§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Mr, Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 12, line 21, leave out Clause 15.
§ Mr. Speaker
Together with Amendment No. 27, we shall also take Government Amendments Nos. 28, 71 and 82, and Amendment No. 70, in Clause 104, page 77, line 41, leave out subsection (3).
§ Mr. Williams
Those hon. Members who took part in the Committee proceedings on this Bill will confirm that today we are not so much interested in the technicalities of the amendments on the Order Paper, important as they may be, because technicalities can always be altered in another place. What we want to debate today, and need to debate today, is the basic principle underlying these amendments. As anyone studying the Order Paper will see from the Government's amendments, compared with ours, we are diametrically opposed in our view on how the professions should be treated. May I say that this diametric opposition is not necessarily across the Chamber. It is the Government vis-à-vis many of their own Members, some of whom support the position which we, the Consumers Association and other consumer bodies take on this issue.
The debate arises today because the Government were defeated in Committee on the basic principle whether any group should be outside the scope of the Fair Trading Bill and whether any group should be less subject than others to the scrutiny proposed in the Bill.
In support of our position, that no group should be treated differently, may I call in support a very well-known authority whose view I am sure will be regarded on opposite benches as irrefutable, namely, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Only 1721 yesterday he said, in relation to the brewery debate,It would not be right in this Bill to single out the brewers or any other sector of society for different and more rigorous treatment."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th May, 1973; Vol. 856, c. 1582.]The Under-Secretary does not believe in discrimination. Therefore, the onus is on the Minister who will be replying to this debate, I presume—to prove the case for positive discrimination in favour of the professions.
Not only does he have to prove that case, and to establish the principle underlying it, but he also has to explain why it is that the list which was deleted in Committee—the list of professions which are to be excluded—has lengthened now that it has re-appeared on the Order Paper. That appears to be an act of contempt for those back-bench Members who spoke with great sincerity and feeling on this matter. Far from taking their opinion into account, the Minister has worsened the situation by adding another section to the schedule.
The purpose of our amendment—as opposed to that of the Government's amendments which is to review the position decided by the Committee—is aimed at consolidating the decision taken to remove the notorious Schedule 4. In doing this we are not—nor are the hon. Members on opposite benches who joined in our vote at Committee stage—anti-professions. We want to make that absolutely clear. We are no more-anti-profession in suggesting that the professions should be within this Bill than the Government would accept that they are anti-shopkeeper or anti-businessman in saying that the manufacturer and the distributor have to be within this Bill.
There is no question of being anti-anyone. It is a matter of ensuring that the Bill is comprehensive in its scope. This fact is well understood by the professions themselves.
May I here call in support the New Law Journal dated 26th April 1973. It says:The loss of the Schedule will have sent many a dovecote in a flutter. It seems likely, if regrettable, that at the report stage of the Bill the Secretary of State will seek to restore the Schedule to the Bill thus once more providing all those listed services with immunity from the prying eye of the Director General. 1722 That will be a great pity for there is no logical reason why the supply of services by the professions should not be dealt with in the same way as those of traders.It goes on to ask:are we still insisting on that rather outmoded distinction whereby one body of wage, salary or fee-earners is welcomed at the legislative front-door with all due deference by the Monopolies Commission while the other is sent round the back door to be dealt with by the Restrictive Trade Practices Court".The New Law Journal supports the premise which we argued, and which was supported by hon. Members opposite, that there should be parity of treatment.
The Ministers have put up a series of arguments. If I say that they are not convincing arguments, I do not mean that in any unpleasant sense towards the Ministers. They are certainly not convincing as far as I am concerned, and they were not convincing as far as the Committee was concerned because, other than the PPS—and one quite understands his position in this matter—only one back-bench Member on the Committee voted with the Government.
One of the arguments put forward by Ministers, of course, is that the proposals they are putting forward today—namely, that the professions should be favourably treated and excluded from the Bill— conform to the requirements of the Monopolies Commission report. We should look at that argument a little more closely. The Monopolies Commission stated in column 354 that it did not feel justified in advocating the setting up of yet another public body. But under the Bill, we are setting up yet another public body, namely, the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. Therefore, what the Monopolies Commission said was in a different context. Another body is being set up and the Government must prove why that body cannot look at the professions on those rare occasions on which probably Ministers or the Director-General would feel it necessary to refer an issue to it.
If the Monopolies Commission is so sacrosanct, if its view is so important that it should be observed, despite the change in circumstances which is taking place, why was it that, in 1971, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Minister in charge of the Department distributed a consultative document which was confidential and therefore not 1723 seen by hon. Members, which included the professions within the scope of the proposed Bill? There has been no follow-up in two-and-a-half years on the Monopolies Commission recommendations about the professions, simply because the Department of Trade and Industry and the then Minister intended that the professions should be within the scope of this legislation.
Something has happened in the meantime. Why was the proposal dropped, and why did it take so many months for us to squeeze from Ministers the fact that the professions had been included in that consultative document? I suggest that it is the influence of the Lord Chancellor. I should like the Minister to tell us whether it went to Cabinet, perhaps last week. If not, we want to know why on earth it did not. We should like to feel that he is fighting for the consumer. But if it did, why did he lose?
Of course, we recognise that there are in-built problems for the Minister in such a situation. A third of the Cabinet are legally qualified, so the Lord Chancellor did not have to convince many people in order to overrule the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs. Either the Minister himself has submitted to the professional lobby, or the Lord Chancellor has forced him to submit.
The second feature that we should bear in mind is that, on Second Reading and in our debate yesterday, in considering the question of pyramid selling, the Minister, absolutely correctly—I would not dissent from his view—stressed the need for flexibility in our approach to the problems of consumer protection. Yet, in relation to the professions, the Government are proposing absolute inflexibility.
Either the Minister can never conceive that, in all the years in which this legislation will be in operation, it will be necessary or appropriate to refer one of the professions or any of their practices to the Restrictive Trade Practices Court or the advisory committee, or alternatively the Lord Chancellor will not permit the actions of the professions and their practices to be referred. This is an inconceivable situation. We are legislating for years ahead, yet Ministers' and the Director General's hands are being 1724 tied behind their backs in regard to a major sector of the economy.
§ 4.15 p.m.
Dame Patricia Homsby-Smith (Chislehurst)
I should be happier if the hon. Member could give a little clarification about the professions to which he is referring, several of which are under disciplines which have been customary for a long time—such as the Law Society, the Inns of Court and the General Medical Council. Is he suggesting that a new set of disciplines should be imposed by the Bill to over-ride those time-honoured disciplines within the professions, or is he suggesting that the professions should be subject to a double lot of disciplines? The Bill is imposing the first-ever discipline on shopkeepers, but these professions have had disciplinary systems which shopkeepers have not had. It would help if he could tell us whether he expects the professions to have two disciplines.
§ Mr. Williams
I assume that, since she has made her speech now, the right hon. Lady will not catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had thought that she intended to make an intervention. Surely she must appreciate that I am trying, so far as I can—I recognise the limitations— to evolve a logical case and to take up the points which have been raised by the Minister and by hon. Members on this side in Committee. The hon. Lady was not a member of that Committee, whose proceedings were lengthy, extending over 26 sittings. I know how difficult it is for an hon. Member, however diligent, to follow all the proceedings. Nevertheless, since she is so interested in this debate, she should have taken the trouble to read what we and some of her hon. Friends who are sitting near her said on this issue, rather than expect us to depart from the cases that we are trying to make in order to enlighten her. In any case, all she is doing is asking me to anticipate part of my speech which is yet to come.
As I said, the Government's case is that they can never consider that a major sector of the economy or any of its practices will ever need to be referred to the Restrictive Trade Practices Court or the advisory committee. Yet, as the right 1725 hon. Lady will see from the amendment paper, 15 professions are listed in the schedule which the Government wish to impose upon the House against the wishes of this party and of many of their own back benchers.
Those professions will of course have many interests and practices in common, but they will have many practices which are individual. Paragraph 349 of the Monopolies Commission Report said:Restrictive trade practices extend widely in the professions, are often complex and are found in great variety.Yet the Minister is saying that he cannot conceive that, between now and the turn of the century, a situation will emerge in which it would be more appropriate to refer such a practice, any one such practice of any one profession, to the court or the committee.
Surely the Commission is bound to be too heavy a weapon to use for every abuse which might arise within 15 professions. Either the Commission will find that its time is wastefully absorbed in minutiae when it should be working on other major issues, or, as is more likely, the lesser issues will be ignored, as they have been ignored over the years. That a problem is lesser in the total gamut of consumer abuses does not alter the fact that, to those people who are trapped by it, it is a major abuse. Nothing is more frustrating than to find that one has no outlet for one's protestations and no means of having one's complaints investigated.
It has been argued by the right hop. Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith) and it was said in Committee that the professions are self-disciplining. Yet, as I have said, we are legislating for 20 to 30 years ahead. If the Government's proposition carries the day, if the appropriate Minister, the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs and the Lord Chancellor, all felt that a certain abuse should be looked at by the Restrictive Trade Practices Court or the advisory committee, they would not be able to refer it to either. This is utterly in contrast to the proposition put forward by the Under-Secretary, that we should have maximum flexibility. It has also to be borne in mind that the Director General will obviously be a man or woman of considerable standing and ability.
1726 One also has to work on the proposition that Ministers, regardless of which Government are in office, try to be responsible in the way they carry out their functions. They will be aware of the existing disciplinary machinery. They will refer issues to the court or the advisory committee only where they see the existing machinery as being inadequate. No Minister or Director General will refer simply for the sake of referring. Indeed, in so far as the professions have their own disciplinary bodies, what do they have to fear? Why are they lobbying? What are they frightened of? What do they have to fear that other members of the community do not have to fear?
