill has been around for some time and hon. Members know in general terms what it contains. Generally speaking, it has been well received by trade associations, by consumers' organisations, and by those who will have the task of administering it, the local weights and measures authorities.
One of the main defects in the present law which the Bill puts right is concerned with advertisements. At present it is very difficult to bring a successful prosecution in respect of a false trade description as used in an advertisement. False advertising, of course, not only harms the customers who are misled into buying goods which have been falsely described. It also damages the interests of honest traders. To try to counter this kind of activity many reputable manufacturers and traders have sent up their own organisation, the Retail Trading Standards Association, to seek out and to bring prosecutions against the operators. This they do sometimes successfully but always with considerable difficulty.
In Clause 5 we strengthen the law on false advertising. I do not think that any hon. Member will wish to weaken that provision, but I am sure that there will be discussion about where the line is to be drawn between misleading advertising and persuasive advertising which is permissible and should not be prohibited. Let me make the position clear. As I have said in so many of these debates on consumer protection, there is nothing wrong with persuasive advertising, as long as it does not misrepresent the product or the service which is being advertised and is not designed to mislead or deceive the customers. What I call persuasive advertising is a legitimate means of trade promotion if it does not go beyond the dividing line and become 678 misleading. We have to decide where we draw the line.
Clearly we must be very careful here. We have to give as clear an indication as we can of what we mean by a false trade description, and that indication must be based on practical common sense considerations. We have to begin by explaining in straightforward language what is a trade description. That is done thoroughly clearly in Clause 2(1).
The matters which form the subject of a trade description have been considerably widened compared with the present law, notably by adding all physical characteristics of the goods and the history of the goods, including previous ownership and use. A typical case which might be covered by this extension is that of the itinerant carpet sellers who go round the country claiming, usually in local newspaper advertisements, that they are selling good quality carpets salvaged from a shipwreck or warehouse fire but who, in fact, are palming off cheap, low-grade, unserviceable carpets, which have never been anywhere near a shipwreck or a fire.
Having made clear what is a trade description we must then explain that a false description is one which is false to a material degree. There has been much discussion about where we should draw the line for the purpose of guiding prosecutions, if any should arise, bearing in mind that the offences in the Bill are criminal offences and that we must therefore guard against frivolous prosecutions. The words which are in Clause 3—that for it to be an offence an advertisement must be false to a material degree—are now generally approved. It will, of course, be for the courts to decide whether the degree of falsity is material, having regard to all the circumstances, in any proceedings which may arise.
§ Sir Keith Joseph (Leeds, North-East)
Surely the right hon. Gentleman means the description and not the advertisement?
§ Mr. Darling
Yes. I am sorry if I said "advertisement". I should have referred to a trade description in the advertisement being wrong to a material degree. This is where shorthand sometimes gets upset. It is a trade description used in an advertisement that is false to a material degree.
679 Perhaps I might now go on to state what is meant by applying a trade description to goods. The obvious means of doing so are set out in Clauses 4 and 5, by means of labels, marks, advertisements, and so on. All this is in line with the Malony Committee's recommendations, but we have added something that was not in the recommendations. We have brought in oral statements. As hon. Members will be aware, this has come in for some criticism, some opposition, and some misunderstanding. The fact is that we cannot leave oral statements out of account if we are to ban all false descriptions of goods, and guarantee customers a square deal. This is not an innovation. As the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) knows, this provision is in other, somewhat similar, legislation introduced by the previous Administration.
Nevertheless, I can understand the attitude of perfectly reputable traders, some of whom have expressed their misgivings to me. They do not want to be hauled into court as a result of an innocent shop assistant unwittingly making a mistake, probably in reply to a customer's question about some feature of the goods that he is buying. Neither do they want to face a prosecution as the result of a disgruntled employee disobeying the rules and making a false statement deliberately to cause trouble. There is, of course, the other side of the matter. The honest trader does not want to face the prospect of having a malicious case brought against him by a dishonest customer.
There are, admittedly, some problems which the honest trader may see in this, as I shall try to show later when I come to explain how we expect the Bill to operate. Some of the risks are imaginary, and others are exaggerated, but in any event, from our point of view, they are not sufficient to outweigh the case for including false oral statements in the Bill. After all, this is a Measure to protect the consumer, and to leave out oral statements would gravely weaken the protection against dishonesty which the Bill is designed to provide.
Let me turn, now, to the more constructive side of the Bill, that of defining 680 trade terms and providing for informative labelling. These are also Molony recommendations, for which everybody concerned in trading activities will, I think, be grateful. There is a lot of confusion about many trade terms, as anybody engaged in this business knows. Many which are in common use have no precise meaning at all. What does one mean by "shrink resistant" as applied to clothing, or "fast" as applied to colours, or "heat-proof" as applied to furniture polish, and so on? One could go through a long list. In fact, a host of trade names are used over the whole enormous field of retail trading, and those which have no precise definition can be, and all too frequently are, used to mislead customers, and, incidentally, they damage the reputation of honest manufacturers.
In Clause 7, therefore, the Board of Trade is given power to make Orders defining trade terms when it is clearly in the customers' interests to do so. There will, of course, be the fullest consultation with appropriate trade interests before any definition Orders are made. I know that this provision is welcomed by many trade associations, and some are already lining up to make their requests for Orders.
The need for informative labelling, as distinct from definition of trade terms, is somewhat different. I think it will be agreed that people need to be told, for instance, what to expect from many domestic electric appliances, and how to operate the things to get a safe and satisfactory performance over a reasonable period of time. Hon. Members will know that the Consumer Council is working actively with several manufacturers and trade associations to promote voluntary schemes of informative labelling under the Council's "Teltag" label. We want to encourage the Council in this very useful and valuable work. I think it will be accepted that the more such voluntary schemes there are, the better. But it is not always possible to get voluntary schemes adopted. We are, therefore, seeking the powers in Clause 8 so that if it can be shown that labelling is really needed to protect consumers, we can make the appropriate Orders. Although here again, it is the consumer's interest that decides whether there should be informative labels, this provision is also very much in the interests of reputable manufacturers.
681 The power in Clause 8 to impose these labelling requirements naturally includes the power to make origin-marking Orders. The present position about such Orders is unsatisfactory. Under a Merchandise Marks Act passed more than 40 years ago, we can order that imported goods shall be marked as such. But this was, or it has come to be considered by overseas countries as, crude protectionism. And even as a measure of protection it is very unsatisfactory. I shall not elaborate on this, because I am sure that many hon. Members will seek to show how unsatisfactory the present arrangements are.
We have to do two things here. First, we have to ensure that the imported goods conform, where this is appropriate, to our own requirements as regards trade descriptions and informative labelling. This obviously must be done. Secondly, in bringing the present origin-marking provisions into a better state, we must take account of our international obligations.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
At the moment, in the interests of the country's economy, it has been decided to adopt and pursue a "Buy British" campaign. If the Bill goes through in its present form, and the Government get into even worse trouble when it is introduced, it will be impossible for them to do so.
§ Mr. Darling
The "Buy British" campaign has nothing to do with the legal powers that we are taking for ourselves. As I was saying, we must take account of our international obligation. After all, there is no point in Governments signing Conventions and doing nothing about them. This means that we must provide that where we think it is necessary for our people to know the origin of the goods, the requirement shall apply to all such goods, and this includes those made in this country.
There cannot be any discrimination except in the very special cases to which Clause 10 applies, and I think that the Clause is clear for everybody to follow. No goods to which an Order can be applied can be sold without an indication of origin. I think that this should be a matter of great satisfaction to our overseas training partners.
682 The methods of marking, and the conditions in the Orders, will have to be different for different products, so the powers to make Orders are drawn fairly wide. In general, our present thinking is that it will be sensible, wherever practicable, for the Order to require the actual name of the country to be stated. I know that there has been considerable dissatisfaction with the old provisions allowing such marking as "Empire" or "Foreign".
Hon. Members will see that the powers in Clause 34 will allow us to clear up any doubts about what the proper description of origin is—for example, in the case of goods consigned here through third countries in which only a very modest amount of work or assembly has taken place.
§ Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)
Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government's intentions are with regard to the powers they propose to take under Clause 8? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people are worried about cigarette advertising and would like the Government to enforce labelling warning smokers against the danger of cigarette smoking? Will the Government be able to do this under this Clause?
§ Mr. Darling
I think that my hon. Friend should take a good look at the Medicines Bill that was discussed in the House last week. He will see that sort of power lies with the Ministry of Health, not the Board of Trade.
Now let me deal with the difficult question of misleading prices. I am sure there is general agreement on what we ought to do. We want to stop traders marking prices as being reduced when they have not been reduced, stop them making false claims, stop the "4d. off" racket when this is not a cut of 4d. from a previous price, and stop traders, during a sale, marking something as, say, "39/11d., reduced from 50s." when the previous price was only 30s.
These practices have been drawn to our attention. A lot of examples have been sent to me by hon. Members as a result of complaints made by their constituents. It is far more widespread than any of us originally realised. We do not want to stop genuine bargain sales. On the contrary, we want to encourage price reductions. But, although we know what we want to do, we have, I must confess, 683 run into difficulties about how to deal in a Statute with all the false price claims that we wish to prohibit.
Clause 11, which deals with this, is now more narrowly drawn than when it appeared in another place where, as hon. Members will know, it was very critically examined. Their Lordships are still dissatisfied with the terms of this Clause, but allowed it to go through on the understanding that was given by the Government that we would try to improve it in Committee of this House. We are trying to find something to add that will be satisfactory and make legal sense. The House will agree that this is a matter that will have to be considered in Committee.
Before trying briefly to describe how we see the administration of the Bill working out, I should explain that, for the sake of clarity, I have so far confined my remarks to the selling of goods and have not mentioned services. But the House will agree, I think, that this Bill—which we wish to be a basic Statute for many years to come—would be woefully incomplete if it left out services.
It is true that the Molony Committee made no recommendations on services. It deliberately did not consider services so that it could complete its report in a reasonable time. It certainly did not accept that the position about services was satisfactory. On the contrary, it referred to the "vehement dissatisfaction" which the public had expressed to it about services. So we have brought them in—garages, laundries, travel agencies, hotels, boarding houses, repair establishments and so on—in the same way that false claims for goods have been brought in, but there is an important difference concerning the conditions of a prosecution. In one way or another misrepresentation of goods has been in the Statutes for a long time, but to apply the same laws to services is a legal innovation. Because of this, an offence in regard to services will be committed only where a false statement is made knowingly or recklessly. I think that will be accepted.
Finally, I will attempt to show how we expect the terms of the Bill to be administered. We do not expect a plethora of prosecutions. Many of the fly-by-night sharp-practice merchants and other 684 potential offenders will, we expect, give up their soon-to-be illegal trading practices than risk prosecution. The more reputable traders who perhaps inadvertently fall foul of the law are not likely to be prosecuted, because they will do what most of them do now when they have genuine complaints brought to them: they will quickly provide redress to their complaining customers.
This is not hypothetical forecast. It is based on practical experience. The main burden of administering the Act will fall on local Weights and Measures authorities, some of whom, for some time, have been operating consumer advisory services very much in line with what they will have to do, but without the sanction of the law, when the Bill is on the Statute Book. I am very grateful to them for giving us the benefit of their valuable experience.
Naturally—and I do not really need to say this—the authority that took the lead and has been highly successful in this work is Sheffield. Sheffield's Consumer Information and Advisory Service, run by an Inspector in the Weights and Measures Department, is now dealing with about 2,000 complaints or inquiries a year. A very encouraging fact emerges from its three years' experience. In over 90 per cent. of cases of genuine complaints reported by customers against shopkeepers or other traders, the traders have put matters right to the complaining customers' satisfaction without any real trouble—often just in response to a telephone call. This is very encouraging indeed. But, what is more important, even without the sanctions that this Bill provides this Consumer Service has driven many undesirable itinerant traders out of the city. It has not been entirely successful. That is why, among other reasons, we need this Bill.
The Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures in Sheffield has told me what he thinks about the Bill in a letter which I received a little while ago. Based on his practical experience, he says:The Bill need not cause apprehension and concern for honest traders, because the provisions are to be enforced by local authorities whose Weights and Measures Inspectors never prosecute offences they cannot prove. These officers have a great deal of experience in their dealings with traders and can be relied upon to exercise the maximum discretion.685 In other words, they take the right legal advice before they bring forward a prosecution.
I am sure that this is right. I am convinced that local authorities' consumer departments—whatever they care to call them—will establish friendly relations with the reputable traders in the area to get matters put right outside the courts, and I am equally convinced that these departments and local traders will work together to put dishonest operators out of business by quickly reporting offences.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
My right hon. Friend has rightly referred to the great achievements of local authorities in Sheffield and Bristol in this matter. Can he see any reason why other local authorities should think it necessary or desriable to await the passage of this Bill before they emulate Sheffield and Bristol?
§ Mr. Darling
This is a matter for the local authorities to determine. We have no authority even to try to persuade Sheffield, Bristol, and perhaps other places, to set up these departments. They did it largely on their own initiative. We cannot interfere with the views and decisions of local authorities. However, I repeat that I am very grateful to those local authorities who have started off before the Bill becomes law.
We do not want a spate of unnecessary prosecutions. For this reason we require the Board of Trade to be informed of intending prosecutions for offences on a national scale—certainly for offences that go beyond the area of the local authority concerned—so that we can avoid several prosecutions being launched for what is in fact a single offence.
Another important reason for our belief that traders and manufacturers need not be apprehensive about having to face a lot of prosecutions is the increasing influence of the Advertising Standards Authority. When it was set up, I was very sceptical about whether it would work and I voiced those scepticisms in the House. I still have reservations about its being called an authority, but, in the past few years, it has persuaded and influenced advertisers, advertising agents and newspaper and magazine publishers to adhere to its strict voluntary code of 686 advertising practice. Also, objectionable or misleading advertisements are being kept out of publications. This is all to the good, and the Bill will put sanctions behind the Advertising Standards Authority's control of advertising.
The Bill is constructive and designed to serve the public interest in what is surely the widest field, since we are all consumers. We all want fair and honest trading in what we buy for our selves and our families and in the services for which we pay. We want value for money and not dishonesty. This Bill is a "shoppers' charter". It will go a long way to ensure that all unfair trading practices will be banned. It will benefit the whole public as consumers and will also prove, I am sure, of great benefit to the vast majority of manufacturers and traders—the honest majority—since it will help to put out of business the small fringe of unscrupulous and disreputable competitors who now disgrace consumer trades and industries. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Sir Keith Joseph (Leeds, North-East)
The public who do not understand the long tradition of consumer legislation going back generations might find it mildly paradoxical that politicians, who are normally thought to deal in hyperbole and exaggeration, should become so solemn when dealing with the claims and descriptions of traders. They might say, "Doctors, heal thyselves". Nevertheless, even if we approach the Bill and this subject with a due humility, there is a long tradition of trying to protect the honest trader and the consumer. That is why the House is used to this subject.
The right hon. Gentleman made a generally helpful speech, but there were one or two points in it which I did not relish. One was his implied threat to try to revert, later in the progress of the Bill, to the original, rather electioneering title of what is a very narrow Measure. This is a useful Bill, but it really replaces the Merchandise Marks Acts, as one can see from the Schedule. To widen its purpose into the implications covered by a "Consumer Protection" title goes a little too far. We shall certainly suggest that the Government are electioneering—although they need something to put on their banner—if they try to upset this decision of another place.
687 Nor can we accept that there was a lack of interest in the consumer during the 1950s. In fact, in the 1950s, inevitably, a few years after the war, the country moved, under Tory Governments, into a fuller and fuller economy of choice. As this spread, there was naturally a surge of interest in consumer subjects. Some of my hon. Friends and some hon Gentlemen opposite crusaded on the consumers' behalf.
Behind me is my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) who has to his credit two pamphlets on the subject. From one of them, "A Nation of Customers", I choose the following to explain why the efforts of hon. Members were not fully appreciated:Although it aroused breathtakingly little public interest, the new Weights and Measures Bill "—a Measure of the 1950s—was passed during the last Parliament.Although these Measures help the public a great deal, they do not arouse widespread interest.
The Bill is based, above all, on three chapters of the Molony Report, initiated by a Conservative Government, no doubt under pressure from hon. Members on both sides. We therefore welcome the Bill's general purpose. We believe in a free, competitive market economy within a framework of law. We must, therefore, always be vigilant to keep the legal framework up to date and improve it where necessary.
The protection of the consumer goes back well into the last century as a function of Parliament. I agree with the Minister of State that the vast bulk of manufacturers, distributors and providers of services are honest and thorough, but I also agree that there is always a minute fringe of operators in all these fields, who, to the extent that the law allows, will seek to use or misuse the honourable success of others by misleading descriptions.
The fundamental problem for legislation of this kind is one of balance, to do justice to the consumer without so overwhelming and overburdening the manufacturer, trader and provider of services that the purpose of the effort is defeated. We must have some humility when contemplating the infinite range of 688 goods and services, customers, suppliers and manufacturers, all confronting one another, particularly when the same people are, during the same day, on both sides of the counter.
There is a baffling tangle of relationships here which we cannot expect to sort out, with the best will in the world, to achieve perfection. We must—I warn the House again—be very careful that, in seeking to protect the consumer, we do not damage the services given to him to such an extent that we defeat our own purposes. We therefore welcome the Bill in principle and most of the changes made in another place, and would like to acknowledge the very hard work which was done there in scrutinising the Bill.
There is a number of points on which we are still worried. The first pair come in Clauses 2 and 3. The Government will realise that the essence of legislation imposing a range of criminal offences must be clarity, yet at once, in Clause 3, the definition relies upon both subjective and ambiguous criteria. We are told in subsection (1) that a trade description is an offence if it is… false to a material degree …and, in subsection (2), if… though not false, it is misleading …I would remind the Government that the Molony Report, in paragraph 634, was specific about the importance of clarity in these definition Clauses.
The Report amplified the wordsfalse to a material degreeby saying:that is to say, broadly, the error must be of such substance that it could fairly be regarded as capable of inducing a purchase.In other words, Molony recommended that a definition should be false only if its falseness brought about or achieved the purchase which was made. This is a narrow offence and a narrower definition than that adopted by the Government. We shall at a later stage ask the Government to explain why they have widened the definition so very sharply and made it both subjective and ambiguous.
§ Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point, but could he explain how a court could decide that the purchase was made 689 only because of description? Surely that would be an impossible task?
§ Sir K. Joseph
As a non-practising lawyer, I should have thought that, if a weights and measures inspector went to a shop to make a trial purchase and, after asking for a product, said, "Do let us get it plain. I am buying this because it boils quicker", or, "because it is made of wool". "Does it boil quicker?", or, "Is it made of wool, because that is why I am buying it", and if the assistant said, "Yes", that, if corroborated, would be plain evidence before a court that that assurance achieved that purchase. I should have thought that paragraph 634 of Molony has much substance.
