§ Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.11.15 am
§ Mr. Trotter
I turn now to part II of the Bill, which brings within the cover of the standard conditions and requirements of contracts the service side of consumer affairs. I have been fascinated to discover the number of complaints made to the Office of Fair Trading. It appears to be about 500 for every working day. That is a substantial figure. There were 12, 715 complaints in a year related to entertainment and accommodation, 8, 060 complaints about holidays and 8, 093 complaints about cleaning. The type of cleaning is not specified. One does not know whether those complaints related to the lady who cleans the floor or the firm which cleans a lady's dress. An enormous number of people are dissatisfied with services that they receive covering a wide range of subjects.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North described how one in 10 motorists are dissatisfied with the quality of work, nineteen per cent. of people are apparently dissatisfied with gas cooker repairs, 12 per cent. of people dissatisfied about launderettes and 8 per cent. about laundries. I felt that I should be included. I notice that my shirts seem to be shrinking around my neck. At first, I attributed that to personal problems. However, when my shirts also started to shrink in the sleeves, I began to think that I was perhaps a dissatisfied customer. Whatever may be happening to my neck I do not believe that I am getting longer in the arm.
Most people at times have reason to complain about the services that they receive. Twenty one per cent. believed that garages charged too much for servicing and repairs. That has been my personal opinion ever since I owned my first car many years ago. Hon. Members cannot expect a sudden and dramatic fall in the number of complaints nor indeed a sudden and dramatic rise in the number of court cases as a result of the Bill. One can imagine lawyers doing well out of the Bill until one reads that there is a large number of people who are also dissatisfied with lawyers. Serious dissatisfaction exists among consumers. It is almost a subject that warrants a separate debate.
The problems will still exist. Someone has to establish what reasonableness is. The Bill introduces a requirement that there should be reasonableness of quality, of price, and of speed of performance. I should like to add my tribute to the work done by the Consumers Association on behalf of consumers and for its efforts as the driving force behind the origin of the Bill. One of the categories listed by the association in an excellent supporting paper as being covered by the Bill is, however, that of barber. My mind turns to the speed of a barber. How speedy should a barber be? I have suffered, like other people, from barbers who have talked all morning when I wished that they would complete the cutting of my hair. I do not know whether I could quote the contents of the right hon. Gentleman's Bill when I visit the barber. I might carry a copy in my pocket next time. There will be disputes over what is reasonable, in terms of quality perhaps more than anything else.
The Bill will draw public attention to the fact that people have rights, that they should not take matters lying down and that they should get on their high horse, argue back and threaten that they will not simply accept bad 550 service and excessive charging. I hope that we may see some raising of standards as a result of public attention being drawn to the Bill. Where people adopt a "couldn't care less" attitude now, it may be that they will not be able to get away so easily in future with the bad service that they provide.
There will still be uncertainty about what is "reasonable". I cannot say that I read all 2, 000 cases last night, but I read a couple of them. There was one where a second-hand Jaguar car was sold for £950 on the basis that it might need a repair to its clutch costing £25. In fact, a more serious repair was required necessitating the spending of £45. The court held that the car was reasonably fit, and the dissatisfied buyer did not succeed. But in another case, again, as it happens, involving a Jaguar car, the vehicle was sold as being in excellent condition. Incidentally, the case went to the Court of Appeal, so considerable legal costs must have been incurred. The car was held not to be in a reasonable condition because, after 2, 300 miles, the engine broke up completely.
It is a fact of life that we shall never achieve the certainty that we would like in the argument about what is "reasonable". But if the law is codified and simplicity is brought into it, with attention being drawn to it, the result will be advantageous to the consumer.
It is particularly important that it will be possible to deal with those who set out deliberately to fleece elderly people. I am sure that all hon. Members have been distressed by the stories of knaves who go to an old person's home and suggest cutting the grass in their gardens. The elderly householder agrees, 30 minutes is spent cutting the grass, and the old person is told that it will cost £100. At present, as I understand it, a householder would find it very difficult to get redress. No price is fixed at the start, and advantage is taken of the age of the person concerned who is told it will cost £100 in cash. Under this legislation, it will be possible—
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
I am sure that my hon. Friend does not want to attach to the Bill a significance that it does not have. The part of the Bill to which he is referring is designed simply and solely to clarify the common law as it exists. All that the Bill provides is that, if the contract is silent about the price, the price should be reasonable. That is precisely the present position. There is no change at all save that, if the Bill is passed, the law will become statutory rather than common law.
§ Mr. Trotter
I accept that entirely. However, I believe that there should now be wide media coverage about this matter in the light of the Bill. It is much simpler to tell an old person that the Willey Act is now on the statute book saying that an elderly householder does not have to pay and that he can tell the individual demanding the money to go away and leave him in peace. The law will be made concrete and definite, and it is likely to be much more effective than merely saying that Lord Justice so-and-so in the case of so-and-so ruled such-and-such. The law will be made specific, and it is important for the media to give wide coverage to this aspect of it. I hope that news of it goes out on the wireless and that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North is invited to go on to the "Today" programme to get himself the necessary coverage so that old people listening in their homes may learn of their rights under the Bill. Those rights may have existed before, but 551 now they will be more certain and more definite. Elderly people will have more confidence in their dealings with rascals of the type that I have described.
I comment on the need for consultation. The Consumer Safety Act, which I steered through the House in 1978, was an eye-opener to me. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) was the Minister responsible at the time, and his Department was good enough to circulate 300 bodies that could be interested in consumer safety. I remember the wise gentleman in the Department with whom I worked telling me not to be too optimistic about the answers. He was right, because the majority had no views while, as he predicted, some of the views that came in arrived after the Act received the Royal Assent. Getting the views of a large number of bodies is a slow business. Many amendments had to be made to my Bill. But in that year I was lucky enough to be a number of places down in the list. What is more, the first two Bills in the list were highly contentious mad contained a great deal of political content. As a result, I had about three months to consider the sensible recommendations and suggestions made to me. that enabled a considerable number of amendments to be made, and the Bill was greatly improved as a result.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North is fortunate to have been first out of the hat. However, his good fortune means that his Bill will be the first one into Committee, with the result that there will not be very much time for consultation. I should like to know the views of the Law Society and the CBI. I mention those two bodies because they were most helpful to me when I was promoting my own Bill.
There are two specific matters to which I wish to refer before concluding my remarks. The first concerns finance leasing. The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North tells me that he has been contacted by the body representing financial lessors. As I understand it, the finance houses provide the money but are not expert in the goods involved. The lessee—the user—selects goods from the seller but has not the capital with which to buy them. He goes to the finance house, which provides the capital, buys the goods and leases them to the user.
As the Bill is drafted, that finance house will acquire a liability for the reasonableness of the goods.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
No. The position is quite clear under the Bill. The finance house will be liable if the goods are not of merchantable quality. But, save in the rarest of cases, it will not be liable if the goods are not reasonably fit for a given purpose. This is a criticism of the Bill and one that I propose to amplify if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Mr. Trotter
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I respect his wisdom and knowledge of the law. I am a humble accountant struggling to understand these confusing provisions. I have found them confusing ever since my student days, but I believe that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North has done a great deal better than some of the draftsmen. I can understand nearly all of his Bill, but I have no doubt that we shall discuss this provision at length in Committee.
There is a worry in the minds of the financial lessors that they could have an unfair liability imposed on them. If what they say is right, in my view they cannot be expected to have a great deal of knowledge about all the 552 different types of goods supplied in this way. At a time of recession especially, these people fulfil a useful purpose because they provide capital goods that hard-pressed firms cannot find the funds to finance by outright purchase.
