HC Deb 16 May 1973 vol 856 cc1615-50
Sir G. Howe

I beg to move Amendment No. 2 in page 2, line 20, at end insert: 'so far as appears to him to be practicable from time to time:

  1. (a) to keep under review the carrying on of commercial activities in the United Kingdom which relate to goods supplied to consumers in the United Kingdom or produced with a view to their being so supplied, or which relate to services supplied for consumers in the United Kingdom, and to collect information with respect to such activities, and the persons by whom they are carried on, with a view to his becoming aware of, and ascertaining the circumstances relating to, practices which may adversely affect the economic interests of consumers in the United Kingdom, and
  2. (b) to receive and collate evidence becoming available to him with respect to such activities as are mentioned in the preceding paragraph and which appears to him to be evidence of practices which may adversely affect the interests (whether they are economic interests or interests with respect to health, safety or other matters) of consumers in the United Kingdom.
(2) It shall also be the duty of the Director, so far as appears to him to be practicable from time to time'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to take with this amendment the following:

Amendment (a) to Amendment No. 2, in line 9, leave out from first 'the' to end of line 15 and insert: 'interests of consumers in the United Kingdom (whether they are economic interests or interests in respect to health, safety or other matters)'. New Clause 6—Dangerous Goods Unit.

Government Amendment No. 3, Nos. 6 to 9, Nos. 13 and 14, No. 16, and Nos. 18 to 20.

Amendment No. 22, in Clause 14, page 11, line 44, after 'economic', insert 'health and safety' and Government Amendments Nos. 72 and 73.

Sir G. Howe

This is an important group of amendments, the central one being Amendment No. 2, which makes a substantial change in Clause 2.

The effect of this group of amendments is to change and extend the rôle of the Director General to give him a wider sphere of responsibility so that not merely can he keep under review what used to be described as "consumer trade practices" in this clause so far as they affect the economic interests of consumers, but so as to place upon him a duty, although a discretionary one, to have regard to the consequence of trade practices which affect not only the economic interests of consumers but also matters of health and safety. That is the broad effect of the changes made by this important group of amendments.

If I may now expound the way in which the amendments sit alongside each other, Amendment No. 2 replaces Clause 2(1)(a) as originally drawn with the longer formulation which I shall explain in more detail in a moment, and which is the operative provision amongst all these. Amendment No. 3 removes the old Clause 2(l)(a). Amendments Nos. 6 to 10 are drafting, consequential amendments. Amendment No. 6 removes the words "from time to time" to which, my recollection suggests, the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) took exception.

Amendment No. 13 makes a slightly different change in the provisions of Clause 4. That widens the qualifications for appointment to membership of the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. Amendments Nos. 14 and 16 are consequential upon that.

Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 20 redefine the powers of direction contained in Clause 13 to take account of the disappearance of consumer trade practices from Part I. Amendments Nos. 72 and 73 amend the powers to publish information and advice also to take account of the disappearance of consumer trade practices as a concept from everywhere except Part II.

It is in relation to that group of amendments that the Opposition table their Amendment (a), their new Clause 6 and their Amendment No. 22. The provisions of Amendment (a) and Amendment No. 22 are substantially the same in their intention, and I can focus the argument by looking at these alongside what the Government amendment does.

By the main amendment in relation to Clause 2 we are removing Clause 2(l)(a) which as originally drafted placed upon the Director the duty to keep under review consumer trade practices with a view to his becoming aware of and ascertaining the extent to which they might adversely affect the economic interests of consumers in the United Kingdom—and no more. That is now replaced by a twin-headed, double-barrelled duty as contained in Amendment No. 2. From now on he will be able to keep under review the carrying on of commercial activities, which is a wider concept than consumer trade practices, in the United Kingdom with a view to his becoming aware of and ascertaining the circumstances relating to practices which may adversely affect the economic interests of consumers in the United Kingdom. It is his primary duty to keep under review, to look out for, to hunt, practices which can work adversely to the economic interests of consumers.

What has been included as well is contained in paragraph (b) in Amendment No. 2: a duty, so far as appears to him to be practicable, to receive and collate evidence which comes his way with respect to commercial activities which appear to him to evidence practices which can affect interests other than economic; in other words, evidence which makes him aware of practices which, can adversely affect the interests of consumer whether in relation to health, safety or other matters.

The substantial change urged upon the the Government in Committee was to broaden the remit within which the Director General can operate. That has been done. His duty to conduct active search for adverse effects will still be confined to effects upon economic interests, but he is now given the additional specific duty—again discretionary—of receiving and collating available evidence about commercial activities which show non-economic harm to consumers. That additional duty will encourage the submission to him of suitable evidence about those matters.

Alongside that duty will continue his duty, under Clause 2(2), to give information and assistance and to make recommendations for action by the Government, but it is now widened to relate to all commercial activities, whether economic or non-economic, and their effects on consumers. For example, the Director General will now be able to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Government action on health and safety and economic matters that were not previously covered. So there is a substantial widening of the areas within which he will be able to operate.

I hope that in that sense the amendments will be regarded as implementing the undertakings that we gave in a series of debates in Committee.

We must understand the limits of what is practicable. The Director General will have to use his resources sensibly and economically and concentrate first on those areas where he can act effectively without duplicating the work of others. His principal work will be to keep under review matters on which he will be able to initiate action generally by means of the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. However, information will inevitably come his way about, for example, the availability of spares, the adequacy of servicing facilities, and non-economic matters relating purely to health and safety. He can react there by making suggestions and recommendations to other Government agencies and Ministers. This is what we undertook to enable him to do.

To require the Director General to begin propounding specific proposals, to begin duplicating the functions of the highly specialised agencies which are available, for instance, to the Department of Health and Social Security or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, would be to require him to take on an impossibly large task. However, he can react to matters which come to his attention. I think this is what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee wanted. If he sees a prima facie case for action outside the old consumer trade practice type of concept, he can draw the attention of the appropriate Minister to it and make sure that it lands on an appropriate ministerial plate where the expert advice will be better qualified, because of advisory committees and expert staff, than that which the Director General will have available to himself.

The difference between that approach and the approach commended by the Opposition is that they would wish to give him mandatory duties of a wider and more specific kind relating not only to economic matters, but to health and safety. To do that would be to impose upon him an impossible duty.

To accept Amendment No. 22, which seeks to extend the remit of the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee outside economic matters into health and safety, would be to place on that committee a wider range of responsibility than it would be equipped to handle and to place it in the position of duplicating the function of the many comparable specialist committees which advise the other Ministers to whom I have referred. We believe that we have the balance about in line with the balance of the argument as it developed in Committee.

