HC Deb 17 May 1973 vol 856 cc1835-9

Amendments made: No. 92, in page 119, line 44, leave out 'officer or servant'.

No. 93, in page 119, line 45, after 'Commission', insert 'or to any of the staff of that Commission'.

No. 94, in page 119, line 47, leave out 'officer or servant' and insert 'of the staff'.

No. 95, in page 120, line 12, leave out 'officer or servant'.

No. 96, in page 120, line 13, after 'Commission', insert: 'or to any of the staff of that Commission'.

No. 97, in page 120, line 15, leave out officer or servant' and insert 'of the staff'.—[Sir G. Howe.]

Motion made and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

9.49 p.m.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I welcome the Bill in general. Indeed, as a member of the back-bench Consumer Committee, I have been pressing for this type of legislation for some time.

There is one aspect of the Bill which worries me. I am concerned that the effect of the Bill may be quite unwittingly to hamper progress towards the co-operation which is vital to the farming industry. It seems a little absurd that under the Bill the grouping of 20 or 30 tiny farms, with small capital, can be held to be restrictive, unless they have cumbersome constitutions laid down in orders issued under the Agricultural and Forestry Association Act 1962. The recommendations of a trade association such as the National Farmers Union has also to be considered—the sort of advice that a farm which is well below the £5 million limit of the Bill could ill-afford to provide with its own resources and which farmers expect to get from their union.

For many years, throughout my lifetime, farmers have been urged to cooperate for many agricultural purposes, in buying and selling machinery and produce. We have had the gibe thrown at us that we buy retail and sell wholesale and that we are miles behind the Danes and the Dutch in this regard. When we tried to put our house in order and bring our marketing and buying practices up to date, we were horrified as farmers by a decision of the Restrictive Trade Practices Court that advice given by the NFU to its members was not lawful. This has caused much anxiety to the many farmers' co-operatives, which do not know how far they can go under this law.

The Minister said on Second Reading —the matter also came up in Committee—that the special problems and needs of agriculture should be brought forward in an agriculture Bill, but this may not be done for some time. Meanwhile, the growth and spread of farm co-operatives is being considerably hampered. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister to consider this problem further before that time comes and before further damage is done to the spread of co-operation, and perhaps to bring in amendments in another place.

9.52 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

On Second Reading, the Bill was accorded a warm welcome in principle by both sides of the House and was generally accepted as a very valuable measure. In the Consumers Association memorandum which was quoted this afternoon, it was described as a means by which practices which harmed consumers could be quickly and effectively controlled, and it was said that the people concerned would find it much more difficult in future to get away with such practices.

The Bill has been greatly and specifically improved on Report and has benefited from contributions from both sides in Committee. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the magnificent lead they have given throughout the stages of the Bill. Last but not least, I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, to their significant credit.

9.53 p.m.

Mr. Alan Williams

After tonight's proceedings, I have a feeling that there will be a considerable gap in my life. However, there are some losses that I can bear more readily than others.

This has been a lengthy process but, as the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) correctly said, it has been constructive. I shall not pretend that it has not had its crises, and there have been clashes of somewhat different Celtic temperaments, but we have survived those crises and the Bill has come out of Committee and through Report a better Bill than it started. I welcome it. It should do a great deal to ease the position of consumers in future.

If any lesson has emerged, it must surely be that, when as complex a piece of legislation as this comes forward in future, regardless of who is in office, it is imperative to have a White Paper. I am sure that, in retrospect, the Ministers feel the same. Much of the Committee debate could have been avoided if we had known the intentions of the Bill and the relationships within it. A further recognition of this need was in the large number of Government new clauses which had to appear in Committee and on Report; indeed, almost a mini-Bill was added in that form.

I pay credit to the Minister for having tried in many instances to take into account and to meet the points that were argued on a non-partisan basis in Committee. This was not a partisan Bill. There were differences, but they were not necessarily on party lines. They were differences of approach, which existed on both sides, to the problem of consumerism.

I still reserve my position on the professions and on the extension of scope to health and safety, but I can now leave it to my noble Friends in another place to pursue those issues. I wish the Bill well and hope that it makes speedy progress, both for its own sake and for the sake of my noble Friends. I congratulate the Ministers on having survived the ordeal.

Sir G. Howe

If I remember one thing about the proceedings on this Bill in all places—I say this without prejudice and without malice—it will be a picture of the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) uttering to all and sundry the merits of a White Paper. We knew we were getting back on course during our long proceedings in Committee when, having indulged in one of our mutual Celtic exchanges of view, the hon. Member returned to the familiar path of urging the Government to have regard to the need for a White Paper. The lesson has been well rehearsed. How far it has been absorbed has yet to be seen.

I should like to join the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) and my two hon. Friends, the Members for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) and for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim), in thanking all those, on both sides, who took part in the Committee proceedings on the Bill, and indeed on Report, for the non-partisan way in which they have contributed to the improvement of this very important measure. We have not been able to see completely eye to eye on every aspect of it but I think both sides have agreed that it represents a new, coherent approach by the Government to the protection of the community against commercial malpractices whether or not they arise from restrictions on competition.

I like to believe that the case is also now well understood that the Bill is evidence of the Government's determination to tackle consumer problems on the widest front and make the fullest use of the powers they already have as well as the new powers contained in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster has at this stage raised a point which was raised in the very first stages of our discussions and also in Committee —namely, the impact on agricultural cooperatives. The activities of farmers' co-operatives, as she said, already enjoy substantial relief from the legislation to which she referred. The existence of many thriving co-operatives of that kind suggests that that legislation has been effective. There may, however, be other developments which are not covered by that legislation, and others may arise from the Green Paper on Agricultural and Horticultural Marketing which has been introduced. My hon. Friend urged that this should be dealt with in the context of the Bill, but she may prefer to conclude that it is better considered as an agricultural matter by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is giving very careful consideration to it and is taking full account of the co-operative activities to which she referred.

I do not think I should say more at this stage, save perhaps to note the remarkable contributions made in Committee— if I may single out any hon. Members for particular honours—by my hon. Friends the Members for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and for Gloucester, and at this stage by two other hon. Ladies, my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and for Lancaster. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Miss Joan Hall) contributed to the proceedings in these two stages. We have been glad to have their support and encouragement during the proceedings and I am happy to welcome what hon. Members have said about the Bill at this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.