The second specific aspect on which I comment is that of maritime commerce. Different forms of contract have been developed in this very complex and skilled business of maritime commerce. Britain is pre-eminent in it, and it goes back a long way in our history. These specialist forms of contract have been developed at arm's length, bearing in mind the financial impact on both sides when contracts are drawn up. I am told that an important aspect of them is the consequence for insurance arrangements on both sides in this very specialist type of commerce. It is a well-established system, and those involved in it say that there is no pressure for change. I should like to see the Bill amended to exclude contracts of maritime commerce.
It could be argued that the Bill does not prevent exclusion clauses if a contract is not dealing with consumers. It is this aspect of the Bill that I find difficult to follow. I do not believe that it is the fault of the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North. It is because he has had to refer to other legislation, which always brings in unavoidable complexities. One could also argue that under clause 12(4) the Secretary of State is given the power to exclude by satutory instrument some types of contract of service.
The maritime world is an important part of our commerce. It is interesting to see that there is a precedent for exclusion. In the Unfair Contract Terms Act in schedule 1(2), an exception is made for certain maritime contracts. Therefore, that point was considered originally when the House was looking at the sale of goods and bringing in similar provisions. Under that paragraph of the schedule the following are excluded:There is however also a proviso that there shall not be such an exclusion if the user is a consumer. Therefore, if one were taking passage on a steamer to the Outer Isles, one could not have exclusion imposed on one. However, business people chartering a ship or making a business contract would have the exclusion. It would set many minds at rest if a similar specific exclusion could be brought into the Bill for maritime contracts. I am not wholly certain what the consequences would be if clause 16 were omitted. I humbly give way to those who understand the complexities of legal drafting better than I do. If section 16 is excluded, the exclusion clause will surely not apply to the services part of the Bill. I do not see any reason why we should not bring in the exclusion clause to the services part of the Bill. I should be happy to leave it in.
- "(a) any contract of marine salvage or towage:
- (b) any charterparty of a ship or hovercraft; and
- (c) any contract for the carriage of goods by ship or hovercraft"
§ Mr. Willey
That is something that we must consider. We have provided for exclusion in the first part of the Bill, but we must look at the second part.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
If clause 16 is omitted, it does not mean that there is no exclusion provision. There would be the ordinary provision already in the Unfair Contract Terms Act. What the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) is proposing is an absolute exclusion clause, which is another matter.
§ Mr. Trotter
That is one of the doubts in my mind. I do not know why clause 16 was included if it was not needed. It must have a consequence, or it would not have been put there in the first place. I am not sufficiently au fait with the Unfair Contract Terms Act to know whether we shall accept the deletion of clause 16. We shall have to consider that.
I believe that the Bill is a worthy endeavour by the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North. I am delighted that there is no cost to the public purse. I was assured that my Consumer Safety Act was at a minimum cost and I think that that is true. This Private Member's Bill with no cost to the public purse is an act of fairness, which should have the general support of all hon. Members.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
I join in the warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on introducing the Bill. I hope that it can be applied to Scotland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scots have as much right to the protection given in the Bill as their English and Welsh friends.
The House will agree that there has been, and is, considerable dissatisfaction among members of the public about goods and services that are provided, although in fairness it must be said that the vast majority of traders and suppliers of services do an honest, competent job. I have no complaint against them. It is the relatively small minority that receives headlines and causes the problems among consumers. We have seen from the Consumers Association and from BBC programmes, notably "Checkpoint", the situation that not infrequently develops when people are involved in sometimes serious and costly actions as a result of either goods or services that have been badly supplied or of people who have misrepresented themselves when they have supplied services.
As a nation, we have tended in the past—and still tend—to accept poor services without many complaints, although perhaps that attitude has changed a little in recent years. However, it is still an indisputable fact that British people as a whole tend to put up with bad services to a greater extent than others such as Americans and most of those from the Continent. It is often infuriating and frustrating to have an obvious example of poor service about which, apparently, nothing can be done.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) mentioned car repairs. It is almost axiomatic that if one's car is running well, one should not put it in for service, although the service is supposed to be due, because when the car comes out of service, it will not run as well as before. Unfortunately, that is too common an experience to be laughable.
I congratulate the Minister on her warm acceptance of the general provisions. I should like to ask her about the exclusion sections in contracts, which sometimes nullify the whole contract. I recently received a credit card from one of the large car hire firms, which in certain circumstances allows me to charge the hire of the car to my account. All that goes through a computer. However, the agreement has a clause stating that the company can nullify it without excuse. No reason has to be given for the whole contract falling apart. Too often the small print in contracts contains exclusions that are too far-reaching in their effects. That matter should be considered in Committee. Such things should be prevented.
554 The vast majority of traders and suppliers of services do a good job, but there are those who do not. I should like to put in a plea for the protection of people who want to provide a service, who are self-employed, who do not have business premises and do not produce written contracts. In these days of high unemployment, more people go from door to door offering their services. The man or woman who is unable to obtain employment must be commended if he or she has a certain amount of skill and asks people to use his or her services. My experience of that has been pleasant. People have come to my door and have offered their services working in the garden. I have been completely satisfied with their work. On the other hand, as my right hon. Friend mentioned—my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) gave examples—there are cowboys who take advantage of people's lack of knowledge.
I should not like the message to go out from the House that Members of Parliament are completely opposed to any private initiative that people may take. Clearly, consumers must be wary of individuals who come round, but I think that at least in some respects guidance can be given as to those who are genuine and those who are not. My hon Friend the Member for Tooting referred to a supposed mixture of undercoat and gloss paint that could be applied in one go. I am reminded of my first trip to camp as a boy scout, in a troop that wore the Douglas tartan. I was asked to go into the village and buy a small pot of Douglas tartan paint to paint a shed that we had erected. Clearly, we have not advanced very far since then if people can still be taken in by that type of injunction. [HON. MEMBERS: "Did you get it?"] I did not get the Douglas tartan but another—I think that it was a MacKay tartan.
As my right hon. Friend said, and the Minister agreed, with the exception of clause 16, the Bill is a drawing together or a codifying of existing law. That is excellent, as it will enable those who advise consumers far more easily to produce their advice in readily available form instead of having to say "You may be protected under such and such an Act, but I am not a lawyer, so I am not sure whether it is that Act or another one". If the provisions are brought together and codified, it is far easier for good advice to be given to consumers.
I am sure that the Bill will be warmly welcomed by the community at large as it deals with an area that requires at least some clearing up and some ability on the part of the general public to see that the services supplied or the goods purchased are in a fit and proper condition, but it should not be seen as a terrible warning to people that they should not go about their everyday affairs assuming that traders and suppliers of services are generally honest when they are not, because in general they are indeed honest.
I hope that the Bill will be enacted, not for the benefit of lawyers—I am glad that the hon. Member for Tynemouth is not a lawyer but an accountant and evinces a lack of legal knowledge similar to my own—but for the benefit of consumers, as I am sure my right hon. Friend intended. It is not a far-reaching measure in terms of new provisions being introduced but an enabling measure that will allow consumers to derive benefits from the supply of goods and services about which many people may at present be somewhat chary. Through the Bill the consumer will be given greater protection from the small number of people who take advantage of others.
§ Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)
It would be unfashionable and quite unacceptable for a Member of Parliament to be thought of as opposing, or materially standing in the way of, a measure that is designed to improve the lot of the consumer. At the outset, therefore, I must say that that is not my intention. Nevertheless, Members of Parliament will be failing in their duty if they do not cast a critical eye on some of the provisions in the Bill.