We believe that by making these changes we extend and enhance the responsibility and the rôle of the Director General. He will be there as an active and pursuing watchdog of the interests of the consumer on economic matters. He will also be there as a watchdog who keeps his eyes open in relation to matters of health and safety. If he sees a non-economic health and safety bone he should pursue that in relation to these matters. He will be able to put the bone in front of the kennel of an appropriate Government agency for another watchdog to deal with it, if that is not stretching the metaphor too far. I believe that the Government proposals represent that correct balance in the duties of this new and important public official.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

I do not wish to be churlish. I accept that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has fulfilled substantially the undertaking which he gave in committee to extend the duties and powers of the Director General to investigate not only those activities affecting the economic interest of the consumer but also those affecting other interests, particularly health and safety interests.

None the less, I am a little disappointed in the Minister's statement. I always suspect twin-headed and double-barrelled animals and the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that this clause was a twin-headed and double-barrelled animal. Perhaps I am a little dense tonight, but I cannot see why the Director General should have the power, in the phrase of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, to keep under review, look out for, hunt and actively search out activities which affect the economic interest of the consumer. Presumably the rôle is much more passive regarding those activities affecting merely the safety and the health of the consumer. On the one hand in amendment (a), which is the first of the twin-headed and double-barrelled animals, the Director General has the duty to keep under review the carrying on of commercial activities, whereas in the second twin-headed and double-barrelled animal, amendment (b), he receives and collates evidence which is becoming available to him.

I do not see why there is any need for this twin-headed and double-barrelled animal at all or why the powers of investigation and searching out of malpractices which affect the safety and health of the consumer should be any less than the Director General's powers actively to look out for and to hunt those practices which affect the economic interest of the consumer. I am not being unnecessarily churlish, but I would like the right hon. and learned Gentleman to explain exactly why the powers in respect of health and safety should be even slightly less than the powers affecting the economic interest of the consumer.

There have recently been two very disturbing reports of practices in this country affecting the economic health and safety of the public. First of all, we had the scandalous practice detailed in the AA report about the lack of safety of so-called safety harnesses. The report said that it was less safe to use one of these harnesses than not to use it at all. That is something that the Director General should be able not only to receive and collate information about but to hunt and actively search for.

We also heard recently of the equally scandalous practice affecting the health of the consumer in regard to faulty tyres which were intended to be sold for agricultural use but which somehow or other found their way to the cars of consumers. The consumers not only could have suffered a health hazard but could well have been killed. That is a practice which the Director General should actively search out and make a recommendation about.

If the public are to have complete confidence in the decisions of the Director Genera!—I am sure that they will have confidence in him—it seems unnecessarily legalistic to appear to downgrade the importance of health and safety as effecting the consumer and give the impression that his economic interests are more important.

However, I am glad to see that the Director General will have wide powers to investigate those practices which affect the consumers' economic interests. I approve thoroughly of the Minister's approach in widening the economic approach to all commercial activities. That is a very important step. I am particularly glad to see that services are included, as they were in the original Bill. The vast majority of county court cases connected with consumers involve services. Most complaints are about central heating installation.

The time might come when it will be necessary for the Director General or someone else to suggest that those who are offering services to the public should be registered as such. At the moment, the public suffer because, whereas most goods can be bought openly and tested, and one can shop around—if one does not like the goods one does not buy them—the same does not apply to services.

Sir G. Howe

I do not want to disturb the hon. Member's line of argument, but I would point out that services and goods were both included in Clause 2 as it was originally.

Mr. Davidson

I said that.

Sir G. Howe

I thought that he was proceeding on the assumption that we had brought in services for the first time.

Mr. Davidson

I specifically said that I accepted that services were included in the original Bill. I want to mention this point because of the investigations that I have made into the number of cases initiated in county courts in respect of consumer complaints. Almost all of them come in respect of services and not goods. Most people who want central heating installed or some building or plumbing work done get the details from the yellow pages. I am not criticising the yellow pages, which are a valuable service, but those who print them cannot check on the good workmanship or otherwise of the advertising firms.

The time has come when those who offer services to the public should have to register with some central body. If, after a certain time, there has been a number of complaints to the fair trading officers, as now the weights and measures inspectors will be called, their names should be taken off the register. Through a period of probation they must then prove that they are fit to offer themselves as offering services to the public.

I make that suggestion because the Director General will find that he will be getting very many complaints about services. At present there is no way of finding out whether the services are good or bad until they have been provided. The time has come when there should be some body which can officially substantiate the bona fides of the person offering those services.

Nevertheless, I welcome very much the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement and the new clause. It would have been better if economic and safety interests had been lumped together, but I do not want to object to it.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I address my remarks in support of the Government's drafting amendments to Clause 2 and the consequential amendments. Although I commend much of what was said by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), I think that he is mistaken in his interpretation of the proposed new subsection 2(1)(b). If he is not mistaken, then I am. That will no doubt come out in the wash as I proceed.

In Committee we were breaking a good deal of new ground, and naturally a great deal of discussion centred on the significance of Clause 2 and what used to be Clause 3 in the achievement of the full potential of the Bill. There was a great deal of community of interest on both sides of the Committee with this end in view. We had some wide-ranging and mainly constructive debates, with the exception of the odd tantrum about the possible shortcomings of Clause 2 and of the interdependence of subsequent clauses on the definitions contained in that clause.

We got off to a rather bumpy and time-consuming start, in which it was finally established—once and for all, I hope—that prices are not a consumer protection issue, the edges of that issue having become slightly blurred by my right hon. and learned Friend wearing two caps simultaneously as Minister for Trade on the Floor of the House dealing with counter-inflation measures and as Minister for Consumer Affairs in Committee dealing with this legislation. I cannot resist saying that we specifically did not recommend this in a "Square Deal for Consumers." However, due to his ability, we were quickly in the air, as it were, and dealing with the central problem in Clause 2, which was concerned with the broadening of the remit of the Director General of Fair Trading.

The two arguments which seemed to be advanced were those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) this afternoon in dealing with new Clause 3. Possibly we could have had a more constructive debate on that clause if we had been able to deal with the drafting amendments to Clause 2 previously. The main arguments were that, on the one hand, one could widen the definitions in Clause 2 so as to exclude by implication anything that was not specifically mentioned, or, on the other hand, one could narrow them and become so specific as to exclude, by over-specification, things which we would want the Director General to do. Those arguments, carried to a logical conclusion, are completely self-defeating.