Let us look at the Press release issued last weekend by the Consumers' Association. It is headed "Keep the Professions within the Fair Trading Bill" and it says:It would seriously weaken what promises to be a major piece of consumer protection legislation if many of those supplying important—and sometimes costly—services to the consumer were excluded from its provisions.The traditional immunity given to the professions is now an anachronism … But they should not be exempt from public scrutiny. In terms of accountability they should be on precisely the same footing as trade and industry … If their standards are as high as they claim, they have nothing to fear.This is the answer to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Chislehurst in her rather lengthy intervention. If the standards in the existing disciplinary machinery are as adequate as the professions themselves seem to think and as the right hon. Lady apparently would proclaim, what on earth do the professions have to fear from this piece of legislation, or indeed from the right hon. and learned Gentleman?
Furthermore, let us bear in mind that the police are self-disciplining. That does not alter the fact that the same Government who have argued that the professions must remain self-disciplining are saying that it is clearly unacceptable publicly for the police to go on making internal inquiries into alleged offences within the police force. Why, then, is it not wrong for the professions to investigate alleged abuses within their own private spheres because, as with the police, secretiveness or internal investigation leads only to public doubt and public suspicion that there is to be a whitewash, even where there is no whitewash?
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
Is not the process of investigation into police inquiries simply limited to the way in which the police carry out the inquiry not, in fact, going in detail into the nature of the complaint itself? Is that not the difference? It is a very limited process.
§ Mr. Williams
It may be limited but it is more than exists in this Bill for the professions. The hon. Member speaks as a member of one of the professions covered by the Bill and I shall be intrigued to see precisely what he has to say during the debate on this issue. I know where the consumer interest lies in these matters. I can also see where the professions' interest may lie. But my job at this Box is to represent the consumer, as is the hon. Gentleman's at that Box.
§ Sir Tatton Brinton (Kidderminster)
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is mixing two different subjects—the question of discipline, or dealing with misbehaviour by a professional body, and the question of trade practices, which surely is what this Bill is about.
§ Mr. Williams
Exactly, but surely the hon. Gentleman can see that their practices are not covered by this Bill. That is one of the points we are trying to establish, that trade practices are, and their practices are excluded.
I will quote here an article by Robert Millar in the Daily Express of 29th January of this year. I have said that public doubt and suspicion are bound to be aroused where inquiries are internal. He said at the end of that article:It is scandalous that any complaint against a solicitor must go to the Law Society's disciplinary body, where his own colleagues sit as judge and jury.That isn't my concept of justice. And I'm sure it isn't yours.I accept that the Law Society or any of the other disciplinary bodies will do the best it can. However, I will give some instances which give rise to certain doubts. Nevertheless, it is surely important, where so many people are involved, that justice should be seen to be done. That may be a cliché, but surely it is relevant here. It would be a mistake for hon. Members to underestimate the degree of public doubt about the objectivity and fairness of inquiries which take place under existing procedures. Let me 1728 quote two instances. I gave several examples in Committee and every hon. Member could give examples. I accept the fact that these are individual cases and that there may be other cases in which people are perfectly happy with the situation.
After the Committee stage of the Bill I had a letter from a Mr. Broadley in Willerby, near Hull, in Yorkshire. He made a complaint to the Law Society alleging that fees charged to him were too high. Three months later he received from the Law Society a bald statement that he must pay, without any reasons being given. Within three days he received a demand from the solicitor concerned for payment within five days. The letter had been sent by second-class post so that one of the five days had already gone. The proceedings were to commence upon the fifth day and the five days also included a weekend. This does not seem to be the most considerate way of treating Mr. Broadley. He then complained to the Law Society, and to the day of his writing to me he had never even received a reply from the Law Society. Understandably, he has no confidence in the Law Society, and so he ends his letter:I have lost all faith in the legal profession and if I can help it I shall try to endeavour to do without them.He at least tried to go through the existing machinery. I read the letter as it was written, and this indicates the difficulties people face, because when members of the public think of writing to the Law Society, they are often deterred from doing so because they are afraid that they will face a defamation charge. Most of them are not accustomed to writing letters observing all the niceties of the law, but the Law Society, as does the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, insists that the original letter, not a synopsis of the case, be sent to the solicitor against whom the complaint is made. Thus an ordinary member of the public almost needs to go to another solicitor to get him to write a letter to the Law Society making a complaint, in order to make sure that he will not face a defamation action. It is understandable that people are dissatisfied with the existing situation.
Another case concerns one of my own constituents, a Mr. Hollow. I referred 1729 to this example in Committee, but even since then I have heard no further news in regard to it, Mr. Hollow was the successful party in an action by a landlord. Months later he had still not received a refund of his legal aid contribution. He wrote to me, and, as would any other hon. Member on either side of the House, I referred the letter to the Lord Chancellor. He replied on 10th April 1973 saying:I understand that the reason why Mr. Hollow's contribution has not been returned is that his solicitors have not yet taxed their bill of costs. Although there seems to be no explanation from the solicitors for this quite extraordinary delay, the Law Society's Area Secretary has been pressing them to file their bill as soon as possible.This may be a small sum of money to the solicitors concerned but it is a lot of money to the person deprived of it at the moment. It is not enough to say that the Law Society is pressing them after what the Lord Chancellor himself has described as a quite extraordinary delay in returning to a member of the public, one of their own clients, money that belongs to that client. I would add that I have heard nothing since from the Lord Chancellor on that case.
§ Mr. Ronald King Murray (Edinburgh, Leith)
My hon. Friend has made a charge which from the standpoint of the consumer is very serious, but he may be guilty of alarming ordinary citizens into thinking that they cannot write complaints about solicitors for fear of actions for defamation. Can my hon. Friend refer the House to a single case in which a legal practitioner has been successful in suing for defamation in these circumstances?
§ Mr. Williams
There was a case involving one of my own Front Bench colleagues a short while ago. I cannot remember the hon. Member's constituency. It was not my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray). It was another of my colleagues who was a Front Bench spokesman. He was successful but it was touch and go at one stage. It was a costly operation. A member of the public would be terrified by such a cost and could not afford the risk of bankruptcy if he lost the case.
§ 4.30 p.m.
Mr. Clinton Davies
That does not seem to deter thousands of people from writing to the Law Society and letters being sent to solicitors. Can my hon. Friend indicate one case in which a solicitor has successfully sued for damages for defamation in the circumstances which he has been describing? He cannot.
§ Mr. Williams
My hon. Friend is so complacent that he can utterly misunderstand the point which is being made, which is that the public are afraid of what will happen. If he doubts that, let him consult his hon. Friends. He is a member of a profession, convinced of its integrity. Others may not be convinced. However, my hon. Friend is free to make his speech and to declare his interest at the relevant time. I have been speaking for quite a time because of the interjections, and I want to complete my speech so that my hon. Friend can make his speech instead of a series of sniping interjections.
In 1968 the Secretary-General of the Law Society echoed feelings which certain solicitors seem to have in this House. He said then:I think you will find that every restrictive practice in our profession is in the public interest and not in our own selfish interest.It is small wonder that the Monopolies Commission was compelled to comment as follows:Professional bodies are, on the whole, sincerely convinced of the desirability of their practices and some of their views on this subject appear to us to be based on an idealised view of their functions.That seems a commendable understatement. If a trade union had a rule book such as the book by W. W. Bolton, B.A., the book of conduct and etiquette at the Bar, there would be considerable comment from hon. Members on the Government side of the House. I borrowed the book from the Library, with the injunction to return it in as good a condition as when I received it. Some relevant quotations are contained in the OFFICIAL REPORT of our Committee proceedings. Hon. Members may wish to refer to them. I am told that this is a very authoritative book and that it is normally expected that a barrister 1731 would observe the advice given in it. It is stated on page 8 that:It is contrary to etiquette for a barrister to carry through conveyancing matters by sending requisitions, examining documents and attending completions, whether for remuneration or not, which business is ordinarily done by a solicitor.Here we have the classic demarcation dispute written into this rule book. It also states:It is the spirit and tradition of the Bar that Counsel is separately instructed and separately remunerated by fees for each piece of work done. It is not permissible for Counsel to undertake to represent any person, authority or corporation in all their court work for a fixed annual salary.Surely, that is pure restrictive practice. There is a whole series of these matters where we are told that certain things are contrary to etiquette. Nowhere does it say what is necessary in the public interest. That is why we are so concerned that the professions should be allowed to control themselves and discipline themselves.
Concerning the advice given in the book, these rules are not in the public interest, and I should take much convincing that they are not in the profession's selfish interest. In Committee, Conservative hon. Members seemed to agree with me in that proposition. The Consumers Association seems to share that view.
I have indicated that the New Law Journal thinks that there should be closer scrutiny. Even the Minister, in a speech at the Consulting Engineers Lunch Club, said,I am, however, in no doubt that the professional practices must be open to public scrutiny under completely objective conditions and without prior assumptions about the public interest.The Minister is satisfied that they need scrutiny. To be fair to him, however, he went on to say that he felt that the Monopolies Commission was the correct body for that sort of scrutiny.
Our proposition is that the Minister has completely failed to show why it is only the Monopolies Commission and why a Minister should be debarred from the machinery which is being set up for all other groups in commercial activity.
On Monday I received a letter from the Law Society of Scotland. Other hon. 1732 Members may have received such a letter. It starts by saying:The Law Societly of Scotland, which represents all solicitors in Scotland "—This is how many people see these societies. It is not their fault. I am not pretending that this is a fair way; nevertheless they are seen as representing the professions. When this is taken in conjunction with the incredible statement of the Secretary-General of the Law Society in 1968 that all of his profession's restrictive practices were in the public interest, it can be understood why we want to see the professions fully covered by the Bill.
I accept that the various professional bodies try to exercise good discipline and try to ensure high standards. Nevertheless, the public have a right also to be convinced. No argument is put forward meaningfully as to why the professions should receive special exemptions. The point remaining to be answered is that which I have already mentioned, which is contained in the Consumers Association's Press hand-out:If their standards are as high as they claim, they have nothing to fear.The Minister must explain why that should not stand.