I come to the very difficult Clause 4(2), which makes a misleading oral statement an offence. Plainly, in the light of paragraph 658 of the Molony Report, we on this side cannot dispute the justice of the Government's case in bringing oral misdescriptions into the Bill in some form. I will come to that in a moment. After all, Molony finds that "oral misdescription is widespread". The Report says:Some of it is merely careless, much of it reckless, and a proportion consciously dishonest.In the face of that, we cannot criticise the Government's general decision to bring in oral misdescription.
However, we strongly question what sort of oral misdescription, or, rather, what sort of people, the Government are out to catch. If they are out to catch the shipwreck dealers, the fly-by-night operators, jolly good luck to them. If these people or doorstep salesmen operate by false oral descriptions, we shall be the first to back the Government in any sensible and effective attempt to catch them. What we are frightened about is that individual decent traders will be so scared of one mistake causing them trouble, ill-repute, or even prosecution, that they will instruct their assistants, who are often school leavers, who are frequently changed, who are often part-time workers, who admittedly will get some training as a result of the Industrial Training Act, but who have not yet had much benefit from that, to give the minimum of help to customers. That would, on balance, injure customers far more than the Bill would help them.
690 After all, the Government must recognise that Molony, after all the strong words I have quoted from paragraph 658, recommended—the arguments are fully set out in paragraph 659—that on balance there was no case for legislation at this stage, If we on this side accept that there probably is a case for some very carefully and narrowly designed legislation conceived in a way to catch the flagrant and persistent user of oral false descriptions, surely the Government must do their best in the drafting of the Bill to exclude the bulk of traders who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, are honest and seek only to serve the public.
We ask that the drafting of this part of the Bill should be redefined to make it clear that the people whom the Government seek to catch are the persistent and flagrant offenders, or those who go about deliberately to exploit the public in some such ways as the right hon. Gentleman discussed. If the Government do not do this, there is a real danger that the service to the public will be damaged and not improved.
Clauses 7–9 empower the Board of Trade to make definition orders. Molony recommended that the Board of Trade should take these powers for goods but not for advertising. In paragraph 758 the Molony Committee makes it plain that it acceptsas a fact of commercial life that the promotion of the brand name is here to stay…. Nor do we think it realistic to suppose that the consequent reduction in, if not elimination of, factual information in advertisements can be overcome.Molony recommends that it is not practicable for the Government to make regulations to cover advertising.
The Government have decided otherwise. Yet the Minister of State, who is an experienced man in the commercial field, will be the first to acknowledge that the Government are not experts in advertising. He has openly and unambiguously told the House that the Government accept that persuasive advertising has its part to play in a market economy. Yet the Government take by Clause 9 very wide powers indeed to apply regulations to the contents of advertising—advertising which is often of a very complicated and sophisticated nature.
691 It is true that by a later Clause the Government bind themselves to hold consultations. We suggest that the Government would be wise to narrow the powers they take in Clause 9. Admittedly, in another place the Government spokesman said that Clause 9 powers would be used sparingly. We ask that these powers be narrowed and that, because of the technical nature of much advertising nowadays—for instance, on television—the bodies consulted under Clause 36 should include, not only the usual interests, but also in suitable cases some advertising body so that the Government may be alive to the technical consequences of any regulations they may make.
I come now to what is probably the most difficult part of the Bill for any effective legislation—that is, Clause 11, this tangled question of double pricing. It is true that Molony recommend in paragraph 636 that double pricing should come within the ambit of any legislation. There is a danger, as Clause 11 if drafted at present, that the Government will achieve precisely the opposite of their own objectives and will open the door wide for the sharp operator and make life extremely tough for the vast bulk of honest traders.
We are comforted by the Minister of State's repetition that the Government are seeking to redraft this difficult Clause. We would have been more comforted if they had achieved a redraft during the last two weeks. We await eagerly to see what sort of redraft they will achieve. We must all accept that bargain sales, genuine promotions with price reductions, genuine price comparisons, both with what the trader has previously sold the goods at and with what other traders are selling the goods at, all help the public. I have used the word "genuine". The difficulty is to sort these out from the misleading cases. We recognise that it is very difficult.
The Government have made their job very hard. First, they have used a most ambigous word "recommended". It is said that it is legitimate for a trader to compare the price of his goods with "a recommended price". What on earth is "a recommended price"? We all know that there are honourable and 692 legitimate recommended prices. We all know that recommended prices have dwindled in number since the Resale Price Maintenance Act, but a recommended price could be one that the trader has himself suggested to the manufacturer as giving him a wide margin. It could be stamped on deliberately for that purpose by the manufacturer. It could be a very different thing from goods from reputable manufacturers with the words "threepence off" printed on them genuinely designed to carry a reduction through the retailer to the public.
We ask that the Government should re-examine this Clause with all the expert help they can get to make sure that the Clause does protect proper bargains, proper sales, proper special promotions, and does not protect the operator—be he manufacturer or distributor—who arranges for his own convenience a so-called recommended price below which he purports to give a very big reduction to the public.
If the Government find the task of redrafting too difficult, I suggest that they should fall back on what was recommended by the Molony Committee, which to the layman seems a simple and effective solution. The implication of what Molony suggested would appear to recommend the addition of a new paragraph to Clause 2(1), a paragraph (k), which would add to the definition of a trade description, comparison with "a former or usual price". There would be no use of the word "recommended" and there would be a much narrower and possibly more effective technique.
On Clause 15, on which the right hon. Gentleman spent some time, we shall seek to probe to what extent powers will protect British traders from so-called Commonwealth goods, particularly in the toy trade. I am picking out the main problems as they appear to me, but many of my hon. Friends may have other major worries. Clause 21 appears to be a very complicated Clause. It seems to be intended broadly to provide that proceedings should not be instituted under this Bill if they could also be properly brought under the 1963 Weights and Measures Act. Do the Government not realise that there is a similar overlap which could occur between the powers under this Trade Descriptions Bill and the Medicines Bill which is now before 693 the House? Will the Government give an assurance that one or both these Bills will be amended so as to preclude the possibility of a trader being prosecuted under two Acts for the same alleged offence?
I understand that as a result of an Amendment in another place Clause 23(2) introduces the third party and by-passing procedure of the Weights and Measures and the Food and Drugs Acts into the Bill. To this extent we find it very satisfactory. Apart from that, Clause 23 provides a new and different defence. There are defences available under the Merchandise Marks Acts. We would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary, could tell us why the Government have changed the defences from what they used to be and whether they are satisfied about having done this. Manufacturers rely on being able to protect the quality of their products. If the defences under the old Merchandise Marks Acts have been changed by Clause 23, manufacturers should know why the Government have done this, so that at a later stage we can subject the change to any criticism which seems to be needed.
I turn to Clause 25 and the whole question of enforcement. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the main duty falls on weights and measures authorities. At the moment different local authorities use different departments. There is now such a mass of different laws protecting different aspects of consumers' purchases—food and drugs, agricultural products, medicines and other goods and services covered by this Bill—that we wonder whether there will be a case for the Government to give guidance to local authorities as to where their main methods of supervision should lie so that there is uniformity of treatment.
We are delighted that the very effective Retail Trade Standards Association will be able to continue. Inadvertently, I believe, the right hon. Gentleman did the Association less than credit. He said that it is only sometimes successful, but I believe that in fact it has been successful in 49 of the 50 prosecutions it has brought. The Association has also intervened in scorces more cases than it has prosecuted. It got a very warm tribute from the Molony Committee in paragraph 684.
694 Obviously traders are worried that the power of the ordinary member of the public to bring prosecutions will expose the genuine trader to occasional frivolous or malicious prosecutions by customers or by ex-employees. I suppose that the mere costs of such a proceeding would be a protection for the trader. I presume that legal aid would not be given unless there were some form of corroboration. I suppose that usually a matter would go through the Citizens Advice Bureau to the weights and measures authority who would make a purchase before bringing a case.
I go back to Clause 4. It would be helpful if the Government were to show that they were out to catch the flagrant and persistent offender and that weights and measures authorities would bring prosecutions only where there is evidence of consistent misbehaviour or flagrant misbehaviour on more than one occasion. That would be a great comfort because traders would realise that there would be a warning and perhaps more than one warning before there was danger of prosecution.
Subject to these points and those which my hon. Friends will raise, we think that in general this is capable of becoming a useful Bill although the Government have still a great deal of explaining and naturally a great deal of improving—which is normal at this stage of a Bill's life—to do. We welcome the Government's readiness to recognise that rigid measures in this field are counter-productive and would do the consumer more harm than good. We recognise that abuses do exist and we want to help the Government to prevent the public being damaged by them.
There are still parts of the Bill which concern us greatly. Therefore it is only subject to some changes which we do not despair of persuading the Government to consider that we give this Bill our support on Second Reading. We do not think the Bill if it is improved in the ways we suggest should hurt the honest supplier or dealer. We think it should give the consumer and the honest seller some genuine protection against the few who are less scrupulous. We very much hope that the Government will take seriously the points I have made and which my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite will 695 make. We hope that this Bill will finish as a beneficial Measure.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
I am grateful for the opportunity of speaking in the debate, particularly since my right hon. Friend has worked so hard in this field for such a long time. I congratulate him on having the chance to introduce the Bill.
I have one or two reservations which, strangely enough, I seem to have in common with the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). We all welcome the Bill, but we are very worried about Clause 11, which is subject to a great deal of criticism from a wide variety of well-informed people. I do not say that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the final form in which I should like to see the Bill, but I agree that it should be redrafted.
The Retail Trading-Standards Association, which has done a remarkably good job under the Merchandise Marks Acts, is very worried about Clause 11. It says:In its latter stages in the House of Lords the Bill has been somewhat emasculated and some of its teeth now show signs of decay.That is the first time I have heard the other place described as a sort of dentist's surgery, but it has certainly done some dentistry on the Bill, which is the worse for its actions. The Association also says:Clause 11 (dealing with comparative prices) has been so re-drafted as to horrify those with practical experience of the problems involved. At the same time provisions for defence have been so widened as to provide great encouragement to potential sinners.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may say "Nonsense", but it will be for him to prove that in Committee. I agree wholeheartedly with the Association's next observation, which is:To replace the Merchandise Marks Act with weaker legislation would indeed be a tragedy.There is not much point in substituting for a perfectly good Act one which is weaker, and on that point, I share the hopes of my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman.
Perhaps I should start by considering the problems which we have in common. For a long time I was subjected to considerable 696 correspondence regarding the s.s. "Aire", which sank in 1958. Alleged salvaged carpets from it were still being sold in 1966, and the advertisements kept coming up over and over again. An even more classic example is now beginning the rounds. I say that even though it started about 16 months ago, because to judge by the s.s. "Aire" experience it is just starting. It concerns a mythical mill called the Dickinson Mill, which in December 1966 was selling bedding bales "regardless of cost". Last November it was still selling them regardless of cost, and in December, according to the Retail Trading-Standards Association—and I have checked this in newspapers in the North-West—it was selling them because devaluation had compelled it to close. No hon. Member would disagree that that type of thing should be eliminated. We have that in common, but we might have disagreements over other forms of advertising, a question which is near and dear to my heart, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is well aware.
The confectionery industry does a great deal of advertising, and I do not object to that. It constantly argues that its products are new—new this and new that—and I do not necessarily object to that either. But when it advertises bars weighing less than 3 ozs., for which it does not have to publish the weight, it should be morally honest enough to admit in its extensive advertising that it has reduced the weight of the bar. In the main, that type of product is purchased by poorer people or children, and there should be legislation to protect them. This is a matter with which the advertising industry could itself deal. Last year there were over 100 examples of products being reduced in weight without any of us being aware that this had happened. The honourable thing for the industry to do is to acknowledge that there has been a reduction.
The second realm of advertising about which I have grave misgivings is the type which seeks to sell by the use of a descriptive word, descriptive in the sense that it is comparative and superlative, the medium, the large, the giant, and the family—[An HON. MEMBER: "Jumbo."] I have not come across that one. I must tell my wife about it. The remarkable thing is that if one wants to know the 697 meaning of those expressions—and I have tabled a Question to the Board of Trade on the matter—one will require a conversion table because of the variety of products. One should go shopping with it to know that giant in "Daz" is equivalent to something else in another product.
Reputable traders have been defended today by both sides of the House. They deserve protection and are to be admired and encouraged. But remember that we have left the realm of the sinking of the s.s. "Aire" and the Dickinson Mill and are in the realm of the people of integrity, the very people carrying out these procedures with the blessing of the Board of Trade, which should be the custodian of the interests of the housewife and small purchaser. The Board of Trade is falling a long way behind the required high standards.
I should like to give the House the benefits of some of my recent research on toothbrushes, which illustrates the way in which one can twist an argument. Considerable inducements and prizes have recently been offered to retailers to stock certain products. The inducements to stock them include Japanese typewriters, cigarette lighters, Premium Bonds and a whole host of things which I advisedly call "bribes" to retailers. Competition is curtailed by means of a bribe, because the moment a retailer overstocks with one product he is unlikely to buy another.
But that is not the sum total of my research. When I went into this matter closely, I was assured that having offered the bribe the toothbrush manufacturers concerned were justified in raising their prices from 1s. 8d. to 2s. It seems peculiar morality to me that they gave the explanation that the price rise was because of considerable research into producting a plastic which would not melt in hot water. So far I have approached 850 people to find out if they have ever had a toothbrush which has melted in hot water. May I quickly continue my studies in the Chamber? Will any hon. Member tell me whether he or she has had a toothbrush which has melted in hot water?
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
I gather that I am forbidden to do that.
698 My researches have gone further. I have found that, with no evidence, the Board of Trade has accepted that explanation and said that it is a good reason for raising the price. The Board of Trade has a responsibility to the consumer and if poor reasons are advanced it should refute them, neck and crop, no matter where they come from.
The other classic example of gross misleading is the selling of detergents with a mythical, invisible free half-pound. One is told that there is a free half-pound, but one's wife says, "That's a lie for a start. It is the same size as last week." One then returns to the shop and asks where the free half-pound is and the reply is that it is in the packet. One's wife says, "It is the same weight as last week", and they say, "We cannot help that. It is a free half-pound." Then one writes to the manufacturer and gets all sorts of peculiar reasons. It is signicant that products which are not advertised and which are virtually identical are very much cheaper in price, and this is something to be noted carefully by the Board of Trade. Clause 11 will be the issue upon which both sides of the House will be joined and I hope that we can produce a workmanlike and worthwhile provision.
I want now to spend a short time on a part of the Bill which I completely welcome as the application of the law to the protection of people in using services. This is an activity in which the ordinary person often gets a raw deal. Hon. Members will no doubt know the sort of thing involved—"three minutes from the sea", if one goes by jet. Then there is the "cordon-bleu cuisine ". This turns out to be cheese and onion crisps, a wet lettuce and a slice of ham. That sort of claim in advertising should be stopped. It is more and more important to give protection on the services side because more and more of people's income is being spent on services. I am glad that both sides of the House welcome the tightening up of this part of the Bill.
I welcome the Bill and in Committee I shall fight hard to ensure that Clause 11 is tightened up severely. I wish my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary every success with the Bill, which was so ably started by her mother in another place.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
I am sure that the House is interested in what the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) has been telling us. I cannot contribute to the tooth-brush saga but, from the point of view of the terms of the Bill, I have no doubt that what he has been saying will be of great importance in Committee. I want to refer to a more fundamental aspect of this Measure.
Anyone who has had experience—one might say the misfortune to have the experience—of the Merchandise Marks Act as it is administered in the courts will agree that the Molony Report has done a great service in enabling that rather dark corner of the law to be cleared up. My impression of the Bill is that, so long as the Government stick to Molony, it is very good. But it is strange that they did not stick to Molony all through. I do not want to wear the House with legal matters but it is right to be clear about what the Government have and have not done.
The definition of a false trade description in Clause 2 and Clause 3 is excellent. These provisions are quite clear and simple and they are Molony proposals. It is worth remembering that the Molony Report said that, under existing law, the definition was very uncertain. Anyone who has had to deal with it would confirm that, because there were two or three different sub-headings of definition and one often found the defendant proving that otherwise he had acted innocently.
For generations the courts have been trying to decide what that meant and I was pleased when the Molony Committee recommended that the best way of dealing with it was to scrap it, and now it has gone. Thus, what I have referred to so far is well understood. But now we find that someone else has been at work so that the matter has now, I am afraid become more complicated than it ever was before. Clause 3 begins with the wordsA false trade description is a trade description which is false to a material degree.The word, "a material degree" were emphasised by Molony as being valuable in order to give the effect of limiting the offence to a case where there is some- 700 thing which has had material effect on the purchase. We understand that, but subsection (2) says:A trade description which, though not false, is misleading, that is to say, likely to be taken for such an indication of any of the matters specified in section 2 of this Act as would be false to a material degree, shall be deemed to be a false trade description.Where that comes from, I do not know but I have an idea where some people think that it should go to. It is an unfortunate example of what is happening in the drafting of Statutes. No one has greater admiration than I for the craft of the Parliamentary draftsmen. How they do their work I have never been able to understand. I have always found that part of legislating extremely difficult. They do a wonderful job. But the trouble is that they have become such perfectionists that they will not leave a word like "misleading" to the courts.
The only thing misleading here lies in the effect of the words "though not false", for this is likely to be thought of by many people as merely meaning that which may not be false. We should not put such a burden on the courts. We should not put traders into the danger of having a clever lawyer arguing all day, with the judge finally saying, "I have not read anything like this before. I suppose that this must mean something much wider than anything one would really regard as false". Thus, one gets into the subjective area condemned by the Molony Report—that is to say, one considers what might be thought by someone else.
§ Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)
My right hon. and learned Friend has mentioned the judges, but 99 per cent. of these cases appear before lay magistrates. It may be difficult for a judge, but for the lay magistrate to enter into these complications is impossible.
§ Sir L. Heald
I have pointed out that even a judge might make a mistake over this and the difficulties of magistrates will be vastly greater. However, I shall not enlarge upon the point.
Another example of departure from Molony is in the provisions dealing with services. As the hon. Member for Eccles has clearly shown, the inclusion of services is needed but we must remember that Mr. Molony said that he did not 701 have the time to go into this and that, if he had tried to make a hasty report on it, he might have got into great difficulty. Have the Government conducted any inquiry enabling them to draw up these provisions about services? It is strange that, although the definition I have mentioned refers to the whole Bill—so that when one first reads the Measure one thinks there is a complete answer—one soon discovers, when one reaches the provisions dealing with services, that there is another hurdle to clear.
