HC Deb 28 April 1978 vol 948 cc1861-73

'A weights and measures authority shall, as soon as practicable after the 31st December in the year in which this section comes into operation (and, in any event, not later than the end of March following) make to the Secretary of State a report of their proceedings under this Act during the period beginning with the day on which this section comes into operation and ending with the said 31st December, being a report containing particulars with respect to such matters arising thereunder as he may by order prescribe, and shall, as soon as practicable after each anniversary of the last-mentioned day (and, in any event, not later than the end of March following) make to the Secretary of State a report of their proceedings under this Act during the twelve months ending with that anniversary, being a report containing the like particulars.'—[Mrs. Joyce Butler.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We may consider at the same time the following amendment to the new clause:

(a), at end of clause insert— 'A summary of these reports should be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State as soon as practicable'.

Mrs. Butler

In company with some other hon. Members who have spoken thus far, I took no part in the earlier stages of the Bill, but my interest in the matter covered by the new clause goes back for some time, to the period when there was great concern about defective and dangerous second-hand oil heaters. Many quite appalling tragedies occurred as a result of fires caused by such oil heaters, and it then seemed that it would be valuable if local authorities made returns showing how far they had been dealing with the problem and how successful they had been.

In February 1967, I asked a Question of the Home Secretary, who was responsible for safety legislation, about giving local authorities the duty to submit annual returns of their test purchases and so on. The then Minister of State replied: my right hon. Friend has no power to require the submission of such returns".—[Official Report, 23rd February 1967; Vol. 741, c. 326.] Eleven years since then is quite a long time, and it has always seemed to me that any safety legislation should have powers of this kind written into it. For that reason, I move the new clause today, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will feel that the framework of the Bill gives him the necessary power to accept it. I hope also that the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), will regard it as a useful addition.

The wording of the clause is based on Section 60 of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, and it seems to me that Schedule 2 to the present Bill gives the Minister power to implement such a provision.

There is no question but that to require annual reports from local authorities would be helpful in the operation of this legislation. In the earlier debate, the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) mentioned the diversity of implementation of legislation among local authorities. As he said, there are probably various reasons for that diversity, but I believe that if all local authorities were required to submit an annual report this would be helpful in encouraging some of those which have, perhaps, not been so active as they might otherwise have been. On a more lighthearted note, perhaps it might encourage some of the diligent inspectors who have been active to feel that they are no longer flowers born to blush unseen but are getting some recognition at Ministry level.

The preparation of such annual reports would require virtually no additional expense or work. The records which were kept in local authority departments could be collated quite easily and simply. But the collection of such annual reports would, I am sure, give a valuable bird's eye view of the situation across the country and would pinpoint areas or specific goods in respect of which there was special difficulty.

If such reports stated the types of article or goods inspected or purchased for examination during the year—whether they were second-hand, or whatever other details seemed necessary—this would be helpful to all concerned in judging the situation throughout the country.

Reverting to the example of oil heaters, I must tell the House that, despite the length of time since the legislation on oil heaters was introduced, it is still possible in many parts of the country to find defective and dangerous second-hand oil heaters and electric appliances, some of them as many as 25 years old, on sale in markets and other such places. That shows that legislation needs constant attention of this kind if it is to remain effective after the initial period of enthusiasm.

In addition, I believe that such a requirement as I propose would be helpful to us in seeing how effective the legislation is, how well it is working, whether it is on the right lines, and so on.

More important in this connection, however, is the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Minister when introducing his New Clause No. 1, namely, the importance of giving information to consumers and reminding them of the danger of home accidents through the misuse of apparatus and so on.

When they prepare annual reports local authorities invariably send copies to the local Press. Although comparatively few people will have heard my hon. Friend's words about dangers in the home, those who read their local newspapers and see what the local Press has picked out of an annual report by a local authority, giving specific examples of danger in their own area, will have the matter drawn to their attention. I am sure that this will help them to become aware of the need for greater safety.

Mr. Moate

How does the hon. Lady envisage the system working? Her clause requires that a local authority shall make a report. It does not require that such reports shall be collated and then be published generally, on a national scale. Presumably, for the dissemination of the information which the hon. Lady seeks, each local authority's report would need to be made available to all others, would it not?

Mrs. Butler

Not necessarily. All the annual reports will be made available to the Minister. The Minister will have the possibility of collation. But at local level there is nothing to prevent dissemination of the information. In fact, it is the usual practice of a local authority making any annual report—for example, the annual report of the officer of health—to make it available to the local Press.