What we were really discussing then was how far the remit of the Director General should be broadened and how many of the matters which we would want him to investigate, to refer, to research and to make recommendations upon were possibly being excluded by the existing definitions in Clause 2. Because Clause 2 is the king-pin of the Bill, con- taining the background definitions on which interpretation of the function of the Director General in subsequent clauses depends, we had to have a wide-ranging debate on the breadth and scope which should be afforded to the Director-General. So inter-related are the subsequent clauses in their dependence on the definitions in Clause 2 that one could almost say that the clause alone is essential to the effectiveness of the Bill as a consumer measure.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister listened very carefully to all the arguments that were advanced and he said that when he felt that valid points had been made he would seek to meet them in drafting amendments on Report. I believe that these amendments substantially meet all of the objections that were put forward from both sides of the Committee, that they improve the clause substantially and that as a result they improve the subsequent clauses which are dependent upon Clause 2.

9.15 p.m.

Much as I welcome the amendment, when my right hon. and learned Friend referred in an earlier debate to stitching and unstitching of the Bill, I cannot help feeling that some amendments are not so much concerned with unstitching or redrafting as in some cases with weaving and unweaving and even with darning. To be fair my right hon. and learned Friend had to steer a careful and balanced course so as not to widen the Director General's functions to such an extent as to place an impossible burden on him but at the same time to give him enough scope where necessary.

The problem of redrafting need not have been so complicated if all the functions of the Director General dealing with consumer protection in the Bill and all the definitions concerning consumer protection could have been consolidated in one part of the Bill. Obviously as the Bill was drafted this was not possible but had it been the case it would have been easier to relate and clarify all the functions and duties of the Director General in consumer protection matters. However, I accept that a great deal of unstitching has gone on and that many of these aspects are now consolidated in Part I.

However I entirely accept that the four main functions of the Director General are separate and should be treated as such. The first of the functions concerns those matters which he should keep under continuing review. The second concerns those about which he should have regard to and receive evidence and refer to the CPAC for research and report and finally refer to the Secretary of State with recommendations for legislation or for order making. Third come those matters on which he can take action in the Restrictive Practices Court, and fourth, the matters on which he has a duty to publish reports on his findings and to make recommendations and give advice.

It is the first two of these functions which are principally and differently affected by the amendments. In the case of the proposed subsection (1)(b), which removes the qualifying limitation with regard to the economic interests of consumers in relation to the definition in the old Clause 3 of a "consumer trade practice", with regard to matters referred to in proposed Clause 2(1)(a). He has a duty to receive evidence, to refer it not necessarily to the CPAC but to the Secretary of State, if he feels that action is needed, and to collate evidence. After investigation of that evidence once again he will refer directly to the Secretary of State.

I remember this point being raised in debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) asked him to answer in one word—because he had lost his voice at that time—and the answer was "Yes". That was his specific undertaking on health and safety, and we withdrew our amendment on the undertaking that the Director General would be able to investigate and report directly to the Secretary of State. We thought that was an improvement on the necessity of always referring it to the CPAC first for investigation. On the whole I welcome the word "collate" in these redrafting amendments as much as anything else, because—and I now deal with the point which was made by the hon. Member for Accrington—we hope that there will be better co-ordination, which is lacking at the moment, on matters concerning the health and safety of consumer products. I hope that the present vacuum will be filled by the Director General's collating duties. I intend no criticisms of the Ministers concerned and no criticism of the servants of the Departments. I criticise the policy of successive Governments which has failed completely to co-ordinate matters concerning the health and safety of consumer products.

The Home Office does not have quick enough access to figures relating to the health and safety of consumer products which are collated by the Department of Health and Social Security. I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry has access to either. This net extends as far as the Department of the Environment—namely, in the case of safety harnesses which the hon. Member for Accrington mentioned.

There is considerable evidence of non-co-ordination on these very important matters. I hope that "collation" and reference to the Secretary of State will improve the situation. Co-ordination could be improved even further by deleting "Secretary of State" throughout the Bill and substituting "Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs". I resisted the temptation to table such an amendment because of my right hon. and learned Friend's dual responsibilities. I felt that it would not be fair to him. On the other hand, I welcome the word "collate" in relation to the assurances that my right hon. and learned Friend gave in Committee during the debate on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart and me about setting up a network of consumer advice centres, that we might expect the establishment of such centres in the not-too-distant future. Naturally the evidence that would go to the Director General through the centres from the consumer in the High Street would be of the greatest value and would in that way constitute a form of co-ordination.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tremendous effort she has made to try to explain these matters to me. However, she has not quite got it yet. If I may say so, I hope she gets the argument very soon. If the powers of the Director General are to collate information from various Government Departments or to remit that information to the various Government Departments, we are in danger of keeping the multiplicity of Departments which, in itself, is bad for the safety of the consumer. We should have one Department concerned with safety and not a myriad of Departments with many Departments not knowing what is going on in other Departments.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I thought that I had met the hon. Gentleman's point by saying that there should be one co-ordinating Minister and not necessarily a Department. Proposed Clause 2(1)(a) keeps to the restriction of economic interests of consumers in relation to those matters which the Director General must keep under continuing review. It would be unrealistic and counter-productive to do otherwise. It would place a completely superhuman burden on the shoulders of the Director General.

If there is a "poor relation" it is Clause 2(l)(a), not 2(l)(b) because the Director General has not quite such a direct approach to the Secretary of State under Clause 2(1)(a) as he has under Clause 2(1)(b). The importance of proposed Clause 2(1)(a), which was dealt with in new Clause 3, is the removal of the old and objectionable definition of consumer trade practice which is now deleted and replaced by a much broader definition. That meets the points which were made in Committee and in the debate on new Clause 3 that there is a proliferation of consumer practices, which could not accurately be described as consumer trade practices are now drawn within the ambit of the Director General, proposed in Clause 2(1)(a). I hope that that will be welcomed by all hon. Members.

I am not sure, following the redrafting, restitching and redarning—perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will tell me—whether Clause 2(3) will remain or whether, as he suggested in Committee, reported in col. 415, this is now deleted so as to give the Director General even wider scope. If that is so, I welcome it. I also welcome the fact that the Director General is given discretion for the first time in the amendments to exercise his judgment and ability in the interests of consumers, and that he is credited with the ability to do so.

So I have no hesitation in commending the Government's amendments. They are the fruits of long and constructive debate in Committee. They bear witness to the patience and understanding of my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. They vastly improve and extend the infra- structure of the machinery set up under the Bill for the protection of consumers and should be welcomed by the House and by consumers throughout the country.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I cannot help feeling that the hon. Mmber for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) has given some of the best arguments in favour of Amendment (a). That was certainly my impression.

I did not serve on the Standing Committee, but no hon. Member can fail to take an interest in its proceedings. Those of us who have regular constituency surgeries and big post bags have to take account of all the complaints we receive, particularly under the general heading of "fair trading". I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has gone some way to meet the points made by the Opposition in Committee, but I still think that he is doing a bit of buck-passing.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that all health and safety matters can be dealt with by the agencies which already exist? My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) has already produced two examples—child seat safety harness and the "horse and buggy" tyres imported from France—which cannot be adequately coped with and dealt with by any existing agency. These examples and others are evidence that existing agencies and parts of the departments to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to pass on complaints are not working effectively.