There is quite a different section, with a quite different wording. There is all this business about recklessness. In Clause 13(la,b) it says that it shall be an offence for any person in the course of any trade or business:… to make a statement which he knows to be false: or recklessly to make a statement which is false.We can accept that and the magistrate or judge can deal with it. Then we find in Clause 13(2):For the purposes of this section—(a) anything (whether or not a statement as to any of the maters specified in the preceding subsection) likely to be taken for such a statement as to any of those matters as would be false shall be deemed to he a false statement as to that matter …There is that miserable business of "deeming", which has been condemned over an over again by the courts. When one wants to catch someone in a tax question one says that, if necessary, Wednesday shall be deemed to be Thursday, for the purposes of finding that this man is lying. What is the use of adding that "shall be deemed" except to make it more vague and, I would say, to cause alarm?
What about the small trader who says, "I have read this section. What is all this stuff about something being likely to be thought by somebody to be false when it is not false?" We ought not to put people in that peril. There is considerable doubt as to whether we ought to be prepared to go forward with this situation.
§ Sir L. Heald:
That is actually taken from the Food and Drugs Act and is not quite so bad as that which I have been 702 reading. I find it difficult to know what are the limits of Clause 35, which says that if one is doing what is called a "market research experiment" one can make as many false statements as one likes and encourage others to do so, and everyone will be very happy. Does that cover the case when someone wants to get someone else to make a false statement, in order to show how many people misunderstand the situation? What is the situation? It seems to be rather strange. There is not a word about it in Molony, and we heard nothing about it on Second Reading.
I am not being hostile to the Bi11 in any sense, but it is a dangerous thing, when one has an excellent Report like Molony, not to base the legislation on it, but instead to add to it by other rather less considered means. We have considered Molony in relation to the oral matter, and this danger is added to when one remembers that the subsection which I have been criticising is something which would be applied in connection with oral statements—these quasi-falsities. It seems that someone will be in a difficult position if he is to take responsibility for statements made by his employers.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Haseldine (Bradford, West)
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) will forgive me if I do not follow him in his arguments. This Bill will be readily welcomed by consumers, but only when they are fully aware of the protection afforded by it. The Co-operative movement, which has championed the cause of the consumer throughout its long history, gives a general welcome to this Bill, as do many local authorities, especially those which have gone to the trouble of opening departments.
Over the years many of us have been engaged, before and after Molony, in preaching consumer protection through the educational services of the Cooperative movement. We have endeavoured to organise public opinion in short courses, lectures, weekend schools and publications. We have been patient. It is well over five years since the first report of the Committee on Consumer Protection was issued.
It is with some regret and misgiving that I find that this Bill is given the title 703 of Trade Descriptions (No. 2) Bill. Despite what has been said, I hope that we shall be able to restore its earlier title, the Consumer Protection Bill. It may be asked: what is in a name? I believe that the measures set out are fundamentally intended to protect the consumer and the public at large, and that they will react more favourably, making use of the provisions of the measure if it appears with its correct title, related to its true purpose. In itself the title will foster better public relations.
Although we have waited over five years for the complete implementation of the Report, during this period we have seen two very significant recommendations of the Molony Report. First of all there was the setting up of the Consumer Council and the establishment of consumer protection and advisory services within local authorities. Many of us welcome Clause 25, placing upon the weights and measures authority the duty to enforce the provisions of the Bill.
I have the good fortune to represent a city that has taken this matter seriously and has not hesitated to take action in serious cases, fully accepting its responsibility towards consumers. Similarly I know that many other authorities, not least my native city of Sheffield, have set about this task and, like Bradford, have a very impressive record. In line with my desire to see the Bill become the Consumer Protection Bill, I would hope that all local authorities would earnestly consider having, as part of their weights and measures departments or standards departments, a consumer protection and advisory service, which can be used freely by members of the public. This would draw the attention of the public to the protection afforded and serve as an important publicity agency.
Some people will still ask if the consumer needs protection. There is ample evidence that, even though the consumer should be aware or beware, he is more likely to seek action, frequently belatedly, if he knows that he has the backing of the law. It has been made clear time and time again what a good job it is that he has the law on his side. Without question, the Bill reinforces and extends the law into an area where even local authorities have had insufficient powers in the past.
704 One of the greatest needs for action arises in Clause 7, which deals with a problem that worries the consumer continually and features prominently in reports from local authorities which are engaged in consumer protection and advice. It concerns the moisture content in solid smokeless fuels. It need hardly be said that the introduction of smokeless zones inevitably has made the consumer more conscious of the cost of keeping warm. Though personal temperatures may rise rapidly, there is cold comfort in seeing a load of expensive fuel described by a trade name oozing with water. In some parts of the country, 16s. or more is paid per cwt., and one expects to get value for money. Following a point about it which I made in my constituency, I received numerous letters from all over the country. Many users of smokeless fuel are paying as much as 3s. 4d. per cwt. for the water content of the fuel. This is a matter that I hope to present to the House in greater detail on another occasion, when I shall ask the Minister of Power to throw some light and perhaps less water on the subject.
I hope that he will soon be in a position to determine standards for some of the fuels not yet covered by British Standards. I hope, too, that the publication of Part 3 of British Standard 3142 will not be long delayed, because that will enable my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to apply Clause 7 of the Bill. At the moment, there are standards for cokes for domestic open fires and cokes for domestic closed appliances in Parts 1 and 2 of British Standard 3142. The remaining part dealing with smokeless fuels is of great importance, but, meantime, it is most appropriate to Clause 7.
I turn now to Clause 11, which is also welcome. I was pleased to note that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to doorstep carpet selling, which is a growing practice particularly on our new housing estates. One case which came to my notice concerned a leaflet which was circulated together with a reply paid postcard indicating that carpets were for sale at cost price with free fitting and free underlay. The dealer's representative called on a lady who replied to the circular. He showed her patterns, and she placed an order for carpet at 65s. a 705 yard. After the carpet had been laid, the purchaser discovered that she had paid considerably more than the local price for the same quality and a similar pattern costing between 38s. 6d. and 41s. a yard. Action by the local authority secured a cash refund, with the result that the lady eventually paid 40s. a yard. This was after the local authority had taken the matter up with the dealer and threatened exposure. I would remind hon. Members that the carpet was advertised at what was called cost price.
Another practice which is not unusual at Christmas-time is that of offering Christmas hampers. One case which my own local authority investigated closely offered hampers with such tempting slogans as "Fabulous Xmas Offer Hampers." A check showed that a hamper featured as aSuper Christmas Box packed with good things—better than ever value—excellent value at 36s. 9d. but only 35s. through our club",contained goods to the value of 32s. 9d., and not 36s. 9d. or the knocked-down price of 35s. In addition, the goods were packed in a plain and not a fancy box. I cite both those cases as examples of investigations carried out by the standards department of the Bradford local authority.
A further case which would be dealt with under Clause 5 concerned a clock which was advertised and sold as an eight-day clock but which was found to run only for 75 hours. It was suggested that it had some sort of fault, and another clock was given in exchange for it. The replacement would not run for eight days, either, and in fact it was found to be impossible for such a clock to run for eight days because the mainspring was not designed for it. Again, action by the local authority obtained a replacement clock which was more appropriate to the description.
While hon. Members will recognise that this method of selling can be of great help to the elderly and the sick especially, it is always advisable for a prospective purchaser to invite reputable traders in the locality to give a quotation so that he can make some comparison. Clause 11 will provide protection if a false indication is given concerning a price which is quoted for goods.
706 I turn briefly to Clause 13, which deals with services, accommodation or facilities. In a Second Reading debate it is important to look at some of the anomalies and problems in proposed legislation.
Currently, I am engaged in investigating a case which is a good example of the sort of misleading statements made about holidays. It concerns an advertisement which appeared in a quality Sunday newspaper encouraging the unattached to enjoy Christmas at a house party at Namur, Belgium, in the glowing atmosphere of a former seventeenth century chateau, with a programme which would follow the lines of English parties, plus optional excursions to make Christmas a memorable experience.
A memorable experience indeed it proved to be. Not only did the manager of the hotel with the glowing atmosphere laugh when the contents of the English brochure were translated to him, but the unfortunate guests at the house party found that not even Christmas dinner had been arranged to be taken at the hotel. Instead, they were invited to spend Christmas day, at their own expense, in Brussels, and were offered a free bottle of wine in exchange for the meals of the day if they would do that.
I could delay the House for a considerable time reciting the experience of those unfortunate people who went on this Christmas holiday, but I do not propose to do so. This organisation appears to trade under three different names. It closed its advertised address on the date of the departure of the party to Belgium. It used the A.B.T.A. symbol on its advertising. I have no intention of implicating the A.B.T.A. They spoke to me readily when I raised the matter with them, but I was told that the organisation's membership of A.B.T.A. ceased about the time when the person who brought the case to me paid his deposit. We have failed so far in correspondence to get anything other than excuses that the principal of the organisation is abroad. It is not my intention to name the organisation concerned. I am prepared to wait a little longer for an explanation but, should no explanation and understanding be reached, I shall not hesitate to seek an opportunity to address the House further on this matter and reveal the name of the organisation.
707 I have recited some case histories which, in my view, fully justify the relevant Clauses to which I have made reference. I welcome the Bill. I assure my right hon. Friend the Minister of State of my support for these measures, which I am sure will receive the support of the whole House.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
I hope the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Haseldine) will forgive me if I do not follow him closely. I feel that there is some impression that nothing has been done in the past to protect the public from false or misleading statements about merchandise. This is quite untrue, and many of us were in the House when my right hon. Friend led on the Merchandise Marks Act, 1963, which put much more bite into this subject than ever existed in legislation before. Everybody here will give general approval to any efforts that may be made in still further improving the situation. In particular, this legislation is aimed at bringing together and consolidating into a new Act the Merchandise Marks legislation introduced between 1887 and 1953. Molony made it clear that any new legislation that was introduced ought to be of such a simple character that it would be clearly understood by the vast number of people to whom it might apply, and who, under its provisions, might find themselves before the courts.
My right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out—because of his special legal knowledge—that in several ways the present Bill does not conform to this requirement of the Molony Committee. I feel sure that the right hon. Gentleman will bear this in mind during the remaining stages of the Bill and do his best to ensure that it is simplified as much as possible. Whilst giving reasonable attention to the consumer, we must not make impossible demands or impose unduly harsh penalties on manufacturers or intermediate traders, or create a situation in which the risk of a person innocently breaking the law automatically finding himself branded as a criminal or involved in the tiresome and costly business of proving himself innocent in the courts. I submit that as the Bill now stands there is a considerable danger of this.
708 The Bill, based on Molony, was given very careful scrutiny in another place, which is illustrated by the fact that about 90 Amendments were put down. Whilst admitting and appreciating this, it in no way releases this House from the responsibility of giving the Bill another close examination to insure that its provisions are fair, equitable and workable.
Since 1953 when the last Merchandise Marks Act was introduced, consumer merchandising in this country has undergone radical—one might almost say revolutionary—changes. Television advertising was not introduced until two years after the last Merchandise Marks Act—that was on 22nd September, 1955. It was a revolutionary new method of advertising, combining the illustration with animation and speech delivered right into the home. Of course it had an enormous impact on merchandising and the Government have illustrated the effect it had by saying that it has persuaded or induced people to smoke cigarettes, which is damaging to health, and that it shall no longer be allowed. This is a mark of the importance of this new medium of television advertising.
It is interesting to recall the first advertisements on that day. They were for toothpaste, drinking chocolate, margarine, motor spirit, tyres and beef extract—nothing that lends itself too much to exaggeration. But this, of course, has come along with various other commodities. Television put into the hands of the manufacturer and advertiser is the almost perfect medium to induce impulse buying. Many people, I believe, doubted the wisdom of introducing the medium into this country for that reason.
I should like to know whose is the responsibility in future under this Bill if there is a false or misleading statement about the merchandise advertised. Is it to be the responsibility of the originator of the advertisement? Is it to be the advertising company, or is it to be the television authority because they put it on? This subject should be given some consideration. The medium can be used more persuasively and unscrupulously than probably any other medium for advertising or merchandising.
However, although some of the "puffs" used on television may be highly 709 exaggerated—and perhaps the Bill will ensure that they are not so exaggerated in future—this is a medium which is generally used with responsibility by those who occupy the screen.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
May I remind my hon. Friend that there is a statutory responsibility on the Independent Television Authority and that executive action is taken by the independent television companies to vet every commercial advertisement before it is allowed to be;creened? This is a very strict control. It is to that that we owe so much.
§ Mr. Burden
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Bill will change many things regarding advertising and false descriptions. It is right and proper that we should know those who are responsible. Otherwise, people may be wrongly prosecuted under the Bill.
Another medium which has grown tremendously since the last Merchandise Marks Act—indeed, it has made great strides since the Molony Committee was set up—is mail order. Here there are opportunities for unscrupulous exploitation of the consumer, because the consumer buys purely against illustration and the persuasive wording of highly-skilled copywriters. In many instances, the critical faculties of the buyer are perhaps somewhat blunted by the fact that many mail order sales incorporate credit terms which may blur people's judgment of values.
I make no widespread allegations in this matter. On the contrary, I wish to make it perfectly clear that the vast majority of mail order houses are highly responsible and reputable. Most of them are large organisations which submit all the merchandise which they supply to the closest scrutiny, as they do in their advertisements and the conditions of sale and particularly their description of the merchandise. We have moved into another new area of merchandising since 1953 which illustrates the wisdom of introducing legislation to deal with the conditions and circumstances of today.
I refer to the enormous growth of prepackaging and the dangers of it. The House will agree, I think, that a vast amount of merchandise is attractively pre-packed. There is no opportunity for the buyer, particularly the man and 710 woman shopper, to apply to it the old shopping tests which applied in the past and to handle and compare the merchandise. That is impossible, because the goods are enclosed in attractive packaging and cannot be readily broken. The fact is, however, that if one article were put alongside another and one was not quite as well packed as the other, although the value was probably a little better, the article which was most attractively packed would attract the shopper. This illustrates the need for ensuring that an accurate description of the merchandise is put on the wrapper.
I agree that deliberately false and misleading descriptions should be the subject of heavy penalties. The penalties in the Bill are quite heavy—a fine of up to £400 on summary conviction, or up to two years or a fine on conviction on indictment, or both. We do not want draconian penalties to be imposed on the fool or the person who makes a genuine error or who cannot know. As the Bill is drafted, there is the danger of that happening. Clause 1 makes it clear that anyone guilty of applyinga false trade description to any goods; or (b) supplies or offersfor saleany goods to which a false … description is applied; shall … be guilty of an offence".This is a provision of strict liability, whether the offender be the manufacturer, the intermediate supplier or the village shopkeeper.
The village shop is perhaps the prime example of a shop which has a large amount of pre-packed goods and the shopkeeper cannot possibly know whether what is declared on the package or by the manufacturer is true. They have not the experience or knowledge to know that by testing. The responsibility of the shopkeeper, and the retailer, should be put into proper perspective, which is not done in the Bill.
§ Mr. Gardner
I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman, but is not his point covered in that part of the Bill dealing with defences which refers to the default of another person?
§ Mr. Burden
If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will come to that.
It cannot be the Government's intention to make it virtually impossible to 711 prove a defence, given that all the provisions of paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 23(1) have to be fulfilled. May I refer to the phrase "due diligence", which appears in Clause 23(1,b)? A person may take all reasonable precautions to ensure that he does not break the law, but how, in addition, is he to exercise "due diligence". What exactly does that mean? Is he meant to open the package in which the merchandise is confined to see whether it complies with the description on the outside? I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) that we may have gone too far and that to have only the words "all reasonable precautions" would be satisfactory.
It must be right to modify the Bill so that the heavy punishment which it provides apply only when there is reasonable proof that a false trade description has been given intentionally or recklessly, and I notice that the word "recklessly" is included in the provisions which deal with services. Why can it not be used in the Clause which deals with general merchandise? Will the right hon. Gentleman give this matter careful consideration?
§ Mr. Darling indicated assent.
§ Mr. Burden
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for indicating that he will.
Clause 4 provides that for his defence and advertising agent has only to prove that he received the offending advertisement in the ordinary course of business and had no reason to suspect that its publication would amount to an offence. The wise advertising agent will get a letter from his client taking responsibility for the material in the advertisement, for that will give him a complete defence.
Clause 32(b) exempts trade marks registered before the passing of the Bill from the risk of prosecution. It seems unfair to extend exemption only to existing trade marks when the Trade Marks Register provides a separate classification of marks which do not have a descriptive element and which are not likely to be taken as misleading, such as those specified in paragraph (a). The exemption should be extended to new trade 712 marks registered after a period of seven years during which there has been no dispute about misrepresentation.
The right hon. Gentleman touched on another matter of considerable importance. It is intended that three years after the Royal Assent has been given to the Bill, it shall no longer be necessary for imports to be marked with the country of origin, or to be marked "Foreign" or "Empire made", so that there will be no distinction between goods made abroad and those made in the United Kingdom. I know that the Molony Committee said that it saw no true virtue in this marking. On the other hand, it saw nothing against it. The Government may have other views, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the textile industry, in which I am engaged, views with considerable concern the intention to remove from imported textiles a clear indication that they have not been manufactured in the United Kingdom. Even if there is no real risk, many people would like to know whether the merchandise which they buy has come from abroad, or been manufactured in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Darling
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has studied this part of the Bill as closely as he may have studied other parts. We are strengthening these provisions. The transitional period of three years is to keep things going, if need be, while the new methods of marking imported goods come into operation.
§ Mr. Burden
May I take it from that helpful intervention that there is no long-term intention of removing the indication of the country of origin, or the indication that goods are foreign?
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Gentleman has not listened carefully to what I was saying. In future, assuming that the case is made out for marking goods with the country of origin, instead of being marked "Foreign" they will have to be marked, "Made in Portugal", or "Made in Hong Kong", or "Made in West Germany", or wherever it may be. That is the way in which we intend to do it, but this is a matter for discussion. As I said in my speech, different circumstances will determine the precise way in which it is done.
§ Mr. Burden
That is most encouraging. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be reminded of that undertaking and we shall do our utmost to persuade him that it is wise to take the steps which he has suggested might be taken.
It should be made clear that Clause 6 refers to goods offered to the public and does not apply the powers of the weights and measures inspectors to wholesalers and that it is not necessary for them to deal with false descriptions until the point at which the goods are in the shops. If that is done and if the precautions necessary to protect the retailer are laid down, ally prosecution resulting from a false description by the manufacturer or the intermediary will come home to him through reports made at the point of sale to the public, and it will be easy to lodge the prosecution at the point where the offence originated. Apart from those matters to which I should like the right hon. Member to give attention, like my right hon. and hon. Friends, in general I give the Bill a considerable welcome.