My emphasis is on interest in the locality. Consumers in general are much more interested in what happens on their own patch than in what happens countrywide, and I believe that it would be valuable if such annual reports were prepared and circulated to the Press so that the Press could pick out particular dangers in its own area. For example, if a lot of defective oil heaters had been discovered in a certain area, the public's attention could once again be drawn to the danger and, indeed, the illegality of selling second-hand apparatus of that kind.

It seems to me that such a new clause is an essential addition to the kind of legislation that the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth is seeking to promote. I apologise to him for the very short notice he has had of the clause. I shall quite understand if he feels that he needs more time to consider the wording or the exact form that the clause should take, but I very much hope that he will accept its principle and that my hon. Friend the Minister will feel that it can usefully be added to the Bill.

1 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser

Perhaps I may deal now with the new clause and the amendments in my name in this grouping.

There is a great deal of merit in what my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) says about reports from local authorities. It would certainly be useful for our Department to receive reports of local authorities' activities in carrying out their enforcement functions. There is already a precedent in the Weights and Measures Act, under which reports are provided annually on the enforcement of the authorities' responsibilities under that legislation. But I should not like to see an undue burden imposed on local authorities in the preparation of reports.

Mr. Neubert

The Minister referred to amendments in his own name. The new clause and the amendment to it that we are discussing are not in the hon. Gentleman's name. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us to which amendments he is referring?

Mr. Fraser

I said "in this grouping". I beg the pardon of the House. If the amendments are not grouped, I shall deal with them later.

I had just said that already local authorities make reports to my Department on their weights and measures responsibilities. They report to the Director General of Fair Trading about complaints and inquiries that they receive. This would be a third obligation to prepare a separate report in relation to their functions under the Bill. We must see that there is not a proliferation of reports. The more one proliferates, the less well reports are received. We do not want to impose a financial and manpower burden unnecessarily.

I suggest that my hon. Friend seeks to withdraw her clause. I meet local authorities from time to time, because of my responsibilities, and I undertake to take the opportunity to discuss the proposals with local authority associations before any obligation to submit reports is written into the Bill. If the clause is withdrawn, such discussion will be arranged as soon as possible, with a view to the introduction of a suitable amendment in another place.

I turn now to the amendment of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) to the clause. The precedent there is again in the Weights and Measures Act, under which a summary of reports is submitted to Parliament every five years. I cannot with precision give a response to the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I should like to consider the possibility of a summary, trying to achieve the same objective of reducing as far as possible the amount of manpower and cost involved, but pointing up the information which comes through local authorities' reports and making it available to Parliament. To do that every year might be too great a burden. If the drip occurs too often people do not hear it.

Mr. Giles Shaw

It is always a pleasure to be able to hear the reply to one's amendment before one has moved it.

I support the new clause. The reasons for it that the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) enunciated become more important as year succeeds year. We are discussing a major extension of consumer protection legislation. Frequently the Secretary of State, or more likely the House, is in real doubt as to how effective the legislation is.

Three principles have come out of our debate so far today. One is that this is a complicated piece of legislation. Secondly, it has a very comprehensive reach through most sectors of the distributive and manufacturing trades. Thirdly, if it is to work effectively there must be a great deal of understanding in its application.

All three principles suggest to me that there is great wisdom in the hon. Lady's suggestion that we collate information on how the measure is operating by those who are most proficient in collecting that information—the trading standards officers—and that that information is reported to the Secretary of State.

My modest amendment is to ensure that Parliament can have from time to time—I accept the Minister's point that every year may be a little too frequent—the opportunity of reviewing a piece of its own legislation in action. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the concern expressed by industrial and distributive bodies about the way in which the Bill might affect their trading is such that we owe it to them to say that from time to time we shall debate a report on how the Act is operating.

I should like to add one further point in support of the hon. Lady's recommendation. There is a degree of difference in the way in which standards are applied. We have heard a passing reference today to the fact that in one part of the country in regard to prices action was taken in respect of one product that did not appear to be taken in other.

When we come to the point of this Bill, which is that regulations may be made in regard to hazardous, unsafe products, there should be no discrepancy in the way in which the measure is applied. It should be applied uniformly to standards which the Secretary of State, on advice, lays down. There should be no discrepancy between one trading standard area and another.

