§ 10.48 p.m.
§ Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)
I rise with a sense of relief at being the third, not the seventeenth, person to initiate a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
In a fortnight's time we shall mourn the fourth birthday of the assassination of the original Consumer Council. That organisation, which was set up by the Conservative Government in 1963, was subsequently murdered by the same party on the grounds of economy. At least that was said to be the reason for its disposal, although the Consumer Council pointed out that the cost of its operations was equivalent to one old penny per year per head of the population.
The other grounds which were given in public why the Consumer Council was to disappear were that it had worked itself out of a job and that it had done so well in representing the consumer that it had stimulated more voluntary organisations to take on the jobs which it had itself done so successfully during the eight years of its existence. However, the destruction of the Consumer Council was unanimously lamented not only by the Press and by the women's organisations but by every organisation with any experience of consumer protection. The very organisations which were quoted as being capable of taking over the work of the Consumer Council immediately denied their ability for a variety of reasons to undertake this task.
Perhaps I might remind the House of the kind of topic that the council took up during the years of its existence. One of the first was its campaign on flammable nightwear for children. After many years in which there had been a long and tragic pattern of accidents to children wearing nightwear which caught fire easily, the campaign which the council set up led speedily to the introduction of standards to ensure that nightwear was safe from this hazard.
The council took up the problem of the provision of school uniforms and the poor quality of school uniforms provided in many schools and by many suppliers throughout the country. The council set off the campaign against resale price maintenance, and this subsequently led to legislation.
1302 There was a whole range of subjects which are obvious as being of consumer interest. There was the matter of guarantees, which has been put right subsequently in legislation. Guarantees at that time were calculated to remove from the consumer the protection of the Sale of Goods Act if people were so unwise as to sign them. It was only by the constant pressure of the council that the Government eventually undertook to legislate to get rid of this abuse.
It was not only in these obvious areas that the council was active. It played many other parts during its life. It brought together a wide variety of interests to cover a tremendous range of topics of general concern to the public. It brought together industry. It brought together wholesale distributors. It brought together retailers and consumers in order to exchange views, to exchange knowledge and to ensure that the consumer had the opportunity of making his views known.
As a result, over the years more and more protective legislation came along and a greater understanding developed between all sides in consumer provision about the need for protection of the buyer of goods and services.
In addition, the council undertook a wide range of education—in schools, in teacher training colleges and amongst women's organisations throughout the country. During its lifetime it distributed more than 5 million pieces of literature far and wide, giving advice on many topics. I have one on the subject of toys, but there was a great variety of literature given away in post offices and in the voluntary organisations to inform people not only about their rights but about the quality of goods of various kinds which were available.
The council entered the field of battle on decimalisation, probably one of the most notable struggles which took place between consumer interests and the Government. Even today, I cannot help feeling that had the council's campaign for the new unit of money to be based on the old penny been successful, instead of, as was finally decided as the result of pressure from the Treasury, on the new 2½d equivalent, many of the inflationary problems in retail prices in recent years 1303 might well have been minimised considerably.
The council also had an important part to play in keeping the Press and other organs of information advised about topical matters of consumer interest. It published a journal called Focus which was widely read not by the general public but by specialists in consumer matters, and through them a great deal of information went out to the general public.
At the same time the council was responsible for setting the pace in consumer protection right across the world. I stress that because it is of great importance. When the council was wound up it was the only international voice which Britain had on the international consumer scene. It was that voice which had initiated many consumer organisations in other countries. It introduced the Teltag market scheme for comparative labelling. I have with me a couple of examples. They showed how the performance of various goods could be measured, giving consumers some clue to what they could expect from the goods they were buying. The Teltag was the subject of years of preparation and years of negotiation with various parts of industry.
Overnight the council was destroyed. When the axe fell, the Teltag was in the early stages of its development and starting to be a great success. One of the immediate results was that the council and the many trade interests which had invested in the scheme were at their wits' end to know how to continue the service for the consumer. Although strenuous efforts were made both within the council and in industry at large, it was not possible to save the scheme. Like so much of the work which the council had done over the eight years of its life, the Teltag was wontonly thrown away by the actions of the Conservative Government.
There was another reason for the council being different from most other organisations. As far as I know it was the only organisation set up by the Government in which there were more women than men. Perhaps that is an appropriate point to make in International Women's Year. When I joined the council—I was a member of the 1304 council for five of its eight years—it had a woman director and the 12 members were evenly divided between male and female. During the years when Lady Elliott was chairman and Miss Elizabeth Ackroyd was director, there was a majority of women. I hope no one feels that the council suffered because of that aberration on the Government's part.