§ 6.38 p.m
§ Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) will forgive me if I do not comment on all he said, although I agreed with much of it. I certainly agree that at this stage we should not engage in an argument about who did what or who did not do what for consumer protection. We have been waiting for the Bill for a long time under both Governments. It is noticeable that it took a long time after the agitation for the setting up of the Molony Committee to implement its recommendations. I suspect that one of the reasons is that manufacturers, advertisers, retailers and wholesalers have the constant ear of the Government, whereas the consumer does not always have that ear, or at least, until recently, has not shouted into it loudly enough. I hope that we can all welcome the Bill at long last and do what we can to improve it.
Nor do I want to quarrel with my hon. (Mr. Haseldine) with whom I share a great deal in common—not least, the high cost of living in a certain part of South-West London. Unlike him, I am not very unhappy about the change in the name of this legislation in another place. A rose 714 by any other name, albeit a belated rose, is none the less welcome. I am much more concerned with what the Bill provides than with its title.
In welcoming the Bill I ought also to declare a personal interest, since before I entered the House I was responsible for the development of consumer educational services in the Co-operative movement and in that capacity shared, I hope, a not inconsiderable part in the agitation for further action. The Co-operative movement can claim to have been the first in the field in seeking to educate the consumer. It was a great pleasure subsequently to see local authorities and other bodies continuing the job which we began.
That interest led me to the general conclusion about consumer legislation that there is probably a limit to what the law can do to protect stupid people from making stupid mistakes. Given that we maintain our vigilance on matters of health and safety, the Bill is probably—at least, I hope that it is—the last of this line of consumer legislation. Therefore, it is important that we get it right at the start.
The big job now is to educate the consumer much more effectively than in the past. I should like to see much more of this work being done not only by voluntary organisations, as in the Cooperative movement, but by local authorities, in educating young people. It was a great pleasure recently to be involved in a conference of youth leaders from Derbyshire when, as an act of policy, the Derbyshire County Education Committee sought to turn youth clubs into little consumer groups so that the young person who was getting married could be more vigilant and prepared for the difficult task of choosing among what the shopkeeper and the manufacturer had to offer.
It was always argued that the consumer had legitimate protection under common law. The idea expressed in the Latin tag caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—was valid enough in the days when the customer could touch, understand and be familiar with everything which he or she was buying. The reason we have the Bill is that that is clearly no longer true. We can no longer rely on the protection of the common law, since it is now virtually impossible in many circumstances for a 715 consumer to know precisely what he or she is getting.
It is worth recalling briefly the kind of changes which have taken place to make the Bill necessary. For a start, we now have much more to spend. We all welcome this, but it makes choice much more difficult. It means that the consumer who, in the past, just about scraped through with enough to eat, now has to take important decisions involving a great deal of his or her income, including decisions about very large items, not merely expensive package tours, but expensive items of furniture and motor cars; and under the constant pressure of the hire-purchase salesman.
I did not know how far that had gone until, the other day, I discussed it with a local trader. I was surprised to learn that, from a dealer's point of view, hire purchase is now better than a cash transaction because some of the hire-purchase companies provide the retailer and dealer with a discount on every hire-purchase commitment which is entered into. Consequently, there is great pressure upon people to take on hire-purchase commitments and, perhaps—this is my fear—to take on bigger commitments than they might otherwise wish to do. This affects even the employees of a dealer who often get a bonus on every hire-purchase form which is completed. Thus there is constant pressure for us as consumers to take on very heavy commitments.
There is also the problem of new materials, with which we as consumers cannot be expected to be familiar. I suppose that any Yorkshire man or woman could tell the worth of a piece of worsted cloth simply by looking at it, feeling it and, perhaps, smelling it, but none of us, even if we had time to read all the technical jargon, can keep up with the virtues or otherwise of synthetic fibres which seem to come on to the market almost daily.
Then there are the complicated products which we now purchase. Few of us are electronic engineers, few of us are even simple electricians, and we cannot possibly know the worth or qualities, or the honesty of an advertisement relating to, a vacuum cleaner, washing machine or many other of the myriad gadgets which our wives seem to want.
716 Shopping habits have changed. There has been a revolution in retailing. We now want to shop very quickly. When I was working in Birmingham, an important local retailer told me that the bulk of his trade was done in one hour between one o'clock and two o'clock in the afternoon, when all the working wives in the vicinity rushed into the one big store which happened to be open conveniently in the centre of the town to do their grocery shopping. So we have to rush through the shop and take things at their face value.
We also have to take our commodities packaged. Packaging has now reached the stage that we cannot buy meat unless it is wrapped in cellophane and placed under coloured lighting, so that we cannot really tell, even if we knew, whether Scotch beef should be blood red or slightly blue. Even if we knew what to look for, we could not see it. It seems to me that we are determined to prevent the consumer from seeing what she is getting.
Parallel with that is the fact that the consumer now has fewer staff to advise her when shopping. This again is part of the revolution. The entry of the supermarkets and self-service methods means that the skilled grocer or butcher has been replaced by a boy or girl, perhaps on a part-time basis, whose job is merely to put things on the shelf. Therefore, the advice which was obtainable in the past is no longer available.
Finally, there is the constant pressure of advertising, expenditure on which amounted last year to over £600 million, in an attempt to persuade us.
All of this led the President of the American Consumers' Union a little while ago to describe the consumer asA dumb colossus standing at the corner of Paradox Street and Pressure Group Alley",Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, beguiled perhaps by the advertisers, certainly wooed by the sharks and occasionally left penniless at the altar and with no trade union to back her up or speak on her behalf.
We always refer to the consumer in the feminine gender. I do not know why, because my experience is that we males are much worse consumers in that we are often unable to make the wisest choice. Consumers like myself are usually scared 717 to death of the retailer; we take the first thing which is offered to us and we face a telling off when we get home.
For all these reasons, it is necessary to tighten up. Having given the consumer, to whom we still refer as "her", a voice through the Consumer Council, we must now give her the assurance of honesty.
To deal with one or two specific points in the Bi11, I welcome particularly the provisions for enforcement in Clause 25. I am sure that the great weakness of the Merchandise Marks Acts was not the provisions of the Acts, but the lack of provision for enforcement and the fact that it was left to a voluntary agency to initiate prosecutions to protect its own members from getting a bad name. I therefore welcome the fact that local authorities are now given the power to undertake prosecutions. I hope that the result will not merely be that local authorities expand their departments to enable them to undertake prosecutions, but that they will expand in another direction, because, as my hon. Friends have suggested, if we get proper consumer protection departments, members of the public will know where to go if they want information.
I think that it is necessary, albeit in certain limited cases, for the Board of Trade to prosecute, particularly when a point of general principle is involved. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend intends to take this power, and to use it.
§ Mr. Darling
The power is provided for in the Bill. The power to prosecute is there, but we put an obligation on the local authorities and there is, ipso facto,an obligation on the Board of Trade as well.
§ Mr. Gardner
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sure he agrees that the points which have been made about constant and frivolous prosecutions could be met if the Board of Trade was prepared to take action, initially, when important cases come to its notice, so that some of the issues can be settled in a court of law.
To turn, now, to the difficult question of oral misdescription. I have had some experience in the training of retail staff. There is always the fear that if one is asking a boy or girl to take on great 718 responsibility, the retailer may feel that he cannot give the boy or girl that responsibility, and therefore tells him or her to say nothing. If this were done, it would mitigate an important aspect of the protection which we are trying to provide, namely, ensuring that the consumer gets the right kind of information.
On the other hand, I do not see how we can avoid including the oral misdescription Clause. It is important to be able to get at the shark. On the whole, it is the shark who will suffer. I do not believe that, given a few prosecutions, this fear on the part of reputable retailers will continue. I think I am right in saying that the oral offence is already included in the Weights and Measures Act, and in the Food and Drugs Act. There is no evidence of this having had a disastrous effect on the retail trade. I certainly have not received any complaints about it doing so. What is certain is that we must have some kind of protection not merely against the written claim, but also against the oral one.
How far are the definitions in Clause 3 of a false trade description intended to go? It has always seemed to me that deliberately dishonest advertisements, or deliberately dishonest statements of fact, are very rare. Much more important are descriptions by implication. For example, one sometimes sees an advertisement showing a young man walking in the rain, and wearing a raincoat. One assumes that the coat is waterproof in some way. Will the general definition in the Clause include this kind of thing?
How far will Clause 3(4) go? Will it, for example, cover the claim that the product has the approval of a group of doctors, or a group of experts in the field? I gather that the Bill covers the point that the description has the support of some kind of approvals body, but can this Clause be stretched to cover the suggestion that the product is approved by a doctor, or that the product in an advertisement is a first-class one recommended by a research chemist, or a scientific director? I am not sure just how far we ought to go, but perhaps we can be told what the Government intend.
Clause 11 is a difficult one, and I sympathise with many of the points which have been made. Resale price maintenance has gone, and we have little on 719 which to work. I am heartily sick and tired of going into a shop and seeing a notice saying "2d. off", and asking "2d. off what?" I have never been able to find out. It is impossible to discover what price the special offer relates to, and I hope that despite all the comments made in the other place, and despite the views of various interested parties, my right hon. Friend will not weaken too much when he comes to consider the redrafting of the Clause, because this is the largest area of offence from the consumer's point of view. The consumer has a right to know whether she is getting a bargain, and she cannot know this until she knows what relationship the price on offer bears to the normal price. I see the difficulty in finding a suitable form of words, but I suggest to my right hon. Friend——
§ Mr. Burden
This poses an important question, because in many instances firms buy in for a sale. They have articles which are specifically manufactured for sale, and are sold as sale articles, but the prices have not been reduced.
§ Mr. Gardner
Nobody wants to prevent somebody making a genuine sale offer, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider the suggestions which have been made by the Retail Trading Standards Association, which has considerable experience in the operation of the Merchandise Marks Act, for a new Clause 11. I am sure that if we weaken on this issue, if we find ourselves with a Clause which does not really cover the falsely cut price, we shall neglect our duty to the consumer.
One Clause which worries me considerably is Clause 23, which provides certain defences. The House ought to bear in mind that we are repealing the Mer- chandise Marks Acts. With all their failing and lack of enforcement, they were pretty tough in setting out the offences and in providing a basis for prosecution. Having looked at Clause 23 (1,a), and combined it with the general definition of a false trade description in Clause 3, I fear that a shark, given a good lawyer, will find a loophole in the Bill big enough to drive a coach and horses through.
What is meant byreliance on information supplied to him"?720 Let us consider our friend the itinerant carpet salesman. Will it be a defence to say, "I got my secretary to phone and ask whether the stuff was any good"? Precisely what does it mean? I doubt whether the phrase should remain in the Bill, since it will provide a defence wide enough for almost anyone to get away with it.
I welcome the Bill. It is a very good Measure and I hope that the House will treat it seriously, and non-politically, and seek to alter it for the better. It is an important milestone in the battle for consumer protection, and I am sure that it will be welcomed, not only by consumers, but by reputable traders as well.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
I welcome the fact that the name of this Bill was changed to the Trade Descriptions (No. 2) Bill in another place. I have been interested in the debate because the emphasis on this Measure has been from the point of view of consumer protection. I suggest that there is a danger that perhaps this side has been over-emphasised, because it is politically attractive. The people who give us the vote—the housewife and the man in the street—are more interested in consumer protection and will welcome the Bill.
I have been looking at this Measure with an entirely different set of spectacles since it was first published before the last Election. I have been looking at it in terms of trade descriptions. Trade marks involve the reputation and quality of the goods from our factories, particularly in the export markets. I have not therefore been looking at this Bill so much from the point of view of consumer protection.
My contribution will be brief. I welcome the fact that this is a consumer protection Measure, but I wish to make quite certain that the aspect of the whole concept of trade description, as I have understood it, has not been forgotten and will not be going by default.
The Minister of State knows that I was concerned with consumer protection on the Trading Stamp Act. He and I were also concerned with the last Weights and Measures legislation.
I welcome the fact that Sheffield has been mentioned as having an adequate 721 consumer advisory service. But activities under the Merchandise Marks Acts, particularly the registration of trade names and trade descriptions, have been a main feature of the industry of Sheffield for generations—even centuries—in connection with special steel and cutlery. My brief contribution will be concentrated on this aspect.
Rightly or wrongly, I have always regarded a trade mark as a symbol of prestige both at home and abroad. Dealing with chinaware or pottery, such symbols as Wedgwood and Crown Derby are household names throughout the world for quality. This is something of which we should be proud.
The symbol RR on an aircraft is symbolic of a name well-known throughout the world as being associated with some of the best aircraft engines.
Sheffield, too, is jealous of its trade marks. Naturally the nature of its trade is changing. The Cutlers' Company, of which I happen to be a searcher, was incorporated in 1624. Had I lived three centuries ago, I would have been expected to exercise the right to enter manufacturing factories as a member of the Cutlers' Company. By 1860 its activities were extended to steels, saws and edge tools as well as cutlery. Its activities were extended to metals in 1888, whether wrought, unwrought or partly wrought. The effect was to make the Sheffield Register a branch of the Patent Office for registration of all marks used on metal goods by persons carrying on business in Hallamshire, which is not unconnected with my constituency and where I live.
The 1905 Trade Marks Act and the 1938 Act has involved Sheffield. I ask the Minister to assure me that there is no change in this respect.
Dealing with the question of prestige, there has been some concern over the last century in protecting the name "Sheffield". I should imagine that this is very much the concern of other industries and institutions and individual companies, but in a slightly different context. In 1911 a defence fund was created, which was again renewed in 1962. The purpose was to suppress the misuse of the word "Sheffield". It will not take much imagination for hon. Members to realise that "Sheffield" is a very attractive name and if someone sets up a factory in another Sheffield, he might 722 imply a false description that steel has been made in Sheffield, England, and not elsewhere. It is not very difficult to set up a Sheffield factory elsewhere in the world—not Sheffield in geographical description—and still mark the goods "Sheffield". It seems to me that Clause 34, concerning goods coming into this country, would be helpful in protecting this name, because it states:For the purposes of this Act goods shall be deemed to have been manufactured or produced in the country in which they last underwent a treatment or process resulting in a substantial change.The point here is that the Minister has power to specify and make orders. But this Clause by itself, unless he acts on it, is useless.
The most important thing is not so much goods coming into this country, but goods on sale throughout the world. If one is selling something in the Far East, the person in the Far East will not know the difference between Sheffield, England, Sheffield, America, or Sheffield, South America. Where there has been infringement the defence fund has been very much used. I would like the Minister to consider this aspect not only for goods made in Sheffield. which happens to be a name of interest to the Minister and myself, but for every other activity.
This brings me to a problem which is of immense concern to manufacturers in this country. Admittedly, I have been associated with cutlery, small tools and special steels, There are two important points. The first is that all imported goods should be marked with the country of origin; not just a general description such as "Empire" or Foreign". Until the exchange took place between the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) I was uncertain that this was the case. If cutlery, toys and domestic goods are all in the same category, can we have a categorical assurance that goods coming in will now be named with the country of origin? This would go a long way not only to safeguard the consumer, which is all-important, but give the manufacturer at home a better chance in our own markets. Very often a person could go into a shop in Sheffield to buy scissors and assume they might be made in Sheffield, but in many cases it is difficult to know where they have been made. The Minister of State and I have had many such instances brought to our attention.
723 The second thing is that there should be strict control whereby the genuine country of origin of any goods should be marked on the goods. The problem in the cutlery industry is that blanks can he made in Japan, Hong Kong or elsewhere, and sent into this country to be finished in Sheffield or elsewhere. Clause 15 will help in this respect and to a certain extent also Clause 16, which is the restriction on definitions. However, this still does not help about the position of goods that are brought into the country and then may have not so much a wrong or misleading source of origin, but an indefinite source of origin. I asked the Minister of State a number of questions on this. I have tried to get the source of origin marked on the invoices for goods shipped into this country. I find that there are only seven countries who have asked us to do this in return.
The Minister of State gave us many assurances and it is essential that we deal with this one, but another issue has cropped up. Under Clause 34, which is very much more helpful, supposing cheap components such as those for wireless sets or blanks for cutlery are made in the Far East and sent to Europe or Ireland or somewhere else and the finished goods are then marked "Made in Holland", "Made in France", "Made in Belgium". "Made in Ireland", where have they in fact been made? This means a close scrutiny of the powers that the Minister has under Clause 34 of this Bill. I shall ask my hon. Friends to do this in Standing Committee.
I have discussed all these problems with emphasis on protecting the prestige and good name of manufacturers in this country. This should be the concern of both consumer and manufacturer. There are many manufacturers who want to maintain British quality, but are in the dilemma of having to meet cheap price competition. When British manufactures and products are in competition with cheap prices from overseas, but where quality is maintained no British manufacturer can complain. But in those instances where there is no indication that quality has declined, the consumer will not know this is the case. It is a little hard if a home-based company, factory or industry is blamed for faulty components which were not only made in 724 Europe or nearby, but made from cheap assemblies which may not match quality specification expected from goods made in this country. This has happened in the case of scissors sold in Sheffield for instance.
I will ask my hon. Friends to press in Committee to see what sort of Regulations the Minister will specify in Clause 34. Powers have existed and I wish to see them used. Perhaps we might also emphasise, by way of Amendment to Clause 8, the need for a statement of the country of origin.
I hope that I have emphasised something which has not been mentioned so far in this debate and that hon. Members will appreciate this point of view. I do not seek to belittle the consumer protection aspects of the Bill, but there is another side, and I am relieved that manufacturers and consumers will have a much better opportunity to know the country of origin of the goods with which we will have to compete.
Of equal importance is the maintenance of the prestige developed, perhaps, in the Victorian era of our trade marks and merchandise marks pattern and we should not allow modern methods of communication and selling to bring it down. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with this. If she cannot do so tonight, perhaps the Minister of State will give me this assurance in writing later.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester Wythenshawe)
Although I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, (Mr. Osborn) I must congratulate him on his political acumen. In particular, there was such admirable repetition of the word "Sheffield" that I thought he came close to advertising——
§ Mr. Morris
As the right hon. Gentleman says, at least he was not misleading. The hon. Member made an interesting and valuable speech which, when we come to read it in HANSARD, we shall probably regard as the "Sheffield speech" of this debate. I will refer later to Sheffield, a city which has played an important rôle in consumer protection in recent years.
725 But first let me emphasise that we waited a long time for the Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection and have waited a very long time for the Bill. I welcome it and congratulate the Minister of State both on its content and the manner in which it was introduced. It will help consumers and honest traders alike and will be widely appreciated and welcomed in the country.
