HC Deb 12 June 1974 vol 874 cc1719-25

Amendment made: No. 13, in page 5, line 31, at end insert: '(2A) Subsection (4A) of section 2 above shall apply to an order under this section as it applies to an order under subsection (l)(a) of that section'.—[Mr. Maclennan.]

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I beg to move Amendment No. 14, in page 5, line 36 at end insert— '( ) No order shall be made in this section to require the indication of a price at point of sale where identical goods are liable to be offered or exposed for sale simultaneously at differing prices, according to the requirements of the Counter-Inflation (Price and Pay Code) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 1974 (S.I., 1974, No. 785)'. I shall not detain the House for long on this matter, although it is one on which we must have an answer. I have raised it before in the House, and failed to receive any answer from the right hon. Gentleman who was put up to reply to the debate. He had no departmental responsibility, and clearly did not know what the matter was about. Now we have the hon. Gentleman, who has departmental responsibility. I hope that he will be forewarned and forearmed.

If a Bill such as this has an inoffensive clause, I suppose that Clause 4 comes nearest to it. Certainly, I have no quarrel with the notion that the customer should be enabled to know the true price of the goods he is purchasing. But such are the wonders of attempts to control inflation by passing laws against it that one invariably discovers that one complexity flies in the face of another. So it is on this occasion.

We recently enacted the statutory instrument to which my amendment refers. One of its provisions is designed to prevent the practice of over-labeling the price of goods, which I know has caused great public resentment. We all remember the graphic appearances by the right hon. Lady on television, wearing her nails to the bone, pulling off over-labels on tins of various goodies which, rumor had it, she had bought in Fortnum and Mason's. People were upset to discover, having bought a tin of beans for 10p, that the label covered another stating 9p, which in turn covered yet another stating 6p.

I had a nasty experience myself some months ago. I bought a book for, if I remember rightly, £1.50 and found that the label so marked was stuck over another which said 12s. 6d. My mathematics are rusty, but I did not think that worked out very well for me. This practice attracts resentment and it is not altogether surprising that the Government should seek to legislate against it, as they did in the statutory instrument.

But within the weird, semi-submerged world of prices and incomes legislation it is no wonder that invariably when one takes such a simple step all sorts of complications arise. The complication in this case, with which the amendment is designed to deal, concerns the case of a supermarket. Let us say it has baked beans on sale which were put on the shelf last week at 9p. This week it receives a new consignment of baked beans from the supplier for sale at 10p, because even the Price Commission has been unable to deny that the affairs of the real world necessitate an increase in the price of baked beans.

In the past, the existing tins of beans had an over-label stuck upon them to read 10p instead of 9p, so that all the tins of baked beans on the shelf were labeled 10p. Now, of course, under the statutory instrument that is not allowed. Therefore, we are bound to have some tins labeled 9p and others labeled 10p on the same shelf.

For the convenience of the shopper, it is the habit of supermarket chains, as we all know, to put a price at the edge of the shelf on which the goods are placed so that the shopper does not have to pick up each tin and search for the label, which may be on the top or at the back. As I think we would all agree, on the rare occasions when we are sent out to do the messages the label invariably is in the last place one would think of looking. It is, therefore, a convenience that one can see on the edge of the shelf that the price of a tin of beans is 10p. Prior to the passage of the statutory instrument there was no difficulty about that.

Following the passage of the statutory instrument, however, a very serious difficulty has arisen. If the supermarket chain is obliged to have on the same shelf, as it is by that legislation, two identical tins of beans, one at 10p and the other at 9p, whichever price it displays on the edge of the shelf it is liable to be in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act and, therefore, to prosecution. If the ticket on the edge of the shelf states that the price is 9p, it is in breach of the Act because some of the tins cost 10p and vice versa.

8.45 p.m.

I raised this matter when we were discussing the statutory instrument on 15th May. I drew the Government's attention to this dilemma, which had been drawn to my attention by a supermarket group in my area. For some obscure reason best known to the Government Whips, the Paymaster-General was put up to reply to the debate. His connection with the subject was somewhat tenuous and his knowledge did not appear to be very much greater. Indeed, he did not answer the point at all. His answer was as follows: We have considered this point. We are of the opinion that Section 8 of the Counter- Inflation Act 1973 enables us to ensure that there should be no contradiction between these two pieces of legislation"— that is, the statutory instrument and the Trade Descriptions Actin this respect".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May 1974; Vol. 873, c. 1387.] What does Section 8 of the Counter-Inflation Act have to say on the matter? I quote from subsection (1): The Minister may by order direct that—