When the decision had been made that the council was to go, when the shouting had died down and when the protests were over, the council produced the last issue of its annual report. The report for 1970 appropriately bore a black cover. It told the world of the work of the council during its lifetime. The chairman, Lord Donaldson, finished his statement in the reporting by saying:I am convinced that the axing of the Consumer Council cannot mean the axing of what we have done or what we have started. Someday someone will have to invent a new, publicly financed body to promote and protect the consumer interest. And when they do I suspect it will cost more than the modest 1d per head of the population which the Council has cost the country.I am pleased that we have at last had, as Lord Donaldson predicted, the first evidence of the setting up of a new consumer council. I welcome the appointment of the chairman. It is very satisfying to know that someone of independent mind and of broad outlook has been appointed to take the chair of this important council.
I have read with great interest the statement that Mr. Michael Young has made on his views about the way in which the new consumer council should proceed. I would have hoped that he might say a word or two in acknowledgment of the existence of his predecessor and of the preceding authority, which he omitted altogether from his statement. Nevertheless many of his views are worthy of serious consideration.
I disagree with Mr. Young's suggestion that the development of the consumer interest, as he calls it, is largely the result of inflation. I remind the House that the setting up of the original Consumer Council was nothing to do with inflation. It was the result of the submission of the Molony Committee's report to this House. The person responsible more than any other for the eventual setting up of the Consumer Council was Mr. 1305 Michael Young by his founding of the Consumers Association. Therefore, it is well not to feel that the newly-formed council is merely a tool to beat inflation. I hope that it will be a long-term project and will have an effect long after the present inflationary spiral has been reduced to more manageable proportions.
Nevertheless, looking at the wide area to which Mr. Young referred in his recent statement, he appears to be undertaking a fairly daunting task. He envisages taking on almost every agency in the country on behalf of consumers. I ought to remind him that the various aspects that he has brought up in his statement will involve him in doing battle with local authorities at every level, with the whole of the National Health Service in its reorganised form and with the whole of trade and industry. He will find that he has bitten off a pretty sizeable lump of the national cake if he feels that this new council can adequately deal with all these subjects.
I regret that in the White Paper and in the statement made by Mr. Young there is no mention of any method of dealing with individual complaints. I realise that other agencies are doing that. However, it is worth remembering that the Consumer Council in its original form felt at the end of its life that not being able to undertake investigation of complaints made it somewhat remote from the people it was trying to serve. In fact, many who criticised it at the end of its existence did so on those grounds, although its original powers did not allow it to undertake that work.
I also regret that the new council will not have powers to disseminate its own literature or to be involved in educational work of the kind done by its predecessor.
On the other hand, I welcome the idea of the setting up of regional offices, because in my experience on the original Consumer Council, although on almost every possible occasion protests were made about the lack of regional activity, the Government were completely unwilling to allow anything of that kind to take place. If there is to be regional work, I wonder whether the cost is to come out of the budget of £30,000 which is being allowed to the new council. I wonder to what extent the work will be inhibited 1306 by the fact that it may have to be restrained within this amount.
Another sphere in which I hope the new council will be able to help is in the encouragement of local authorities which are now having to hold back the suggested plans they have already made for developing local authority advice centres. Those which have already been established have been most successful. Many authorities are ready, willing and anxious to play their part in this area. I hope that the Government will encourage the council to press authorities to start up this activity as soon as funds become available to them.
The council has a vast job in trying to co-ordinate the myriad voices which at present represent the consumer in different fields. The Consumers Association has done its job as far as it is able to as a member organisation, and the Federation of Consumer Groups does its job too. Finally, there is the Weights and Measures Inspectorate or, under its new title, the Consumer Protection and Advice Service—I am always in difficulty about what it has changed itself into. They all do a good job in their own area, but there is a tremendous need at national level to bring together all the knowledge and experience of these various organisations, and I hope that apart from embarking upon its own activities the council will consider that it has a duty to act as the final spokesman in coordinating these various bodies.
I am pleased to see in the statement which the Minister made that a number of voluntary organisations have been called upon to submit nominees for the council. I hope that when the names are received they will be added to by others who are prepared to speak out freely and fearlessly in defence of consumer protection. One cynical view when the last council was being wound up was that that was being done because it had been too free and fearless in its condemnation of certain aspects of Government policies. I am not saying this in a party sense, because I think that if one looks back over its history it will be obvious that from its inception the Consumer Council spoke out against either Government when it felt that it should do so. In the latter stages of its life it was perhaps being a bit wayward according to the views of the then Government, but it is 1307 important that if we are setting up a new non-statutory body of this kind it must be free, and seen to be free, to express the views of all the population and not just go along with the views of the Government.
I am well aware that since the Consumer Council was wound up many things have changed in the field of consumer protection. I am aware that the Director General of Fair Trading has entered the arena, that he is taking up a number of points about the dissemination of information, that he is watching over fair trading matters and that he has taken on board all the consumer credit legislation. Nevertheless there are still gaps which need to be filled by this new organisation.