It is a far more substantial Bill than the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) suggested. He was in some difficulty, since he did not want to praise too much a Bill which the Conservative Government could itself have brought in. So he tended to minimise its importance and even suggested that the name of the Molony Committee was wrong. Of course, the Bill is carrying into legislative effect some of the most important recommendations of the Committee on Consumer Protection.
§ Sir K. Joseph
In fact, it carries into effect some of the recommendations of Part V, the Merchandise Marks Acts Part of the Report, which has seven Parts.
§ Mr. Morris
Nevertheless, it carries into effect important recommendations of the Committee on Consumer Protection.
Nor was the right hon. Gentleman on a substantial point when he supported what the other place had done to the name of the Bill. Without wishing to show unreasonable political bias, I would say that there is a clear difference between the two sides on consumer protection. Certainly, there are some hon. Members opposite who are as keen as some of us on this side about consumer protection. I have cause to remember the Bill introduced in the last Session by the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) about doorstep selling, of which I was a sponsor.
But I should say that there is more pressure for consumer protection legislation upon a Labour Government than one normally sees on a Conservative Government——
§ Mr. Morris
The hon. Gentleman denies this, but I will argue that the Conservative Party has a great deal of which to be ashamed in the past year over consumer protection.
726 I and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange, Mrs. Braddock, tabled an Early Day Motion last summer which said:That this House, recognising the benefits to the community resulting from the provisions of adequate consumer advice and information services at local level, regrets the action of the Central Purchasing Committee of the Liverpool City Council in seeking to reverse the decision to establish a Municipal Consumer Protection Department …The Liverpool City Council subsequently approved the recommendation of its central purchasing committee and this was a straight party political decision.
What had happened between the decision to institute a Consumer Protection Department and the decision to discontinue this department was that the council had changed hands. The Labour Party controlled Liverpool until last May and when the Conservatives took over they decided to discontinue a forward-looking service to which both the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam paid tribute in the form in which it exists in Sheffield and Bristol.
Moreover, I notice that my proposal for a consumers' advisory service in Manchester has not made much progress in recent months. It is now thought that the city should await the outcome of this Bill, but I take the view that local authorities should be anticipating its enactment by going ahead, as Sheffield and Bristol have done and as Liverpool was doing until the Conservatives took control, with the setting up of local consumer protection services.
There is an even more important point we should notice about the difference dividing the two sides of the House on this question. The Labour movement has within it the greatest consumers' organisation in this country, and probably in the world. The Co-operative movement supports, and is proud to support, the Labour Party at elections both national and local. It is the consumers' wing of the Labour movement. And the Government should recognise, perhaps more than has been recognised so far during its period of office, not only the value but also the vital importance of its connection with the Co-operative movement.
There always has been and will continue to be pressure for increased consumer protection from the Co-operative 727 movement. Indeed the movement is the pioneer of consumer protection in this country. And I hope hon. Members opposite will recognise that those of us who have a close relationship with the Cooperative movement take a particular pleasure in this Bill having been introduced by a Minister who has a close personal connection with our movement.
Consumer protection is not, however, as well organised as it should be. Workers' and employers' organisations exert much more social and economic power than consumers. Many official committees, even including committees which have reported recently, have given less than proper weight to evidence submitted by the Co-operative movement. This is why I emphasise that the movement is still the most representative organisation of consumers in this country. Nevertheless, in spite of all that it has done and all that the Consumer Council and other national and local organisations do, there is a great need for more concern in this House about consumer protection. For that reason I am somewhat disappointed that this debate has not been better supported. In referring to particular Clauses in the Bill, I hope that Clause 42 will be amended to make this the Consumer Protection Act, 1968. And I hope that the Bill will become an Act very early in 1968.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that Clause 25 is very important. It gives the local authorities an important place in the work involved in carrying the Bill into effect. By giving local authorities a central place in the field of consumer protection, we are taking a most important step in the right direction. In Sheffield and Bristol a positive contribution is being made by the local consumer advisory services which have been established. They do not exist for the purpose of litigation but to create the right climate in which traders and consumers can have a better relationship than they have had before. This is why Clause 25 is so important and why local services can be of such positive value. Their main value will be in improving relations between those who sell and those who buy.
Clause 11, which prohibits false indications concerning the price of any goods, will be welcomed both by consumers and 728 reputable traders. And I agree with my right hon. Friend on Clause 5. Notwithstanding the difficulties about which he clashed with the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), the Clause should help to strengthen the law about false advertising. My right hon. Friend recognises that this is extremely difficult. It is, of course, easy to criticise what is proposed, but I am sure he will be looking for constructive criticism in Committee to see if any improvement can be suggested.
One of the most controversial Clauses is Clause 4, which states that oral statements may amount to an abuse of a trade description. The Molony Committee drew attention to the fact that the Merchandise Marks Acts did not cover oral misdescription. I agree, in principle, that the consumer should be protected against oral descriptions of goods which are false or grossly misleading. But I see very difficult problems arising here. There is a great deal of substance in the arguments of the Molony Committee which said in paragraph 650:If oral misdescription became a criminal offence, we would expect a marked increase in prosecutions and the outcome would depend, in a high proportion, on whether the customer or the shopkeeper was believed. We are doubtful whether, in the long run, the consumer would benefit from such invidious conflicts.The Committee concluded that extension of the law in this respect would not be justified.
Considerable difficulty may also arise under Clause 4(3) which states:Where goods are supplied in pursuance of a request in which a trade description is used and the circumstances are such as to make it reasonable to infer that the goods are supplied as goods corresponding to that trade description, the person supplying the goods shall be deemed to have applied that trade description to the goods.A customer asking for a garment made wholly of nylon who is supplied with a garment of a mixture of nylon and wool would have a case against the store under the provisions of this Clause. There are, however, a number of safeguards for the shopkeeper in Clause 23 which might meet the situation if an oral misdescription was made without intent to deceive. I hope that when replying to the debate the Parliamentary Secretary will address herself to that point.
729 This Bill is not the end of the road to consumer protection. Such is the ingenuity of those who live on the fringe of the law—and some are living very well on the fringe of the law—that the Bill may even throw up entirely new problems. But it is a step in the right direction and one which we should all warmly welcome. Of course, the consumer is not always right. I heard from Bristol's consumer advisory service of a woman who complained about the shrinkage of a woollen jumper she had bought by mail order. On inquiry the Bristol consumer advisory officer found that it was not the garment that was at fault but that the lady's vital statistics had been misdescribed. I understand that a mutually satisfactory settlement was arrived at through the help of the Bristol Consumer Advisory Officer. We must not fall over backwards in suggesting that the consumer is always right. But I very warmly welcome the Bill as a step forward and I congratulate my right hon. Friend.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
I will not follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), particularly in his review of the activities of the Liverpool City Corporation and his review of the Co-operative movement, save that I join him in giving a general welcome to the purposes of the Bill. The Minister of State said that he intended the Bill as a charter for fair trading. No one can dispute the need for that. The question to which we must address our minds is: though we intend to produce a charter for fair trading, have we succeeded in doing so?
This is a subject on which an Act should be tough and robust, at the same time fair and just, but, above all, easily understood. What we are seeking to do, broadly—there will be no disagreement about this in any part of the House—is to protect the consumer against what is, basically, dishonesty—that is, against a false statement which is made either deliberately or recklessly and upon which a consumer can be expected to rely.
My general criticism of the Bill is that it appears to me that the Parliamentary draftsmen have been too clever by half and have finished by providing a paradise for the lawyers. After all, the Bill purports 730 to replace the Merchandise Marks Acts, 1887–1953, Acts which successive Lords Chief Justice. have described as most difficult to construe and which have given rise to many appeals. The Bill, which one would have thought would simplify the situation, contains many unnecessary obscurities. It is astonishing that no greater attempt has been made to set out the law on these important matters, which affect the ordinary, everyday trading of ordinary people, in clear language which justices of the peace and others concerned in its administration can understand.
Large numbers of business men and consumers—indeed, all of us—are concerned with the manufacture, sale and purchase of goods of all kinds. What do these people desire to do? They desire only to understand the law and to obey it. It is, therefore, essential that a Bill such as this should be written in clear language, first from the business man's point of view.
Great difficulty arose in understanding whether the old Merchandise Marks Acts applied to advertisements. Is a description in an advertisement published in a newspaper, or in an advertisement on television, where extravagant claims are often to be found, considered to constitute an application of a trade description to the goods within the definition contained in Clauses 4 and 5? Clearly it should be. Clearly the Government think that it does. I have considerable doubts about this basic point. If this is intended, as it clearly is, why should it not be stated clearly and unequivocally in the text of the Bill?
I come to some more detailed criticisms. The definition of "trade description" in Clause 2 may turn out to be not as wide as under the old Acts. Section 3 of the Merchandise Marks Act, 1887 made it an offence inaccurately to describe goods as to their standard of quality according to a classification commonly used or recognised in the trade—for example, according to British Standards specifications or qualities approved by official organisations.
This specific reference to quality has been omitted from the Bill. "Quality" is a common word in common use. Why not include it? The ordinary man in the street understands what is meant when 731 the word "quality" is used. Why wrap up the limitations on the use of phrases in obscure language when everybody knows that false descriptions as to quality are to be found in so many forms of advertisement? If the ordinary television viewer who sees a false description is asked, "What was that falsity?", he will say, "It is false as to its quality". Why cannot the Bill say this simply?
The right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), who has a great deal of experience of the Merchandise Marks Acts, referred to Clause 3. Subsection (1) is perfectly sensible:A false trade description is a trade description which is false to a material degree.Any magistrate can understand that. What on earth subsection (2) means I do not know. It reads:A trade description which, though not false, is misleading, that is to say, likely to be taken for such an indication of any of the matters specified in section 2 of this Act as would be false to a material degree, shall be deemed to be a false trade description.That is absolute gibberish.
This is where I think that the Parliamentary draftsmen have tried to be too clever by half. Whenever draftsmen try to do the work of the courts for them and introduce qualification after qualification, they end up by creating a paradise for lawyers. How on earth is a common shopkeeper, manufacturer or consumer to understand that provision when I, who have a little experience in the law, do not understand what it means? I doubt if any other lawyer in the House understands what it means. No doubt, I would be prepared to advocate a certain meaning for it if briefed by one side or the other and a court might accept my construction. I believe that it will create unnecessary difficulties. The Courts have always been fairly robust in interpreting the Merchandise Marks Acts. When there is a simple description, as there is in Clause 3 (1), why introduce unnecessary qualifications in obscure language elsewhere in the Bill?
It is also difficult to understand why there has been omitted from the Bill the clear statement that it is wrong to mark goods as being subject to a patent when no such patent exists or when at the date of supply that patent has expired. This 732 is a simple protection which one would expect to see in a Bill of this kind.
Again, the Bill contains no reference to the misuse of trade marks. It is a commonplace in business that names of new products are frequently copied and used by unscrupulous competitors after the originator of the name has advertised goods extensively under that name. It is common practice for persons and firms in the United Kingdom and from abroad to try to cash in or ride on the good will of another trader by imitating the trade marks and devices of others.
Why cannot such a straightforward matter as infringement of trade mark be brought before lay justices for summary trial? At present, a cumbersome and expensive proceeding for infringement of trade mark must be brought in the High Court of Chancery, with appeals to the Court of Appeal and the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. This is a relic of the past and should be changed. What more unsatisfactory procedure could be thought of than to deal with simple business matters of this kind in the High Court of Chancery? Only a very old-established tradition whereby trade marks have always been dealt with in the Chancery Division could justify such nonsense.
§ Mr. Michael Shaw
I thought that I heard the hon. and learned Gentleman say that trade marks were a simple business matter. Admittedly I am not a lawyer, but the little I have had to do with trade marks has convinced me that the subject is far from simple, and the more I have gone into it the more difficult it has become.
§ Mr. Hooson
I think that it is partly the proceedings of the law that have made it difficult. Basically, the question of the trademark, description or registration is a perfectly simple matter. We have chosen to make it more difficult and obscure than it need be.
I have taken the advice of one of our leading trade mark counsel on this point, because I am not an expert in these matters. Whether one label or trade mark is similar to another is largely a question of first impression. Therefore, what more suitable tribunal is there than a bench of lay justices familiar with the ordinary methods of buying and selling goods? 733 What is more inappropriate than to plunge a Chancery judge—no doubt, with a great deal of learning but not, one would have thought, with any business experience—into such matters?
The Bill is of tremendous practical importance, purporting to give effect to important practical recommendations of the Final Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection. But I am very disappointed in it; I do not think that it will achieve what it sets out to achieve. One hon. Member opposite said that the public would be grateful for the protection that it would give them, but it went through my mind then that they would probably have to live a lifetime before they know what protection it gives them.
When, in the modern world, we are so dependent on the description given by manufacturers and sellers, when every person is a consumer, for the public at large are the consumers—they are not a separate class—it is vital that we should express the will of the House in simple language that everyone can understand in a Bill like this.
I am glad to know that the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary will be winding up the debate, for the matter is close to her heart, but I am sure that she cannot feel happy about the wording of the Bill. I would not mind betting that she would find the greatest difficulty in interpreting it without the most expert advice from her Department on it. Why should this House and Parliament pass Bills in this form in 1968?
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) worries me in the same way that the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) worried me, because when lawyers cannot understand the Bill it is right to say that it will be rather difficult for everybody else. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be on the Committee, for the constructive points he raised were suitable for discussion there, and would improve the Bill and make it more comprehensible to the layman.
As a layman I was, unlike the hon. and learned Gentleman, very impressed with the way in which the tremendous Report of the Molony Committee had been 734 boiled down. By hook or by crook, the draftsmen have found a formula to include some of the provisions we wished to see on difficult points, when I imagined that they would not be able to do so. I was so impressed by what the draftsmen have done that I hope I may have similar services to help me with any Measure I succeeded in introducing for consumer protection.
The Bill has been thought about in the House for a long time, and this must be a red letter day for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. For three years after I first entered the House in 1959 I joined with him in trying to catch the eye of your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, on Thursdays to ask when we would get the Molony Report. We waited for Molony, and when it came out we continued to press the Government of that day for the legislation with which to implement it. The Bill is the end of an era of consumer protection legislation. It is the last of the things which Molony foreshadowed, and more or less rounds off what we sought in those days.
A number of hon. Members opposite asked which party was the best champion of the consumer. All I know is that all of us have sought in our own way to improve the housewife's protection, and that cuts right across the Floor of the Chamber. I have sat through many consumer protection debates with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who is a regular. Had we been debating wages today, 100 of my trade union colleagues would have been here, and had we been debating agriculture, 100 Opposition hon. Members would have been present. When it comes to how to protect the ordinary housewife and the family purse, we have the old faithfuls from all three parties.
I deplore the fact that we pay lip service to consumer protection at election times, when we are looking for the women's vote. We all claim that we shall be the party which will protect the consumer if we come to power. But, in fact, it takes us six long years to complete the implementation of the Molony Report. Having got this Measure into the pipeline, we realise that it will be a considerable period before further Parliamentary time is found for legislation to protect the consumer.
735 Like my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Haseldine) and Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) I declare a consumer-co-operative interest. The Co-operative movement, which I seek to serve inside and outside the House, has 124 years' experience of consumer protection. The Rochdale pioneers of 1844 started with the idea that sugar and sand were not compatible mixtures for the housewife. They sought to provide unadulterated food, and succeeded in the last century. In this century the Co-operative movement pioneered clean milk long before legislation was introduced and so reduced the incidence of tuberculosis. The Bill is an extension of the kind of work many of us have tried to do for consumers. I regard it as part of the Housewives' Charter.
§ Mr. Hooson
We have now heard, I think, the third successive plug from the other side of the House for the Cooperative movement. May we also put in a word for Marks and Spencer?
§ Mr. Pavitt
In the House and in the Co-operative movement we have learned quite a lot from Marks and Spencer over the past few years, particularly in its trading methods. I have spent quite a lot of time urging that Government buying departments should adopt similar methods of purchasing.
The consumer is the least glamorous of objectives for politicians. Consumers do not have the political pressure to mount at the right time and place. I am, therefore, grateful to all hon. Members who have sat through the debate helping us to mount it at this time. I believe that in our present economic situation prices are the essential part of any economic strategy. One cannot hold back wages, or increase productivity if there is a runaway price structure. On the other hand one cannot just talk of prices. The important thing is the value of the commodity, its value for money, and that is what we are dealing with now.
Like many other hon. Members, I had a look at the whole question of Clause 4 and the way in which we shall try to do something about oral misdescriptions. I congratulate my hon. Friends on this. I am in a very uncritical mood on this issue. I am highly critical about some 736 other matters before the House, and it is rather a pleasure to be uncritical. Having compared Clause 4 with the Molony Report, I think that the Government have done even better than Molony, which wanted this protection but could not see how to get it by legislation. The Government have succeeded in doing it.
I am interested in the way in which this will be worked out in practice. I was worried that a co-operative society publicly-owned and run by a lay committee, might find an over-zealous employee giving a good puff to his wares and thus placing innocent People in jeopardy. Having looked into that point thoroughly, I am satisfied that the Clause will not have that effect. Under the Food and Drugs Acts and the Weights and Measures Acts, there are very similar provisions but the times they have been used unfairly are negligible, and it is very rarely that they are used at all. Although any such Clause is obviously surrounded by all kinds of problems, I think that in the main it will work out satisfactorily.
§ Mr. Fletcher-Cooke
The hon. Gentleman evidently has information which the Government have not about the number of occasions when, under the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, and the Sale of Food Act, oral misrepresentation or misdescription has been the subject of a prosecution. When I asked the Board of Trade, it said that this was a matter for the local authorities and that it had no statistics on the subject. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has.
§ Mr. Pavitt
No, but I did the same kind of homework as the hon. Gentleman did. I went through a number of channels and I could find no evidence that this had been misused. I am certain that, had it been misused, there would at least have been some evidence. If the hon. and learned Gentleman were able to produce evidence, I would look again at this but I think that the provision will work satisfactorily.
Clause 11 has aroused the most debate. It seeks to protect us as buyers against ourselves as bargain hunters. We all tend to think that if we can get a bargain we should buy it. That has been exploited to the full. I would welcome a change of style in retail distribution, away from the "threepence off" concept 737 and posters which proclaim in large letters that we shall save so much on certain goods, although one knows that the amount of saving over a series of items amounts to very little in the end.
The price to us of this system is in the quality of living. We have first-class architects who design shops and first-class artists who could design good posters easy on the eye. Instead, we clutter up our shops with posters offering threepence or sixpence off and making bargain offers and instead of the modern, light airy shops we could enjoy we have a clutter of persuasion.