Having listened to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs, I am full of trepidation in turning my critical attention to some of the Bill's contents as she gave it more than a fair wind. Indeed, she was lavish in her praise of most of its provisions. I wish, however, to focus my attention on part II. I am fortified in so doing by the fact that she showed some marginal doubts about it.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) will not take it amiss if I say that one of the reasons that has caused me to turn my attention in considerable detail to the Bill is the very speed with which it has been necessary to consider its contents and the relatively short time that has passed since the National Consumer Council report, the recommendations of which are largely embodied in part II. I support the measures contained in part I but I am anxious to question some of the proposals in part II.
Although goods and services appear to go hand in hand, the more I read the Bill the more I conclude that there is a strong case for two Bills. I wonder whether consumer bodies, in their understandable anxiety to deal with the problems that consumers have been bringing to them over the years, are not running the risk of creating within one Bill two incompatible bedfellows.
Part I is satisfactory because it is based on a Law Commission report that emerged only after a thorough study of the problems involved. It takes account of the incontrovertible fact that in 1982 there are many more ways of coming into possession of goods than purchasing outright. There has been a massive change in social habits and the pattern of consumer spending behaviour. I am reliably informed that more people now rent than buy a television set, and video machines, which seem to be the latest "must" in every affluent household, are going in broadly the same direction. Some people prefer to hire a motor car. Others prefer to buy, but under a hire purchase contract. Part exchange of a vehicle is a modern form of barter. All these practices dilute the principle of the purchase of goods upon which much of the present consumer protection legislation rests.
The car and its servicing or the house and its repair involve not only the purchase of goods but the provision of a service—or sometimes, the lack of it. There is a clear category where straight purchase of goods exists, another clear category where there is provision of a service and nothing more, and a rather grey area in the middle that involves the purchase of goods that are attached to the provision of a service. I concede that it is time to update and codify the law protecting consumers in relation to obtaining goods and to take into account the changes that have overtaken our society.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North was right to refer to some of the new marketing processes that are upon us. We cannot ignore the fact that coupons and vouchers are part of the marketing phenomenon of the 556 1980s. If my household is anything to judge by, dozens of cut-price offers fall through letterboxes suggesting that we should buy this at 5p off or that at 20p off. I am told, for example, that if I collect wrappers or enter some imbecilic competition in which I state five reasons in the right order why I love Jumbo cornflakes, my reward may well be a prize—at the very least, a transistor radio and perhaps even a motor car.
Have I bought those items when I buy the cornflakes? On the face of it, I have not, yet I am not entirely clear whether one could be said to have done so indirectly. I should not wish to sacrifice any of the rights that I may have against the provider of the motor car because I obtained it somewhat indirectly. It is right to clarify the law to make it clear what my rights are against the background of changes in commercial and marketing practices. I support the effort to bring the law on the supply of goods other than by sale into line with that applying to normal sales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) referred to the CBI's helpful comments on a consumer protection measure that has passed through the House. I noticed earlier this week that it had not volunteered any comments on the proposed provisions in the Bill. I took the trouble to consult the CBI, the Law Society and a variety of other bodies which I assumed would have contacted hon. Members had they had time to do so. I am happy to tell the House that the CBI told me that it approved of part I and found it quite acceptable. The Law Society had no adverse comments to make. It had no objections in principle because it said that the provisions had been the subject of proper consideration and consultation.
I turn to part II, clauses 12 to 16. It seems that the aim of this part is to extend to all contracts for services a new set of statutory implied terms that will not be restricted or excluded. Service is to be carried out with reasonable care and skill within a reasonable time and at a reasonable charge. That sounds extremely reasonable, but there are those who consider this part of the Bill to be quite controversial. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North will concede that that is undesirable in proposed legislation of this sort.
The new set of statutory implied terms does not seem to have been the subject of widespread consideration or consultation with the legal profession or with industry. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman had to present his Bill within a short time, but I find—I suspect that the House will agree—that the absence of widespread consideration and consultation is unfortunate in a Bill of the importance that we rightly attach to the one that is before us.
Why does the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 need to be revised? That question was put to me by those in the legal profession to whom I spoke this week. Would not it be better to extend the 1977 Act to cover all services and in the process give the 1977 Act time to bed down? There were general comments about the Bill. The observation was made that the Bill is a rather hurried piece of legislation, which I suspect the sponsor will not deny. It was claimed to be poorly drafted and in many ways unsatisfactory. Those views were expressed to me by those engaged in industry. I was asked to explain—in turn I must ask the sponsor to tell me—how the new Bill interacts with existing law. It needs to be more clear whether the implied 557 terms in clauses 13-15 are meant to be broadly declaratory of the existing position or to alter it, and if so in what respects.
In summarising part II, I think that it is fair to say that no exclusion clauses will be allowed. There is a proposed ban on exclusion clauses and some people in industry have suggested that that is far too wide. They have focused my attention on the likelihood that smaller firms will be seriously affected by quality of service provisions. Reference has been made to film processing by chemists, for example. It has been drawn to my attention that some service industries could be exposed to large claims that would force them to increase the cost of their insurance considerably, which at the end of the day would not be a service to the consumer. The person who would have to pay the increased costs of insurance would be the manufacturer, directly, but the consumer indirectly.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
May I extend the argument advanced by my hon. Friend? Does he agree that the Bill will increase the costs of reputable traders while the costs of disreputable traders—the cowboys—will remain the same? Therefore, we are creating a greater gulf between reputable traders and cowboys and doing nothing about the cowboys.
§ Mr. McCrindle
I agree that that is so. It is more in sorrow than in anger that I feel that I have to ask the House to stop and think before it proceeds, without question, to put the Bill on the statute book. I must ask the House to consider whether it is really helping the consumer who arguably needs assistance the most. I have in mind the consumer who does not employ, for whatever reason—for alleges economy or on any other ground—the reputable provider of services, but who uses the sort of person who, even when this measure is fully in operation, will disappear quickly into the night and will be difficult to pursue. Are we aiming at the correct target if our ambition is, as it should be, to protect the consumer?
There are parts of clause 12 that have caused concern to some of those with whom I have exchanged views this week, but I shall merely draw attention to two subsections of the clause. Subsections (4) and (7) are thought respectively to require clarification and deletion. Clause 16 has been the subject of some comment, including that by my right hon. Friend the Minister.
In her mind it seemed to be the area around which the greatest doubt revolved. The clause prevents contracting out against a consumer, but we are not told how the clause fits in with section 2 of the 1977 Act. That issue was raised by the Law Society. It is easy to say that this is not a measure for the benefit of lawyers, but if it is to be effective lawyers will at some time have to operate it. If the Law Society is unclear, surely a rather clearer explanation is required than that which has been forthcoming so far. The CBI told me that clause 16 is unnecessary.
The fact that the Law Society and the CBI have told me that part II is full of difficulties for them is a reason to stop to consider the insistence of some on including the part in the Bill in the interests of speed. We should ask whether we are not running a risk of losing the entire measure.
As I started by saying that I wished to support the consumer protection approaches of the Bill, perhaps I could suggest to the sponsor that as part I flows directly from a long and detailed consideration by the Law 558 Commission—and as we are now told that the subject covered by part II is similarly to be referred to the Law Commission—there may be an argument for part II to be dropped altogether for the time being so as to speed the Bill on its way with the maximum of good will from both sides of the House and without in any way altering the fact that common law restitution continues in regard to the provision of services. We must hold out the opportunity that after similar and detailed consideration by the Law Commission has been completed, a separate Bill may go on its way through the House with a rather more fair wind.
