HC Deb 16 May 1973 vol 856 cc1651-60
Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

I beg to move Amendment No. 12, in page 4, line 24, leave out subsection (5) and insert— '(5) The Advisory Committee shall consist of persons nominated by organisations established for the protection of consumers'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we are to take Amendment No. 15, in page 4, line 36 leave out 'one or more' and insert 'a majority of' standing in the name of the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) and the names of his hon. Friends.

Mr. Pardoe

I expressed my reservations about the consumer protection parts of the Bill on Second Reading. Perhaps I may remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman of the major point I made then—that the advisory committee should be representative of consumers and representative only of consumers.

I quoted a report, published in 1962, by the Liberal Party Consumer Panel—years ahead of its time, as usual—in which it described a similar body in these words: It should be a representative body, not a Government-controlled one or a Government Department, although it must clearly be established and financed by Parliament. Administratively, its model should be the Arts Council. By a representative body we mean a body representing the consumer and the consumer only". I went on to point out that in our view a body which tried to represent all interests—or all the interests contained in this clause—would be unlikely to end up with anything other than a disease which one might loosely call "committee-itis".

The committee will be made up of three broad categories, set out in subsection (5). The first is: … persons appearing to him to be qualified to advise on consumer trade practices by virtue of their knowledge of or experience in the supply of goods or services. … That gives the Director General a pretty free hand to consult all the people who have been expert in cornering the market or raising prices through the retail trade or wherever. The second category is … persons appearing' to him to be qualified to advise on consumer trade practices by virtue of their knowledge of or experience in the enforcement of the Weights and Measures Act That at least is more of a step in the right direction. The third category is: … persons appearing to him to be qualified to advise on consumer trade practices by virtue of their knowledge of or experience in organisations established, or activities carried on, for the protection of consumers". The point I made was that a committee which contained all these three disparate forces would be unlikely to reach a conclusion which was specifically in the interests of the consumer. Since then we have had the Committee stage, in which I regret I was not able to take part—or at least not called upon by the powers that be to take part. During those proceedings the Minister dealt with a rather similar amendment tabled by the Opposition. It was Amendment No. 115 which called for a majority of what the Minister was pleased to call "consumerists" on the Committee. It did not go as far as my amendment but it went some of the way.

In replying to that Amendment the Minister said that a committee which contained a majority of "consumerists" would "go too far." I find this extraordinary. Here we have a committee which purports to have teeth, acting on behalf of the consumer, representing consumer interests in the continual battle with those businesmen of whom Adam Smith said, "Never are two or three businessmen gathered together but they conspire to rob the public." It will be the job of this committee to tackle these people. Yet the Minister says it would be wrong to have a majority of "consumerists" on the committee.

I accept immediately his later qualification that it is extremely difficult to elect an active and effective committee of this sort by reference to other committees—simply asking them to send in a representative's name and then appointing him to some Government commission or other. This is the worst possible way of selecting an effective body and I am not suggesting that. I should like the Minister to draw the members of the committee exclusively from names put up to him by those bodies specifically dealing with consumer activities, defined in the Bill as: organisations established or activities carried on, for the protection of consumers. I should have thought it possible to call on these bodies to put up a list of names and for the Minister to make up his committes from that list. It does not mean that the final body will consist of exactly the names that have been put up, but it will be drawn from it. I am totally unconvinced by the arguments advanced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in Committee. I do not see that the Government have given any reason for preferring a kind of mongrel body which will be drawn from a wide and disparate range of experiences and which, frankly, is likely at the end of the day to end up arguing for doing precisely nothing.

If the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment—and we must not hope for the impossible—let us have some further reasons why they feel that this body should not be a "consumerist" body.

Mr. Edward Taylor

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has put his case forcibly and briefly. I will try to follow him at least by being brief. I hope that the House will hesitate before accepting the amendment in its present form. The first question we have to ask is, are consumer organisations necessarily totally representative of consumers? I have had the pleasure of serving on the Committee and I have had approaches, and a good, deal of written material, from a whole range of consumer organisations. Some are obviously knowledgeable and qualified, but consumer organisations which by and large consist of a small number of enthusiastic people are not necessarily representative of the best interests of consumers.

Secondly, we must ask how many consumer organisations there are. There are a vast number. Some are responsible and have a large budget and some consist of one or two enthusiasts. It is difficult to accept the amendment without having some idea how many consumer organisations there are.

I hope that the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee will be a worthwhile, workable organisation with teeth. Nothing would be worse than an: organisation which consisted of a small band of enthusiasts without technical knowledge, without experience of implementing the Trade, Descriptions Act and more important, without the advantage of discussing their views and interests with people who have a detailed knowledge of the retail trade and business generally. A band of enthusiasts may have a grand idea. If those enthusiasts have the opportunity to discuss that grand idea with people who have experience of business and the retail trade, a far more effective answer will emerge.