The main burden of what I want to say concerns the garage trade and the motorist. I speak from no other interest than that of a motorist and as a Member who has received a steady stream of complaints about garages and garage servicing. The problem is very serious and I do not think that it is adequately dealt with by the Government's amendments. If they can deal adequately with some of the points I intend to raise, I shall be glad, but my reading of them is that they do not do so.

In October 1970, Which, the journal of the Consumers Association, did a comprehensive survey of garages and concluded: Your car is very probably being neglected by your garage. There must (we hope!) be better garages than we found, but out of the 47 we tested not one did a complete service. In a further experiment two years later, Which conducted exactly the same tests, but this time with even more advanced and sophisticated equipment. Reluctantly, it had to come to the same conclusion, and reported last October: After publication of our 1970 report we hoped that the firm factual evidence in it of dangerously low garage servicing standards—and the MAA's acceptance of that evidence—-would provide impetus enough for the improvements that were needed. Our tests for this report have dashed those hopes. Criticism seems to be part of the way of life of the garage trade. Nothing I have heard emanating from the Bill or from the Government seems to be about to do anything serious about the situation. It is even more serious because, as I read it, the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act will not help the situation much either. While the regulations that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, and while the economic interest of the consumer may certainly have a bearing on some of the health and safety aspects of work that garages do, I think that many of the complaints which will be raised by consumers about garages cannot be subsumed under the general heading of economic interests.

The fact that the Director General has a duty only to collect information and not to carry out the kind of prodding rôle which he will have in the economic sphere leaves a severe defect in this legislation.

We have a situation now in which if a motorist has bald tyres on his car, that is an offence. If a motorist has windscreen washers which do not work, that is an offence. If he has lights which do not work, even during the day, that is an offence. On the other hand there is still no legislation which prevents any Tom, Dick or Harry down at the local garage,—a completely unqualified and untrained man—being let loose on a car which will be carrying the lives and safety of an individual.

We have here one of the most regulated industries in the country, fortunately for the consumer. But once he takes his car into a garage to be serviced, there is hardly any legislation. It could be claimed that Clause 3 defines trade practices and that Clause 17 defines the orders. What I am concerned about—and am still not happy with is that in the amendment which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has proposed—standards of service are not adequately covered. We shall not have the Director General being able to deal adequately with standards of service.

I consider that adding the remit of health and safety—particularly safety—to the Director General's terms of reference would be the best way of somehow covering the garage industry. I do not think that it will be covered adequately in the Bill otherwise and I do not see it being covered adequately by the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Bill. Despite the fact that we have a very roundabout and buck-passing and "further consideration" approach in the Bill whereby the Director General, the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee and the Secretary of State all have to do something before orders are made, and despite the fact that we have a series of checks and balances right down the line, in the Bill which is quite weak in some ways. The Motor Agents Association is even calling it "Big Brother". If it is calling something like this "Big Brother", goodness knows what it would call really tough legislation.

I suppose that it could be said that Clause 3 provides a fall-back when garages wantonly break contracts and wantonly go out of their way to offend. It could be said also that Clauses 3 and 17 provide some indirect remedy in that they may help to sort out some of the tangled relationships between garages and suppliers. But even if the complicated warranty arguments between garages and suppliers which affect the safety aspects to which I have referred, even if some of the warranty arguments between manufacturers and suppliers, which I am convinced are at the root of a great many complaints, could be dealt with by Clauses 3 and 17, I am still not satisfied that the garage trade would be covered adequately or that the motorist could feel encouraged by this piece of legislation.

We now have a competitive situation between manufacturers, with the Japanese, the Germans and the French sometimes putting hefty pressures on their distributors. Under these kinds of pressure sufficient margins are often not provided for warranty work. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will say something about the warrants argument, and state whether this could be examined adequately by the Director General.

The Motor Agents Association has nibbled around the problem. I will not say that individually it does not sincerely want to do something about it, but collectively the fact is that the association and the retail trade has not done much. It is now talking about a national Quality and Reliability Council which will be the successor to its so-called Fidelity Bond scheme, of which many of us as constituency Members have had experience.

I am far from convinced that just by setting up an office with plush carpets, manned by a couple of dolly birds, to answer motorists' complaints will prod the garages—and they do need some prodding. What is needed is an extension of the kind of testing that Which has been doing, an extension of the kind of testing which the AA has just started doing. Why could not the Director General or even the right hon. and learned Gentleman, since he is responsible for consumer affairs, examine the possibility of the State-run garages extending their activities? For example, all of the passenger transport authorities created under the 1968 Transport Act have the power to extend garage services. Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not examine the possibility of the extension of the MOT testing scheme? That test does not mean much once a car has been through it.

I would have thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had some pretty good weapons within the existing regulations if he wished to extend Government surveillance into the garage industry. This is what is needed. Why cannot he or the Director General examine the possibility of setting up a system of State-licensed machanics as they do in Australia? After all, if we have State Registered and State Enrolled nurses, and there may be a parallel in the dim and distant past, why cannot we have a system of State registered mechanics?

Above all, why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman or the Director General not have a look at the pitifully poor wages paid in the garage trade? Fortunately my union—the Transport and General Workers Union—is still increasing its membership. But the situation has now been reached in which anyone who wants to become an apprentice mechanic in the garage industry is almost looked down upon by his fellow school-leavers. This is a serious situation and I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman in extending some of the Director General's powers has brought it a little bit more within the remit of this Bill.

There is a long way to go before I am satisfied that the Director General, because he can only pass on health and safety matters, will be able to consider the situation adequately. Take, for example, the approach now being adopted by the AA in setting up vehicle inspecting stations at Basingstoke and West Brom-wich. I saw the one at West Bromwich last Friday and put my own car through it. I was impressed by the kind of pressure that this is now exerting on behalf of the consumer.

What is happening now is that before people take their cars to a garage they are putting them through the AA scheme to see what is wrong and after the garage has allegedly done the repairs they are putting them through again just to make sure. The motorist has to be his own foreman and checker. That is perhaps the sort of thing that the Director General or the right hon. and learned Gentleman should encourage. We have had report after report lambasting the garage industry. Still the situation does not improve. It gets worse because the quality of the apprentices entering the industry is becoming poorer. The money is not good enough. The Minister cannot afford to ignore this. It is a serious complaint echoed by the 13 million licence holders in the country. That number will have increased greatly by 1980. It is not going to be tackled adequately by an expansion of the Automobile Association's "spanners" scheme. It is not going to be tackled adequately, I think, by the present Ministry of Transport vehicle inspection scheme.