§ The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
Although a number of hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, it may be convenient if I respond at this stage to some of the principal arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams). He has spoken on Opposition Amendment No. 27, but grouped with this amendment are Government Amendments Nos. 28, 71 and 82, by which we seek to restore to the Bill Schedule 4, which was struck out in Committee. It is convenient that these matters should be discussed together. It is convenient also that we should have this opportunity for debating this important subject, because it is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that the position in which the professions stand in relation to this legislation is a matter of considerable concern and interest, both inside and outside the House.
This subject arose for discussion in Committee on at least five occasions, and on the last occasion the Committee disagreed to the inclusion of Schedule 4. I have indicated the amendments which 1733 we have tabled on this occasion. It will we apparent from the fact that they appear that we still consider that the view held—held in great sincerity by a number of my hon. Friends who served on the Committee—was misconceived. Therefore, I should like to put before the House the arguments, with which the hon. Gentleman dealt, which justify the approach for the Bill as originally produced and to invite the House to accept our amendment to restore that position and to reject the Opposition's amendment, which has the opposite effect.
The first point that I emphasise is that the Government have never contended that restrictive practices in the professions should enjoy statutory immunity from scrutiny. The phrase quoted by the right hon. Gentleman from the editorial in the New Law Journal—a paper which I used to read in my previous existence more assiduously than I do in my present existence, but for which I have a healthy respect nevertheless—was complaining that the professions would enjoy immunity from "the prying eye of the Director General". We are not contending for immunity for the professions; nor do the amendments which we are putting forward result in any immunity from "the prying eye" of the Director General.
If our amendment is accepted, the Director General will be in a position to initiate references of practices in the professions to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. There will certainly be no question of immunity from his prying eye—to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase.
Having said that, the only question that divides us is as to the machinery by reference to which the professions should be examined and scrutinised.
There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this. A number of people— not, perhaps, the hon. Member for Swansea, West—still believe that the Bill in its original form provided for a more stringent examination of restrictive labour practices than it did in respect of restrictive practices in the professions. That is simply not so.
The hon. Member has asserted that the professions are outside the Bill and he was asserting that no group should 1734 be treated differently from any other. I draw his attention to the fact that Clause 78, which provides for the examination of restrictive labour practices, provides a special method of inquiry into them, a method which does not involve the making of orders, an inquiry only for the ascertainment of information.
However, the provisions of the monopolies legislation which has been in existence since 1965 have secured the position that the professions can be subject to an inquiry by the Monopolies Commission and that they can be subject to orders being made in respect of them thereafter. The professions, therefore, are certainly not outside the scope of the existing legislation and they are not intended to be taken outside the scope of any existing legislation by the Bill—on the contrary.
When we originally brought the Bill forward one of the questions we had to consider was whether we should leave the position as it was with the professions subject to scrutiny by the Monopolies Commission under the 1965 Act, or whether we should go further and equate professional and commercial services and make them all alike subject to the provisions of Part X of the Bill and bring them within the ambit of the Restrictive Trade Practices Acts. We gave that considerable thought.
The hon. Member for Swansea, West asked me whether the Government had changed their mind between the time of the first consultations when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was Secretary of State and when the Bill was introduced. There was consultation and consideration at that time and subsequently but it would have been meaningless if we had not been prepared, as we were, to modify the ideas originally put forward in the light of further consideration. At the end of that consultation we reached the position as it is now set out and I have no doubt that the policy for the professions reflected in the Bill as originally introduced is right.
The presumption that certain restrictive practices in the supply of goods were against the public interest was based on a number of reports of the Monopolies Commission between 1948 and 1956, which led to the 1956 legislation. There were some reports by the commission on 1735 the supply of commercial services which have led to the same conclusion in respect of services as is put forward in the Bill. But the position on professional services is different because the commission has made only a general report on that.
The hon. Member for Swansea, West quoted that report, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the recommendations in that report of May 1970. The commission considered a variety of ways of dealing with restrictive practices in the professions. It concluded that certainly some of them deserved examination at the least, and that they were capable of operating against the public interest. It went on in paragraph 355,After considering all the possibilities reviewed above, we have come to the conclusion that the best way both of maintaining momentum in what will inevitably be a lengthy process and of enabling more detailed guidance to be formulated would be … to refer in close succession to this Commission … the supply of a number of particular professional services where the practices are known to prevail. Such references should be for inquiry and report"—then it gives statutory references—so that detailed inquiry might be made into the practices of the relevant professions and, if any of the practices were found contrary to the public interest, the Government would have power to deal with them by Order.It said that after a series of inquiries of that kind the time might come when general legislation should be possible.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)
That was three years ago. What has happened to the series of inquiries? We have heard nothing.
§ Sir G. Howe
The hon. Member must be patient. I am outlining the argument which underlies the framework of this legislation. As the commission pointed out, it would prove difficult to reformulate the "gateway" provisions in Section 21 of the 1956 Act in such a way as to enable practices operated by a professional body to be looked at by the strict standards which such legislation might require. It was for this reason that we favoured the approach which was blessed by the hon. Member for Swansea, West, namely a flexible approach with examination case by case by the Commission.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
Will my right hon. and learned 1736 Friend explain why the stockbroking profession appears to be excluded from Schedule 4? Is it an oversight or is it intended that that profession should be the only one immune from this provision?
§ Sir G. Howe
I shall discuss the boundaries of Schedule 4 in a moment because I shall have something to say about that activity.
Having reached the conclusion that professional services should be outside the scope of Part X of the Bill, it was also necessary to consider how far they should be within Part II, which is the subject discussed by Amendment No. 27. One must remember that complaints in relation to the equivalent of consumer trade practices made against professions are the subject of other disciplinary codes and it appears to the Government that in both contexts it is right for the Monopolies Commission to be the agency which looks at these matters.
However, the argument is essentially one about institutions, and I agree entirely with the sentences quoted by the hon. Member for Swansea, West from the Consumers Association Press release:The traditional immunity given to the professions is now an anachronism.He did not quote the next two sentences:We accept that, in the past, the professions have by self-regulation and imposition of professional standards, produced and maintained services for the public of a very high quality. In many cases, they still do.Then comes the second sentence the hon. Member quoted:But they should not be exempt from public scrutiny.I accept that argument, but the argument is about institutions which are most appropriate. It would be wrong to accept the argument put forward by the hon. Member that the Cabinet or myself have been driven into some frozen posture of inactivity. On Second Reading I said that the provisions of the Bill did not implythat the Government intend to remain inactive in relation to professional practices which may give rise to justifiable public concern."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 466.]Since then the House will be aware from the discussions we have had on the Bill that we have been giving careful consideration to the desirability of making 1737 early references to the Monopolies Commission of certain restrictive practices in the professions. In doing that I have to take into account and meet criticisms and views received from the professional institutions—I think 130 of them—on our request that they should re-examine their practices in the light of the report of the Monopolies Commission to which I referred. The references that I now intend to make will enable the commission to carry out a series of detailed inquiries and to consider the bearing of the public interest on particular practices in particular professions and to make recommendations.
I need hardly add that it should by no means be assumed from the fact that references are being made that the commission's conclusions will necessarily be adverse. In selecting the instances that I am proposing to give to the House I have, of course, had regard to the economic significance of the different practices of the different professions and I have borne in mind the need to avoid imposing an undue burden of inquiry on any particular profession and at the same time to enable the commission to consider a variety of different practices.
With these factors in mind I am accordingly proposing to refer to the commission the practice of barristers and advocates in the United Kingdom known as the "two counsel" rule and the regulation of charges by scale fees on the part of architects and surveyors. I also propose to refer certain restrictions relating to advertising in relation to certain professions. The professions concerned are barristers, solicitors, accountants and veterinary surgeons. In the case of solicitors in the United Kingdom the references which I propose cannot be made until the Bill becomes law because the restrictions in relation to solicitors have a statutory basis in the Solicitors Acts which preclude them from being referred under the existing monopolies legislation. This Bill removes that bar.
In addition, it would be advantageous if the commission were also enabled to examine what might be described—I answer the point which was raised in the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South East (Mr. Rost)—as commercial rather than strictly professional services in the sense used 1738 in the Bill. It is in that sense that I intend to refer restrictions on advertising by stockbrokers. That does not involve any conflict between the Monopolies Commission and the Restrictive Practices Court as the restrictive trade practices legislation does not extend to restrictions on advertising as regards the supply of goods, and will not be so extended when commercial services are brought within its scope. My Department will be discussing the precise formulation of the references with the organisations concerned.
I must emphasise that a reference to the Monopolies Commission in no way carries the presumption that the matters referred to are contrary to the public interest. Investigation by the Commission provides an opportunity for making an impartial and independent assessment. It is for that reason that the Government believe that it is the right machinery to use and believe it right to provide use to be made of it by restoring the schedule.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
If the Bill were now in operation and the Director General were supported by his Consumer Protection Advisory Committee and references were made to that Committee, the point that my right hon. and learned Friend has just made, in emphasising that a reference does not presume some form of guilt, would be reinforced if a reference did not go through the whole panoply of the Monopolies Commission.
§ Sir G. Howe
I do not quite follow my hon. Friend's argument. It is a complex piece of reasoning which at this moment I do not understand. The Government think that the Monopolies Commission is the agency to which questions should be referred about the operation of professional monopolies of the kind referred to in the schedule. I have explained why in those circumstances the provisions of Clause 15 appear to be necessary.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen) rose.
§ Sir G. Howe
May I be allowed to finish my sentence? I have already been interrupted once in the course of this sentence. Investigation by the commission provides an opportunity for an impartial and independent assessment. 1739 The fact that a reference is made casts no reflection on the standards of competence and integrity with which the services are supplied.
§ Mr. Mitchell
Does the Minister agree that the terms of the reference are important? Will he give an undertaking that the terms of the reference will be as wide as possible? If the terms of reference were drawn too narrowly they could be restrictive and the reference would not get to the bottom of the things which worry many hon. Members.
§ Sir G. Howe
I agree that the terms of reference are important. On the other hand, the practices and the professions concerned must be identified by the terms of the reference. The scope of the whole inquiry must not be so wide as to make it impossible for the Monopolies Commission to initiate an inquiry. Those are the facts which I shall have in mind in stating the terms of the reference.