I hope that the organisation will not be dominated by business. That would be a tragedy. On the other hand the committee will not be effective if it consists of a band of enthusiasts who have no knowledge of the workings of trade, industry and commerce and no practical experience of implementing the Trade Descriptions Act and, the weights and measures legislation. While I hope that the consumer will be represented on the committee, it would be a tragedy if the committee did not include one or two people with detailed knowledge of business and commerce who could put enthusiastic ideas into practical plans to help the consumer.

Mr. Alan Williams

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) said that it would be a tragedy for the committee to be dominated by business. I am surprised that he did not support in Committee our amendment to the effect. that the majority of the members should be chosen from the consumer side. The amendment did not preclude members who had business experience and weights and measures experience. The Government opposed that amendment—

Mr. Taylor

I think the hon. Gentleman will accept that we were not reluctant to support him, but we did not blindly follow his line. He will equally agree that if there had been any suggestion from the Government that the majority should come from business we would have joined him in opposing it.

Mr. Williams

The Bill contains nothing to ensure that business interests will not be in the majority. I therefore assume that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to support Amendment No. 15.

Will the Minister listen to the pleas of some bodies which are involved in consumer protection? The National Council of Women of Great Britain in a report of its conference on consumer representation stated: We are all agreed that a representational body is needed. … All were agreed that this body should have powers and adequate resources, i.e. teeth and money. The Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution states in its 21st Annual Report: … it must work with all sectors of the community, it should stimulate and co-ordinate the existing consumer organisations, undertake research where the need for this was apparent. … The Public Interest Research Centre said on 11th December 1972: Even when the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee is required to report, on a budget of £10,000 a year it will hardly be equipped to conduct original investigations of its own. We believe that there is a clear danger that this small, predominantly part-time body, meeting occasionally and without adequate resources, will fail to make the impact it was set up to achieve however talented its individual members. It is certainly no alternative to wider consumer representation. 10.45 p.m.

The Consumers' Association, in one of its early briefs on the Bill, said: The Consumers' Association is very unhappy with the constitution and the role of the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee, as laid down in the Bill … the Bill should expressly provide that the majority of the CPAC should represent consumer interests. It is clear that what is felt is needed is a body that will bring together the existing, unorganised consumer protection interests so that they combine to speak with a stronger voice, and also that they should be represented at the centre in a way in which they can counterbalance the lobbying power of the big industrial interests.

The basic requirement is that the majority on a consumer protection committee should be from the consumer protection interests. I accept that technical expertise may be needed, but that could be made available on an ad hoc basis. It does not have to be permanently available. I am not opposed to the idea that people experienced in manufacturing and distribution should be on the committee, but they must not be in the majority. Essentially, there must be a majority for the consumer, because what there is now is a Director General in the middle of a structure with, on the one side, a not very strong advisory committee, and, on the other, the industrial sponsoring department.

It does not matter whether the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs is a member of that department. The Department of Trade and Industry is the main industrial sponsoring department. The Director General will be pushed from two sides, and there is no doubt where the weight will lie. It will lie with the industrial sponsoring department. If there is no attempt to co-ordinate consumer voices, and if there is no certainty of its having a majority on the advisory committee, then I shall regard it very much as a puppet body.

What has emerged is what one can expect from a Government who killed off the Consumer Council in the first place and then, as an act of political contrition, had to put another structure in its place. The Government want to keep control of this body. They do not want the consumer voice to be too strong, or too articulate. They are therefore not giving the advisory committee the responsibility of co-ordinating consumer voices. The Government are preventing the committee from fulfilling the useful role of strengthening the presentation of the consumer case at Whitehall.

There remains for those on the committee the threat of ministerial patronage being switched off. The Minister can put members on the committee, and he can take people off it. No one is there as of right. This is where on Second Reading the hon. Member for Cornwall, North and I were at one, because I made the point from this Box at the outset that it was imperative that people be there as of right and not merely as nominees of the Government.

It is the product that one would expect from the sponsoring department. It vindicates my attack, again on Second Reading, that the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs should be in a separate Ministry of his own and not in an industrial department.

The case for the majority on the committee to be associated with consumer protection is overwhelming and unanswerable. We shall pursue this issue in another place if the Government refuse to make any real concession tonight. There is scope for looking again for a formula to enable members from the consumer protection side to be on the committee as of right. I am not sure that this formula has yet been adequately propounded. For that reason, I suggest to the hon. Member for Cornwall, North that perhaps this might be looked at again in another place with a view to seeing whether it is possible to force the Government to back down from their present position. At the moment, clearly the Government want a weak and relatively inarticulate body.