Why, for example, can we not have a look at the Swedish system, where the Government, the insurance companies and the garages jointly own a company and publish reports on the vehicles they have inspected?

If we really want to get to the heart of the safety situation, if we really want to regulate this, I suggest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that either he or the Director General ought to be thinking very seriously of an expansion of the surveillance and supervision of the State, either by the ownership of these services or at least by the licensing of those who provide these services. I am afraid that the garage industry, left to itself, just does not seem capable of doing all that much about the situation.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot entirely convince me about some of the health and safety aspects I have raised tonight, can he at least convince me that there is sufficient power for the Director General to examine this very complicated warranty argument which exists between the manufacturers of cars and the distributors? I am convinced that that warranty argument is at the base of a great deal of the criticism which is levelled at the garages which service cars, especially new cars.

Finally, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman can tell me tonight that in some way most of the complaints I have made are in fact encompassed by the rôle of the Director General, I for one shall be pleased. But as I see it, despite the expansion of the Director General's remit for collecting more information, I am still not satisfied that the Director General is yet the power I would like to see him be in prodding the garage trade and getting something done for the consumers.

Mr. Skeet

It is apparent to me that the Director General is going to receive a welcome accretion of his powers. I hope he will serve the community and not unduly harass the industry. The appointment of the man in question will be of considerable interest to all. He must be a man of the highest calibre, fairness and impartiality to deal with all the matters which are now considered to be within his powers.

The point I have in mind has been mentioned in the Economist for two or three weeks now. It is that the oil sheikhs in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia are collecting very considerable revenues and that by 1980 Saudi Arabia is likely to have capital reserves of $30 billion, far exceeding the reserves of Western Germany today. The Middle East States are interested in downstream activities and they could acquire a company of the size of Exxon Inc. or General Motors in one year.

If this is going to apply to the United Kingdom, as it could, enormous companies could be taken over, companies which have a direct bearing on the interests of consumers. I dare say the Minister is following these events but I would like to ask him whether in his judgment, when the Director General is given powers to keep under review the carrying on of commercial activities in the United Kingdom which relate to goods supplied to consumers, if this did have a detrimental impact on the consumer it would come within the Director General's remit.

If this is the case, these things should be seen well in advance. This is a danger to which we shall be exposed. The Economist has foreseen this and many people with vision have been able to indicate the danger involved. Therefore, would like to hear from my right hon. and learned Friend whether he considers that the acquisition of considerable investments in the United Kingdom which could lead to anomalies and trends which are detrimental to consumers can be considered to be within the Director General's powers.

Finally, as there has been a re-jigging of Parts I and II and consumer trade practice is now dealt with in Part II, I hope that the Director General will be a man of considerable independence. He will need to be detached from politicians, from this House and from the Government to be able to do his job thoroughly, properly and impartially.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

In Committee the Opposition were keen on ensuring that it should be mandatory upon the Director General to do the job that the Bill sets him up to do. Clause 2 as it came from Committee contained the phrase: … it shall be the duty of the Director … to keep under review … In Committee great stress was laid on the fact that it should be his duty to keep trade practices under review and that he should have no discretion in that matter. The new clause, which was heralded as being a great extension of the Bill, entirely withdraws that duty—so far as I know without a word of explanation. The words now used are: … so far as appears to him to be practicable from time to time … to keep under review … The cardinal clause in the Bill no longer obliges the Director General to do anything which he does not wish to do. That is a sweeping alteration for the worse. The alteration is being made under the general guise of extending the Director General's powers to take into account health and safety practices. It is no wonder that the Government make great play of extending, in response to popular demand—in particular that of the Opposition—the Director General's powers when at the same time new Clause 2 empowers him to do nothing at all.

Paragraph (b) of the amendment uses the words— … to receive and collate evidence —but those words are governed by— so far as appears to him to be practicable from time to time". He is, therefore, entitled to refuse to receive evidence and to refuse to collate it. The Government are saying to the Director General," We have to placate our critics who say the Bill does not go far enough, but we leave it to you, old boy, to refuse to do anything you would rather not do."

Originally under Clause 3 attempts to deliver goods or to provide services which were not ordered came within the definition of "consumer". That definition has now been deleted.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim indicated dissent.

Mr. Lyons

In Section 3(2) "consumer" was defined——

Mrs. Oppenheim

With respect, "consumer" is defined in Clause 125.

Mr. Lyons

In the original Bill?

Mrs. Oppenheim

As amended.

Sir G. Howe

The amendment was made this afternoon before the hon. Gentleman arrived.

Mr. Lyons

I apologise. I was misled by a letter which the Minister was so kind as to send me on 14th May, saying that rather than leave the definition of "consumer" subject to any ambiguity he would prefer to remove it. I have that letter before me, signed by his Undersecretary, saying that the definition of "consumer" should be removed.

Sir G. Howe

I do not wish to be discourteous, but we dealt with that this afternoon. If the hon. Gentleman will look at the letter again—I was looking at it outside with him in the last hour—he will find that the letter said that rather than have any ambiguity I would remove it—namely the ambiguity. I said in my speech this afternoon that the alteration in the definition of "consumer", and its removal from old Clause 3 to Clause 125, specifically took account of the points he raised in Standing Committee. The hon. Member might find it useful to look at the amendment in the light of what I said earlier.

Mr. Lyons

I accept that. I was misled by the wording of the letter sent to me by the Minister's hon. Friend, the Undersecretary, which appeared to me to indicate that the definition of "consumer" was being removed. It has certainly been removed from Clause 3. We can certainly say that. I understand that the reason for the alteration and the removal of the definition of "consumer" was that the existing definition of "consumer" included people who received goods and services, or the offer of goods and services, without ordering them—something which I pointed out in Committee.

The fact is that when one looks at Clause 2, one sees that the opportunity has not been taken to enlarge Clause 2 to include that kind of practice. Although the Director General is given latitude under Clause 2, as amended, to refuse to take action whenever he wishes, the Government have not felt it proper to leave to his discretion the taking of action in cases where goods were not ordered but were none the less billed on a man in the course of business.

The fact was that in the Bill, as it originally stood, where a man in the course of business ordered goods or services, that practice did not come within this Bill. But where he received, for example, an invoice for a directory trade entry which he had not ordered. that still came within the clause of this Bill, albeit inadvertently.

Sir G. Howe

That is precisely the point met by Amendment No. 77. In explaining the amendment before the hon. Gentleman arrived, I acknowledged the part the hon. Gentleman had played and his argument in Standing Committee in bringing this about. We are most grateful to him, but we need not go over it again.