§ Mr. Millan
Will the Minister give an assurance—the Minister said it is for the Director General to make a reference to the Monopolies Commission—that the Government will not use the powers of direction which they have under Clause 13 to prevent the Director making a reference?
§ Sir G. Howe
I cannot give an assurance about every aspect of Clause 13. The principal purpose of the clause, as I understand it, is to indicate orders of priority for the substantial job to which the Director General must address himself. I hope that the announcement which I have just made will make it clear that the Government have no intention of shielding the professions from the appropriate form of inquiry by the appropriate body at the right time.
The hon. Member for Swansea, West raised a matter which has often been debated in this House—namely, complaints against solicitors. I have explained that professional practices remain outside the provisions for reference to the CPAC under Part II. Notwithstanding that, I shall comment on what the hon. Gentleman said about handling complaints against solicitors. As he knows, this matter has been the subject of debate on a number of occasions in both Houses in connection with the Bill and in connection with the 1740 Solicitors (Amendment) Bill. The hon. Member and others, including myself, have taken part in some of those debates.
It is against that background that I am glad to inform the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland propose to enter into discussions with the Law Societies to consider improvements in the arrangements for dealing with complaints against solicitors. That is a matter on which I have spoken on more than one occasion in this House in my previous existence. I have acknowledged that it is a matter which causes both Government and Opposition hon. Members some anxiety from time to time. On the other hand, the professional bodies concerned handle a large number of complaints to the satisfaction of those who are concerned.
§ Sir G. Howe
The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) must not be too churlish by shaking his head in dissent. I am sure that most hon. Members will agree that such bodies handle many complaints thoroughly and to the satisfaction of those that make them. I acknowledge from my experience in this House and in my last office that there are matters and complaints on occasions which have caused hon. Members disquiet. I think that that is a fair balance of the argument. It is against that background that I make the announcement that my right hon. Friends are proposing to hold discussions with the Law Societies to consider improvements in the arrangements for dealing with these matters.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
Even if these improvements eventually come about, how will the right hon. and learned Gentleman deal with the problem that the public are doubtful about internal investigations by the professions upon their own members?
§ Sir G. Howe
That is one of the matters, no doubt, which will be considered in any discussions which take place. The hon. Member will recollect a report by Justice, which appeared approximately three years ago, which dealt with complaints against both parts of the legal profession. That report raised 1741 the very question which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. It considered the extent to which the public should or should not be represented at any point in the investigatory machine. That is a question which arises in many other situations. The police are one example. There are many other professional institutions in relation to which the same question has been raised. I have no doubt that consideration or discussion of this matter will be undertaken in the light of the hon. Gentleman's point which is relevant.
I hope that the explanation which I have given of the reasons which prompted the Government to include the schedule in the Bill will persuade the House to accept its restoration. It is not part of any process of setting-up or maintaining immunity for the professions but is part of a considered judgment as to the right way in which practices, restrictive or otherwise, should be investigated on behalf of the community. It is against that background that I have made the proposals which I have announced.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a great capacity for putting the House into the refrigerators, lowering the temperature, befuddling the issues with his legal jargon and promising all kinds of things despite the fact that all the arguments were paraded at great length on four or five occasions in Committee. Speaking for myself, I am just as dissatisfied now as I was at the beginning. Nothing that the right hon. and learned Gentleman said convinced me that the schedule should not be deleted.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman went out of his way to stress that there was no preferential treatment for the professions and that the Director General will be able to make references to the Monopolies Commission in respect of them. One complaint made by the Opposition in Committee was that the Monopolies Commission in its report of three years ago criticised restrictive practices within the professions. Yet nothing has been announced until today. The Minister said today that certain restrictive practices within the legal profession —and to some extent in others—are to be looked at.
1742 The impression remains that the ordinary man in the street is afraid of the legal profession. The profession has been extremely successful in cloaking itself in an expensive mystique. The man in the street will do anything rather than go to any member of the legal profession. Widespread abuses go unresolved because the public would rather put up with the treatment that is meted out to them than challenge the profession.
A constituent came to see me recently because he was dissatisfied with the treatment he was receiving from his solicitor. He asked me to find him another solicitor. I said to him, "In this profession dog does not eat dog. If a person is dissatisfied with one solicitor it is virtually impossible for him to get another solicitor to take up the case against the original solicitor."
The Members of the legal profession in the House are a freemasonry. They come together from both sides of the House to protect themselves. It is time they understood that the British public do not like them. They are extremely expensive people. My heart sinks when I receive a letter from a constituent saying that he is dissatisfied with the treatment he has received from a solicitor and asking me to refer the matter to the Law Society. The Law Society represents the solicitors—
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman never wishes to mislead the House. The secretary of the Law Society made it clear on the radio two weeks ago that if any person were dissatisfied with a solicitor or were unable to find a solicitor to act for him against his previous solicitor, the Law Society would provide that person with a list of solicitors who would act on his behalf.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The very fact that a representative of the Law Society has gone out of his way to say that shows that that sort of dissatisfaction has existed. Why would he make a public statement unless the disquiet already existed?
A constituent of mine who was selling one house and buying another had completed the transactions through her solicitors and was owed money by them. She bought carpets, furniture and all the 1743 necessary equipment to furnish the house into which she was moving. In doing so she ran up considerable bills. She knew almost to the penny how much the solicitors owed her. When she asked her solicitors for the money, they told her that they would lend her some of her own money. She pressed the solicitors and got nowhere. She said to them, "Please let me have my money because I am in debt for furniture and carpets, and I do not like being in debt." The solicitors said that the money would be with her in a fortnight. She waited for a fortnight but it did not come.
My constituent then came to see me. I said that I would telephone her solicitors from the House. I did so and the next day the money was in the hands of my constituent. That sort of behaviour should not be tolerated.
However much the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs says that this profession is not singled out for special treatment, it clearly is. That is the whole purpose of the schedule. It gives that profession special treatment that is not available to anyone else. Adding insult to injury, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not justify the addition to the schedule that was turned down in Committee.
Paragraph 11 of the new schedule contained in Amendment No. 81 refers to the services of parliamentary agents. I make no great song and dance about it, but why were they excluded from the original schedule and why have they been put into this one? I notice in passing that paragraph 13 refers to persons employed as consultants in the field ofmechanical, aeronautical, marine, electrical or electronic engineering".Mining and quarrying consultants are also included in the schedule. Does the schedule also cover the consultants of Lonrho? One consultant of Lonrho is a Member of the House. If I write to the Minister and complain about the Lonrho consultatnts, will that matter be referred to the Monopolies Commission?
There has been widespread criticism of the way in which the Government have handled this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) in Committee quoted from newspapers of widely differing quality and political bias. Both the Observer 1744 and the Daily Express widely criticised the exclusion of the professions from the schedule. The Conservative members of the Committee, the epitome of party loyalty who would normally toe the party line, refused to do so in Committee. The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) said:It seems to me that if we are to outlaw, or at any rate investigate, restrictive trade practices, we must be consistent and do the same with the professions. I therefore believe that we should delete Schedule 4 in order to ensure parity of treatment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 12th April 1973; c. 1326.]Parity of treatment is of the essence of the Bill. No one who is providing goods or services should receive preferential treatment in the protection of the consumer of those goods or services from restrictive practices.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) who is not here at the moment, then said:I therefore believe that no profession should have any special privilege—which was really the same point. The hon. Lady the Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) roundly condemned the profession and the exceptional treatment given to them. In Committee she said:It would have been far better to allow the professions to be considered by the two bodies as seemed appropriate and to amend the measure after several years if that proved to be necessary.That was a reasonable point to make. The hon. Lady continued:It is important that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. If we exclude the professions, as we do in Schedule 4, in the eyes of the public they will appear to be receiving favourable treatment. Indeed, they will be doing so. I must tell my hon. Friend that, although it will be disappointing to him, I shall not vote for one jot or tittle of the schedule." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 12th April, 1973, c. 1337.]I hope that she has not been converted by the Minister's speech this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Merton and Morden also refered to abuses in the educational service—and we all know of those abuses—and to the people who give bogus degrees and bogus academic qualifications of all kinds.
Then we must consider the medical profession—and I am glad to see present 1745 the hon. Lady—the anti-abortion lady— the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight). The Abortion Act has been abused to a great degree.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Lady greatly exaggerated the situation. I agree with her that the people who have abused the Abortion Act are no more than criminals who ought to be dealt with instead of being treated in the schedule as the next thing to God.
§ Mrs. Knight
I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that they are not in any way breaking the law as set out in the Abortion Act.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We shall see whether they have been breaking the law when the Lane Committee reports. In fact some of the clinics were closed by the Minister because he was not satisfied with the kind of facilities they were providing. Their code of conduct left a lot to be desired. Their clients should be able to have recourse to the Director General, to the Restrictive Practices Court, or to the machinery of this legislation instead of these people being allowed to get away with it by their being referred to the Monopolies Commission. To refer that kind of complaint to the Monopolies Commission, as the Minister suggests, is a nonsense. These are cases which may be regarded as trivial, but they are certainly not trivial to the person who is on the receiving end. We all know that the pace at which the Monopolies Commission moves is not exactly expeditious. It does its job thoroughly, but it takes a long time. The essence of consumer complaints is that they should be dealt with as speedily as possible, and what the Government propose will have the opposite effect.
It is interesting to compare the justification made for the schedule by the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs today with the arguments which were adduced by the junior Minister when we debated this matter in Committee. The junior Minister then talked about the professions being highly qualified and highly trained and he said that they set them- 1746 selves a wonderful ethical standard. He said that the legal profession was in the nature of a complex monopoly. He suggested that these professions were distinguished by a high degree of skill and learning acquired after long and specialised courses of intellectual study and practical training. He said that theymaintain standards of ethical conduct beyond those required of the ordinary citizen by the law.Do they? When one looks at the list in the schedule, I wonder who the Undersecretary of State thinks he is kidding. Does he think that the standards of conduct of architects, solicitors and even those in private nursing and in the medical profession are any higher than the standards adopted by skilled engineers or skilled miners? The junior Minister went on to say that those in the professionaccept personal responsibility to those whom they serve for their actions and to their profession for maintaining the competence and integrity of the occupation as a whole.He went on a little later to say,In particular, there is a special fiduciary relationship between the practitioners and their clients."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 12th April 1973; c. 1329–30.]The hon. Gentleman read his brief twice on that matter, which almost amounts to tedious repetition.