Mr. Michael Young makes the point in his statement that the poor are doubly disadvantaged. I think that this is true, and I go back to what I said originally: that he is taking on most of the statutory bodies and many of the Government Departments if he tries to deal with the double disadvantages from which the poor suffer, particularly in the take-up of benefits.
It is worthy of note that the former Consumer Council was accused of being a middle-class organisation. I think that those who accused it in that way did not look carefully at the position of the council, because it represented all interests from the trade union and the cooperative organisation to the employer's organisation.
But there is no doubt that it is very difficult to get to and attract the people who most need consumer protection. In this area, the work which I look forward to seeing particularly is that in connection with the consultative committees of the nationalised industries. I remind the House that here again the earlier council spent a tremendous amount of time studying in detail defects in the nationalised industries' consultative services and suggested remedies, some of which I am pleased to see are starting to be implemented.
The Conservative manifesto of June 1970 said that the Consumer Council had proved an influential and powerful spokesman for the interests of the consumer. That made it all the more ironic when a few months later it was decided to wind it up. But that statement was 1308 true and I hope that the new Council will act in exactly the same way as its predecessor.
As I said, in just two weeks it will be four years since the last council died. I feel that it is not too optimistic to hope that on that anniversary we shall know the names of the members of the council, so that it can start operating as soon as possible this year.
§ 11.11 p.m.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) on her initiative in bringing this subject before the House. It is an opportunity which I welcome. I have expressed before, in Committee, the note we take of the hon. Lady's utterances on consumer protection because of her experience. I hope she will not take offence if I say that we have also heard her express her views about the termination of the Consumer Council in Grand Guignol terms, involving death, assassination and murder.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has allowed a political note to creep into what I had hoped would be a useful debate on consumer protection, but since she has done so I must point out that no Government had such a good record in introducing significant and comprehensive measures of consumer protection than the last Conservative Government, not only in Bills but in regulations and various initiatives. It ill behoves any hon. Member to criticise that Government—
§ Mrs. Millie Miller
I do not dispute the work which was done, but it would be difficult for the hon. Lady to give a better explanation than I did of the end of the previous body, simply because, as a member, I knew the ramifications of the debate between the Government and the council in its dying days.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I still would not use such colourful adjectives about its demise.
Initiatives on consumer protection have been slow to come from the present Government. I do not believe that their intentions are not good, but there initiatives so far seem to have followed the course we set. They have reintroduced measures which fell by the wayside because of the General Election, including a Bill on unit pricing, which was a 1309 Private Member's measure under the previous Government. What I reject utterly is the hon. Lady's claim that the Consumer Council was axed because it was in some way criticising the Government. I cannot believe that any Government, Conservative or Labour, would axe such a body for such reasons, especially if it was effective.
I am sure that this will prove an interesting and welcome debate. I would add to the welcome that the hon. Lady has already given to the new National Consumers' Council my own by no means unqualified welcome. I have a number of reservations about the new body, not least the suspicion that anything rooted, as the NCC is, in a Labour Party manifesto has at least a political pedigree. We shall have to see whether it is a prisoner of its own heredity or whether it is, as its first chairman has claimed, born free.
I was disturbed to hear from the Secretary of State at Question Time today that she intends to make political appointments to this body. The right hon. Lady was careful to say that these political appointments would be balanced. That is fair enough. But why make political appointments at all?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), the former Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, bent over backwards not to make political appointments in the case of the Office of Fair Trading. The Minister of State's mouth has fallen open. Perhaps he would like to contradict what I have said and give examples. If so, I should he delighted to give way. Apparently he does not wish to do so.
My second great reservation is about the apparently—one says "apparently" in the early days of a new organisation—extraneous nature of this new council in relation to the existing comprehensive structure for the protection of consumers, which it could well serve to distort. In claiming that the existing structure is comprehensive, I do not wish to imply that there are no longer any vacuums which need to be filled. Far from it. Indeed, it is because the NCC as proposed does nothing and can do nothing to fill the main vacuum that I express reservations and ask whether the money that is proposed to be spent on the NCC 1310 could not be spent more effectively by building on to the existing structure.
The great and overriding need in consumer affairs is the provision of easily accessible advice, arbitration and education for consumers. It is no use legislating or regulating for consumers if they do not know of their rights or do not know how to pursue them. Despite what the hon. Lady the Member for Ilford, North has said, all too few local authorities have opened advice centres. That is partly because of economic stringency but partly—we must face this—through lack of intiative. My own district council in Gloucester has shown the initiative and has somehow found the money to open a housing advisory centre, which will be very useful indeed. I regret to say. however, that my county council has not shown similar initiative in opening consumer advisory centres.