Mr. Lyons

I was about to apologise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I had not been able to be present at the outset of his remarks on this amendment. I had the impression from his letter of 14th May that the Government were still wrestling with the problem of directory trade entries. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman now saying that this Bill covers that situation? He is not saying that. Then my point stands. The opportunity has been lost in this Bill to cover that practice. There is no doubt that the practice is rampant. The Director of Public Prosecutions in most cases is refusing to prosecute on directory trade entries. The Bill, as originally drawn, inadvertently covered that practice. It no longer does. That is the point I am making.

It seems to me regrettable, particularly in view of the latitude being allowed to the Director General, and the broad discretion being allowed to him to decide what he takes up and what he refuses to take up, that that opportunity has been lost.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I do not intend to keep the House very long because it is getting late and I understand that the Government want to get this clause out of the way at the earliest moment.

I have listened to this debate with great interest. Quite frankly, despite the defence of the Government by the hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim), and the explanation that this is a great step forward—I am sure it is—I cannot see why the Government are not prepared to accept the suggested alteration to their amendment. I was not on the Committee, and I did not hear the whole of the debate. I popped in from time to time and it seemed to go on for ever. I wished I was on the Committee, and when I discovered how long it took to consider the Bill I was glad that I had not been selected for it.

Paragraph (a) imposes upon the Director General the duty to keep under review … commercial activities ", while paragraph (b) imposes the duty to receive and collate evidence … with respect to health, safety or other matters ". I cannot understand why the Director General is required to collate evidence about safety, health and matters of consumer interest, but is not required to keep them under review.

I cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment. It is not only the interests of the consumer that are important. It is important that the safety and health of the consumer are kept under review. We shall not vote on the amendment at this time of the night, but it would help to be told the reason for the difference.

This is a reasonable amendment. Health and safety are of the greatest importance. Reference has been made to motor cars. Health and safety aspects of motor cars are of the greatest importance to the consumer. Those are things which the Director General ought to keep under review the whole time. I still think that our motor cars, compared with those in other countries, are not as safe as they should be. The safety and health aspects of motor cars ought to be kept under constant review.

Perhaps like my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) I, too, am a little dense, but I have listened carefully to the debate and I cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment. The hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester ought to be prepared to accept it, because throughout the debates on the Bill she has argued passionately on these matters. This is a question of common sense, and I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

Mr. Alan Williams

The most ingenious intervention that I have heard during the debate and, indeed, during the 26 sittings in Committee—when many ingenious devices were adopted—was that of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), who managed to turn the discussion on the amendment into a semi-foreign affairs debate. I feel that I shall have to consult the hon. Gentleman in future when I wish to put forward small matters which I should like the House to consider but which have little relevance to the subject under consideration. I do not mean that in any unpleasant way, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate.

I welcome, so far as it goes, the Government's acceptance of our proposal in Committee that health and safety are as important—the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) is looking a little puzzled. If she reads the Committee proceedings she will see that it was our amendment to delete the word "economic" from subsection (l)(a) that led to the debate on health and safety. If I recall events correctly, on a later occasion the hon. Lady—no doubt inadvertently—voted against her own amendment dealing with the same subject.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

The hon. Gentleman is right, but it was in respect of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and myself that assurances were given in Committee.

Mr. Williams

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is being so petulant about this. The point which arose was that we were promised a major redraft of Clause 2——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Fair Trading Bill may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Jopling.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Alan Williams

This major redraft was forced on the Government after the amendment that the Opposition moved. I give all credit to Government back benchers who joined my hon. Friends and me in pressing this point, as I give all credit to the Consumers Association, the Public Interest Research Centre and other groups who focused public attention upon this inadequacy.

None the less, as we read the Bill there is a clear indication that the Government still do not regard health and safety as being as important as economic interests. As I pointed out in Committee, the Opposition regard a situation in which there can be the loss of a limb, of an eye or of a life, as being in many ways more important than the economic interests of the consumer.

The fact that this amendment has been tabled at all justifies all the research that my hon. Friends did and all the time that they spent debating Clauses 2 and 3 which were the major stumbling blocks to our progress in Committee. However, I regret the reluctance of the conversion and the fact that it is only a partial one.

I say that for several reasons. The first, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) correctly pointed out, is that there has been a marked down-grading of the duty imposed upon the Director General under Clause 2. In the clause as originally drafted it was stated categorically: … it shall be the duty …". Now that duty exists … so far as appears to him to be practicable from time to time …". That just about gives every outlet that a weak or indolent Director General could possibly want.

While there has been a partial movement to include health and safety, we still say that it is not adequate. It is partial in another sense also. This answers my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons), who asked for a distinction between keeping under review and receiving and collating. As the Opposition see it, keeping under review the economic interests differs from merely receiving and collating information in relation to the health and safety interests of consumers. Reviewing is a positive rôle. It is a dynamic rôle. It means that the Director General may seek out information and search out abuses. Receiving and collating is essentially a passive rôle in relation to such important issues as health and safety.

All that the Director General can do, according to this revised wording, is sit back and wait for someone else to bring matters to his attention. Let us suppose that he obtained information. Suppose that it was drawn to his attention but was not adequate. Would he then have to wait until further information came to him. It would be ultra vires for him to go out and look for information as the Bill now stands. If he got half a case he would have to wait for the other half to emerge. That does not sound like the aggressive, independent Director General whom both sides of the House—and, I believe, the right, hon. and learned Gentleman—probably want.

The Minister has tried in many Government amendments legitimately to meet points which Opposition Members and his own supporters argued in Committee. In this case, he has not gone as far as he should. That is the reason for our Amendment (a)—to give exactly the same initiative and powers in respect of health and safety as exist in relation to the economic interests of consumers.

Nor do I see why the advisory committee should be precluded from commenting on health and safety matters. It cannot be suggested that it is not fit to discuss these issues. Of course, the Minister said that if we extended the rôle of the committee it would be overloaded with too much work. But in Committee he and his hon. Friend made it clear that they regarded the committee at this stage as only a part-time body. So if there is an extra load of work for it, why not make it a full-time body or less part-time than is envisaged? This initative should be given to the committee and must be given to the Director General.

I would demonstrate that in relation to one case. My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) and I, six weeks ago, having received the AA report on car safety harnesses for children, raised the matter at the first opportunity on the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act. The AA had raised the issue, the Daily Mail ran a story, it was raised in this House in debate and in an Early Day Motion in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

We drew attention to the risk involved in the fitting of children's harnesses as demonstrated in this issue of Drive, the AA magazine, which did not conform to the British standard. We pointed out that, as the report makes clear, many of those harnesses simply raise the child to the right level to go through the wind-sreen at speed. This does not mean at high speed. At 20 m.p.h., a child of 30 lb. has the weight of a quarter of a ton.