I have tried to focus my comments on the positive aspects of the Bill. However, I hope that I shall be forgiven for the few questions that I have raised in the minds of hon. Members who otherwise have said nothing critical about the Bill. I hope that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North will understand that in making my remarks I have nothing but support for the consumer. However, I wonder whether his Bill, as it now stands, is likely most ably to carry its aims to fruition.
§ 12.1 pm
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
I wish to begin with some tributes and congratulations, none of which are formalities. The first is to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), not merely on his good fortune in coming first in the ballot, but on his excellent judgment in choosing a subject where codification and clarification of the law on the supply of goods and services is about 90 years overdue.
In reply to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), who expressed some reservations because the Law Commission has not considered part II of the Bill I say that we have known the state of the law on services for a century or more. With the exception of section 16, to which I shall come in a moment, we are doing no more than stating in statutory form the common law at the moment. That is an excellent proposition and a reflection of the way in which Parliament operates. Our predecessors managed to codify the law on the sale of goods in 1893. Somehow, because Parliaments are always overburdened with legislation—which is often ephemeral—and because hon. Members have such limited opportunity for private legislation, it has taken almost 90 years to start to codify, in only three or four clauses, the law relating to the supply of services. Parliament has the right to legislate even if the Law Commission has not considered a subject.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there is a danger in that the second part of the Bill may appear to give more rights to the consumer than it does?
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not believe that there is any such danger. We are stating the present rights in statute farm. There is a great advantage in that, because one can point to a right. I find that members of the public are not reassured when they are told that they must pay only a quantum meruit for a service and are referred to a case in the eighteenth century. It is much better to point to 1982 legislation, which states the proposition in clear terms—that if no price is agreed for the provision of the service, a reasonable price is the one that must be paid. The great advantage is clarity and simplicity of language stated by Parliament.
559 I congratulate the National Consumer Council on its work in relation to "Service, Please", which led to part II, and the Law Commission on its work, which provides us with parts I and III, where the wording differs very little from that which was recommended by the Law Commission.
I pay tribute not only to the National Consumer Council but to Miss Rosemary Delbridge, who lobbied very hard for the Bill to come before Parliament, and who, unfortunately, died very young at Christmas and was not able to see her efforts come to fruition.
The Bill has been explained to the House and I do not want to repeat my right hon. Friend's explanations or to add to the excellent example that came at the end of the Minister's speech. I was impressed by the way in which, in a few words, the right hon. Lady explained how the law would operate if the Bill were passed.
Apart from Clause 16, there is hardly a provision in the Bill that is not incontestably correct and logical. Indeed, it is of the nature of the Bill that it codifies the law rather than creating new law. The only new development is in clause 16, which extends the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, in which I played a part, so as to protect a consumer from having his rights taken away from him in contracts for the supply of services. He has already what I call the "Fred Astaire" right in relation to sale of goods. I call it the "Fred Astaire" right because, in the words of the songYou can't take that away from me".I agree that there are problems with clause 16 and I shall come to them later.
Part II, which is rather more difficult, codifies and clarifies the law in an area where consumers are much less aware of their rights, because they are contained in case law and not in statute law. The vagueness can be a beano for the shark. Many examples have been given in the NCC report. One is where an emergency service clears a drain and delivers a bill for over £400, and where the consumer, because he is unaware of his rights—it is not that the rights do not exist but that he is unaware of them—pays an exorbitant charge. It must be right to have that provision.
Surely it is only restating case law to say that a person providing a service must do so with reasonable care and skill. It surely must be beyond contest that if there is no provision in a contract for a time during which the service has to be provided, that time should be a reasonable time.
I have come across cases in which people have been induced to sign contracts for double glazing or for some house improvement and where there has been a long delay in providing the service. People have been duped into believing that the supplier can choose exactly his own time for providing the service, even if there is no time stated in the contract. As there is an absence of any particular statute to which the consumers can point, they are often, in those circumstances, taken in by the rogue trader.
The Bill, like all consumer legislation, benefits not only the consumer but the reputable trader. It is those who are honest in their professions or in their crafts who often tend to suffer from the depredations of the dishonest person. When a consumer is cheated of his money or in the provision of a service, there is also some small and unjustifiable injury to the reputation of the honest and reliable trader.
560 Apart from clause 16, I think that most of the propositions are logical. They merely restate the common law and the force behind them is self-evident.
With regard to clause 16 and the problems that surround it, I think that the right hon. Lady has come to the right conclusion—that the Law Commission should examine the problem of having inalienable rights for consumers in relation to the provision of services, and that it would be wrong, perhaps, at short notice for the House to endorse, without further consideration, the proposition in clause 16.
I confess at once that my instincts are in favour of clause 16, and I will give one reason for that. If we were to remove clause 16 from the Bill, that would not remove the obligation to use care and skill. That would remain. It would not help the bodger, it would simply help the dodger. The removal of clause 16 would only help the man who is incompetent at carrying out his job, but competent at drafting exclusion clauses. It would not help the man who is incompetent but does not draft exclusion clauses, because he will be caught under common law. He still has to provide care and skill and he is still liable for the results of his failure. The removal of clause 16 would only help the man who is skilful enough to evade liability, but not skilful enough to do his job. Therefore, my instincts are in favour of retaining the clause. I realise that it creates problems. I am worried not about those that it creates for the dishonest trader, but about those that it creates for the honest man, which, perhaps, I can best illustrate by an example.
A man's car breaks down and he takes it to a garage and tells the mechanic that he wants to get back to London from Birmingham. The mechanic may say that he does not have the necessary skill or capacity to be certain that he can make a repair that will enable the man to get back to London. He may say that he will do his best but only on the basis that if he does so he cannot accept responsibility for the consequences. The mechanic is being honest and open about the limitations on his care and skill. There is no deceit. Under those circumstances it is right that he should be protected from liability. If we remove clause 16 the test to be applied will be that of the Unfair Contract Terms Act as to whether he had behaved reasonably. In that example, one could say that the mechanic had behaved reasonably and that there was an equality of bargain between the two parties.
In other areas, my instincts are in favour of retaining clause 16. Perhaps at the end of the day the answer might be to allow the limitation on the amount of damages that have to be paid, rather than allowing a person completely to evade liability. I am not sure, but for the sake of compromise and for the sake of getting this legislation through, I am prepared to support the Minister's propositions, which have been assented to by the promoter of the Bill.
I should like to give advance notice of some matters that I intend to raise in Committee. I accept that clause 12 is necessary because there may be contracts for services that might need to be excepted, and about which we have not yet thought in sufficient detail. We had the same problem in 1977 with the Unfair Contract Terms Act. As the Minister said, the power should be sparingly exercised. If she were standing where I am now standing she would be the first to say that the matter should be dealt with by affirmative resolution because it is not a mere regulatory provision. It is an exception that will make substantial 561 changes in our civil rights. On the whole, I am against affirmative resolutions, but in this case I am in favour of the procedure.
Many of the examples of abuse of the consumer in the provision of services arise from doorstep sales. I hope that if the Minister catches your eye for a second time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she will be able to tell the House whether she has any proposals to legislate on the matter. That is where the consumer is most at risk. He is not able to make a choice, as he is in the market place. He tends to be talked into making an unwise contract. I know that nothing has been done about it for a long time because of the directive that is being discussed in Europe. However, there must come a point at which we must say that we can no longer wait to reach agreement in Europe. We should legislate on cash sales on doorsteps to protect the consumer. Ironically, he is already protected in respect of credit sales, where there is a cooling-off period.
I also direct the Minister's attention to the use of the small claims court. It is no good conferring rights upon people if they are not able to enforce them easily. The success or failure of arbitration proceedings in county courts depends very much on the character of the registrar and whether he has his heart in the small claims arbitration procedure. I tried it out for myself when I was a Minister. I was given an appointment for my small claim to be heard by way of arbitration at 2.30 pm on a Monday when I was due to answer questions in the House of Commons.