I do not accept the argument of the junior Minister on that occasion, nor do I accept the argument of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister today. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) had a point when he said that the appropriate way to deal with professional malpractices might be to refer such matters to the Registrar of the Restrictive Practices Court. I think I am right in saying that the schedule excludes that possibility.
The argument that the professions listed in the schedule are above suspicion and that their restrictive practices are always in the public interest—which is what the Law Society said—was not accepted by the Monopolies Commission. Only now does the Minister announce that action is to be taken on the report of the Monopolies Commission published three years ago.
I shall not go on at length, but I have no doubt that other hon. Members can 1747 give examples of abuses in other professions. I do not believe there is any reason why the professions should be treated as a race apart, as a kind of collective human equivalent of God himself. They must be subject to the same searchlight of public scrutiny as is the supplier of any other kind of goods or services. They have succeeded for far too long in prospering luxuriously in the miscreant aura with which they have surrounded themselves. It is time that was ended, and we can end it by deleting the schedule.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) said that the Minister had put the debate in a refrigerator. We all know that the hon. Gentleman is capable of generating intense heat on any subject with all the bitterness of which he is capable. It is a pity that today he chose yet another occasion to carry out a witch hunt in respect of a particular profession.
I declare an interest in this matter because I am a solicitor, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will admit that it gives me some right to say a few words on the subject.
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis), who is a solicitor, was shot down when he sought to make a perfectly reasonable intervention a little earlier this afternoon. It is unfortunate that this debate should have turned into this witch hunt against solicitors. We are simply discussing whether the professions should be referred to the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee or to the Monopolies Commission. For reasons which the Minister has given, he has decided that the professions should be referred to the Commission. That is sensible and reasonable and I certainly support it.
If we are to discuss the professions we should surely be discussing professional practice and codes this afternoon, and not alleged professional negligence or cases which ought to be referred to the professional disciplinary bodies. The hon. Member for Fife, West says that the ordinary public are afraid of lawyers. That is not my experience as a lawyer. The hon. Gentleman may say that I am prejudiced but I have spent my whole working life as a lawyer and I have also spent a few years as an MP. I do not believe that ordinary people are afraid of 1748 lawyers. It may be that they will become more afraid if, when they listen to the ten o'clock news tonight or the seven o'clock news tomorrow, they learn that an hon. Member in the House of Commons made a bitter attack against the legal profession. No doubt the hon. Member is expecting headlines, which he will get. But the only effect of what he has said will be to undermine a profession which we all know does an important and responsible job.
Many constituents, if they have a grievance, rush to a solicitor and get help. I admit that there are individual cases in which complaints are justifiable. It is so easy in the House of Commons, with all the protection and privilege we have, to raise individual cases with all the bitterness which the hon. Member reserves for people whom he does not like. We can all do this. It is an easy game to play.
There certainly does seem to have been something wrong in the case which the hon. Gentleman quoted. The solicitor mentioned should not have taken so long to send the money which was due to the client but he would not benefit personally because he has to keep clients' money in a separate account. Perhaps the solicitor did not answer letters. We do not know, because the hon. Gentleman has not told us the other side of the case. I am sure that some hon. Members in this House do not always answer letters promptly or by return of post, but as soon as a complaint against a solicitor is raised by a Member of Parliament it gets great publicity.
It is important at the present time that there should be public confidence in the legal profession, and in the legal system, and I believe there is. The Law Society knows that there is anxiety about the method of dealing with disciplinary cases and complaints. I assure the House that the Law Society is well aware of it. I attended a number of talks in connection with the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill, but I do not intend to go on to this subject now as it is irrelevant to this debate. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Law Society is fully aware of the problem and of the disquiet which is sometimes expressed. Procedures will have to be changed, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend has stated that talks 1749 to try to find methods to improve procedures are going to take place.
To use this debate as an occasion for a bitter attack on the whole of the solicitor's profession will gain the hon. Gentleman more publicity but will not serve the cause of justice.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
I assure the House that there is nothing sinister in my speaking immediately after the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). It is simply the luck of the draw. But it so happens that I agree with his remarks. I wish to declare my interest as a solicitor.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
I do not know why my hon. Friend thinks this so incredible. Unlike the hon. Member for Chippenham I shall be supporting the Opposition in the Lobby tonight and I will advise the House why I propose to take that course. My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) and Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) almost drove me in to the other Lobby with some of the spurious arguments which they have advanced. I do not intend to personally attack my hon. Friend because he and I have been reasonably good friends ever since I came into the House. He was one of my tutors in helping me to formulate parliamentary Questions. Now I wonder whether because some of those Questions went wrong I should refer my hon. Friend to the Director General of Fair Trading.
I am concerned about some of the arguments which have been adduced. They have been so selective and so unjust and do not advance the cause which they purport to support. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West said that solicitors who are Members of the House are like a band of freemasons and that they get together in order to support their interests regardless of the consumers' interests. That is a lot of poppycock. We have our differences here as well as differences about how the profession should be run. But we have a common interest in that we are members of one profession, in the same way as trade unionists have a common interest. There are a number of groups in this House who have common interests. If we are dissatisfied with cer- 1750 tain aspects of the profession, it is right that we should air them by discussing them between ourselves.
My hon. Friend said that there is no group in this House more disliked than the legal profession. That is an opinion which he is entitled to hold. But I notice no reticence on the part of our lay colleagues about coming to us for advice when they desire it. There is no reticence about seeking our assistance when they feel that civil liberties are involved and they want expert advice. Very well. We are disliked and detested, and I suppose that to be a lawyer-politician could not be worse in the opinion of certain members of the public.
Essentially the situation is that some lawyers, like some doctors and some dentists, do not do their work properly and deserve rebuke. They get it. They get it from their professional body. In the case of a lawyer, the Law Society is a pretty hard taskmaster, as is the Bar Council. I do not believe that my hon. Friends have addressed their minds at all to the measure of the discipline imposed by these bodies. What is at stake here is not simply a case which is referred to the professional body. It is a man's future. It is his ability to support his family in the future which is in issue. Therefore it is a matter not to be approached in the rather lighthearted way that my hon. Friends have done in this debate.
I believe that most professional men do their best. Some may not succeed in advancing the interests of their clients or patients as one might wish. But that is because human beings are fallible. In the same way, professional men are fallible. That does not mean that because of that fallibility they should always be disciplined. That does not necessarily follow.
As I expected, this debate has been used as an exercise for attacking primarily the legal profession. A number of allegations have been made which I should like to mention. It was said first of all that, in its disciplinary activities, this profession, like others, has its members acting as judges in their own cause. But while that is true, they are pretty effective judges. It is right to say, as the hon. Member for Chippenham did just now, that the Law Society is not indifferent to 1751 the fact that Members of Parliament and others have said that the way its inquiries are carried out is imperfect. In view of that the Law Society has reviewed the way in which it carries out its inquiries. It has a lay person investigating every case where it is suggested that there is no case for a disciplinary inquiry. That lay person indicates whether he believes that the processes which have been carried out are right and the decision is correct.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
If the internal support for change is so satisfactory, why has the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to announce that the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland are to have talks with the Law Society on this very issue?
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Davis
Nothing is perfect. The Law Society would not have intervened to alter its own procedures if all had been perfect. I do not suggest that for a moment. All that I assert is that in his overzealousness to put forward the propositions that he has today my hon. Friend has misrepresented the situation to a very large degree. Although I come to the same conclusion eventually as my hon. Friend does, it is right that I should seize this opportunity to rebut some of his allegations.
My hon. Friend dismissed the assertion that I made in my intervention during his speech that the way in which objections into the way in which the police carry out their investigations in the future is by means not of a full-scale inquiry into the complaint itself but merely by scrutinising whether the way in which the investigation has taken place is correct. That is different from what my hon. Friend asserted.
Then my hon. Friend said about discipline that he did not think that the Law Society and, presumably, the Bar Council were sufficiently assiduous in their duties. I do not know of any other group or organisation, outside this profession, which carries out such detailed and searching inquiries as the Law Society and the Bar Council when allegations are made against solicitors and barristers.
My hon. Friend's next argument was about costs. Many people have talked about solicitors' costs. It may be that 1752 sometimes they are high. But often people say, when a solicitor has carried on some small litigation, that his reward is very inadequate. However that is another point.
What other group of people provide the consumer, the client, with the same protection as that afforded to the public when it comes to matters concerning solicitors' bills? Bills relating to contentious matters are taxed by the court. In a non-contentious matter, before a solicitor can sue a client he must give 28 days' notice after delivery of the bill and must advise the client before instituting proceedings that he can obtain a certificate as to the fairness of the bill from the Law Society or that he requires the bill to be taxed. There is no other comparable procedure in any other profession or trade. But my hon. Friend does not refer to that because it does not suit his argument.
My hon. Friend's point about defamation was a complete red herring. I have never known people to be frightened off, as he suggests, in making complaints to the Law Society. The Law Society would not be nearly so burdened with correspondence if that were the case. It receives a very substantial number of letters. Some of the complaints are justified. Many are not. My hon. Friend's argument is an absurd proposition. People are not frightened to complain to the Law Society. I concede that many people are afraid of consulting a solicitor, especially in working class areas—
§ Mr. Davis
That is the second time that my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) has said, "Hear, hear". But from time to time my hon. Friend refers cases to me and they do not seem to be terrified. People now have the assistance of the £25 scheme, and it is hoped that vast numbers will seek advice because of the benefits of that scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West cannot argue that people are afraid to 1753 make complaints about solicitors because of the law of defamation.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
But my hon. Friend will agree that there is a problem here. I do not suggest that he is not making a cogent argument against what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams). However there are occasions when my hon. Friend and I have to discuss matters where people have been to solicitors and feel that they have grievances against those solicitors. It is extremely difficult for me to assess the quality of the advice given to one of my constituents by a solicitor. How can a constituent get that assessment if he cannot go to his Member of Parliament for it?