  1. (a) any provision of any Act whether passed before this Act or later, which relates to prices, charges or to remuneration or other terms or conditions of employment, or …
shall, while this Part of this Act is in force, have effect subject to such exceptions, modifications or adaptations as may be specified in the order. But we have not had such an order, as far as I am aware—no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong—and unless and until we have such an order either we face the situation that a supermarket chain is obliged to desist from the practice of edge-of-shelf pricing, a course which cannot be in the interests of its customers or the housewife, for whose well-being the right hon. Lady has so persistently agitated, or alternatively we face the prospect of prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act.

It is no good the Government telling us that the Counter-Inflation Act says that we can do these things, because unless and until the Government come along with an order dealing with the consequences of flouting the Act by indulging in edge-of-self pricing we cannot be satisfied. This is the point on which we have to be satisfied tonight. If we can be satisfied I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment, but we need an explanation, which we did not get from the Paymaster-General.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman said that I would be familiar with the matter. Indeed, I had the benefit of listening to his earlier speech on the subject when the Counter-Inflation (Price and Pay Code) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order was before the House. He has raised a point which may appear to have practical importance and, therefore, it is worthy of being considered tonight. It is the problem of the relationship between the reprising provisions of the code and the Trade Descriptions Act. Although it is an important matter, I am not sure that it arises directly from the Bill.

Be that as it may, it is our view that if the difficulty to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention arises it is open to the shopkeeper to ensure that he complies with the reprising requirements of the code without at the same time committing an offence under section 11(2) of the Trade Descriptions Act. If a shopkeeper feels that it is necessary to display similar goods on his shelf at two different prices, he can display a notice which makes it clear that not all the goods are offered at the same price.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne


Mr. Maclennan

On the shelf or on the wall.

There is considerable flexibility in the reprising provision and in the specific exemptions from the scope of the code. The Price Commission was given discretion in paragraph 77(a) of the code to allow customary trade practices when they were not against the consumer interest. I understand that the commission will be in consultation with the trade about the matter and that it will be providing information on how it should be interpreted.

The amendment is based upon the argument that any price-marking requirements under Clause 4 will exacerbate the problem of the shopkeeper in trying to observe the two provisions simultaneously. That is the nub of the hon. Gentleman's concern. He must recognise, however, that if there are to be similar goods on the shelf at different prices—and under the provision of paragraph 77(a) that is a possibility—it is all the more important that there should be a clear form of price marking so that the shopper knows the position. If we were to accept the amendment, no clear indication would be given.

In these circumstances it is of even more importance that we should operate the provisions of Clause 4 in respect of price marking. The reprising provision makes it clear that marking is necessary not only as part of the general process of educating the shopping public about what is going on but in ensuring that the shopper knows what price he is paying for each item.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I must admit that the hon. Gentleman is succeeding in bemusing me. Am I to understand that the supermarket to which he refers is to have at the edge of the shelf a notice stating "10p but in some cases 9p"? If so, I hope the hon. Gentleman realises that we are talking about a very small space. I hope that it will be possible for shoppers to obtain spectacles under the National Health Service to enable them to read the notice.

Further, the hon. Gentleman said that the Price Commission was empowered to observe and make allowance for customary trade practices. What does that mean? Does it mean that, because edge-of-shelf pricing is a customary trade practice, the practice of adjusting prices and over-labeling to avoid having two similar packages at different prices on the same shelf will continue to be permitted? Is that what he is saying?

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman is laboring the point a little. He has raised a real difficulty about the prices shown on the shelves. My submission is that it is more important in that case that there should be clear price marking. If the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there will be confusion, I submit that his suggestion would make it even worse. In these circumstances, I must ask the House to reject the amendment.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I think that will prove to be a hilarious reply when it is published. The Minister has confirmed what I suspected: that we are up against one of those insurmountable difficulties which constantly rear their heads when we try to indulge in such follies of legislation. He has confirmed my suspicion that this arrangement will help to bring the general proposition into contempt. For that reason alone I am delighted to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, which might otherwise have the effect of depriving us of that simple amusement. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 15, in page 5, line 37, leave out from '(4)' to 'shall' in line 39 and insert: 'In the application of this section to Northern Ireland for any reference to the Secretary of State there shall be substituted a reference to the Department of Commerce for Northern Ireland and any order made by the Department under this section'.—[Mrs. Shirley Williams.]

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