I went to the court and said that I could not be there at 2.30 pm. I asked what would happen. I was told that my claim would be struck out. I asked whether a letter from my employer would make any difference. The clerk said "No". There would be no difference. He said that I would have to take my chance. In the event, I either wrote the letter myself or received one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I took the letter to the county court and explained how my job prevented me from attending the arbitration at 2.30 on a Monday afternoon. It will come as no surprise to the House to learn that the appointment was postponed until 4.15 pm. I wonder what would have happened if a person in another profession had been involved.
The manner in which arbitration works in the county court varies from court to court and from registrar to registrar. There is a need for further training of registrars. Perhaps a layman should sit with the registrar in arbitration proceedings. I hope that the right hon. Lady and her colleagues will look at this matter. It is no use codifying and clarifying rights unless they are enforceable.
The legislation is long overdue. It does little more than codify and clarify the law. I hope that it will have a speedy passage through Parliament.
§ Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)
I welcome the introduction of the Bill. I do not have the severe reservations of several of my hon. Friends about part II.
It is ironic, in a sense, that we have in the past given greater protection to goods than to services. It is at least arguable that in the case of goods it is often easier to make an appraisal of them at the time of purchase. If it is a garment, for example, the purchaser can see whether it is sewn correctly and can try it on and see whether it fits.
562 In the case of services—such as the roofing incident mentioned earlier—it is clearly not possible for an old-age pensioner to climb up and see whether the roof needs repair as he has been told.
The covering of services is very much overdue. I am not impressed by the observation that we ought to wait until the Law Commission has concluded its deliberations. After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. How long will it be before those deliberations are concluded? How long would it be before a Government felt able to find the legislative time to introduce a Bill? Alternatively, how long will it be before a private Member feels moved to take up this topic? In other words, we could wait for years, and I am not prepared to see that happen.
As the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) observed, we are trying to codify rights already enshrined in common law. It cannot even be said that we are breaking new ground. It does not seem to be beyond the wit of hon. Members to use the Committee stage and the Bill's passage through the other place to put right any deficiencies that there may be in part II of the Bill. That the Bill is necessary is clear from the number of complaints that are taken to citizens advice bureaux—not much short of 1 million consumer complaints, business complaints and so on. My local citizens advice bureau in Plymouth was most anxious that I should support the Bill. In this case, I was a most willing victim. It is absolutely necessary.
We all have anecdotes about the provision of services and their often unsatisfactory nature. I shall use a personal experience as a short illustration.
My mother's drive, at her house, was and remains in need of retarmacking. She was visited by a door-to-door gentleman who said that he could offer to do the job at a very keen price. The sum mentioned was about £200. I thought it a suspiciously low figure for the work involved. He said that he was working in my mother's town on behalf of a local authority 15 miles away, and could fit in my mother's work and do a good, cheap job.
I told the gentleman that I was interested in the fact that he was doing work for the local authority and that I would make inquiries about it. The expression on his face changed. He said that he would return the following day. I telephoned a personal friend, the former borough engineer for the local council, and asked him to make inquiries. He found that not only did the gentleman not carry out work for the local authority but that he did not have a proper business address and worked from an accommodation address. Not surprisingly, he did not turn up the following morning and has never been seen since.
Had my mother been the sort of elderly lady who knows nothing about such matters, she could have easily fallen into the trap. The work on the drive might have been left only half finished so that no one could get in or out. Yet the work would have cost hundreds of pounds. Many services are expensive, which makes it all the more necessary for the Bill to cover that aspect.
I have some queries about part II. They spring from a desire to improve the Bill, rather than a desire to hold back or tread water. I am not clear about the position of subcontractors in the chain of responsibility. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can clarify that when she replies.
§ Miss Fookes
I would prefer to hear my right hon. Friend's reply rather than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). As a lawyer he might charge for the advice that he is anxious to give me. I am not inclined to give more jobs to the legal boys. Indeed, that is one good reason to enact the Bill. If it clarifies the rights of consumers, they may not need to consult lawyers so often.
Clause 15 deals with the ascertainment of price. I am delighted that the Bill provides that charges should be reasonable. What is the position if someone obtains an estimate that turns out to be far too low and a much greater charge is made? Would it not be wise to have a legal definition of an estimate or a quotation, and an explanation of the precise difference between the two? That area is somewhat vague—it is certainly not clear to me. I should welcome some clarification of the matter, either now or in Committee.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)
Does my hon. Friend accept that vagueness still persists? As has been said, the words "quantum meruit" are old fashioned and out of date. If they mean anything, it is that a reasonable fee has been earned. If an estimate does not become a fixed contract, what is the reasonable price for the contract? It is possible that that will provide more food for lawyers. Does my hon. Friend agree that those risks are involved?
I know of no positive course of action that is without risk.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
I said that the best and, in some cases the only defence for the consumer, and it has nothing to do with the Bill, is to acquire a detailed specification and complete quotation in advance of any work being carried out. No Bill or other measure will override that precaution, which will give consumers the best protection of all.
§ Miss Fookes
I merely wanted to ascertain that by the acceptance of an estimate one was not deprived of a right that one might otherwise have under the Bill or any other enactment. However, no doubt that point will be dealt with at a later stage. I merely advance it now so that the position can be aired.
Much has been said about clause 16 and I understand the reservations about accepting it in toto, but I hope that it will not be thrown out, because it has some merit in not allowing people to insert an exclusion clause that would nullify what we seek to do.
Using an everyday example, what would be the position of a person who sent an expensive dress or suit to a dry cleaners, who proceeded to lose or ruin it? What compensation might legally be offered? I noticed in the past that the minute conditions on the back of dry cleaners' tickets often limit the compensation that can be paid to, perhaps, a small fraction of the cost of purchasing a similar garment. I should be interested to know whether that position would be covered by clause 16 or whether it is already covered.
Another query relates to the services offered by estate agents, especially the descriptive "blurb" about properties.
§ Miss Fookes
Yes, but is there any reason why it should not be included in this Bill? The descriptions of some properties are almost a laughing stock. For example, "a house of character" frequently turns out to be an ugly 564 Victorian villa with no damp course—a different "character" from a modern house. I should be interested to know whether that aspect will be covered here or dealt with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham mentioned, in another Bill.
I have mentioned some of the queries about part II of the Bill, in which I am particularly interested, but I remain convinced that it is a most valuable adjunct to consumer protection and I hope that it will receive a fair passage.
§ Sir Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on the Bill, which undoubtedly offers certain ameliorations in the remedies available to consumers.
I emphasise that most suppliers of goods and services are reputable and competent, as other hon. Members have said. In the right hon. Gentleman's words, we are supposed to be discussing cowboys. Most of the debate has been on cowboys and Indians and, after the long exordium on Indians, it is right that we should have a little discussion about cowboys.
I give my general support to the first part of the Bill, and express perhaps a non-benevolent neutrality on the second. If I spend no further time praising the Bill or the right hon. Gentleman, it is because too much praise is bad for anyone. Although I bear in mind that Adlai Stevenson once said "Flattery does no harm provided you do not inhale", it would be more profitable to use the time at my disposal to find fault with the Bill but without derogating from my general commitment to support the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North said that the Bill enjoyed the complete support of articulate consumers. I agree. My criticism is that in a way consumers are becoming a bit too articulate these days.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
My right hon. Friend says "No, " to which I reply "Yes"—a meaningful discussion. There are so many pressure groups. In the House we are always exposed to pressure groups. The current hysteria is about rape, but before rape it was consumers. We must be careful that we do not go over the top about consumers and neglect to consider the general interest of the community.