§ Mr. Davis
He can go to another solicitor. How can one assess the value of a doctor's advice? Sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes it is even lethal.
Still on this issue of defamation, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West did not reply to the cogent point put to him by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray). He asked that he should cite any single case in which a person had been condemned in damages in circumstances such as these. He could not. It is another bare assertion without any foundation in fact.
My hon. Friend went on to argue about delay. This is often a subject of complaint. I do not deny it. I do not think that any hon. Member can deny that sometimes, particularly when he is overwhelmed with work—and even when he is not overwhelmed with work—he has been guilty of delay in answering correspondence or dealing with matters. One does not wilfully do it, but one gets overloaded with work from time to time and delay is inevitable. Sometimes members of staff are away. Some of these things are explicable; others are not. To make the general allegation that the whole profession is guilty of monstrous delay, and so on, does not do justice to the argument.
The argument about a fused profession, which we heard in Committee and has been mentioned generally today, is worthy of consideration. There are arguments for and against it in the public interest. Strong views are held on both sides of 1754 the profession. I personally do not believe in a fused system, but a separated profession is not an unfair or unworthy restrictive practice. I have yet to be convinced that the system in the United States, France, or elsewhere, where there is a fused system, is better and less expensive than in this country. Indeed, the reverse is the case.
I believe there is a strong argument for the idea that, to avoid delay, about which so many allegations are made— sometimes baselessly—we should have more, not less, specialisation in the profession. The law is becoming more complex—this is primarly our fault in this place—and lawyers have to try to administer it, so they need a substantial measure of specialisation to do so.
I turn now to some of the specific examples that have been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West referred in Committee at column 1323 to the case of Mrs. Treseder. I concede that that was a sad and unfortunate case of somebody who had been advised by a solicitor that she had no interest under a will, and the solicitor refusing to allow her sight of it, and in the event he was quite wrong. He subsequently apologised and said that he was wrong. He admitted his error. The Law Society, in effect, said, "What more can we do? The man was wrong and he has conceded this". If there had been evidence that he had taken this action with spurious motives, that would be a different matter. But what more could my hon. Friend have wanted from that situation? Has he never made a mistake?
My hon. Friend referred to costs, but did not reveal the whole of the facts. Was the client to whom he referred advised of his rights before he was sued? If not, the action brought by the solicitor would be misconceived and he would not be able to pursue his claim.
This canard, which was constantly introduced in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West, about it being difficult to find a solicitor to assist somebody in making a claim for negligence against another solicitor, is not my experience. My hon. Friend said that dog does not eat dog. I assure him that my experience is not the same 1755 as his. I am sure that other hon. Members who are solicitors have, as I have, taken up the cudgels on behalf of a client against other solicitors. It happens all the time. The Law Society has said that it will assist anybody who is placed in this difficulty.
§ Mr. William Hamilton indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Davis
Any experience that my hon. Friend sustains in future which is the opposite of that can now be remedied. He has been informed of his remedy.
Not a word has been said about the compensation fund which is available. We in this House have been trying to get the compensation fund increased, but we have been baulked by some hon. Members who are anxious to prevent the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill going through. Where else do we find similar protection for the public? Does this suggest that the Law Society is completely unaware of the public interest in that regard? It is amazing how much the profession can be castigated in this way and thereby an injustice is done to the profession which is seeking to serve the public. I am not suggesting that everything is right, but these baseless assertions should be repudiated.
Lawyers are frequently in the forefront of the battle against any abuse of civil liberties. They are entiled to be proud of this. The young men and women coming into the profession are quite different from those who came in in the past, and they should be supported. Speeches such as some we have heard today could deter young, dedicated, socially aware and spirited people who are anxious to do right from coming into this important profession. I hope that this kind of argument will not be permitted to go on.
I support the Opposition on this matter. I believe that all professions should be dealt with in the same way as other people. I see no case for exclusion. I am particularly sorry that it is proposed by the Government that "the services of ministers of religion in their capacity as such ministers" is to be excluded. There 1756 could have been an enormous amount of hilarity and fun if they had been included, and if the Opposition has its way, they may still be included. For example, if a marriage goes wrong, someone might be able to go to the Director of Fair Trading and say, "He—a minister of religion —celebrated the marriage for me, and he is responsible for everything." I think that society needs to be more light hearted, and this would contribute to it.
I do not wish to appear complacent about this matter. That is not my intention. I believe that the professions should be dealt with fairly and they have not been dealt with fairly in some of the arguments addressed in the debate thus far.
§ Sir T. Brinton
We have spent the last hour discussing matters which are completely irrelevant to the substance of these proposals. I suppose it was to be foreseen, when the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) let loose one of his more bitter tirades against the legal profession, that that should be followed by a couple of lawyers defending their profession. It might be more appropriate if a layman defended us and stuck to what we are talking about.
We are not talking about any method contained in the Bill, whether we adopt the reference to the advisory committee or to the Monopolies Commission, dealing with complaints against individual professional men. This will not be a kind of complaints office. Either of these methods of reference must be handled in such a way that, whether we are dealing with trade or professional practices, they are widely applied. It does not matter whether we adopt the Opposition's or the Minister's proposals because in either case we shall not have a kind of complaints office. Yet that is all we have been talking about for the last hour.
I want to return to what we should be talking about. I supported in Committee and again support the Minister's view that the Monopolies Commission is the appropriate body to which to refer the professions. I shall not speak any further on this point, because I wish to raise a specific issue with the Minister.
I understand that there is an omission from the list of professions that the Minister has proposed. I have received a letter from the British Hearing Aid 1757 Industry Association and the Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists Committee raising this matter and I ask the Minister to consider it without any recommendation from me because I know nothing about it.
In its letter the Committee says:This committee speaks for all hearing-aid dispensers and employers of dispensers in this country. As you know, both of these categories of persons are required to be registered with the Hearing Aid Council (under the terms of the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968); and the activities of the profession of hearing-aid dispensing, both as regards standard of competence and code of practice, are regulated by the Hearing Aid Council.5.45 p.m.
It is claiming that it is a profession comparable to 15 different professions cited in the new Schedule. It further makes the point in establishing its claim to be regarded as a profession, that during the discussion of the Finance Bill—I assume it means last year—the Chancellor of the Exchequer moved an amendment which resulted in hearing-aid dispensers being included in Schedule 5, Group 7. This means that its services, along with those of medical practitioners, dentists, nurses and opticians are exempt from VAT. On that basis it claims that it is a body of professional people.
I do not know whether it might be considered to fall under paragraph 2— "Medical Services"—or even conceivably under paragraph 13 where we talk about professional engineers or technologists. There is something in its claim that its services must be similar to those of many other medical services and advisers. I ask that the Minister should consider whether its claim to be included in the Schedule is fair.
§ Miss Janet Fookes (Merton and Morden)
As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, I was one of the culprits who voted against the Government to exclude the schedule which the Government are largely seeking to reinstate today.
I listened with great interest to my right hon. and learned Friend. It was made clear in Committee by his hon. Friend that it was intended that the professions should be looked at where necessary by the Monopolies Commission. I felt, and continue to feel, that it would be more 1758 appropriate for them to be considered by the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. I felt that my right hon. and learned Friend dwelt too much on the fact that it was the right course—that they should go to the Monopolies Commission —but that he was rather short on reasons as to why it was a good course.
The original form of the Bill rather intended that the professions should be an exception. There was no clause which excluded them but there was no clause specifically including them and setting out the method by which they were to be dealt with. I recognise that there were the general umbrella clauses but nowhere did they seem to be specifically mentioned, except by way of an exception.
There are professions other than the legal profession. Indeed the list is extremely long. I should like to refer briefly to accounting services. I had a case recently when I became somewhat concerned about a practice which seems to be typical of accountancy and which is not being dealt with very well. I had occasion to write to an accountant drawing his attention to a difficulty, which a relative had brought to me. She had received no answer from this person.
I, too, had the greatest difficulty getting any answer from the said accountant. When I did, the letter was extraordinarily abusive. I felt that it should be sent to his professional body. When I told the accountant of my intention, he wrote back and said, "I know the secretary of this professional body and have known him for many years. I am quite sure that he will treat your complaint with the contempt it deserves." This did not seem very encouraging. That letter came at the time when we were discussing the immunity of the professions from inspection by the advisory committee.
I am still waiting for the matter to be resolved. I feel that there are other professions where there are such difficulties. I mentioned one in Committee and it was mentioned again today by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton)—that of the bogus educational institutions. I am not sure whether the Monopolies Commission is the right body to deal with this. I wonder whether it will be over-burdened if it has to deal with its traditional work and with what I regard as this rather newer work.
1759 I was encouraged by the concession which my right hon and learned Friend made this afternoon inasmuch as he has announced specific practices which are to go to the Monopolies Commission. I hope he will not take it amiss if I say that I feel that had we not made such a fuss previously this concession might not have been announced. Whatever the fate of this amendment a great deal of good will have been done.
I remain convinced that the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee is the right body to do this job, if only—and this is an important reason—so that those people outside can see that all trade and professional practices are dealt with in precisely the same way. This I believe to be an important principle and I propose to stick by it.
§ Mrs. Knight
I wish to speak in support of Amendment No. 82. Before doing so I feel I must refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) whom I am assured by one or two of my colleagues is really a very nice man once he is outside the Chamber. He is a parliamentary Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—a Hyde in the Chamber and no doubt a Jekyll in the Members' Dining Room. Alas, I have never had occasion to speak to him there. [Laughter.] The House will know the point that I am making, because it is well used to the hon. Member's speeches and knows just how Jekyll-like or Hyde-like they are. I must tell the hon. Member that I would prefer to be known as "the Anti-Abortion Act Member" than as "the Anti-Royal Family Member".