We know that economic stringency is involved, but as the cost of running an average advice centre is about £20,000 a year I cannot help thinking that a great many advice centres could have been opened with the money which will be spent eventually on the NCC, and perhaps even more mobile advice centres.
I was rather disturbed to read in a debate in another place, which turned out to be a debate mainly on the NCC, that Baroness Phillips said:There is an ominous sentence in a circular which has been sent out to local authorities about the rate support grant, in which it is suggested that there should he a deferment of consumer protection in the consumer protection field.She asked:Where are we going? On the one hand the Minister is saying that we need these throughout the land, and another Department —a rather feared Department, f would suggest —is telling local authorities that they must hold off."—[Official Report, House of Lords. 30th January 1975; Vol. 356, c. 600.]I shall be interested to learn from the Minister of State what representations his Department made to the Department of the Environment before that advice was circulated.
Then there is the danger of a proliferation of consumer bodies causing confusion as to their rôle. We already have the statutory office of the Director General of Fair Trading. We have the British Standards Institution, with the very important consumer rôle that it fulfils. We 1311 have the Offices of Trading Standards. As the hon. Lady said, they are changing names so often that one cannot keep up with them. We have also the very important voluntary bodies.
The hon. Lady spoke of the views of newspapers when the old Consumer Council was axed. The views which have been put forward in the newspapers about the new council are not all entirely unqualified in their support. In an article in the Financial Times of 3rd February this year, headedA watchdog barking up the wrong tree",Sandy McLachlan said this in speaking of perhaps the political background of the new proposed NCC:The root of the confusion starts from that point"—that is, the political point—since the idea of an independent consumer pressure group—however welcome in theory—does not fit easily into the rest of the consumer protection framework so carefully constructed on a virtually non-political basis by recent Labour and Conservative administrations.There is also a suspicion that a quite separate and non-statutory body may at best be a red herring.He went on to say later in the articleCertainly the general public is likely to be confused since the NCC, which one would have thought might be the focal point for consumer complaints, will not want to get involved in the detail of individual problems.That was the great drawback of the original Consumer Council and it is partly the drawback of the Office of Fair Trading which is deprived of a national network of consumer advice centres as envisaged by my right hon. and learned Friend from which to glean the very important grass roots information on which it can work. It is this lack of direct access for the consumer, which is not only needed in its own right but is a very important reservoir for research and information, which is also a great drawback for the NCC and which perhaps serves to emphasise its extraneous nature.
There is a report concerning its chairman in The Guardian of 30th March 1975. This is not a direct quotation of him and I hope that certain aspects of it are incorrect. The article is called "Crosscheck" and it says:Michael Young believes that the consumer movement in this country have failed to meet 1312 the needs and concern of the majority because it has been dominated by the middle classes who sometimes do not care, but more often do not know what oppresses those who are least able to fend for themselves.I hope that hon. Members will not object if I say that I take some offence at those remarks. Repeatedly since I have been a Member of this House, in Committee and on the Floor of the House I have stressed that it is the poor, the less articulate and the less literate consumers who are most in need of protection.
In a pamphlet published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1972 and entitled "Square Deal for Consumers", of which I and a number of my hon. Friends were co-authors, we particularly recognised that point. As many hon. Members who have taken part in debates on consumer affairs will know, if this protection is not available to some consumers it is not because we do not know or care but is because communications have not been established with such people, because elementary consumer education has not been provided for them and simply because there is no direct access for them where local centres do not exist.
With the best will in the world I cannot see how the NCC will speak for consumers when it is not widely in touch with them except at second hand. Although I was much in sympathy with a great deal of what Michael Young had to say about the position of the consumer in relation to local authority departments —I found myself agreeing with practically every word he said—I am not sure how far he will be able to widen his remit to bring this within the ambit of the NCC, although I hope that he will be successful.
There is then the important question of the overlapping, or apparent overlapping, of the functions of the Office of Fair Trading and the NCC—for example, in promoting action to ensure that the voice of the consumer is heard, the voice that the NCC will not hear for itself, and making information available to consumers. The Director General of Fair Trading has a statutory duty to do all these things, certainly to investigate, report and recommend action. What happens when these two rôles conflict? Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to tell us when he replies.
1313 The White Paper says that the Director General is too busy with monopolies, mergers and consumer credit. Does this imply that Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Trading Act are to be allowed to lapse, and will recommendations be made to the Government by the NCC and then referred to the CPAC for investigation? At national level there are the excellent voluntary organisations which will be campaigning for consumers as they have always done. Will there be any crossed lines here?
Hon. Members who hold regular constituency "surgeries"—not least the Minister of State when he was in opposition—are closer to the disadvantaged and inarticulate consumers who need the most help where there are no advice centres. That is why constituency issues are so often aired on the Floor of the House and why the persistence of right hon. and hon. Members has resulted in the legislation we have had so far. There is also the valuable advice that people receive from the various consumer organisations.