First, who is a consumer? I heard references in the debate this morning to the exclusion of certain contracts provided that no party to the contract is a consumer. That is nonsense because under any contract, whether for goods or services, the person who is to receive the benefit of the contract, as distinct from paying the price, is the consumer of the benefit of the contract. That applies to maritime and commercial contracts and to anything else. We must avoid falling into the trap of using the word "consumer" in an entirely artificial sense. We are all consumers. I remember having a discussion in the House on the Shops Act in 1950 when Mr. Aneurin Bevan used a phrase which I have since thought useful. He said that we were in danger as producers of giving ourselves a black eye as consumers. We might bear that in mind.
Apart from clause 16, the effect of the Bill is to codify the existing common law. I have some almost instinctive reservations about that because one admires the way in which the common law has developed. The Sale of Goods Act 1893 has always been hailed as a great achievement because of Chalmers' superb drafting. He managed to 565 embody the rules relating to the sale of goods in a language of unrivalled simplicity and therefore clarity. The effect of codifying that branch of the law is, as it has been held, to disconnect the common law process which existed up to then—that is, one can no longer look back to the cases which evolved the rules but has to stop at the words of the statute. Of course, the process can take on again from there, but from the date of the statute, 1893, one no longer looked back to the cases which that statute was codifying.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
It might be a good thing, but when we talk of—and I use a phrase which has been used in the debate—partial codification of such branches of the law we begin to run into complications. That is one of the problems that one encounters in the second part of the Bill.
Let us suppose that we accept the second part of the Bill and pass it into law. That codifies—although it is agreed not completely—the law relating to the supply of services. It brings down a gate and one does not look back behind the words. What happens if the Secretary of State exercises his function under clause 12 and removes some categories of contract from the effects of the Act? One has disconnected the common law process. Is it reconnected, perhaps a year or two later? I do not know. I can see all kinds of complication arising from that type of operation. There would still be a section of the law relating to the supply of services that was not codified but was left for further consideration.
My feeling is that it would be wise not to proceed with part II of the Bill. I do not see that there would be any great disadvantages if that happened. My right hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) both made the point that the advantage of part II, although it might not be perfect, is that it would at least provide a quick result. Their case was that clause 12 was available for the Secretary of State to make changes in the law should mistakes be made because of the speed with which the matter had been put on the statute book.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
I am sorry. I thought that the hon. Gentleman did. Certainly my right hon. Friend did, as, I think, did the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North.
I do not like that process. We should not pass something into law quickly and give the Secretary of State a fall-back power to change it if the House had not been sufficiently careful. That is not a good practice. The advantage of quick legislation is easily exaggerated. A great deal has been heard about the complications associated with going back to old cases. It is confusing for people to have to refer to some case decided in the nineteenth, eighteenth or seventeenth centuries. Part II of the Bill, which codifies the existing common law, shows that the issue is terribly simple. If someone performs a service in the course of a business, he has to do it in a proper and workmanlike manner or, as the Bill says,with reasonable care and skill.That is not a very complicated concept. It has been well established by a long series of cases to which one does not need to refer in any court. I have conducted many such cases. I have never had to quote to a judge any authority for the proposition that care and skill should be used in the execution of a contract. It is taken for granted. It has been the law for so long that it is a simple proposition.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
It does apply. I am not sure whether it should, but it does, by a fairly recent decision.
§ Sir Ronald Bell
Save in court, of course. This is an interesting side area which has nothing to do with the main line of my argument.
The proposition is well known. I do not think that it can be further simplified by being codified in the Bill. If people think that the passage of this Bill into law wall reduce the amount of work for lawyers, or reference to lawyers, I can only say it is a triumph of hope over experience. I have never known legislation to have that effect. I do not believe for a moment that it will happen.
The proposition is simple. If it is to be codified, being as simple as that, I should like the Law Commission to go into the matter very fully, bearing in mind, as the Law Commission can, the implications of codification on the organic growth of common law. That would be preferable to taking action quickly over the next few weeks on the basis of nothing better than a report by consumers' organisation and arguing that matters can be put right if they go wrong. I do not think that that is sound.
I agree with my right hon. Friend about clause 16. We cannot have an absolute exclusion clause of that character. The hon. Member for Norwood began to defend it and then rightly drew back. He gave the example which I would have given—the person who says, "I am not especially skilled in that class of work, but…"; there is a consensual agreement that that person, with his limited ability, will carry out the operation. There is no sensible reason why that should not be allowed. It covers the whole range of what I describe as "the while-you-are-here" contracts: a tradesman comes in to do a job, the householder says to him "While you are here, will yell look at this?", and the tradesman says "It's not in my line, but I will look at it and see what I can do." What is wrong with that? We all want that to happen. But clause 16 would expose that person to the full liability of the person who claimed to have the proper skill for the job.
There is also the person who calls at the door and the householder knows full well that he is not skilled. I have used such a person. We all have. If someone says: hat he will work in the garden and he makes a mess of it because he does not know a gardener's job, is he to be bound by the strict terms of the general duty of the skilled man? I do not think so. Therefore, I am sure that clause 16 should be dropped from the Bill.
I am also sure that there should be an explicit exlusion of maritime and commercial contracts, if we have part II at all. But I think that the right remedy is probably that we should proceed on part I and let the Law Commission look at part II with all these thoughts in its mind, including maritime and commercial contracts, the exclusion clause in clause 16, and surely get rid of the discretion of the Secretary of State which is embodied in clause 12 and which would be a bad precedent for us to follow.
All those qualifications sound rather awful, but I am sure that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North heard my initial remarks about the merit, virtue and desirability of part I of his Bill. I hope that the Bill gets a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)
I join all those hon. Members who have given their warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on his good fortune in being first in the ballot. I say nothing of the good fortune of consumers that he has chosen to promote a Bill on the subject of consumer protection.
It is interesting to note that, if time permits, we shall be discussing another consumer protection measure, assuming that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and assuming that we terminate our discussion of this measure fairly soon. There seems to be general agreement about it. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell) criticised clause 16. However, when the Minister referred to its shortcomings, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North responded immediately and guaranteed that it would be withdrawn. It is no longer an issue. The promoter of the Bill is willing to withdraw it, so there is no difference between us about it. I hope that the Bill will soon move into Committee. It is pleasing to note that the official Opposition support it and that even the Minister has become almost enthusiastic about it.
This Parliament will not go down as one that has done a great deal for consumer protection. As a result of the first Queen's Speech, we began by doing away with the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. That was extremely unfortunate. I should like to see the right hon. Lady in the Cabinet Room as Minister of Consumer Protection. The Government's deliberations on consumer protection matters should not merely represent a small part of the activities of the Department of Trade.
There is a need for the measure. It is an important Bill. Amends have been made for the fact that we have not given due attention to consumer protection, thanks to this Bill and the Trade Descriptions (Amendment) Bill that might be discussed later.
The Bill has widespread support, particularly of the National Consumer Council. My right hon. Friend will agree that it is the prime mover in seeing that the problem is dealt with, although tribute has been paid to the Consumers Association, the Institute of Trading Standards Association and the Welsh and Scottish Consumer Councils, which support the National Consumer Council. The National Federation of Consumer Groups and citizens advice bureaux have been given increasing scope by the Government. Therefore, among consumer bodies, there is unanimous support for the Bill.