I think that it was the late Frank Pick of the London Transport Board who broke new ground by establishing higher standards of poster advertising on the Underground. This was a march forward for every one of us in terms of environment. Perhaps we have had to take a step backwards because of the hurry and pressure to sell, sell, sell, and have reached the stage when our standards of visual appreciation are being debased all the time.
I believe that Clause 11 could be the start of a break-through once again to a more highly civilised environment for the housewife in her shopping. I have a good deal of sympathy with the Board of Trade in trying to work this out. How does one decide what is unfair description? It was said that Beecham's pills were worth a guinea a box, but did anyone think that a guinea was the price of the box? Yet the slogan went on for years. How will the Minister decide what is an unworthy description? However, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is responsible and he has accepted his responsibility. The consumers will be grateful to him.
Another provision which is only the start of what I hope will be further attempts to protect the consumer is Clause 13 and the way in which we have begun to look at services. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Selective Employment Tax because he realised that people were spending more money on services than on goods. While we have sought to give protection on goods the amount of protection on Services is very small and even 738 this Bill only covers a narrow range of them.
I listened with great care to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I felt that he drew this Clause very narrowly as to the way in which one could protect services. I wonder whether the Clause is strong enough to protect where the service is implicit rather than explicit. For instance, when one buys a washing machine or vacuum cleaner or something else for which one pays £70 or £80, one buys it for a period. The understanding is that it will work for a period of time. It may have a year's guarantee but one reckons its life at, say, 10 years. Yet one finds it impossible to get service for such a machine in many cases. One is paying for a service one does not get.
For example, Which? magazine, which has done such a tremendous amount of education of the consumer, recently showed how a hearing aid worn behind the ear—hon. Members may observe that I wear one—costs about £12–£14 to produce but may be retailed at perhaps £65 or £75. That is an extremely wide margin. Yet it can be argued that this margin is because the person who has to wear an aid needs education in how to use it and the aid itself needs a lot of servicing which takes up a lot of time, so that if the firm gives such service there may be justification for at least part of that margin. But if no service is given, then the consumer has really been cheated. We must seek to protect the consumer from that kind of thing.
Another example is rather personal and very much round my neck at the moment. I have a "Hotpoint" washing machine which broke down a month ago. I tried to get through about it to the firm's washing machine service depot in London. Has any hon. Member tried to get through to "Hotpoint" for service? I challenged the managing director to do it and I doubt if he could get through. Any hon. Member who lives in a house or flat with no outside drying facilities knows how difficult it is to deal with a wife when there is a lot of wet washing and the machine has broken down and there is no prospect of repair for weeks.
Finally, I put through a trunk call to "Hotpoint's" headquarters at Lutterworth, near Rugby. I am not saying that 739 it is because I am a Member of Parliament, for I suspect that anyone who puts in a trunk call there would get similar good service, but the firm started to move. The district manager himself called yesterday and the machine, which is a good machine, has been repaired. I am not a housewife. I was able to leave my wife behind amid housewifely frustration during all this trouble and come here to listen to the interesting debates of colleagues.
When it comes to durables, to machinery, there must not only be protection at the time of purchase and in pricing, but adequate service to follow. "Hotpoint" is a large and worth-while manufacturer of very good products and it has informed me that it is completely overhauling its London service depot. I hope that this will be some compensation to those Londoners who may have been affected like we were.
Clause 15 and other provisions deal with imports. It is good if this Bill is to get us away from the 1926 Act, under which the Government had to put orders on so many individual things to make sure that the country of origin was stated. The Orders which have been presented under the 1926 Act cover such things as skewers, fly swatters, drain cleaners, potato mashers, soap savers, drum sticks, rat traps and cymbal stands. With this Bill, I hope that we shall not have the necessity to produce a statutory instrument for each commodity when we want to ensure that the country of origin is stipulated.
We owe a debt to their Lordships for the way they have helped the Bill—except in the title. I would like the original title restored. I welcome the fact that the bulk of enforcement will be by magistrates' courts. This is because of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), that local authorities are building up a consumer protection service and that many have an officer in charge of looking after the consumers in his area. This means that the fact that any enforcement goes through the local magistrates court produces an easier method and a better relationship between the local authority consumer protection officer and the court
740 Nationalised industries are brought within the Bill, and this may present my hon. Friend with a problem. Is it a misdescription to talk about high speed gas? If there is a power cut then it is low speed gas. Could the Gas Board be prosecuted in a case of that kind? Nevertheless it is right that the nationalised industries should be brought within the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) raised the point of packaging. I hope that this Bill will have the power to protect consumers against excessive packaging. A report from a Bristol public health inspector claimed that the average household spent 30s. a week on packaging. If I buy a shirt I do not want a huge box with fancy wrapping; I want to be able to take the shirt out to make sure that the sleeves are the right length, but when I see all those pins I am scared to do it, in case I cannot get it back again. I do not know how much power this Bill has, but it is time that someone called a halt to the tissue. the cellophane, the coloured paper and all the other things for which, in the end, only one person pays—the buyer.
This Bill is one of the recognitions that no longer is the law of supply and demand sufficient to protect consumers. With the highly scientific methods of selling, using all possible psychological insights, sales promotion can shape the way in which a market goes, rather than consumer demand. It is possible to build a market purely by persuasion. In those circumstances, unless there is some protection, at the end of the line the consumer finds himself spending a larger measure of the household budget on things which are not value for money.
I welcome the Bill because the Government have accepted all the challenges inherent in such protection. It is a continuing responsibility to protect the housewife and the family purse and I am proud of the fact that it is a Labour Government, of which I am a backbench Member which has had the courage to come forward with a controversial Measure of this kind. I wish it well.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
The hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) was a little woolly in his last 741 observations about the operation of the market place. He talks about promoters making a market for their profits to which the consumer may not wish to contribute. He seemed to be suggesting that the consumer was brought to buy things against his better judgment. Up to a point that is true, but that point is the operation of the free market place. This Bill allows that free market place to be regulated and in some ways restricted, but not too harshly.
In this country, as in all highly industrialised countries, there is concern about the consumer, not so much that we exploit him, but just concern that he might be being exploited. The consumer is concerned about this new position in which he finds himself. He has become economically very important. He is the spender, the buyer, the customer and the person who shapes our economy. The market place is the vital key to the industrial success of the nation, or its comparative failure. Because of this the consumer attracts the attention of very powerful forces, which are in the main for good.
I was glad to hear the Minister of State refer, with some praise, to the fact that these industrial and marketing forces were in the main to the good. They are motivated by an object of material gain. This is not wrong, but it is worth remembering that it is part of the process. It can be at the expense of the consumer, and I aim to show that industry is responsible, not anti-social. Paragraph 895 of Molony says:We assert our firm belief in the probity and honourable standards of the great mass of British manufacturers and traders and their desire to maintain this country's historic traditions of quality and accurate description. Our proposals for reform do not imply the contrary in the slightest degree.There are other forces which have been referred to, which are anti-social and not responsible. The Minister described them as "fly by night traders", and that is probably as good a phrase as we can find. This Bill must attack these forces, and I am concerned lest the Bill, which I welcome, goes too far in its attempt to protect the consumer, and so inhibits the healthy and valuable operation of the relationship between industry and its customers, the general public.
There is consumer awareness in the developed nations of the world. The 742 consumer is much more on his guard. We have the flourishing Consumers Association, with its vigorous publication, regarded as a valuable authority on what is and what is not a good buy. I endorse all that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) and praise what he has done for the Association. There is also the Consumer Council. We should not imagine that it is a very strong body. I know the organisation, and it does not have great Government funds behind it to enable it to be as strong as it would like.
I hope that the hon. Lady will give some thought as to whether the Council is sufficiently strong to carry out its important and good intentions. "Teltag" is a well intentioned and informative piece of information for the public. I have had considerable experience with trade marks. "Teltag" lacks the money to make it known. Something that the Minister says might give greater strength to "Teltag" in future. I am all for good informative labelling and I support an individual manufacturer's efforts to produce not only good products but to tell the public that he is producing good products.
I believe that oral misdescription is overcome at the point of purchase by good packaging, with proper descriptions on the packet, the label and the accompanying publicity material. The hon. Member for Willesden, West spoke of buying a shirt and wanting to take it out of the box to check the sleeve length. However, I would remind him that the majority of garments are bought on a self-service basis, and they need to be protected from bad handling by prospective purchasers. As a result, they are packaged and boxed. The hon. Gentleman's complaint underlines all the more the need for informative packaging, so that he will know the sleeve length of the shirt contained in the box. However, I will not go into too much detail on his tale of the shirt.
There are many other bodies serving the consumer by looking at products and reporting on the state and value of merchandise on the market. It should not be forgotten that we are not alone in the market place as the manufacturer, the marketeer and the advertiser let loose their thunder at us. The press, radio and 743 television are watching as guardians of the public interests, and they are only too willing to debunk false claims and expose frauds.
§ Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)
Before my hon. Friend leaves his point about packaging, can he say how much it adds to the cost of the shirt quoted by the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt)?
§ Mr. Crouch
I suppose that it is up to the manufacturer to say how much he spends on the packaging. It is true that the cost of the shirt box, the cellophane, the labelling, the paper and the labour involved in packing, as distinct from the garment itself, may amount to as much as 2s. But, after all, we have heard some false observations about how we buy and sell in the market place. I am addressing my remarks to the Parliamentary Secretary so that she may hear that some of those observations are a little unworthy when one considers the problem and task of the market place. Packaging is a form of protection. In the case of foodstuffs, it keeps out dirt, and it protects a commodity like meat which has to be handled in the course of buying and selling. Another point of interest is that we are able to see a much better presentation at the point of sale because of clean packaging. I agree that it is possible to go too far and spend too much, but we are not talking about a manufacturer operating entirely on his own. He has the discipline of competition all the time, and we should not forget that reality as we talk about what goes on in the market place.
There is a lot of power in the Bill for the Board of Trade, but it should be given proper powers to intervene and control buying and selling, though not to an unlimited extent. We should not seek to impose any more bureaucratic control over the marketing and advertising of products. In the time that I have known him, I have never regarded the Minister of State as a great interventionist in the operation of a free market economy, but I hope that he will remember that the Bill suggests that the Board of Trade should dictate the meaning of words. That is too much power, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will reassure us on this point when she comes to reply to the debate.
744 The meaning of words that may be decided by the Board of Trade may not be reasonable and may not bear much relationship to the meaning attributed to those words by the man in the street. We should not forget the consumer when we seek to attach such importance to trade descriptions and to the meaning of words and what they imply. I would like to see the Board of Trade have proper powers, because I do not think that they are sufficient in the Clause covering enforcement for the Board of Trade to back up its good intentions. The Bill aims at protecting the consumer, and I want to make what is good in the Bill effective in operation. The promise of protection to the consumer which the Bill offers will require some policing. It is not enough for the Board of Trade to leave it entirely to local authorities, private trade associations and individuals.
There are a number of weak points in the Bill particularly about uniformity of enforcement. Different interpretations could arise on similar prosecutions across the country due to a lack of uniformity. The Bill suggests that all such offences would be considered and vetted by the Board of Trade, but I wonder whether vetting is enough and whether the Board of Trade should not take responsibility for the prosecution of cases involving all nationally advertised products.
In an intervention earlier I mentioned the control of advertising. The Minister of State was very frank about the Advertising Standards Authority. He said that, when it was established following the Molony Report, he himself was rather sceptical about its effectiveness. He was generous enough to say today that he had been very impressed by its operations and that it was setting extremely rigid standards. It is a voluntary body, and I am glad to hear that he welcomes it because it has performed a considerable task in preventing misleading and false claims and has encouraged higher standards in advertising.
The control of advertising on television in this country is remarkable. No other country has such a strict control on advertisements before they appear. The Television Advertising Control is a body set up under the Act through the Independent Television Authority. An independent body has been set up through 745 the Independent Television Companies Association which has a separate panel of outside consultants of considerable distinction and responsibility in medicine, engineering, veterinary research, and so on. They are by no means idle consultants, and the body which reviews something like 5,000 commercial advertisement films a year refers to its panel of consultants each week any questionable advertising which is submitted to it. An advertisement film cannot appear on our television screens before it has passed through this well-organised control.
In pleading for the freedom of the market, I remember how volatile and important this new medium of advertising is, and how essential it is to have proper control over it. We have a most excellent control, and the consumer is getting very good protection in this way. There is in the Bill still not enough differentiation between the types of advertisements. There is a difference between a fleeting television commercial used as a reminder for the regular weekly shopping and an informative label or what has to be printed on the back of a product by way of instruction. I mention this because I would not want the Bill to insist that these fleeting advertisements should carry a monotonous collection of instructions and warnings. That would do a disservice to the consumer, an example in a way of familiarity breeding contempt.
These are examples of things which should be on the label but not repeated constantly in the advertisements to make them dull and uninteresting. "Certain stubborn stains may require rubbing, scrubbing and boiling" is good advice in the right place. With motor cars, "Excessive speed can be dangerous." "Tyres can burst if wrongly inflated". That would be very boring if it were injected into the advertisement for a motor car but very sensible in the handbook that came with the car. The same applies in regard to sweets and confectionery—"This product should be consumed in moderation to avoid weight and dental problems". This is right in the right place, but not in the constantly repeated advertisement.
We have had much discussion in the Chamber today on the question of oral misdescription. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, 746 North-East (Sir K. Joseph) that we need some protection against flagrant and persistent misdescription and false claims at the point of sale. Molony said it had been widespread and much of such false description of merchandise has been reckless and in some cases frankly dishonest, but that is all the more reason for buying the well-advertised product with the proper label that speaks for itself.
Industry can help consumers by persuading them to buy the advertised brand properly labelled. I have for many years been a persuader. I hope I have been a persuader tonight for the hon. Lady. I have had a lot of experience in trying to persuade the public to be interested and then to buy products. I have done this not as an advertising man but as a producer, not only in this country but in America, Japan and even Russia. On the number of occasions when I was in Russia and tried to persuade the Russians I confined myself to my products and not to my politics.
I do not believe it is possible to persuade even some of the people for very long. The product will find one out, and so will the competition. One thought I would like to leave with the House tonight—which is relatively empty, though I hope my words will reach a wider number—and that is that I feel strongly when I talk about the freedom of the market place that there is one other element that makes the market place free, and that is freedom from monopoly. All I have said tonight would not be true if we were talking of monopoly. When a product fails in the market place because excessive claims have been made for it and competition has overtaken it, so does the company fail in a considerable way, and responsible manufacturers are well aware of these disciplines. The manufacturer therefore must serve the consumer as effectively as his competitors, and if he does not he will go out of business. I maintain that the manufacturer is in the business of consumer service and consumer protection if he is concerned with his own interests.
I welcome this Bill. I welcome its general purpose, but I tried to show tonight that we must also preserve the freedom within the law of the market place. This Bill is the promise of a new law. Let us make this law serve the 747 consumers' interest, remembering that this interest is served not only by the law and the Board of Trade but also by responsible industry.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Ron Ledger (Romford)
I am not going to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) in what he said about the Bill because I agree with so much of it. He showed considerable knowledge of the problems involved in having legislation of this kind, and a reasonable approach to the dangers inherent in advertising if they are completely free from legislation. There is one point on which I will take him to task. He spoke of his knowledge of advertising. I have considerable knowledge of advertising, as I was for six years a director of the largest cooperative society in the world, the London Co-op, I therefore have some idea of what is involved when dealing with consumers.
The hon. Gentleman implied that the consumer was more alert today and a better buyer than he used to be. In this I would not agree with him. We need a Bill of this kind for a number of reasons.
§ Mr. Ledger
That may be so, but I think to that extent Molony was not quite accurate. One of the reasons why we need this Bill is the growing affluence of the consumers. They are less discriminating; they do not have to watch every penny as they did, for example, before the war when I was younger and not so interested in purchasing as I am now when I have a family. Parents then were much more careful because they had much less money to spend on clothes and food. It had to go further. Therefore, they had to look more carefully for products of good quality. Not only are people more affluent and, therefore, less discriminating, but more people are at work, including the women. Therefore, there is less time for shopping and possibly traders are getting away with more than they used to. Shopping can be a day out or an afternoon out. Millions of people today have to rush into a shop and rush out. They do not have the time to do their shopping properly 748 and therefore fall prey to unscrupulous people.
Having looked through the Bill carefully, I am not clear whether it deals effectively with a system of trading which is growing faster than any other, namely, mail order, which presents a number of problems to the consumer who is much less protected than those who buy their goods from a shop. I wanted to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary a number of questions on this matter. I have looked into it in the past few weeks in anticipation of this debate. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has looked into the points that I wish to raise.
The Bill deals with misleading markings as to the country of origin, but it does not seem to deal with the problem of mail order. According to the advertising which is done—and I looked into this very carefully—it seems that the consumer does not know the country of origin until he has bought the goods. I should have thought, therefore, that protection was needed here. If the goods being sold by mail order are not British, the advertisement should specify the country from which they come. This clearly does not happen. I know of a number of constituents who have bought goods through mail order and have been astonished to find that they were of foreign manufacture. I am not saying that they were bad goods, but these people were a little unhappy to find, when it was too late, that the goods were of foreign manufacture.
Another thing which does not seem to be dealt specifically in the Bill, although it is misleading, is the size of a commodity as shown in the advertisements. In mail order advertisements one finds time and again that a deliberate attempt is made to put the article against something else, perhaps the silhouette of a person, to make it appear to be much larger than it is. I have had a number of these items shown to me and, on comparison with the picture, there is no doubt that the consumer has been misled about the size of them. If he knew exactly what the size was, no doubt many of these commodities would not be sold.
Another point which arises on the question of mail order is exactly what a person is getting. A number of examples of 749 this have been drawn to my attention. One concerned a rather large hanger for suits and trousers and shoes, which appeared to be: very nice from the advertisement. The consumer was astonished to find that it arrived in a little box about 15 inches long and 6 inches square, and that he had to make it up. There was no indication in the advertisement that the article had to be made up. Perhaps, on thinking about it, one might have thought that it would be difficult to despatch something of this kind made up. Nevertheless, if one bought it in the shop, it would be made up and one could see what one was getting. Therefore, on receipt of the goods the consumer was rather disappointed. Goods which are made up at home are rarely as substantial as goods bought in the shop.
As far as I can see, the Bill does not cover that sort of thing. There is no protection against this sort of advertising. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would take the opportunity of considering this aspect of mail order. A lot of people are not happy about the tactics used. A manufacturer in my constituency drew my attention to the fact that a mail order firm was using in a catalogue brand names of a small number of items to attract attention, in the same way as loss leaders were used in grocery shops. Behind them was a mass of shoddy material and goods. The brand names were used to draw attention to the other items. I I wonder whether by hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can say whether the problem of the possible deceit of mail order has been considered and whether it is adequately covered by the Bill.