I welcome the function of the new agency of dealing with product safety. This is certainly necessary. I welcome, too, the fact that product safety has now been brought under the wing of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, where it should have reposed for a long time. How is the NCC to collect information? How is it to make representations? What testing facilities will be available to it on its limited budget? I compare this with the rôle of the United States Product Safety Commission, which has an enormous budget and which, although it has no testing facilities, has money to spend on testing.
It is the extension of the United States Product Safety Commission which has made it a focal point for people such as the geneticists who discovered that there could be an genetic malfunction from the use of certain spray adhesives. They asked "To whom shall we go with this information?" They went to the commission, which was able to spend money on research and was then able to warn nationally and finally to ban the product.
We have been told that the NCC could make such recommendations. What will the Minister do when the NCC makes such recommendations since he does not 1314 have the power to ban products? Will the power to ban be taken? If so, I shall be delighted to give such a step my wholehearted support. The hon. Lady mentioned flammability of children's nightwear. I remember the campaign carried on by the Consumer Council. We should accord credit to the Safety Sub-Committee of the British Standards Institution, which carried on this campaign, did the research and continued to promote the campaign successfully. That leads me to ask whether the problem of product safety could not have been handled more adequately by expanding the budget of the BSI, which is already experienced in this kind of work.
I am delighted that the NCC will have the function of liaising with the EEC on consumer protection affairs. There is a big vacuum here. It will be able to harmonise and discuss harmonisation of the EEC regulations concerning consumer health and safety of consumer products that we have not yet taken on board in this country. I think particularly of warnings of potentially hazardous household products by labelling.
No Government seem to have paid attention to that, although draft directives have been in existence in the EEC for many years. I hope that the NCC will recommend to the Government that they should adopt and adapt the principles in the excellent consultative document on consumer protection and information which we debated in an extremely irrelevant and inadequate fashion late at night. This was no fault of the Minister. As is so often the case with EEC legislation, the debate became a Second Reading debate on EEC legislation and was not in the interests of consumers.
I also welcome the new rôle accorded to the NCC with regard to the nationalised industry consumer councils. It should be a difficult job. The councils have shortcomings and they suffer from a shortage of facilities to do what consumers wish them to do. They are not sufficiently independent and are often criticised.
In a debate in the other place, attention was drawn to the rôle that a nationalised industry consumer council might have played in connection with the proposed 70 per cent. increase in charges for night storage heaters. It was not a nationalised industry consumer council which made representations. They were made and 1315 pressed by the Opposition. There was the problem of a nationalised industry consumer council in respect of gas conversions. That operation could hardly be said to have been covered in glory. It was an occasion when consumers were irritated, put to extensive costs and exposed to considerable dangers on a number of occasions. Obviously, that could not be said to be a satisfactory state of affairs.
Then there are the difficulties of billing nationalised industry consumers, particularly with electricity bills. When consumers want to make inquiries about faults, they often have to go to an obscure office upstairs to be met by somebody different each time to explain their queries over and over again. When I have complained that pensioners find it difficult to walk upstairs to make such inquiries, I have been told that if they wish they can ask someone to come down from the query office, no doubt a very junior member of the staff, to deal with them.
These aspects and many others of the nationalised industry consumer councils are not satisfactory, and I hope that the NCC will exert its full influence in its rôle when investigating these matters. However, the Office of Fair Trading has not been backward in this respect. In a report on the new servicing code and independent arbitration scheme launched by the Electricity Council—the first such scheme for a nationalised industry—The Times of 14th March said:The principal aim is to offer service on breakdowns in a reasonably quick time at a reasonable cost to meet reasonable demands, to resolve consumer complaints and to promote effective communications between the boards and consumers. The Director General of Fair Trading said he considered the willingness of Electricity Boards to submit to independent arbitration 'a most significant advance'.I am sure that the House would agree with that. But this is an example of the Office of Fair Trading apparently fulfilling the same function as that proposed for the NCC.
I welcome the proposed rôle of the NCC regarding monitoring the advertising code. The Advertising Standards Authority is not unsuccessful in its job, but neither is it entirely independent. There are some very black spots in advertising—patent medicines, hearing 1316 aids and the large composite advertisements which use such terms as "worth so much", which can hardly be disproved under the Trade Descriptions Act.
There is the question of cosmetics advertising. I beg the Minister, when he prods the NCC on this, to remember that a great deal of cosmetics advertising depends on the vanity of women and that half the women, including me, want to be deluded, but I respect the fact that half of them do not wish to be and that they should be protected as far as possible. But with regard to such extravagant claims in advertisements as that for a shampoo which says "You can have the loveliest, shiniest hair in the world if you use this shampoo", how many people who used it would complain that it had not produced those qualities for them?