Mr. Emery

At the outset, it is important for the House to realise the main functions of the advisory committee. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has not been here for most of this Report stage, and I appreciate that he may not fully understand—indeed, may not even have seen—the description of the committee's work which was given by my right hon. and learned Friend in Committee.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to columns 437 and 438 of the proceedings in Committee. There, my right hon. and learned Friend said clearly that the activities of the CPAC were narrow because the existence of the committee arose solely from the proposed establishment of a new power to make orders under Part II. He said that it was because the power under Part II was so wide ranging that the committee was established in a real rôle My right hon. and learned Friend went on to say that in its intermediate rôle the committee would listen to what was said about proposals made by the Director General, and assess the significance of what was said. It would conclude then whether it agreed with the Director General's proposals. From then on the committee would pass advice to the Secretary of State about whether proposals should go forward, should be rejected, or should be amended.

What hon. Members have assumed, incorrectly, is that the CPAC is the watchdog for the consumer. That is not the case. It is the Director General who is the consumer watchdog. The committee exists primarily to act as an assessor of references made to it under Clause 14, especially those which lead to the use of the order-making power. Therefore it must be a balanced body to reach intelligent conclusions about the desirability and practicability of proposals put to it.

Here the argument comes down specifically to why it is not right that the advisory committee should just be an appointed body composed of members sponsored or nominated by consumer protection interests. Hon. Members should realise that every one of us is a consumer. It is not just someone appointed by a consumer protection body who can understand the problems. Much the same argument applies to the request for an assurance that there will not be a majority of business men on the committee. The officers of consumer protection bodies with knowledge of these matters are frequently businessmen themselves.

I do not believe that there is a massive dividing line establishing that business does not want anything to do with consumer protection and that consumer protection bodies are always attacking or are not in alliance with business and commerce. Obviously that would be misleading. This also applies to the three categories nominated by the Government. In the second category are people who have spent much of their working lives dealing with the Trade Descriptions Act, with weights and measures matters, and the enforcement of factors for the protection of the consumer. Therefore, it is obvious that we expect these people to have detailed knowledge of marketing, distribution and retailing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) emphasised. In the carrying through of the orders we want to make sure that the proposals make sense and are as watertight as possible, so who better to give advice than experts in those spheres? Therefore, in considering the primary task of the CPAC, we believe that we have got it about right.

The hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) said that he wanted to see the vindication of the attack that he led on Second Reading with the appointment of a separate Minister because he felt that the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs would be dominated by the industrial sponsoring factor in his department. I suggest that that is balderdash. It can be described by no other term. If that were the position, should we have a Bill of this nature, a third of which is devoted to doing the kind of things that the hon. Gentleman was implying the industrial sponsoring side would try to do away with? That is not to face the situation outlined in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman is not even giving the credit that he knows is due.

We wish to see the Director General work for the protection of the consumer. We wish to see the CPAC appointed to assist him in that work. We wish to ensure the independence of the consumer watchdog, the Director General, as a man of outstanding ability who is able to carry through the specifications that have been debated many times in Committee.

Therefore, I urge my hon. Friends to keep the Bill as it is without the inclusion of this amendment.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Pardoe

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) talked patronisingly about enthusiasts in the consumer field, I thought it was patronising because I ask why should not consumers know just as much about the problems of industry and of the weights and measures departments as people working in that field?

The Minister made what he could of the fact that I was not a member of the Standing Committee. That is no fault of mine, but the result of the electoral system which ensures that although my party has a large vote in the country it has a small representation in the House and we are therefore not entitled to a place on the Standing Committee. I note the Minister's offer that he will place a Member of my party on every Committee in future and I am delighted to accept that invitation.

The Minister is a typical example of that British animal with two different interests, able to compartmentalise each but having to take a taxi ride between the two. He has two hats but always has both on and carries no lingering resemblance to the only example I can recall—Thomas a Becket.

When the Minister talks of the limited duties of this committee he speaks of it as an assessor of references. Nevertheless, he admitted that it is giving advice to the Secretary of State about the suggestions made to him by the Director General. One hopes that it will be powerful advice.

On this side, we want this committee to be a counter-Civil Service. The Secretary of State will have plenty of advice within the Department as to why he should not follow the recommendations of the Director General. No doubt the Department will be able to put up, in their professional manner, a problem for every solution he puts. We want a counter-Civil Service which has an interest in speaking to the consumer and identifying with the consumer and which is pre-pared to tell the Minister to do what the Director General wants.

I do not accept the argument against the committee being "consumerised" or against a majority of it being "consumerised".

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 13 in page 4, line 28, leave out from 'on' to end of line 30 and insert 'practices relating to goods supplied to consumers in the United Kingdom or produced with a view to their being so supplied, or relating to services supplied for consumers in the United Kingdom, by virtue of their knowledge of or experience in the supply (whether to consumers or not) of such goods or by virtue of their knowledge of or experience in the supply of such services'.

No. 14, in line 32, leave out 'consumer trade practices' and insert 'such practices as are mentioned in the preceding paragraph'.

No. 16, in line 37, leave out 'consumer trade' and insert 'such'.—[Mr. Emery.]

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