We pointed out that parents are inadvertently breaking the law because they are being sold safety harnesses which do not conform to the British Standard. Traders are selling products unfit for the job they purport to do. In other words, they are falsely described. In a question to the Minister, I raised in connection with the problem of families, involved in accidents, whose children were in illegal seats and harnesses—the risk that insurance companies might insist on lower damages following the precedent of the non-wearing of safety belts.

The Minister for Transport Industries told the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) that he would undertake an investigation of the report. He undertook to investigate the question of insurance. It is now six weeks since the report was published, and Ministers have shown no sense of urgency, despite the fact that, as the report makes clear, over 70,000 of one model of seat are already in use in this country.

This morning—six weeks later—I 'phoned the Minister for Transport Industries' private office and asked whether there had been any public statement or announcement. Up to lunch-hour today—I do not know what might have happened at Question Time because I was preparing my speeches for our earlier debates—nothing had emerged from the Ministry.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the main incongruity about the state of affairs regarding child safety harnesses is that one Department allows them to be sold and another Department does not allow them to be fitted?

Mr. Williams

This is the absurd situation, as I pointed out in Committee. Apparently it is in order for traders to sell an illegal object, but it is absolutely out of order and illegal for purchasers to fit that illegal object in their cars.

I put down a Written Question to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about insurance. In his Written Answer to me precisely a month ago, he told me, quite rightly, that safety was a matter for his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As to insurance, he said, third party insurance for passengers is compulsory. Special insurance conditions in respect of car safety seats which are fitted to cars and which are not approved by the British Standards Institution are a matter for the insurance companies and, in the event of accidents, for the courts to decide. I am, however, investigating all the issues that arise on the hon. Member's Question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April 1973; Vol. 855, c. 5–6.] That was a month ago. This morning I phoned the British Insurance Association and asked whether the Department of Trade and Industry had had any consultations with it about the insurance aspect of these unsafe car harnesses. The person to whom I spoke checked round the office to see whether anyone had had any consultation with the Department. No one had heard of such consultation. To the best of its knowledge, the Association had not been approached by the Department of Trade and Industry during this period.

When I put the point that lower damages might be paid as a result of fitting unsafe or illegal harnesses, I was told that this was so, but that the companies would in general honour their obligations. I accept that. I am not criticising the British Insurance Association—it has been very helpful to me in providing information—but it admitted that it could not be 100 per cent. certain that insurance claims would not be challenged on the ground that these harnesses were illegal, and many of them unsafe. I was also told that it was the job of a barrister representing such a company in any case to do his best for his client.

There would seem to have been no consultation. Here we are, weeks ahead, and there has been little or no progress. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman announces anything tonight, we can still ask why it has taken six weeks to make any progress. It would seem that, in a situation where two Departments confronted with a report as potentially horrifying as this have achieved so little in that time, there is need for another agency. We believe that the Director General should have full powers in this respect.

I again remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman of the magnitude of the problem. It is not just a matter of one or two accidents being considered. "Care", the publication of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has come out strongly in favour of banning these unsafe harnesses. Under the heading, "Restrain your child!", it gives a report of a leaflet being produced by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and makes the point: About 75 per cent. of serious injuries in an accident study involving 113 child car occupants could have been prevented if child restraints had been worn and correctly fitted. It goes on to give the horrible statistic that every year about 2,400 children under 13 are killed or seriously injured in cars and a further 7,000 slightly injured. We are talking of 10,000 children per year injured in cars. How many of those were travelling safely, as their parents thought, in these unsafe illegal harnesses which should be banned? Why have the Government done nothing about it? Why are they making sure that the Director General will be unable to do anything positive about it even if information had in some way, not of his volition, come to his attention?

Our basic argument is that it is imperative to ensure that Departments are doing their job adequately, but the Director General should have a power in relation to health and safety interests of consumers equal to the power given in relation to economic interests. For that reason, we regard the Government amendment as inadequate and we commend to the House our amendment.

As for our new Clause 6, I shall be brief, because we debated this matter in Committee. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is opposed to it, but he should reconsider it. The new clause concerns the setting-up in the directorate of a dangerous goods unit on similar lines to that which is operating in Canada. It could test existing goods—even before they come on to the market, if manufacturers wish. This would be a helpful adjunct. It would also serve another useful purpose. The use of a special department within the directorate would ensure from the outset that adequate priority was given to the health and safety aspect of a wide range of the Director General's responsibilities. In addition to questions of health and safety, which are written into the Bill as it stands, the Director General has an economic interest in terms of restrictive practices, mergers and monopolies, and so on. He has all those things to consider. It seems highly desirable to ensure that health and safety are adequately protected and given proper priority by the establishment of a dangerous goods unit.

This requirement will be seen particularly during the first year or possibly two years of office when the Director General no matter how good he is, will be dealing not only with the problems which emerge during his period of office but with those which have accumulated but have not been dealt with over the years. Therefore, although we shall not be allowed to vote on new Clause 6, we still commend to the Government the recommendation for a dangerous goods unit. We shall deal with this matter in another place, and unless the Government accept our amendment we shall seek in another place to further strengthen the concession that we have in getting some recognition of the importance of health and safety.

10.15 p.m.

Sir G. Howe

From time to time the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) tries to restrain himself, but in the end he finds it irresistible to overstate a case and to make it unattractive to any independent observer. What he has sought to assert tonight, which I wish to repudiate completely, is that the Government draw a distinction in terms of importance between consumer protection in relation to economic matters and protection in relation to matters affecting health and safety. All those matters are equally important. Indeed, if either of them is to be selected as being more important than the other, it is the matter of health and safety.

For many years successive Governments have been accumulating and building important provisions specifically designed to promote health and safety. The function of this measure is to introduce additional provisions in relation to economic fairness and unfairness—a field that has been very largely untouched. Hence, this Bill is primarily designed to deal with that which has not been touched at all so far, namely, economic matters, as opposed to questions of health and safety.

The only matter for discussion is how far the agencies which will have a primarily economic rôle in connection with fair trading can be sensibly used to play an additional part in relation to health and safety matters with which other agencies deal already. But to believe in or support the kind of argument which the hon. Gentleman has advanced—to suggest that the Government are careless of health and safety—is to stand the argument on its head. When the hon. Gentleman raised the question of the safety of children's harnesses and children's seats for motor cars, he sought to suggest that this could be more vigorously and effectively tackled by a restructuring of the Director General's rôle and an alteration of that office.