The report that the hon. Lady has in mind, plus a regular report to Parliament, if the Minister agrees, would help to demonstrate that there is not that disparity. In that way we should be able to see that the consumers were as fully, properly and fairly protected as the sponsors of the Bill would wish.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) will accept the clause and my modest amendment. If the Minister seeks to redraft it in another place in a way which would meet the spirit of what the hon. Lady seeks and the spirit of a regular report to Parliament, which I recommend, that might satisfy all of us.

Mr. Trotter

I welcome the concept behind the clause, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for her suggestion. There is a practical problem about the clause, in that the figures for local authorities are made up to 31st March, not 31st December, but that is a minor matter.

I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will look into the question further with a view to tabling an amendment in the other place, if possible. I hope that it will be possible, because I think that it would be useful to do so.

I have before me the figures for Newcastle, where those concerned have already prepared for their own council complete figures of premises visited, the number of objects examined and the number found incorrect. I suspect that all the relevant information is already in the files of the local authorities and that it is simply a matter of bringing it out in a national form.

I hope that the proposal will not lead to any competition in the way that one sometimes suspects there might be competition among traffic wardens to see who issues most parking tickets. Seriously, there is clearly merit in trying to ensure that the regulations are enforced in the same way all over the country, and the sort of publication proposed could well help to achieve that, as well as educating the House and the public.

I welcome the hon. Lady's proposal. I hope that she will seek leave to withdraw the motion on the assurances that the Minister and I have given.

Mr. Moate

I, too, endorse the spirit of the clause. It can only be helpful if information secured by the proceedings under the Bill is widely disseminated. That should result in a more uniform treatment of these matters throughout the country. I agree that that should be right. But I have one or two doubts about the clause as it is drafted. I hope that certain improvements can be made. I am sure that if she withdrew the motion the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) would allow those improvements to be produced.

I am happy to agree with one observation by the Minister. I refer to his concern to avoid placing further undue burdens on local authorities. We are concerned that in various ways we are imposing further requirements to make reports and produce statutory plans. There is no doubt that these are time consuming and cost local authorities a good deal of money. We want to make, sure that such things are cost-effective and that we are not imposing further burdens unnecessarily. I hope that before the Minister brings a fresh draft of the new clause forward in another place he will have discussions with the local authority associations and will be able to say that they agree with the procedures.

Mr. John Fraser

I have said that I will do so.

Mr. Moate

I am sorry, I must have have missed that. That is a sensible approach.

The clause requires a report of 'proceedings under this Act during the twelve months". What proceedings are we talking about? If we are talking simply about court proceedings, that is quite clear. No doubt there would be a list of the actions taken by the local authority in enforcing the safety regulations. We would have a list of court actions and convictions. If, on the other hand, local authorities were to report cases in which companies had been proved innocent, we should not expect that to be publicly reported. If we are simply to record the number of visits made by the enforcement authorities, I am not sure how helpful that would be.

If we are trying to disseminate information, about oil heaters, for example, all that we want to do is report that there have been a number of successful prosecutions. Perhaps in those cases we could quote the names of the companies or he the nature of the product, the nature of the defect, the action taken and the penalty. I can hardly believe that it would be right to publish the names of all companies or retailers against whom legal proceedings may have been taken but who had been exonerated by the courts. It would be helpful to know what sort of information the hon. Lady would expect to see in the report.

It seems that the main object of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) is to spread information as widely as possible and to allow the exchange of information across the country. While the readership of a local newspaper might be interested in what happens in its locality, we are also concerned to prevent the sale of, say, defective oil heaters throughout the land. Therefore, an annual report, or a summary to Parliament, if it could be done sensibly, would be helpful in bringing pressure to bear, by way of the weight of national public opinion, to prevent sales of these goods. I would hope that the Department would be so much on the ball that once it started getting its information it would act promptly.

Mr. John Fraser

There is already an exchange of information between the Department and local authorities. It is not published because it is information about suspected offences and obviously, for the protection of firms and retailers, it is not a public document. There are systems for the exchange of information to ensure consistency, and to ensure, when a dangerous product is discoved in one area, that information is circulated to other areas.

Mr. Moate

In a way the Minister confirms what I was saying about the need to discriminate between what should be published and what should not be pub- lished. I accept that there are sensible procedures at the moment which produce swift action. Sometimes public information and public opinion can prompt action rather more quickly than behind the scenes governmental discussions. I think back over several years to when we did not have much of this legislation on the statute book. Then it took many years to galvanise Government Departments into action.