There are the harmless over-claims of advertising which I would not want to see touched in which there is a great deal of pure entertainment value, particularly in beer advertisements. My favourite beer advertisement, which we do not see very often these days, is that in which a good-looking hero is rescuing a highly improbable damsel in distress from highly improbable dangers, the improbability of which is exceeded only by the claim for the beer—"It's Tankard which helps you excel; after one you do anything well". I shudder to think of the disappointment this must have caused in the one-in-a-million breast in which hope had been raised by the advertisement.
In consumer protection we too often hear of the wicked trader, and we cannot stress too strongly that the vast majority of traders provide valuable services and excellent goods. One of the worst areas of complaint which I hope the NCC will deal with is after-sales service, particularly of major domestic appliances and cars. The consumer is a captive caught by the fact that he has to buy the spares for the car which he has bought and has to pay the price charged. He must have repairs carried out which he has been told are necessary, whether or not he can positively find out whether they are necessary.
The Director General of Fair Trading has done a fine job in obtaining a number of voluntary agreements with the shoe trade, manufacturers of electrical appliances and motor traders. If these 1317 voluntary agreements work, it will be by far the best way of solving these problems. But he will have to monitor them carefully, because if he does not do so inevitably and regrettably legislation will have to be introduced.
I hope that the initiative of the new Chairman of the NCC will lead him to look into the whole question of certain car insurance policies which are misleadingly described as comprehensive so that when a person is involved in an accident which is no fault of his and the owner of the other car is convicted at the magistrates' court he is told by his insurance company, because he has a comprehensive policy, "It is all right. We will reclaim it for you", and afterwards he finds that he has lost his no-claim bonus. It seems to me that this is an area that needs looking into.
Like the hon. Lady, I regret the fact that the NCC will have nothing to do with education. Like her, I wish that this education could take place in schools, so that we might see a whole new generation of consumers emerging with a clear idea of their rights and obligations and of how to pursue those rights. I was interested to read the new chairman's views on consumer interests and representation in companies. I have often thought that, certainly in the private sector, the interests of those who work in the companies and the interests of shareholders were supreme, but I should be interested to hear a shareholder stand up at the annual general meeting of such a company which was engaged in manufacturing consumer products and ask how many complaints had been received in the year and what was the nature of those complaints about the product. I should be interested to know what effect that could have in terms of an improvement in standards, not only in the work carried out by management but on the shop floor.
I hope that the new chairman, Mr. Young, will pursue this point and bear in mind the excellent consumer relations which exist between a number of private national supermarket chains, which have set up their own local consumer councils to consider the needs of their consumers and which produce specialist goods to meet those needs, because that sort of communication between trade and con- 1318 sumer should be encouraged, prevention being a great deal better than cure.
I hope that the Minister will press for a new Supply of Services Bill to deal with exclusion clauses in services as soon as the Law Commission is ready to report, and I hope that the Law Commission will be ready to report before long.
I hope that the NCC will in no way cut across the rôle of the enforcement authorities. They are grossly understaffed and they have enormous burdens to carry. I wonder whether the money that is being used to finance the NCC would not have been better employed to replenish the staffs of the trading standards offices throughout the country, because they represent the consumers superbly.
Like the hon. Lady, I was concerned about the statement made by Michael Young as he sees his rôle in terms of price restraint. As the hon. Lady will know, the Molony Committee made it clear that pricing should have no part in consumer protection policy, which is to do with trading practices and not pricing. Mr. Young has set himself an enormous task —a task which is right outside his remit of consumer protection—in talking about incomes and profits and about the effect of profits and not wage restraint.
I was disturbed to read, in the Yorkshire Post of 10th February 1975— hope that he is not a political appointee —the following report of Mr. Young's remarks:'The consumer interest is in keeping prices down. The problem is how we might make it stick.' Mr. Young calls for income restraint —and promptly adds: I didn't say wage restraint. Those with the higher incomes ought to show the greatest restraint.'If I say that I detect a slightly political tinge in those words, I hope that the Minister of State will not disagree. I wonder whether he thinks that restraint has gone far enough in the middle income groups.
Finally, in qualifying my welcome to the NCC, in posing a number of questions as to its rôle and its likely value and effectiveness and in expressing doubts as to its chances of success in its appointed rôle, I would now like to say, without any qualification whatsoever, that I wish it and its new chairman every success. I hope that all my doubts and fears will 1319 be proved wrong and that the NCC will provide another facet of consumer protection that will contribute to an ever-improving and more effective level of consumer protection.
§ 11.40 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)
Somewhere among that myriad of questions I almost detected a speech. It might save time if I answered the speech and ignored the questions. However, I have debated with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) for a sufficient length of time to appreciate that I should not be allowed to get away with that.