It was not my intention to delay the House for a long time. In any case, most of the matters in the Bill have been raised. However, if my right hon. Friend would give some attention to this problem of mail order I would be very grateful to him.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
There are hon. Members who have come to this House to put in a plug for their co-operative societies and who have at least had the courtesy to remain for most of the debate——
§ Mr. Ledger
It so happened that I was at a meeting I had this afternoon here in the Palace of consumers who had come today just because the Bill was being discussed, and that is why I have not been able to be in the Chamber all the afternoon.
§ Mr. Goodhart
But most of the afternoon.
This Bill has been called a shoppers' charter. If it is a shoppers' charter, it still does not seem exactly to have caught fire among hon. Members opposite. I regret that during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) there were on the benches opposite only two Members present, one of whom was the Parliamentary Secretary. This hardly suggests that this Measure has aroused burning enthusiasm among hon. Members opposite.
I must say that I agreed with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) when he said that we as politicians ought not to take too sanctimonious a view of the trading community because, after all, if hon. Members were held accountable for their campaign statements in the way in which directors and chairmen are held responsible for balance sheets and prospectuses then the number of pending prosecutions might be very large indeed. The hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) suggested that the provisions of the Bill might apply to the nationalised industries. I wonder if they might and also to the politicians.
Some time ago—February, 1966—the Secretary of State for Defence introduced a Defence Review and said it was to be the basis of the defence policy of this country for the next ten years. I got my copy of the Defence Review free from the Vote Office, but I have a number of friends who paid 1s. 9d. for that Defence Review with the idea that it was to be the policy of this Government, and for some time to come. Now, of course, that policy having been drawn up it has been totally reversed, and one wonders whether a case could be brought against the Secretary of State for Defence for a misleading advertisement. I could not bring a case because six months have elapsed since then and since he made his speeches about it. It suggests, at least, that one of the advantages of this Bill is that the 751 Government are going to have to stick to their policy for six months after publication of a White Paper.
§ Mr. Darling
It is a very good job there is the six months, period, for otherwise we might go over the defence record of the hon. Member's party.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Of course, most of the political misdescriptions are oral ones, and it is the Clauses in this Bill about oral misdescriptions which have aroused the most interest. The Minister of State this afternoon produced an array of arguments against Clause 4 which I certainly had not been able to think of myself. His arguments, it seemed to me, were that although there were these various risks of false descriptions by employees trying to get their employers caught on a hook this would not follow because the legal system of this country is so expensive that nobody in his right mind would bring a private prosecution, and that is a pretty harsh criticism of our legal system, or that the weights and measures inspectorate would prosecute only those who were guilty, those against whom a case could be proved. If the Minister of State follows that line of argument much further, he will find himself at the Home Office, because the Home Secretary followed much the same argument the other day, with not altogether happy results.
Therefore, I have reservations about Clause 4, and we shall have to look closely at Clauses 23 and 24 which outline the defence procedure. But there are several measures in the Bill which I wholeheartedly welcome. I welcome Clause 7 which gives the Board of Trade power to define terms. Having spent many hours recently trying to obtain satisfaction for a constituent who had bought some waterproof boots which were not waterproof, I should like to see somewhere, at some time, a minimum definition of "waterproof" arrived at.
I welcome also the Clauses which give the Board of Trade power to support and promote labelling schemes, particularly in respect of textiles. I note with regret that the Consumer Council, which is promoting the "Teltag" scheme for clothing, does not have the money necessary to promote it adequately. I am sorry that a reply which I received from 752 the President of the Board of Trade recently at Question Time suggests that its grant will not be increased in the coming year to enable it to do the work satisfactorily.
I agree with the Minister of State that the nub of any Bill of this kind must come in the enforcement Clauses. The private consumer cannot be expected to use the substantial legal rights which he already possesses. In the last ten years, I have known of only one constituent who ever sought to use his rights in the courts under the Sale of Goods Act. He was a poor man and he received the normal amount of legal aid that it was possible to give him. He won his case, but to this day he complains that he lost it because he was, in fact, considerably out of pocket at the end of the case. There is, therefore, no reason to expect a consumer, unless he is a crank or fanatic in these matters, to seek legal protection himself. I am sure that the Bill is right to put the onus of responsibility for prosecution on the local weights and measures inspectorate.
Like the Minister, I hope that this increase in the power of the weights and measures inspectorate will lead to more local consumer services of the kind which Sheffield and Bristol have. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether any increase in the strength of the inspectorate will be necessary to cope with the increased powers and responsibilities which it will carry? What increase—I presume there must be some—will be called for?
That suggests to the hon. Lady that at some time in the future the name of the weights and measures inspectorate should be changed, because in this image-conscious day I cannot imagine many intelligent young men and women being attracted by a name which, to me at any rate, conjures up pictures of someone with a chain doling out porridge to orphans in some Victorian institution. I hope that at some future date the name consumer protection service will be substituted for the weights and measures inspectorate.
I regret that the Bill has taken so long to reach the House. It has been rattling around in the pigeon holes of the Board of Trade for close on three years. This goes to show the low priority which the Government have given to the consumer, 753 because, ever since this Bill was first introduced in another place, we have had the Transport Bill which will do more harm to the consumer than this Bill will do him good. I regret that the low attendance this evening on the benches opposite is an accurate reflection of the priority which the Government give to the consumer.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Shaw (Scarborough and Whitby)
I am glad to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), and to support him in his view that it is sad to see such a lack of support for the Bill from the benches opposite. Earlier this evening we were twitted about the fact that this was a pecularly Socialist Measure, or perhaps a Measure in which the Labour Party had a particular interest, yet it has been clear all through the afternoon that the genuine interest in the Bill has come from this side of the House.
We have heard speeches by three Cooperative Members. They have claimed that theirs is a consumer movement which, above all things, looks after the interests of the consumer. I do not intend to denigrate the Co-operative movement, because it has a fine history, but it has been failing for the very reason that it has not been satisfying the consumer. To put itself right, it has had to go to private enterprise and get—I hesitate to call him this, because I have a great admiration for him—a whizz kid who had already built up a mighty empire to sort it out and put it on the right lines, which are the lines of private enterprise.
§ Mr. Haseldine
I presume the hon. Gentleman is aware that the C.W.S., to whom he has alluded, is but one part of the Co-operative movement? Is he aware of the educational facilities provided within the Co-operative movement? Does he know of the large residential college the only one of its kind provided by a retail organisation—at which people are trained and prepared to undertake a good deal of work in social studies, and equipped to educate consumers?
§ Mr. Haseldine
I think it would be advisable if the hon. Gentleman were to equip himself more fully with the facts before making that kind of statement, because he is wrong.
§ Mr. Shaw
I am willing to debate this matter on another occasion. The hon. Gentleman has not denied the facts of the situation regarding the trading wellbeing of the Co-operative movement. Without the success of that movement the other things that go with it could not have been successful. So much for the Co-operative movement.
There is a lesson to be learned, namely, that unless the public is served, they will go elsewhere. I am sure that the cooperative societies will learn this lesson and pick up again. They must have a good future, just as they had a good past. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not disagree about that.
I approach the Bill with a considerable amount of humility. There is a great improvement in the Bill in the change of title. The new title is an improvement over the old. In looking at the Bill, it is as well to look at first principles. Ideally, I believe in a free buyer and a free seller, and indeed in the old-fashioned phrase I heard the other day from the other side, caveat emptor. I accept that these conditions cannot apply in modern circumstances. We proved this in the laissez-faireperiod of the last century. The balance is never equal between the two sides to any bargain, be they in industry or on the shop floor. A significant feature is that once the balance gets out of line it becomes more and more exaggerated as time goes on with the advantage going more and more in a given direction. We are living in circumstances of extreme sophistication such as we have never had before. The disadvantages, if the market were left to the laissez-faire principle, would be more against the consumer than ever before.
I do emphasise that whilst I regard the Bill as essentially supporting the interests of, and creating or restoring a fair market for, the consumer, I also regard it as a means whereby the fair trader himself is protected against the "phoney" trader 755 and the slick salesman. This is a very important side to the Bill. In many ways, I think a proper title is a fair trading Bill, because this is what it is.
We have to accept that more people throughout the world are buying by description. No longer can people finger and test a few simple commodities on the shop side as they did throughout their lifetime. They know the traditional signs to look for to see whether the items are good or not. But new products are coming out the whole time and the expense of service is getting greater and greater so there is more self-service. Goods are laid out in the supermarket, or even in the one-man store. The consumer can then choose through the description on the package, which would not be like one given on television, since there would be no assistant to help him until he paid for the goods. He must take much on trust if the system is to work. The scales are against him, so this Bill is necessary to restore the balance.
Clear draftsmanship is essential. One hon. Member felt that the Bill should be drawn so that everyone could understand it. That would be a little too much even for the most wonderful draftsman, but Molony says something in that direction:We think, however, that legislation affecting transactions of everyday occurrence and touching the interests of everybody, as shoppers or traders, should be contained in a single enactment and stated in language as plain and simple as modern draftsmen can provide.The true meaning of "misrepresentation" is far from clear, although Molony said that it… must be an error of such substance that it could fairly be regarded as capable of inducing a purchase".I also agree with this.
I have spoken about the growing complexity which faces the consumer and leads to a greater need for legislation like this. I studied the changes in oral misrepresentation right from the beginning of all things and wondered what would have happened about the oral description which the serpent gave Eve. Was it false or was it misrepresentation? When the serpent assured her that the apple was not fatal and she was tempted, was the serpent guilty of an oral offence? Would it have been different if the apple had been wrapped in paper printed with 756 the words, "Eat, drink and be merry", and, around the corner and invisible to Eve, the words, "… for tomorrow you die"? These are problems to which we shall never know the answers, but they will face us when the Bill becomes law.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)
I had not originally intended to speak, but I was stung into doing so by the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Michael Shaw) about the interest on this side in Measures of consumer protection. This Government promised in their election manifesto to increase such measures and the Bill is a considerable step towards redeeming that promise.
§ Mr. Burden
What they are doing is implementing the recommendations of the Molony Report, which came out in 1962 and had been instituted by the Conservative Government so that they could legislate on its recommendations.
§ My Lyons
I am obliged to the hon. Member, but I was not aware that all Reports instituted by Governments were acted upon. This Government have acted on this Report and have also used independent initiative in relation to consumer protection. It was this Government which made consumer protection an issue in their manifesto. Although I can make no claim for this side of the House, I am well aware that there are only six hon. Members opposite. Yet they claim to have a greater interest in this subject than hon. Members of the Government side. It is regrettable that in a debate of this kind party matters should be introduced.
I draw attention to the part which Citizens Advice Bureaux play in matters of consumer protection. There is often a feeling of helplessness among the worthy men and women who staff those bureaux when they receive complaints from consumers about their treatment in shops and over the purchase of goods. They do not feel able to advise competently that the consumer should go to law if they cannot get legal aid, although the amounts involved are only a few pounds. Because of that, staff of the bureaux feel impotent in face of incidents of bad quality and misdescription. That will be partly remedied by this Bill. Because of the important Clauses in the 757 Bill they will be able, over the heads of recalcitrant, dishonest or unscrupulous traders, to report matters to weights and measures inspectors.
Those who wish to buy British will be helped if the country of origin is shown clearly on the label. To those who do not accept that the Empire still exists, the disappearance of the words "Empire made" will be a boon. When one buys butter nothing is more irritating than to find that the label says "including imported butter". One would like to know where the butter came from and what percentage of it is imported butter. All these matters are to some extent dealt with in the Bill.
There was a time when cheap fountain pens were sold and they were bought under the impression that they were Parker pens. When one had paid for them and found that they did not write, one discovered that the name on them was P.Arker. They were Japanese. That would be an offence under the Bill. I am reminded of the story of a man who went to a hairdressers and saw a notice in the window saying, "What do you think! I cut hair for nothing." He went in and after he had a hair-cut the hairdresser sought to charge him. The customer said, "But on the notice in the window you say that you cut hair for nothing." The hairdreser said: "Oh no, the notice says, ' What! do you think I cut hair for nothing? That was a misconception, wilfully induced, which would be dealt with by this Bill.
I know of a firm which has sales of fire stock, but that stock has never seen a fire. It is estimated that £83 million worth of damage is done by fire a year, but, seeing the stock in such a shop, one would come to the conclusion that fires occurred even more frequently than they do.
For these and other reasons, I welcome the Bill. I welcome anything which helps to enlighten the housewife and give her a fairer deal. None the less, I am glad that certain forms of advertising will not be affected by the Bill. It will be an offence to use a Royal device to sell goods, but terms like "C.D.M." can be used with impunity. That will still give some entertainment and variety in advertisements, and in this world we should welcome variety and entertainment.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)
I am sure that it was through no fault of his own that the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) was unable to be present earlier when the points which he raised in his speech were dealt with. I, too, welcome the Bill. Having sat here the whole day and listened to every speaker champion the cause of the consumer, even if I did not have the feeling earlier, I certainly now feel that the consumer is probably half dead, certainly half blind, probably has one foot in the grave, and has the greatest difficulty in putting two words together to make a sentence.
In talking of the consumer in the way that we do we belittle him and the housewife in the way she does her shopping. I have been concerned with one limited aspect of the retail trade for a number of years. I have found the housewife to be very selective and difficult to please. If one is not up to the mark in service and price, one loses her custom in this competitive world. No matter how much legislation is passed, this ultimate sanction will always remain with the housewife. We must give her credit, whoever and wherever she may be, for the discretion and common sense that she exercises.
I too hope, that this is the end of a long stream of consumer protection legislation which to some extent interferes with the whole sphere of retailing. The burden that this legislation imposes on manufacturers and retailers must not be minimised. They already have to comply with food and drugs provisions, weights and measures requirements, training board regulations, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act. Now they will have to comply with the terms of the Bill. The burden of having to comply with a multiplicity of regulations adds considerably to the frustrations, of retailing and impairs their efficiency to do a real job in serving the public as it deserves.
What worries me most about the Bill is the use of the word "misleading". This introduces a very subjective standard. Its difficulty has been recognised on all sides. In the Food and Drugs Acts and Weights and Measures Acts, the standards are scientific to a certain extent; there is a definite standard to go by. The Bill will 759 be much more difficult to comply with, and it lays on inspectors a much greater responsibility than they have previously had to bear in interpreting existing Measures. I hope that it will be interpreted in the most intelligent and sensible way. In those towns which do not have the benefit of experience of cities such as Sheffield, I hope that weights and measures inspectors will not rush bald-headed into trying to apply regulations but will do so gradually and with common sense.
The Minister of State paid tribute to the value of voluntary discipline in advertising administered through the Advertising Standards Authority. In the control of advertising under Clause 9, I hope that a great deal of care will be exercised. There would be a particular difficulty in television and small advertisements, for example, in applying the same kind of requirements about description and information as there are for packages and display material in shops. I hope that this will be interpreted as sensibly as possible, especially in view of the experience of voluntary discipline.
On Clause 11, I support what my hon. Friends have said about genuine price reductions. They are a perfectly legitimate tool of sales promotion and persuasion. If the Clause is applied too strictly and there is a risk of losing the benefits of genuine price reductions, the housewife will bear the cost. It will put into the retail trade a great deal of rigidity which might not otherwise be there.
I hope that the Minister will try to spell out more clearly, perhaps in Committee, how the Government see the Clause being applied. The best thing will be to redraft it in a slightly more intelligible and practical manner, as has been suggested.
There is also the problem of a manufacturer marking a price reduction on a particular product. This is stated on the package, which goes into the shops through a wholesaler without any recommended price from the manufacturer, who passes on a perfectly genuine reduction in his wholesale price. After it leaves his control, the question whether the reduction is passed on becomes the retailer's responsibility. What is the position where a manufacturer makes a 760 genuine reduction in his wholesale price, if the retailer is found not to be passing it on? Is it the retailer or the manufacturer who is responsible?
On Clauses 25, 26 and 27 concerning enforcement, I wish to follow up what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) said about the adequacy of existing weights and measures staff. It is a question not merely of their adequacy but their training and fitness for the job. I appreciate that the hon. Lady may not be able to answer tonight, but I should like a reply on the adequacy of weights and measures staff in Scotland. It was said in another place that where local authorities were stretched, it might be possible to recruit a fresh staff who would not necessarily require all the experience and qualifications of normal weights and measures staff. But if that happened, we would lose the advantage of weights and measures staff to carry out the other responsibilities and obligations under the Bill.
I hope that Clause 27 will be used sensibly, particularly in relation to the seizure of goods. One can see justification for seizure in relation to food and drugs, where public health may be affected, but it is more difficult to see how intrusion into the premises of retailing firms and possibly wholesale and manufacturing firms for this purpose can be justified. I hope the hon. Lady will answer that point.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)
No signs of wild enthusiasm have marked our debate, but many points have been raised and I hope that the hon. Lady will be able, in the short time she has taken at her disposal, to answer them. Much as we support the Bill, it is a mistake to over-emphasise its importance and I do not regard it as the last chapter in the history of consumer protection. The hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) suggested that this was the end of Molony. I regard as far more important an attempt to deal with the so-called guarantees and warranties that manufacturers put out which totally deceive the public into thinking that they are getting some additional protection, 761 whereas they are taking away from the consumer a great deal of the protection he would get under the Sale of Goods Act. There are many other examples of work still to be done.
The importance of the enforcement provisions of this Bill has emerged clearly. This was indeed the text of Molony. Many of the examples of fraud and dishonesty given by hon. Members are already illegal and offences under the Merchandise Marks Act. The difference between what is to come in the future and what has been the case in the past is not so much in the substance of the law, although that is somewhat altered by this Bill, but in the degree of enforcement.
As Molony said in paragraphs 680 and 681,As matters stand, there is no effective enforcement of the Acts and because enforcement is lacking, ignorance of its existence and provisions is general among traders and the public.We attribute the defective enforcement of the Acts to the fact that no single authority is placed under an obligation to police their observance and proceed against offenders.In fact, those Acts were something of a dead letter and I am glad that there is now to be a duty, not a discretion, on local weights and measures authorities to proceed. That is a duty placed upon a prosecuting authority, and a recent case, connected with gaming and the police, showed that the prosecuting authority does not have a discretion to sit back and do nothing but must get out and win arid that the courts will make it do that duty if it is seen not to be doing so. This is a great change which the Bill may bring about.
But prosecution is expensive. If one wants to bring a prosecution before a petty sessional court with some hope of success, it costs £300 or £400 in the experience of many private prosecutors. I am not sure that I altogether accepted the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there will be no prosecution unless the prosecuting authority is certain of victory. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) that no prosecutions will ever occur on that basis. One can never be certain of victory. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will not adhere to his view.