The Bill is concerned with three main types of transactions—the supply of goods other than by way of sale, the hire goods and the supply of services. With regard to goods the broad effect will be to place those transactions as far as possible on the same footing as goods sold for a money price. The basic idea is that all contracts for the supply of goods should be treated in the same way and should follow the Sale of Goods Act model.
There is no doubt that the Sale of Goods Act is working. We hear about that in our political surgeries. That measure has not been on the statute book for long, but the consumer bodies set up by the local authorities have been approached many times by people who have complaints. Those 568 complaints have been dealt with because it is the law of the land that consumers have certain rights with regard to the goods that they purchase.
The objectives of the Bill are clarity, certainty and the elimination of anomalies. The part of the Bill dealing with goods is based on the work of the Law Commission. The same objectives apply to the part of the Bill that deals with services. Its effect is to establish a statutory regime for the basic obligations that are already imposed by the common law on those who supply services. That part of the Bill is based on the report of the National Consumer Council entitled "Service, Please" that has been referred to on a number of occasions in the debate.
Most goods are purchased for a money consideration. The law describes such a transaction as a sale. That transaction is governed by the Sale of Goods Act 1979. Of vital importance are the terms that are implied by the Act. The main ones are that the seller has the right to sell the goods, that the goods should correspond with any description applied to them, and thirdly, that the goods should be of merchantable quality and they should be fit for their purpose.
However, the Sale of Goods Act does not apply where goods are supplied in ways other than by sale. The main example of where the Act does not apply or where there are doubts are exchange, probably including part-exchange—when a car is traded in—goods obtained with coupons or vouchers, such as cereal packet tops, goods obtained at a reduced price in exchange for wrappers, goods supplied as a bonus with other purchases and goods supplied with a service, known as contracts for work and material, for example, car and roof repairs, installation of kitchen units and so on.
The common law as laid down over the years by the judges applies to all those transactions, but the law is by no means clear. It is not so much whether consumers are treated unjustly or illegally that is important, as that they are not aware of their rights. I believe that the Bill will help this sort of problem.
The law is by no means clear. The leading case on contracts of exchange dates back to 1813, when there was a problem about exchanging Burgundy for champagne. The common law has developed from that case. There is wide agreement that the obligations of a supplier in relation to goods should be as nearly as possible the same, whatever the type of contract employed. The Bill sets out to achieve this, using the Sale of Goods Act as its model in relation to all contracts for the transfer of goods.
There is no general Act of Parliament dealing with the provision of services. We should address ourselves to that omission. The National Consumer Council report reveals widespread dissatisfaction with the entire range of consumer services. It calls, in the first instance, for the basic provisions of the common law to be put on a statutory footing. It also makes the point that it would be inconsistent to have a statute to deal with the materials element of work, and a materials contract, without simultaneously doing something about the work element.
It is as well to take some examples from the excellent document provided by the National Consumer Council. We should pay tribute to the council, and particularly to the authors, Barbara Lantin and Geoffrey Woodroffe for preparing that report. I take the example of motor cars. The council says: 569the standard of garage servicing presents—as the Consumers' Association put it—'an appalling picture of incompetence, wastefulness and even dishonesty'.That is from Motoring Which? January 1981, not January 1921.
Certainly this has consistently been the Consumers' Association's experience. Its most recent tests produced the same gloomy results as previous investigations. 'Out of 50 garages only two came anywhere near to carrying out a full service in line with the maker's specification, ' said the test report published in the January 1981 edition of Motoring Which? The remainder omitted some service items or did them badly. One garage charged £40 for a full service 'and did little more than change the oil'.We all have experience of this. I took my car to a garage for servicing—I do not take it there any longer—and came away without any oil. There is a need to look at services on behalf of consumers.
The recent extreme weather conditions, with many elderly people trying to find plumbers to mend burst pipes, again highlights the need for consumer protection. The report states:Stories about 'cowboy' plumbers are especially common. Under the headline 'Scandal of the "killer" plumbers' the Daily Star of 11 April 1981 reported:These examples illustrate the need to tackle the question of services.'A woman was killed when a newly installed boiler blew up in her face. And factory workers drank coffee from a machine that had been connected to a lavatory pipe. The botched-up jobs were the work of cowboy plumbers. Like the new "cistern" in a pensioner's loft that turned out to be a plastic carrier hag. And the "minor pipe repair" that cost a London family £56, 000 after their house was flooded.'
There are also problems with hairdressing. The Times of 22 February 1978 reported:Mrs. Susan Goodwin of Canterbury…went for a light permanent wave at a well appointed salon in the town and came out with an Afro frizz and her hair falling out in bunches.Those who say that these matters should be referred to the Law Commission are asking for further delays. My right hon. Friend is right—this legislation is 90 years too late. It is true that the previous Government took some action, as have the present Government. My one regret is that this has had to be left to a Private Member's Bill. Bearing in mind some of the legislation that the Government have introduced in the last couple of years and intend to pursue this Session, I should have thought that we could have left some of that alone and done this instead. I am aware that another consumer protection Bill will be introduced as the right hon. Lady wants to cross some of the t's and dot some of the i's. However, I hope that the Bill will be put on the statute book as soon as possible. Some of the issues that have been raised can be dealt with in Committee. Some of the arguments that have been advanced against part II may also be dealt with in Committee.
It would be wrong for the House not to allow this measure to have its Second Reading. The Bill sets out to codify in statutory form the existing law on three main aspects. These are quality of service, the time for carrying out that service and, in the absence of agreement, the price to be charged. In these respects case law is not so much uncertain as, by virtue of its nature, inaccessible and not widely known. I commend the Bill to the House. I hope that it will be given a Second Reading.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim
I ask leave of the House to intervene to answer some of the questions that have been raised. If I am allowed to do so now, it may lead to more speedy progress with the Bill.
I find myself in an unusual but not an unprecedented position in answering questions on a measure that is not a Government Bill. I hope that the House will forgive me if I deal only with some of the main issues and do not take up all the interesting questions that have been raised. The matters with which I do not deal can be raised in Committee. If that is done it will make for an interesting Committee stage, if that is reached.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller), like many other hon. Members, said that the majority of traders are honest and competent. That is true and should be said. However, I am bound to say that too many traders are not honest and competent. That has emerged from the speeches of most right hon. and hon. Members.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride asked about the status of a consumer who signs away his rights to compensation. A consumer's rights to compensation in the event of death or injury cannot be excluded in any contract because of the provisions that are set out in section 2 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. The right to compensation for death and injury cannot be excluded in any circumstances by any exclusion clause.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride talked about Scottish matters and no doubt he will make representations to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish Office. The exclusion clauses to which he referred in respect of car hire contracts are subject to the reasonableness test, as are all other exclusion clauses under the 1977 Act. As for the eminent doctor and the broken ceramic hob, he will have rights of merchantability under the 1977 Act and not under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 because the firm that he used to install the cooker cannot include unreasonable exclusion clauses as a result of the 1977 Act and exclude its responsibility for merchantable quality in an unreasonable manner.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) mentioned programmes that provide consumers with information. I concur with the hon. Gentleman's views and draw attention to the especially valuable work that is done by Esther Rantzen, whom I recently appointed to the National Consumer Council. Consumer advice is important, as is consumer education. That is why I published an education pack. The hon. Gentleman knows, as I do, that he has an excellent citizens advice bureau in the borough that forms part of his constituency, which gives a great deal of consumer advice. Local authority spending is a matter for local authority priorities. Trade associations can be and often are helpful in such cases. It is advisable always to go to contractors who are members of trade associations.
The hon. Member for Tooting spoke about excessive charges for roofing contracts. Those are already contrary to the common law. Clause 15 does no more than restate the common law. The case that he raised of the old gentleman could be challenged if he knew what the law was.