I was glad that by the end of her speech the hon. Lady had talked herself into a happier mood about the National Consumers' Council. She showed a certain sourness which I do not normally associate with her, and I suspect that it was because she had detected a political pedigree in the origins of the NCC. In fairness, when the Office of Fair Trading and the Director General were established, speaking from the Box from which the hon. Lady spoke I made clear on behalf of the Labour Party that we honoured the creation of the OFT and that we would retain the Director General. Indeed, the Director General has been kind enough subsequently to say that that commitment by the Opposition helped him in deciding to take the post. I hope, therefore, that Michael Young will pay more attention to what the hon. Lady said at the end of her speech than to what she said at the beginning.
The hon. Lady spoke of political appointments and referred back to Question Time today. Ignoring the party debating points that inevitably arise on an occasion like this, I am sure that with a balanced body representing consumers' interests some members will have political opinions. They would be rather empty, wishy-washy characters if they did not have political views. It is, therefore, likely that the members will include people of known political views. The hon. Lady is welcome to put forward any names she may wish to consider. When we were in opposition the Minister responsible for consumer affairs asked his 1320 political opponents to put forward names. In appointing councils both sides have tried to ensure a balance, so that the body was not a shadow-like body unrepresentative of public opinion.
The hon. Lady complained of several of Michael Young's utterances. I find that encouraging. There may be some things he has said that I would complain about. That means that he is the sort of person we want in the job. In Committee on the Fair Trading Bill the Under-Secretary of State was in favour of appointing a diplomat as Director General. I said then that diplomats had their places and there were times when they were appropriate but that it was also appropriate to have a person who could fight for things. The Director General is doing an excellent job. It is right that the head of an independent body acting on behalf of the consumer should feel free to express points of view which may offend the hon. Lady and which may offend me. Then I know that he feels independent of either party. I am sure the hon. Lady does not disagree with that proposition.
The hon. Lady said—with a degree of truculence—how glad she was that safety had eventually come under our wing. We were set up in March 1974 and took over safety on 1st October. When the Conservative Government were in power they had ample opportunity to give that responsibility to their Minister responsible for consumer affairs, but they did not do so.
The hon. Lady hoped that the NCC would be able to undertake tests on products. The NCC is independent. It will make up its own mind what it wants to do. If it wants to make tests, if it wants to commission outside consultants or if it wants access to Government laboratories, it is for the council to decide. It is an independent organisation which must make its own decisions. That does not necessarily mean that I think it would be sensible for the council to set up its own laboratories, which would be under-used, but it could use existing resources on, say, a contract basis if it thought it appropriate to do so.
We faced this problem in assessing our budget for the first year. Until we see the way the council wants to operate, we have had a stab at guessing at the figure. 1321 As we see its work developing in the first year, we shall be able to decide its future requirements. The hon. Lady knows, since this is an interest which we both share, that I put high emphasis on the safety of goods. I should be only too happy to see further action. She knows from private conversations that my right hon. Friend and I are reviewing the machinery and policy on safety.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) for giving the House the opportunity to debate the National Consumers' Council. My hon. Friend referred to the assassination of the Consumer Council. This brought a slapped hand from the hon. Member for Gloucester, who preferred a rather coyer term, such as the "termination" or "demise" of that body. Nevertheless, the poor animal lay dead at the end. However, I shall not enter into a political discussion as to how that happened. Everybody knows that it was killed off allegedly to save £240,000.
My hon. Friend regretted the fact that individual complaints will not be dealt with by the NCC. We examined this matter, and there is a difference between being aware of individual complaints and dealing with them, as the hon. Member for Gloucester will discover in her role of trying to advise her party, as I have found, and indeed as I am sure Michael Young will discover for himself. If one deals with all the complaints that come one's way, one never has time to cope with the policy thinking. We must be sure that there is the facility for complaints to be dealt with. We must make sure that the nature of complaints is available to us all in our varying roles. But our job at the centre is to synthesise the information which is obtained and to turn that into policy by a change in the law, leading to additional protection, rather than to spend time dealing with matters that could be dealt with more effectively, and certainly more cheaply, at local level.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North regretted that there was no power to disseminate literature and information. The reason why literature is not to be disseminated is that the OFT has this function, which rested with the Consumer Council, and in a situation of limited resources I am sure that hon. Members would not wish there to be any 1322 duplication. The NCC is free to comment if it wishes to do so. Indeed, the NCC would be free, if necessary, to make recommendations.
The matter of consumer education is a question for the NCC. We put no limitation on its wider propagandist rôle on behalf of the consumer. We want to set up a completely independent body which can speak at national level. I sought to stress this point in opposition when we were dealing with the fair trading legislation. The producers, the CBI and the trade unions have gone down well-trodden paths into Whitehall; they are experienced lobbyists. There is no such lobbying experience on behalf of the consumer. We want to establish such a lobbying power.