762 I am interested in the fact that he has included services, rather at the last moment. I say this because part of the importance of enforcement and prosecution lies in the powers given to the weights and measures inspectorate, and the authority to make test purchases of goods. That is given by Clause 26. Obviously the enforcing authorities quite rightly attach great importance to this.
For some reason such a power is not given either to the weights and measures authority, or to anyone else as far as I can see in the case of services. There is no power for the primary prosecuting authority to make tests to see whether the services come up to the trade descriptions applied to them. That is one of the reasons why it seems that the effect of this upon services has not been altogether thought out, and that services have been rather thrown in at the last minute, much as I support their inclusion.
Another example is in Clause 35 where there is this long provision as to how market researchers may be excluded from the operation of the Measure by taking samples, which they are apparently obliged to do. If one looks at the wording of the Clause, it will be seen that this does not apply to services, only to goods. That again leads me to believe that the application for services has not been thought out, because presumably market researchers need to do research in this direction, as regards laundries, dry cleaners and so on.
So much for the enforcing authority. It is primarily to be upon the local weights and measures department. I hope that the Government will seriously consider writing into the Bill some sort of obligation making local authorities employ chief inspectors of weights and measures. These are excellent men whose Institute, as the Minister of State may know, is rather worried because, although most local authorities do use them, there is no obligation upon them to do so, and any local authority official may be charged with this task. It seems that it would be good for their image, and I very much support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that sooner or later we must change their name. They should be consulted about this change.
That is the prosecuting side of the enforcement. What about the judicial 763 side? Here I must support those of my hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) who have given a very good idea of the difficulties of enforcing a Bill of this sort before the lay magistrates.
I wish somehow that the draftsmen of this Bill, the Government and all of us in Committee could have before us a mental picture of a lay bench. I mean a typical lay bench with, for example, a former manual worker who has done well in the trade union movement, a lady with a twin string of pearls and a jumper, presided over by a farmer whose mind is very much worried and distracted by foot-and-mouth disease. Every single Clause in the Bill has to get home to them. It is not like the Misrepresentation Act or any of these other Acts, which we passed recently designed to protect the purchaser in many cases. The latter is interpreted either by the county court or the High Court; this Act has to be interpreted by lay magistrates. It is impossible to achieve, by the piling of words upon words, exceptions upon exceptions, the sort of perfection which the experts and devotees of this matter would wish to achieve. If that is done, one so overloads the system with perfection that it becomes, in the words of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, "too clever by half". That is my chief objection to the inclusion of oral misdescriptions, as it was of the Molony Committee. The Committee was quite clear on the matter and said that it was purely on the grounds of the difficulties of enforcement that it excluded oral misdescriptions. We will want to be convinced by the Government that that fear of the Committee is unfounded in the case of persistent misdescription. If the Government do that, we will not oppose the principle in the case of a persistent and obviously dishonest oral misdescription.
Another example of the failure to visualise the sort of court which will have to interpret the Act and others like it is the degree of fines and penalties which they can impose. There is no doubt that a court of the type that I have described regards £25 or £100 as a great deal of money. It has been the experience of 764 those who have sought to get at dishonest traders and manufacturers, many of whom have made fortunes out of mis-description, that the only sort of fines that they get are these relatively small sums. If it is to be a sanction against such behaviour. as it should be, the psychology of the bench before which these matters will be brought must be considered carefully.
I believe that the Board of Trade will have to take a much more forward attitude on prosecutions than it has in the past. It has acted very much in the way of the Minister of State, who made a Freudian slip when he said, "We will only prosecute where we are certain of a conviction." That has been the Board of Trade's policy under the Merchandise Marks Act. It must now abandon that attitude and exercise its powers as a prosecutor to a greater degree than in the past in the case of national advertisements or campaigns and other matters which are more than of merely local importance. We shall approach the Committee stage of the Bill very much on those lines.
One or two matters have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the debate, and the first of them is the Title. I would regret it very much if the Government did not take their defeat in the House of Lords in a sporting manner. The Trade Descriptions Act was the Title recommended by the Molony Committee in paragraph 613 of its Report. It is a good Title, because the Bill deals with everyone who makes a purchase, and not just consumers. People who buy and who are damnified by some misdescription need not be consumers. They may be middle men or people of that sort. For that, if for no other reason, it seems to me that the original Title was inaccurate. tendentious and foolish.
I have already said what 1 think should be done about Clause 4 and oral mis-descriptions, and I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) in saying that in the case of door-to-door salesmanship and in other cases where there has been persistent abuse, in spite of all the difficulties of proof, it may be necessary to keep the power.
We greatly fear the drying up of information which is liable to happen in the retail trade among small shopkeepers 765 whose staff are 75 per cent. school leavers—young and inexperienced in many cases—who will be instructed to say nothing for fear of giving an oral misdescription. That would be to break faith with the small retailer who was assured at the time of the Resale Prices Act that his place in the retail trade of the country would always be preserved because he gave the service of advice and of conversation, and this distinguished him from the supermarket which was totally impersonal and where that service was not given. If he is to be put in terror by the possibility that one of his assistants should, negligently maybe, but certainly not dishonestly, give a false oral misdescription, I think it is not playing fair with the members of the retail trade who are in that situation.
Clause 9 deals with the necessity for putting information into advertisements. I would remind the hon. Lady, when she comes to justify this, that this was one of the things Molony said was not just undesirable, or difficult to work, or not proven. The words that Molony used in paragraph 758 were "patently impossible". It seems to me to require strong justification indeed to take powers to command advertisers to put this sort of information into advertisements when the Molony Report has said that to take such powers and use them was patently impossible.
Clause 11 has, I suppose, caused more controversy in another place than anything else. I am bound to say that it is an extraordinarily sorry story on the part of the Board of Trade. Anyone who reads the reports of the debates in another place finds that day after day Lord Brown says that the Board of Trade have not been able to find a redraft, but that the next time they meet they will have one. At the end of the debate in another place Lord Brown said, "We are still looking, and next time it comes before the public we shall have one".
It is not discussed here, but, for technical reasons, a new Bill is produced—the No. 2 Bill—and the Board of Trade still does not know what should be in Clause 11. I know the Board of Trade is very busy. It has much on its mind on such questions as the third London airport, but I wonder, now that it has decided to do the right thing about the third London airport, if it could 766 switch its mind and produce its re-draft before we get to the first day of the Committee stage. It does not seem to us to be asking too much.
It would seem to be foolish to launch an attack on Clause 11 as it stands. We do not like the inclusion of a recommended price, not only because recommended prices are going out but for the reason touched upon by my right hon. Friend, that it is a standing invitation to those to deceive the public to get their supplier to recommend a price unduly high so that they can say "We are quite in the clear. Here is the recommended price and we have slashed it by 30 per cent". Therefore, "recommended price", apart from the vagueness of the term and the fact that two men and one woman, of whom I have tried to paint a picture, will have to be satisfied about what is meant by it, is a standing temptation to dishonesty. I hope that the term will be excluded.
Whether the Government will ever be able to find a formula for reintroducing a comparison with other traders—the comparison which was by consent removed in another place—I do not know, but there is something in what the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) said, that this Clause was devitalised, that its teeth were removed, in another place. There is a great deal to be said, in the confusion in which the Board of Trade finds itself, for going back to the suggestion of the Moloney Committee that there should not be a separate Clause at great length employing more and more words and confusing lay magistrates more and more, but simply an inclusion in Clause 2(1) of unfair price comparison, in the same manner as there are unfair quality comparisons and unfair place of origin comparisons. That would be found to be less difficult than the method which the Government have chosen.
We hope that because the Bill has already gone through another place the Government will not dig in their toes on Amendments in Committee. There is always a temptation for a Government which has got a Measure through one House to resist Amendments in the second House because it is an awful nuisance for it, particularly when it comes up against the buffers at the end of a Session, to send it back again for further 767 arguments in its place of origin. I therefore hope that that very natural but quite artificial—if things can be both natural and artificial—tendency will not apply in the present case.
I should have thought that this was eminently a Measure which needed improvement and simplification but which in essence was worthwhile, because even if its aim is limited, as I think it is—namely, to get the Merchandise Marks Act and allied Acts off the Statute Book and to put in their place a comprehensive, simple 20th-century protection against the sort of description about which we all know—the very limited number of cases but nevertheless serious cases do a great deal of damage to consumers and trade in our country. I promise the Minister of State and the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary that we shall do all we can to help to achieve that object. We hope that in return we shall receive the sort of co-operation which we expect.
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)
One of the good points about the wide-ranging and exhaustive debate which we have had has been the welcome given to the Bill by hon. Members on both sides of the House. There have been differences of emphasis, but it is encouraging that it is widely recognised that this is a Measure of consumer protection which can assist not only the customer, the person who buys, but the reputable trader.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I begin my remarks with a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who so ably moved the Second Reading of the Bill. I think that his natural modesty forbade his telling the House how much work he has done in consumer protection. I feel that today's Bill is a great tribute to his past efforts.
Many hon. Members have paid tribute to the various bodies already involved in consumer protection. We have had mentioned the Consumers' Association and the Consumer Council. I hope I shall be forgiven if I follow the remarks of my hon. Friend who mentioned the excellent work done by the Citizens' 768 Advice Bureaux, because I feel that in the whole field of consumer protection they do so much good work that it is right that we should pay tribute to them also during the debate.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) mentioned the question of the Consumer Council and its Teltag scheme. Of course, it is true that the Government are always very anxious to see exactly this sort of voluntary action which the Consumer Council has put into operation. The hon. Member mentioned the question of the amount of money which the efficient working of this scheme would require, and I think it is of interest to say that the amount of cash allowed to the Consumer Council has increased year by year under the present Government, and if we are not able to give it all the financial assistance we would like to do this is very much more from a practical consideration, and not from want of good will. It does seem to me that with the increasing difficulty which the consumers find in identifying the various materials and the complex make-up of the goods they are buying it is no longer possible simply to rest on the old case of caveat emptor. The consumer requires the assistance of information from manufacturers, and this Bill is really going a long way towards assisting them in this.
I should like to turn to one matter in relation to the proposed powers to impose marking requirements which my right hon. Friend described. This is important from the point of view of our international obligations because. although it does not appear in the Bill itself, any requirements to mark imported goods with origin will as a general rule be made only under the powers provided by the Bill. The only exception is the requirement imposed wholly or partly for agricultural reasons where special considerations apply and for which the criteria in the Bill are riot wholly appropriate as, for instance, in the case of seeds. Whatever legislation is used we shall, of course, act in accord with our international obligations, and if any action is taken in relation to horticultural, agricultural or fishery and related goods orders, as stated in Clause 36, it will be taken jointly with the agricultural Ministers. All existing Orders requiring specified classes of imported goods to be 769 marked with an indication of origin will continue in force for a period of up to three years after the Bill comes into force. This interval will allow proper consideration to be given to the case for making new orders under Clause 8, to replace them where this is appropriate. Whether it is appropriate will depend on whether continuation of compulsory origin marking seems justified in the interests of consumers of the goods concerned who may include industrial and trade users as well as private consumers. Any new orders which are made would normally have to apply equally to home-produced as well as imported goods, and will, usually, require the actual name of the country to be given.
I hope the House will forgive me if I work through the Clauses in order, in an attempt to answer as many as possible of the points which were made by hon. Members. I have made a note of the important Clauses which I think are of interest to the House.
On Clause 3 the whole question of misleading descriptions was raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) as well as the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke). On the point which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery raised on the actual wording of the Bill and the need for clarification in simple English I, of course, like him, come from a nation which understands the use of words, and naturally approve of simplification in all legislation. Although I would hesitate to take issue with hon. and learned Gentlemen on the subject of their own profession, one must remember that the problem for the Parliamentary draftsman is to include an exact definition and to deal as accurately as possible with the conditions which the Bill will apply.
Now, the whole question of overlapping offences. It has been said that some acts will constitute an offence both under this Bill—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) was worried here—and under other legislation, in particular weights and measures and food and drugs legislation. This seems inevitable since the offences are drawn in different terms in different statutes, and there would often be no 770 clear dividing line between them. To avoid serious anomalies with weights and measures and food and drugs legislation, we have included special provision in Clause 21.
In general, however, we would expect prosecutions to be brought under the appropriate specialised legislation where there are overlapping offences. Consideration of the Medicines Bill, for instance, which will replace part of the present Food and Drugs Act, may show the need for provisions to avoid anomalies or to reduce overlapping with this Bill, in which case the points can be taken care of in the Medicines Bill itself.
There has been a good deal of discussion about oral misdescription. Hon. Members on both sides have raised this problem. We expect that the House will wish to look closely at the details of our proposals to make oral misdescription of goods an offence, but we can see no justification for distinguishing between this means of misdescription and any other. It makes no difference to the customer—I say this as one who has suffered—whether the application of a false trade description is spoken or written. It is suggested that the new provision will inhibit retailers from giving the sort of information and advice which the customer would need. But is it not better for the customer to be given no information at all than to be given wrong information?
It is true that the Molony Committee came down against this provision, but it admitted that it was a finely balanced decision and recognised that it might require review. We consider, as the Molony Committee did, that oral misdescription is a real problem which is not likely to abate, and we remain firmly convinced that its prohibition is justified. Retailers must accept responsibility for statements by their employees and see that they are adequately instructed not to make unjustifiable assertions about goods which they are selling. But, if they take reasonable precautions to avoid this kind of offence, they should be able to rely on the defences which the Bill would provide. The whole point is that the reputable trader will take such precautions and will be adequately protected.
The hon. and learned Member for Darwen conjured up a wonderful picture of his imaginary bench. I must say that 771 I was rather worried about his lady who was wearing only twin pearls and a sweater. If nothing else, she might be rather cold. It is important that this provision is left in the Bill for the reasons I have stated.
I come now to Clause 9, the question of advertisement orders. It has been suggested, in effect, that some of the powers sought in the Bill, particularly those to require information to be given with goods or in advertisements, might be used to specify unreasonable requirements. These powers have certainly been drawn widely to embrace the many and varied needs which—unforseeably at the moment—might arise during the lifetime of this legislation. But, equally, we have been careful to draw them so that they can be used with the necessary degree of flexibility. If the Board wanted to make an Order under the Clause requiring information to be given in advertisements for a certain class of goods, it would have to specify in it those descriptions of advertisements which were to be covered. It would not, therefore, have to require the information to be given in every form of advertisement—this was one of the points raised during the debate—or to require the information to be given in the same manner, or to the same extent, in different forms of advertisement. What could reasonably be fitted into a large advertisement in a newspaper, might be wholly impracticable in a brief television flash, and we would, of course, expect to make a commonsense approach where such distinctions were appropriate. I assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that we shall not use these powers lightly or frivolously.
It is important to note that the Board could use these powers only after adequate consultation with all interested bodies—I think that this covers the point made by the hon. Gentleman who was anxious that we should include the advertising bodies in the appropriate cases—and after publishing due notice of its intention. We would expect to draw—indeed we would need to draw—on the experience of others who have wrestled with the problems of drawing up such requirements. And of course if, despite the efforts of the Board of Trade, the Order emerges in a form which overlooks some pitfall or special problem, Clause 35(1) 772 puts a remedy in the hands of Parliament.
Now I come to Clause 11 on prices, because this was one aspect of the Bill which was raised earlier today. I think that most people will agree that false claims about the prices of goods are objectionable. The difficulty is to draft a Clause which will deal effectively with them in all the wide variety of forms that they may take. At the moment, in Clause 11, we have a provision which I believe would deal in a reasonably enforceable and effective manner with a number of such claims. It would cover those cases in which a person makes a false comparison between the price which he is currently charging for goods and the price which he has charged for the sale of similar goods in the past, or between his current price and a current recommended price. Subsection (2) would also cover the case where a person marks the price on his goods in such a way as to give the impression that they are being sold more cheaply than they really are.
But there are other sorts of false claims with which the Bill does not attempt to deal, but which it has been argued it ought to cover. There are three sorts in particular, namely, false comparisons between the seller's price and the price currently being charged by other people, false claims about the worth or value of goods, and the quoting of "phoney" recommended prices.
When the predecessor of the Bill was introduced in another place, Clause 11 covered false comparisons with other people's prices, but it became clear that as it stood this prohibition would face enforcement authorities with insuperable problems. Consultations were held with various bodies in an attempt to improve upon it, but no one was able to put forward a practicable enforceable solution. In the end it was decided that it was preferable to drop the prohibition altogether, rather than continue it as it stood in the knowledge that it could rarely be enforced.
I would like to emphasise that we do not regard Clause 11 as necessarily being in its final form. We should be happy if we could find some practicable way of extending it to deal with some of 773 the other abuses in the field of comparative pricing, particularly "phoney" recommended prices, and false comparisons with other people's prices. We must plead guilty to being in the state that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that we are still thinking about this, and we are consulting anyone who might help. We shall be very willing to look into any solutions that anyone may put forward. If we can see some means of improving Clause 11, we shall put suitable amendments forward, though at this stage I can give the House no assurance that improvement will prove possible. Having said that, I think that detailed discussion of the difficulties of dealing with the other sorts of claims would best be left until the Committee Stage of the Bill.
Clause 21 deals with overlapping offences, with which I think I have reasonably dealt.
Clause 23 concerns the question of defences which I also mentioned, and Clause 25 deals with the problem of local authority prosecutions. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, North-East emphasised that they were anxious that the prosecutions should be for flagrant offenders. I would point out that this tends to ignore the case of the one person who might be in difficulty with someone who is normally a reputable trader. It would exclude that person from the sort of provisions which we are deliberately trying to write into the Bill.
§ Sir K. Joseph
For the record, my emphasis was on flagrant and persistent offences in connection with oral misrepresentations, not with any other part of the Bill.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I apologise if I have in any way misled the House.
Clause 32 deals with trade marks. The Bill does not reproduce the offences in the present Acts relating to false application and forgery of trade marks which have, with the passage of time, become of less a id less practical value. Nowadays it is generally recognised that the interests of trade mark owners are covered by trade marks legislation under which the owner of a mark can seek compensation, for infringement in civil proceedings. 774 Concerning consumer interest, Clause 32 provides that, except in certain specified circumstances, the fact that a trade description is a trade mark does not prevent it from being a false trade description. The use of a deceptive trade mark, which is very uncommon, is thus covered by the general prohibition of false trade description. Much the same arguments apply to patents.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, North-East suggested that we should advise the local authorities. We will also deal in Committee with the point raised by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) about staffing of the weights and measures authorities.
There is a poem which says:We are the people of England who have not spoken yet.I think perhaps that the women shoppers of this country may occasionally come into this category. I am sure that this Bill is one of the most practical steps that we can take to assist the ordinary consumers to get the sort of protection that they not only desire, but to which they are entitled. I welcome the Bill most heartily.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).