That cannot be the case. When this matter was first raised the hon. Member and the publication Drive immediately brought it to the attention of the Ministers responsible for considering such matters. As the hon. Member knows from the questions he has posed, different parts are the responsibility of different Ministers. The problem cannot be solved as easily as the hon. Member was seeking to imply because it arises from the fact that seats and harnesses of two different kinds are sold for two different purposes. Some of the seats which are sold—I do not know whether they are called seats or harnesses, but let us call them child-holding devices—are not designed or purported to be designed to provide safety of the kind that a safety belt will provide for an adult in a car. They are designed to stop a child fidgeting and floating around a car. That is their function.

On the other hand, child safety harnesses comparable to a safety belt are also available.

Mr. Alan Williams

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind that it is illegal to carry a child in any seat or harness which is not BSI approved? The illegality is to have a child in such a seat regardless of the original intention and regardless whether the parents installed it as a safety harness or merely as a restraint.

Sir G. Howe

The regulations require child restraints that are designed to provide safety to be marked to show that they comply with the British Standard. The point is a straightforward one. One can deal with the existence of harnesses which are not designed to provide safety by proscribing them and by saying that devices to shop children fidgeting and moving around shall be proscribed. That might be the consistent thing to do if a move were made to provide that the wearing of seat belts was compulsory. Unless one moves in that direction it is necessary to take a different approach, and it is that different approach which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries is now pursuing—the possibility of establishing, in conjunction with the manufacturers and importers and in conjunction with the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, that steps should be taken to ensure that every child seat other than one approved by the BSI should be sold with a disclaimer to the effect that the seat cannot be expected to provide safety. In other words, it would seek to make clear precisely what kind of harness or seat was being sold.

Mr. Williams

There may be some misunderstanding here, but Regulation 8 of the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1973 provides that each seat belt provided for any person in any vehicle shall be BSI approved and Regulation 9 lays down that a seat belt in this context includes in the case of a restraining device for a young person any special chair. Therefore, the law is absolutely clear. If a seat is provided in the car to restrain a child regardless of what its* purpose is, it must be BSI approved.

Sir G. Howe

As I understand it the 1973 regulations require only child restraints designed to provide safety in a road accident to be marked to show compliance with the British standard. At all events there is still a problem which must be resolved. My right hon. Friend is looking into it, because we must establish that people are not misled as a result of the wrong harness being provided.

To suggest that the problem would be any differently approached or solved by a change in the nature of the Director General's functions misses the point completely. The way in which the Director General's functions are designed was accurately described by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim). The reason why, in relation to economic matters, his duty is differently formulated from the way in which it is formulated in relation to matters of health and safety is that this is the establishment of a new institution in relation to economic matters. The Director General has a primary or lead rôle, and in that rôle his duties have been widened to cover commercial matters generally stated. He is placed under the duty to keep those matters under review. It is unnecessary—I refer to a matter which was raised by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)—to place upon the Director General the duty to seek out and collect information on commercial activities which may affect health, safety and other interests of a non-economic kind. To do that would be to duplicate the specific work of existing Government Departments and their advisory committees and specialist staff, who are already charged with responsibility for reviewing practices in those areas.

The Director General will become a focal point for the reception of useful information in matters of health and safety. He will be well placed to pass on that information, if a pima facie case is established, to the appropriate Minister through the Secretary of State. The Director General will become a primary economic agency and will fulfil an additional rôle in relation to matters of health and safety.

I shall not detain the House long in dealing with the rest of the debate, but I must say something in reply to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huck-field). The standard of services provided in garages is a matter of importance to many motorists and vehicle users. I only wish that the problem could be solved as readily as the hon. Member identified it. Unusually for him, there was a degree of condescension about the way he suggested, as he swept into our debate, that a quick and easy solution could be found. He was strong on diagnosis and short on prescription. That is a characteristic of many commentators on consumer affairs. It is easy to identify a problem and to say that somebody should do something about it, but it is difficult to say exactly what should be done.

I have studied a number of solutions which have been put forward in North America and some suggestions that have been adopted in Scandinavia. I find it difficult to identify in any country a method of raising the standards of garage servicing that can be relied upon. The hon. Gentleman said that he was far from convinced that the provisions of the Bill will solve the problem of garage servicing. So am I. I am far from convinced that any country in the world has arrived at a solution that goes anywhere near to raising to standards of perfect-tion the performance of garages and service stations.

I am not suggesting that we have solved the problem. However, I suggest that the Bill is making new headway. Quite apart from the extent to which the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act will bring into the open and solve the problem of warranties—the garage owner will be primarily liable to the car owner and will be placed in the position of requiring indemnity from the motor car supplier—Part HI of the Bill introduces, outside the provisions of Part I and Part II, a powerful new weapon in relation to the standards of service.

Under Part III as the House will remember, the Director General is able to bring proceedings against traders of any kind who persistently fail to perform their contractual duties, and their duties in accordance with the law. The garage trader, or any other trader who persists in the provision of bad service will expose himself to the attention of the Director General under Part III. The Director General will be concerned with breaches of contract and breaches of duty in relation to health and safety, as well as with economic matters.

That is a new weapon for helping to raise standards not only in garages but in other directions. I do not begin to assert that it will solve all those problems. However, I assert that it is an important part of the Bill. The Bill is an important measure, designed to deal with the improvement of consumer standards relating not only to economic matters but to matters of health and safety. It aims to do all those things in a sensible and balanced way without duplicating the functions of other governmental agencies. It is on that basis that I commend the amendment to the House.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons

Why has the wording been changed from … it shall be the duty of the Director … to … so far as appears to him to be practical from time to time …"? The right hon. and learned Gentleman keeps talking about why the duties of the Director General were the same in relation to paragraphs (a) and (b) in Amendment No. 2, but surely no duties are now imposed on him.

Sir G. Howe

There are duties. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not present in Committee when we dealt with this point. I explained then that if the duties of the Director General were to be extended so widely as to embrace the whole range of consumer activities, and if it is his duty to receive and collate evidence on health and safety, it would be right to give him some discretion as to how he discharged that duty.

That is the effect of the amendments. They are in line with what was said in Committee. To imply that the Director General has no duty is to misunderstand the provision. He is under a duty in relation to both these matters, but a duty in the exercise of which he has discretion as to the way in which he discharges it.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 3, in page 2, line 21, leave out from beginning to 'to' in line 29.

No. 6, in page 2, line 32, leave out 'from time to time'.

No. 7, in page 2, line 40, leave out 'mentioned in the preceding subsection' and insert: 'in respect of which the Director has any' duties under subsections (1) and (2) of this section'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 43, leave out from 'to' to first 'to' in line 44 and insert: 'recommendations under that Part of this Act'.

No. 9, in page 3, line 3, leave out' mentioned in that subsection 'and insert: 'in respect of which the Director has any such duties'.

No. 10, in page 3, line 16, leave out Clause 3.—[Mr. Emery.]

Back to
Forward to