§ Mrs. Knight
I accept your rebuke, Mr. Speaker. I was merely answering a point raised in your absence by the hon. Member. I hasten to return to the amendment. A professional body wrote to me suggesting that I should move an amendment to my right hon. and learned Friend's amendment. This body was obviously unversed in the tortuous paths of procedure which our Erskine May-regulated feet must tread.
1760 The proposed amendment suggested to me as being desirable by the Optical Association was to do with the words dealing with paragraph 4 in the proposed new Schedule "Ophthalmic services". It was suggested that the paragraph should read:Ophthalmic services (that is to say, the testing of sight) and the supply of optical appliances within the meaning of the Opticians Act 1958.I looked up the Opticians Act 1958 and discovered that Clause 30 reads:'optical appliance' means an appliance designed to correct, remedy or relieve a defect of sight.What these people were asking was that we should consider including spectacles or the provision of lenses in the same way as certain items relating to dentistry are covered in the Schedule where it says:any services falling within the practice of dentistry".I understand that also to mean the provision of such things as false teeth. I was not able to table that amendment because I feel that we are moving into the commercial sphere here. There is an important point which I would ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider.
It is true that Dorothy Parker once said, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." Nowadays glasses are so attractive that passes are made to people who wear them, whether male or female. I see that the hon. Member for Fife, West has removed his glasses. I feel that the House is not aware that successive Governments have connived at bringing about a situation whereby patients who pay for frames are actually subsidising the whole ophthalmic service.
I am told that many ophthalmic opticians would go out of business entirely were it not for the fact that successive Governments have recognised that the only thing which keeps them afloat financially is their ability to sell frames on a commercial basis. This is something about which we could have a long argument on another occassion. I beg my right hon. and learned Friend to ensure that the consumer interest is safeguarded here.
If we do not recognise that the provision of lenses is a part of the service provided by ophthalmic opticians we may find ourselves in a little difficulty later on. Ophthalmic opticians have a long 1761 training of four years and two extra years if they wish to prescribe contact lenses. The items they supply are just as important as those supplied by dentists. My right hon. and learned Friend should know that in many instances lenses are provided not purely for cosmetic or beautifying reasons but because they are needed. I am thinking particularly of the contact lens for someone who has a defect in one eye only and who wears one contact lens instead of a pair of spectacles. The principle is felt to be important by the body which represents the opticians, and I would ask my right hon. Friend to consider it.
§ Mr. Gorst
I have no desire to enter into a discussion about the merits or demerits of the professions. This country enjoys professions which have a deservedly high reputation. No absolute perfec tion is possible in human organisations. It inevitably follows that there must be machinery to rectify abuses which are against the public interest. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend when he says that this group of amendments is about the machinery and not really about the professions.
The question is whether the restrictive practices by the professions should go straight to the Monopolies Commission or to the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee if, at his discretion, the Director General of Fair Trading thinks that would be more appropriate. Behind any argument about this machinery there are certain important matters of principle.
Are the services rendered by one class of people, the professions, to be privileged and protected while another class of occupations, for instance, stockbrokers, advertising agents, airline pilots or computer programmers is to be scrutinised and judged by the Director General, the CPAC, the Restrictive Practices Court and the whole panoply of the Monopolies Commission?
If the answer is "Yes, they must be treated separately" then I wonder why a number of such people do not band themselves together as groups of workers rather than professions. The airline pilots have done this and gained the protection afforded to a trade union. If others did this they could get away with large sums 1762 of money by way of income which might be denied to the professions when they are examined by the Monopolies Commission. However, what is at stake here is whether we are to have equality or inequality of treatment before this new law.
The other, and I believe equally important, question of the machinery was also much debated in Committee. It concerns the independence of the Director General. The objective is to take a number of functions out of the political arena, according to my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State in Committee on 30th January, but on Second Reading my right hon. and learned Friend said:… the Government have decided … in favour of the appointment of a distinct and independent agency in the person of the Director General."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 454.]But in the discussion in Committee about the qualities which the Director General should possess, there was universal acceptance that he should be a watchdog, a diplomat, a lawyer and administrator, combining all that with being something of a publicist as well. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said that the Director General's independence was:… central to the overall policy which we are trying to pursue … "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 30th January 1973; c. 87.]Why is this precious independence to be so summarily and drastically curtailed by refusing to allow the Director General the same freedom of action with regard to the professions as he enjoys in the whole private sector of industry? There is an abundance of inconsistency in the Bill with regard to who can do what and when.
The Director General can initiate all manner of things before the Restrictive Practices Court, the Monopolies Commission, and his advisory committee. In the private sector, he is monarch of all he surveys. But in the public sector he is a mere lord-lieutenant to a politically-oriented Minister. So much for the desire to make him non-political. If there are restrictive labour practices to be investigated, he is bypassed. The Minister himself makes the reference. If there are restrictive professional practices he is again bypassed and the Monopolies Commission can only fulminate about 1763 what it hears and learns. It can make recommendations about all sorts of things —but not about the professions and not about labour practices.
These anomalous inconsistencies are not fair, just, or necessary. Do the Government rest their case for referring the suspected restrictive practices in the professions straight to the Monopolies Commission on the commission's report of 1970? If that is the basis of the argument, then it is a fallacy because the commission, when preparing its report, worked on the premise that there was one option, to be found at the bottom of page 87. It said:That a permanent commissioner, or body of commissioners, should have the duty of applying the considerations set out in this report to each individual profession, with the necessary judicial and executive powers for the purpose.The commission turned against this option, explaining that it would mean setting up yet another public body. But a commission or commissioners are in effect provided by what the Government have subsequently done.
We must therefore conclude that the Government's argument is based on a false premise—the assumption that the commission found this the only way possible to deal with restrictive practices in the professions. The Government skated rather lightly over the fact that it might well have preferred just the solution which many of us recommend, a lower court in the form of the CAPC which could consider the matter on its prima facie merits or demerits and then either accept or reject it as it thought fit without trammelling the commission itself.
I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to give further thought to the basis on which he presented his argument and advocated the machinery for dealing with the professions' restrictive practices. The Bill must not only be fair but must be seen to be fair. Selective handling of those who may be operating, on the face of it, against the public interest will not be in the best traditions of fairness and justice. It will not be consistent with the treatment being meted out to other sections of the community and could also prove unnecessarily time-consuming for the commission itself. It may well be asked to investigate matters which the 1764 Director and his advisory committee would have thrown out as not even being worth bothering the commission with. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will give further thought to the matter.
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)
Since there is nothing more undignified than a member of one profession being seen to defend that profession, as a member of the Bar I shall not enter into an apologia for my profession, or indeed for any other, save to say that I think the standards of the professions in this country and their general integrity deserve praise. Beyond that I am not prepared to go today.
I feel, however, that if public confidence in the integrity and standards of the professions is to be maintained, it is important that the public should feel that the professions are being treated under the Bill on the same basis as other services provided to the public. By excluding the professions, although I understand his argument to some extent, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is doing a disservice because the public will feel that the members of the professions are being treated as some form of elite. That cannot be in the long-term interests either of the professions or of the public, or of public confidence in the professions.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) has his tongue in his cheek in some of the things he says about the professions. As he said, he and other hon. Members are never reluctant to seek out the company and advice of members of the legal profession. I think we are a little abused but that does not really matter very much. What matters is that members of a profession should not be treated any differently from any other people.
I welcome the references made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the Monopolies Commission because they are sensible references, crisp and clear. I hope that they will be thoroughly investigated if there are abuses. But on balance it would have been far better for the professions to be investigated by the Director General and referred to the advisory committee and the Restrictive Practices Court, because the maximum scrutiny not only of the professions but 1765 of the Government as a whole is in the public interest. It would be in the public interest if this schedule were omitted.
§ Sir G. Howe
I should like to reply shortly to some of the points raised in this debate and explain that the two additions to the schedule are parliamentary agents in paragraph 11 and the services of surveyors—land and quantity surveyors as well as the other surveyors —in paragraph 12; they ought logically to stand alongside the other surveyors already there. Parliamentary agents logically form part of the legal profession already there. They were inadvertently omitted from the first formulation of the schedule.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) raised two examples with me—optical services and hearing aid practitioners respectively. They advanced various arguments why these should be added to the Bill. Obviously, I shall look again at those examples in the light of what my hon. Friends have said and in the light of the representations I have received.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston pointed out the extent to which optical services could easily verge upon the commercial. There are other matters which have been taken account of in relation to those who dispense hearing aids, not least some of the factors which can be spelt out in paragraph 21 of the Monopolies Commission report. We believe that we have made the right choice in making the selection we have made there.
I am sorry that I did not hear the whole of the speech of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) although I heard most of it, together with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). They went a long way towards repelling, with reason, the speech of a rather contrary character made by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton). I can understand how the hon. Member for Hackney, Central came to a different conclusion from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and 1766 my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) both returned to the position they adopted in Standing Committee in arguing that we ought still to be dealing with the professions in exactly the same way as everybody else. They did it more temperately than did the hon. Member for Fife, West who asserted, in very wild terms, which were justifiably refuted by some of his hon. Friends as well as some of mine, the extent to which the professions were, or regarded themselves as being, immune from examination, above suspicion and so on. I rejected in my opening remarks, and I reject again now, that analysis of the question.
It would be wrong to conclude, either from the hon. Member's point of view or from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North, that it is necessarily right to solve questions by deciding that everything should be solved by "the same regime as everything else".
There is a different provision affecting members of trade unions in Clause 78. It seemed right to the Government to make different provisions for members of the professions also—in other words, to continue the provisions made by the 1965 Act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden raised the example of accountants and bogus educational institutions. I cannot comment on the points she raised. I have no doubt that the accountancy profession will take account of what she said here today. For bogus educational institutions to qualify within the provisions of the schedule we are restoring, they have to be engaged in the provision of educational services as they are defined. There are other methods of considering that problem.