In 1970 my second speech in this House was during the proceedings on the Fire Precautions Act, when I spoke from the other side of the House during the period of a Conservative Government. I recall the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) saying that the Government had been delaying taking action for years on the issue of dangerous, inflammable materials used in car seats and chairs. Polyurethane foam was the material in question. It took a long time for the Government to take action.

If information is made available on a national scale I suspect that, as a result of opinion in this House, and of the national newspapers taking up the matter, it will speed up the way Government Departments deal with these issues. My hon. Friend's amendment is right in principle and I hope that something like it can be incorporated in an annual report if that is what is finally decided by the House.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Neubert

It will come as no surprise to the House and to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), after what I said earlier, to know that while I welcome the spirit of the new clause, I believe that it does not go far enough. That is why I wish to concentrate on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), since I believe that it deals with a more important aspect of this matter. My hon. Friend was obviously overwhelmed by the Minister's generosity in acceding to the principal point of the amendment and did not, therefore, expand on the subject. I should like to amplify it because my experience has shown that it is important that there should be a uniformity over the country in the implementation of this Bill, not only to secure the safety of the public but so that there should not be injustice as between one trader and another.

Although the Minister has sought to reassure us, particularly in his last intervention, that he does seek consistency, my experience, as I have shown by way of illustration, is that that is not always so with Government Departments having responsibility for the consistency or the enforcement of the law. Let me highlight the point that I was making earlier concerning evening trading on retail premises after normal trading hours. Not only is there a disparity between different parts of the country, between places as far apart as Aberdeen, Warrington, Luton or London, but there is within London, within contiguous boroughs, a difference in application.

The principal example I can give concerns a motor car company which has showrooms in each of a number of London boroughs in East London and which is able to hold these functions in several boroughs but not in my borough of Havering. When it is brought home as closely as that when the disparity is enhanced by differences in interpretation, it brings out the point that there is a duty on the Government to ensure that, if effect is given to legislation, the legislation should be carried out to its full effect in all places.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) reminded us, there has been a case in recent memory of the Government taking what might seem an inordinate length of time to take action about a dangerous substance, namely combustible foam in furniture. There was such a case in my constituency when some children died a horrible death in a fire. The hon. Lady made it plain that her intention in the clause was to bring out the interest which people would have in their localities concerning what was being done in relation to hazardous products.

I very much support the view that by far the most important aspect is to ensure that, if such ghastly incidents occur in one locality—while it is of interest to those nearby—people are made aware of the danger throughout the country. The means suggested by my hon. Friend is that there should be a summary of such reports laid before Parliament. The Minister has told us that there is a sen- sible interdepartmental procedure for keeping an eye on what is happening in local authority areas. That procedure should be enforced and the Minister should give some thought to the suggestion that such a report might, as a matter of discipline, be published once a year rather than once every five years. The precedent he had in mind was the weights and measures legislation.

If we had evidence, under the provisions of the Bill, that there were hazards, that the implementation was patchy and the enforcement lacking in certain areas, that must be brought to his attention at an early stage, because five years is such a considerable length of time that the immediate practical advantages of the provision proposed in the new clause would largely be lost.

Having made those comments, which are generally in support of the intention both of the mover of the new clause and of the mover of the amendment, I hope that the Minister will go that far in any proposals he may introduce in another place.

Mrs. Joyce Butler

I should like to make clear that in moving the new clause I assumed that there would be the normal procedure between Government Departments and local authorities. I was asked how I expected the annual reports to be made up. It was assumed that the usual consultations would take place and that the form of the annual report would be agreed between the Department and the local authorities. I could see that the form of the annual reports might possibly vary from year to year. They might start off in one form and then local authorities and the Minister together might agree that next year's report should pick out some particular item or put it in such a way that it would be more helpful in that form. I do not think that one can lay down hard and fast rules. I think that it must be left to the usual procedure for carrying out such legislation.

I very much welcome the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Giles) and the Minister's assurance that some kind of collation and publication would be undertaken. One is always reluctant to withdraw anything, being a little nervous as to what the future will bring if one does so. But, on the assurance of my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) that account will be taken of the purpose of the new clause, and accepting that the wording of it is somewhat defective in its present form, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to