The hon. Member for Gloucester will appreciate that lobbying is a matter not of occasional questions but of continuous daily discussion and argument with officials, sometimes of beating down barriers which have been erected over years of entrenched stonewalling against change.
As for the structure of the committee. I can inform the House that it will have about 15 members. I say "about" because the aim is to get a body which is as small as is reasonable so that it can get down to hard, detailed work instead of having general meetings every time it meets. The individual members will perhaps be able to head study teams to specialise in particular sectors. That is very much in line with Michael Young's thinking.
There will be regional committees, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish committees. We have gone for something which I recommended to the previous Government during the passage of the Fair Trading Act —the direct participation of what we have called the nominating bodies, existing independent consumer and women's organisations which will be allowed to put forward names. Those chosen will not be delegates from the nominating organisations, having to report back and get a mandate before they can decide anything. They will be there as individuals to express their individual viewpoints but drawing on their experience within those nominating bodies.
There will be five names chosen from the 10 nominating bodies. In addition the Secretary of State will appoint a 1323 series of members, because there will be a delicate problem of ensuring a geographical and sex balance. As my hon. Friend said, if any committee is likely to consist predominantly of women members, this is probably the one. But that does not preclude men from membership, and I hope that quite a number of able men will take part in the committee's work.
There is also a matter of age balance. We want people who can speak for the elderly, the deprived and the young consumer. It is a difficult job, when we are thinking of only 15 members, to draw together names. If the hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester has any names that she would like us to consider, without commitment, I shall gladly consider them, particularly if she can think of a geographic spread. But I should like to receive them as quickly as possible. We want as best we can to balance all these factors in a small group of people.
The secretariat will probably consist of about two dozen people, headed by a director and deputy director. Advertisements have now been placed for the posts.
The remit is wide. The council can choose its own issues, including issues going way beyond the responsibilities of the Office of Fair Trading. The hon. Lady has read Michael Young's Press statement and will realise that he takes a far wider view of consumerism than many people in this country do. It is nearer to the Nader view that almost anything that touches the consumer is consumerism.
We are not imposing unnecessary limitations on the council. We shall ask it to help us in certain respects, the nationalised industries being one instance. I stressed during the passage of the Fair Trading Act that the existing structures needed reassessing. First, many of them are a quarter of a century old. When a new department is taking over these responsibilities it is as well, as happens with a firm taking over a new branch, to look at the operational efficiency of the units for which it is assuming responsibility.
Secondly, they will now operate against a somewhat different background from that of their first 25 years, because we are gradually—more slowly than we 1324 would wish—spreading a network of consumer advice centres. There are about 50, with more to come. I am opening one on Wednesday. These centres create a new dimension in that it is inevitable and desirable that they will become a point of first contact for the consumer.
I want consumers to feel that if they have a complaint against an electricity board they can go straight to the advice centre and do not have to look up a list on a board and find the address of a local representative of a consultative council. Consumers should be able to go to the advice centre in the same way as they would go to a private firm with a complaint about an electrical appliance. Therefore, we are now playing a slightly different game. We are establishing a more methodical system of first contact over a wide range of consumer operations.
In that context there could be an inefficient overlap with the working of the old consumer councils, which had to operate without such obvious points of contact. We hope, therefore, that for the sake of efficiency we may be able to operate the system more closely. I want a thorough review of the consumer councils to take place. A lot of money is being spent. It might well be spent in a different way within the consumer structure which we are evolving.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
I should like the Minister to answer my direct question about the passage in the Department of the Environment's circular on the rate support grant, specifically regarding the cutting back of expenditure on consumer protection. What representations has the Department made?
The document says "no significant increase". There should be no cutting back. The hon. Lady demands greater expenditure by the local authorities, while the Government say that there should be no significant increase. The hon. Lady says that we are not doing enough. She must want a significant increase. She must bear in mind the complaints that the Government receive from her right hon. and hon. colleagues that rates are rising too rapidly. The two points of view seem to be incompatible.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I did not say that. I said that the money being made available to the NCC could well provide a 1325 number of centres in cities which would not otherwise be provided.
The money might provide approximately 10 centres. Its rôle might be to establish centres which might otherwise be delayed. It is a question of balance between the local and national machinery. I believe that both have their place. I stand by our priorities. The hon. Lady is free to continue to disagree. I say that genuinely and not in any patronising way. We have followed the correct course in establishing a partisan voice on behalf of the consumer.
This organisation will not be serving in the rôle of the existing independent bodies. We want it to be free to criticise Government, local government and industry. It will be free to speak in any way it sees fit on behalf of the consumer and to campaign as it sees fit. If it does this job, even if my Department is at the wrong end of the criticisms, I shall feel that we have added something worth while to the machinery of consumer protection.