If one comes back to the heart of the argument, the professions and the institutions by which they are governed have held—and, many hon. Members acknowledge, still hold—an honourable and long-established place in the pattern of our society. As the Consumers Association's Press release, which has been quoted, says, they have varying ways of asserting and trying to maintain high standards of professional discipline and conduct. We should not too lightly disregard those institutions. We should not too easily 1767 cast on one side the great institutions which helped to form our society into what is essentially a plural society. In other debates in this House, hon. Members have argued the case for regarding trade unions as institutions, as an essential and, to a greater or lesser extent, independent part of the plurality of our society. It is in the same kind of sense that one should pay respect to the institutions whereby the professions have, as most Members acknowledge, governed themselves for many years.
That is one of the reasons for treating them differently and for recognising that they have codes by which they regulate and conduct themselves, recognising that those codes can be treated with some respect. That is the argument behind the difference. Of course, it still comes back to the same point in the end. Notwithstanding that, certainly the Government believe that in the public interest they should be subjected to scrutiny appropriate to their position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North argued that we were doing the wrong thing in leaving them subject to the Monopolies Commission and argued that we ought to have them made subject to the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee on the strength of paragraphs 350 and 353 of the Monopolies Commission's general report. In fact, the Monopolies Commission in the following paragraph gives the reason why that would not be appropriate. I quote from paragraph 354:Course (3) would mean setting up yet another public body and requiring it not only Jo investigate the facts and report on the public interest but also to negotiate or enforce settlements and then to supervise their execution. Strong exception might well be taken to this and in any case this course would mean foregoing the advantage to be gained from employing a body with some experience of restrictive practices in the light of public interest.That seems to be a good reason for rejecting the concept of establishing another body to do that which the Monopolies Commission can do very well in the light of experience.
§ Mr. Gorst
What I was really suggesting was not that the Monopolies Commission should be used but that the professions should not have access straight away to the High Court but should go to the Crown Court first, because the 1768 Crown Court may well be able to deal with the matter without wasting the time of that august body. It is simply a question of having two stages. Since the advisory committee exists, it seems sensible to make use of it.
§ Sir G. Howe
I will not follow my hon. Friend in his legal analogy, because one can be confused. The Consumer Protection Advisory Committee is designed to assess, in its primary role, consumer trade practices and to make suggestions for the laying down of rules relating to them. It is best designed to function under Part II, as it now will do, and designed to make new regulations to cover those fields where no regulations or rules exist. For that purpose, it seems an appropriate instrument.
When one comes to consider the professional organisations, they are bodies which are subject to disciplinary codes. It would seem right not to subject them to two comparable organisations dealing with abuses, to put them in a position of double jeopardy, but to give them the proper means of treatment—namely, before the Monopolies Commission. That is the balance of our judgment. It finds support in the analysis made by the Monopolies Commission, and I hope that on that basis the House will support the amendment standing in my name.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
I reiterate, with no penitence, that it is not anti-professions to say that they should be treated under the Bill in the same way as other commercial interests. We want equal treatment for all commercial interests and a fair deal for the consumer. As one hon. Member on the Government side said, fairness has to be seen by the public to be done. Pointing out the shortcomings does not constitute a fierce attack. If there is that much sensitivity in certain quarters of the professions, it suggests that the complacency is even more deep-rooted than I suggested.
We do not dispute that integrity exists and that the majority of members of the professions do their jobs diligently to the highest possible standards. Nevertheless, we suggest that the existence of integrity must not only be a fact in itself but must be apparent. Equal treatment would have helped in this respect.
The Minister said that we should not cast aside or disregard institutions which 1769 have done so much good work in the past. No one has suggested casting them aside or disregarding them. What we and the Minister's hon. Friends have suggested is supplementing the work of those institutions in so far as they have shortcomings.
The fact that they have shortcomings does not need to be proven any further. The right hon. and learned Gentleman himself, as I said in an intervention, vindicated our suggestion that there may be shortcomings and that extra remedies were needed by the announcement that the Lord Chancellor will be having discussions with the Law Society on its disciplinary practices in the near future. It is clear that the facility of these professional bodies for reforming themselves is not great enough.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Surely it cannot be argued that television engineers are ancient, yet it appears that they would come under paragraph 13(f). Therefore, to argue as the Minister did is nonsense.
§ Mr. Williams
That is a fascinating point. The intriguing thing about the schedule is that the Government have never attempted to justify the inclusion of every group. The Minister has not even tried to explain why he has added to the list which was struck out in Committee. He has simply stated the additions. This, however, seems acceptable to many of his hon. Friends.
The Minister said that we were wrong to say that the Director General cannot scrutinise the activities of the professions. The Director General will have power to initiate, but only in the context of the Monopolies Commission. This is the point that we have been making, that the advisory committee, now that it is being set up—it did not exist when the Monopolies Commission reported— should be used as an extra channel for dealing with possible complaints and abuses.
The Minister has announced a few references to the Monopolies Commission, which I welcome so far as they go. It has taken three years to get those few references, and there is no doubt that their announcement today has been forced upon him by the vote in Committee and his fear of the vote which will take 1770 place today. The references he has announced will only scratch the margin of the problems of 15 groups of professions and at this rate it will be decades before the issues that we want considered are considered.
What we cannot understand is why the Government persist in debarring concurrent consideration of less complex issues by, say, the advisory committee or the Restrictive Trade Practices Court. There could be a two-tier or three-tier approach to this problem, instead of which the Government have said that there is only one level at which inquiry can be made into the activities of the professions. Other commercial interests can be investigated in a range of ways, but the professions can be investigated in one way only, and that the most cumbersome in the Bill.
What the Minister and the Under-Secretary have made no attempt to explain is how they can be sure that in future they will not wish to refer issues to the advisory committee. Why have they closed this option? If the schedule is struck out, there will be no requirement that any issue relating to the professions must be referred to the Restrictive Trade Practices Court or the advisory committee. It would be a permissive, enabling facility, giving an extra range of armaments if the Minister or the Director General in future required them.
Instead, the Minister's system will leave them completely in charge of their own affairs. Regardless of the public need, they will continue to regulate themselves. A series of Monopolies Commission static snapshots are no substitute for the permanent scrutiny that could be available if the full range of facilities under the Bill were brought into operation. This whole operation still smacks of capitulation to the professional lobby, with an absolute disregard for the consumers' interests. If the professions are so good at regulating themselves, what on earth do they have to fear from being covered by the Bill? Can we afford to exclude them when the secretary-general of one of the most prominent of our professional societies said in 1968:Every restrictive practice in our profession is in the public interest and not in our selfish interest"?That substantiates our case for us.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:
§ Question accordingly negatived.1772
§ The House divided: Ayes 92, Noes 120.1771
|Division No. 139.]
|Hart, Rt. Hn. Judith
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)
|Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood
|Irvine, Rt. Hn. Sir Arthur (Edge Hill)
|Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles
|Brown, Robert C. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne,W.)
|Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
|Reed, D. (Sedgefield)
|Brown, Ronald(Shoreditch & F'bury)
|Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechftord)
|Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen)
|Carter, Ray (Birmingh'm, Northfield)
|Robertson, John (Paisley)
|Carter-Jones Lewis (Eccies)
|Rodgers, William (Stockton-on-Tees)
|Castle Rt Hn. Barbara
|Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock)
|Concannon, J. D.
|Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-under-Lyne)
|Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton,N.E.)
|tyon, Alexander W. (York)
|Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich)
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.)
|Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove)
|Stallard, A. W.
|Stoddart, David (Swindon)
|McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)
|Dell, Rt. Hn. Edmund
|McNamara, J. Kevin
|Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R.
|Dormand, J. D.
|Duffy, A. E. P.
|Marshall, Dr. Edmund
|Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert
|Edwards, Robert (Bilston)
|Fookes, Miss Janet
|Miller, Dr. M. S.
|Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
|Fraser, John (Norwood)
|Mitchell, r. C. (S'hampton, ltchen)
|William, Alan (Swansea, W.)
|Ginsburg, David (Dewsbury)
|Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)
|TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
|Grimond, Rt. Hn. J.
|Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
|Mr. Michael Cocks and
|Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)
|Mr. Joseph Harper.
|Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
|Murray, Ronald King
|Archer, Jeffrey (Louth)
|Hill, S. James A.(Southampton, Test)
|Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally
|Owen, ldris (Stockport, N.)
|Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
|Berry, Hn. Anthony
|Hornsby-Smith, Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia
|Howe, Rt. Hn. Sir Geoffrey
|Pink, R. Bonner
|Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.)
|Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
|Boscawen, Hn. Robert
|Hutchison, Michael Clark
|Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
|Iremonger, T. L.
|Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James
|Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford)
|Jennings, J. C. (Burton)
|Brinton, Sir Tatton
|Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs. Elaine
|Russell, Sir Ronald
|King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)
|Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
|Butler, Adam (Bosworth)
|King, Tom (Bridgwater)
|Kinsey, J. R.
|Sinclair, Sir George
|Clark, William (Surrey, E.)
|Knight, Mrs. Jill
|Skeet, T. H. H.
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
|Cooper, A. E.
|Langford-Holt, Sir John
|Corfield, Rt. Hn. Sir Frederick
|Le Merchant, Spencer
|Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
|Luce, R. N
|Taylor, Robert(Croydon, N. W.)
|McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest)
|Thatcher, Rt. Hn. Mrs. Margaret
|Dodds-Parker, Sir Douglas
|Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S.)
|Drayson, G. B.
|Marples, Rt. Hn. Ernest
|Fenner, Mrs. Peggy
|Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton)
|Turton, Rt. Hn. Sir Robin
|Walder, David (Clitheroe)
|Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
|Foster, Sir John
|Meyer, Sir Anthony
|White, Roger (Gravesend)
|Mills, Peter (Torrington)
|Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
|Morgan, Geralnt (Denbigh)
|Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)
|TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
|Gummer, J. Selwyn
|Mr. Michael Jopling and
|Harrison, Brian (Maldon)
|Mr. Paul Hawkins.
Amendment made: No. 28, in page 12, line 26, after 'Schedule', insert
'(Services excluded from sections 14, 102 and