As to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) during the speech of my hon, Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), the finance house is liable if goods bought under a hire purchase agreement are not merchantable. At present, the 571 finance house is not liable if the goods are bought under other consumer credit agreements. When the Consumer Credit Act 1974 is finally in operation, finance houses will be liable if the goods are unmerchantable in most cases. That is the view of my legal advisers, but I am aware that the hon. Member for Grantham still holds the opposite view. I can advise him that I sat through both Committee stages on the Consumer Credit Act 1974. However, the law is not yet fully enacted and is subject to interpretation. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. McCrindle), who expressed doubts about clause 16, I made it clear that it is not acceptable and the sponsor has said that he will withdraw that clause.
§ Mr. McCrindle
The Minister is seven years out of date. I was the Member for Billericay but my constituency is now Brentwood and Ongar.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I apologise to my hon. Friend. In making that mistake, I have dated myself.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell), that it would have been much more satisfactory to have part II drafted by the Law Commission following a review by it and all the consultations with interested parties that would have been inherent in such a review. I do not believe that anyone would dissent from that point of view.
However, the acceptance in the meantime of part II, which helpfully codifies in statute law form for the information of consumers what they have a right to expect from purveyors of services under common law, in no way precludes that review taking place, and eventually a draft Bill being produced that will possibly replace part II. Therefore, part II is not the last word, but an interim measure.
We should not claim too much or mislead the House or consumers about what part II will do for them. It will do no more than codify and inform them about the present position. It will not make it easier for them to obtain redress. Their present rights to redress will exist, but until the Law Commission has reported—it will no doubt take some years—and has provided another draft Bill, that redress will not be available to them. My hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend are right to draw attention to that matter, but it does not constitute a reason for rejecting a measure that will inform consumers more widely and not place any undue burdens upon honest traders while the Law Commission is carrying out its review.
The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) recognised very fairly the problems of clause 16. His ambivalence on the matter underlines the desirability of referring it to the Law Commission, and he was the first to accept that.
We hope that agreement on the final text of the doorstep selling directive will be reached shortly. If it is agreed, legislation, by either a Bill or an order, will have to follow.
I sympathise with the need for the county courts to be sympathetic to consumer problems, and I welcome the increasing awareness by court officials and officers of the need to be as co-operative as possible with consumers when they are bringing cases in the small claims court.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), in her excellent intervention, mentioned the problem of subcontractors. If a consumer enters into a contract, he or she has rights against the contractor. If a 572 subcontractor bodges a job, the consumer can proceed against the contractor, who can sort matters out with the subcontractor, so the contract is with the original contractor.
I have already answered several points raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. He said that consumers were too articulate. He then rephrased the remark and said that the consumer bodies were too articulate. There is a distinction between the two. I have been known on occasions to tell consumer groups that if they are unreasonable in their demands, the movement will lose credibility. I have equally been known to advise consumers to be more demanding in order to stimulate competition and raise standards. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend would not object to that point of view.
From the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) we had the usual Aberdare grand guignol. Nevertheless, I know that his contribution was sincerely meant and that he supports the Bill, just as he supports consumers on every occasion.
I commend the Bill to the House. Almost every hon. Member, on each side of the House, has welcomed it, although not always in an unqualified way. I do not recall anyone from the SDP-Liberal Alliance speaking in favour of consumers, especially as one of them is a former Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they".] My hon. Members ask "Where are they?" Perhaps in some smoke-filled room in Queen's Gate they have more pressing business than the interests of consumers.
As I have said, practically every hon. Member taking part in the debate has demonstrated the desirability of the legislation. I therefore commend it to the House.
§ 1.7 pm
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
As I am about to say that I do not approve of the Bill, I hope that the House will understand that I am not opposed to the well-being of consumers and that I am not in favour of misbehaviour by cowboys. I make that abundantly clear at the outset.
None of the hon. Members whose names appear on the back of the Bill is a plumber, garage hand, shopkeeper or industrialist. They are lawyers, lecturers, accountants and professional people who live in a sort of pink haze of well-being—or perhaps in some cases a pale blue haze of well-being.
I want to take issue in particular with a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). He said that the Bill would cost nothing to the public purse. I am a bad mathematician and I do not know the salary of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs, but her attendance here today alone, even if she never looks at the Bill again, must have cost the public purse about £55.
§ Mr. Wells
I see a bevy of able and intelligent people in the officials' box, seeking to help my right hon. Friend. We have the full panoply of the House, from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker to the many other officials who are here to help us. The Bill is costing the public purse a great deal of money. It will occupy virtually a full day's debate. It is a great myth that consumer protection legislation is free. Practically nothing in this world is free. It is important that 573 we realise that the great burgeoning consumer protection movement costs a great deal of money to the very people whom it seeks to protect.
§ Mr. Ioan Evans
Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that if services can be protected it will save many people a great deal of money? People have been exploited. They have been paying through the nose for services that they have not received. If the Bill can help in codifying common law, the consumer will be protected in that way.
§ Mr. Wells
The hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) was talking about part II. I wish to speak about the generality of the Bill.
It is unfortunate that by trying to attack a few cowboys—whom I, too, would like to be attacked—day by day we are putting greater burdens on legitimate traders who put on 5 per cent., 10 per cent., I know not what per cent. every time the House churns through another piece of consumer protection legislation. Every reputable garage will say "Oh God, what have those chaps in Westminster done now?", and they will put another 5 per cent. on all services. It is a fact of life that traders must protect themselves, and they do.
Much has been said about the cowboy contractor. Nothing whatever has been said about the barrack-room lawyer consumer, of whom there are a great many—people who try it on. One of my earliest experiences as a Member of Parliament was of a constituent who was in prison in North Germany complaining that every time he finished a sentence in a Scandinavian country or in a lander in Germany he was hauled inside for a similar offence that he had committed elsewhere.
Let me tell the House what his offence was. The man once had the great misfortune to trip over a piece of loose carpet in a hotel. He dislocated his shoulder, which was extremely painful. He then discovered that the hotel paid up extremely handsomely. He also discovered that if a carpet was a little loose he could put his shoulder out a second, third, or even a tenth time, with no discomfort. He travelled round Scandinavia and the rest of North Europe visiting hotels, dislocating his shoulder and getting handsome payments. Unfortunately for him, he was just going through his act in Hamburg when an hotelier from Gothenburg was clocking in. He remembered the man and the episode. The hoteliers' union—or whatever it was called—did the man for fraud, quite rightly. The first time it was genuine enough, but subsequently it was a palpable fraud. Twenty-five years ago—the time about which I am speaking—the Europeans were perhaps tougher than they are today and the man visited many Northern European goals as an inmate.
I give that as a non-British example of the fact that many consumers are dishonest barrack-room lawyers. We kid ourselves if we believe that only the providers of goods and services are possibly disreputable. Virtually every hon. Member who has spoken has paid tribute to the 574 excellent services that can be and frequently are given by casual visitors at one's door. The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) gave an excellent example of the good services which can be given by casual traders or casual service providers. At this time of high unemployment, we must encourage people who offer a service. It would be lamentable if the House made it harder for reputable people to offer services within their reasonable ability.
Part II of the Bill is peppered—in clauses 13, 14 and 15—with the terms "reasonable time", "reasonable charge", and "reasonable care and skill". All these cases of "reasonable" this and "reasonable" that will have to go to the courts if the Bill becomes law. The courts will not look at the codification we have today, which the supporters of the Bill praise so highly. The courts will look at case history. Therefore, the codification of the common law that is being advocated today is still only a temporary codification. A case of someone versus someone in 1890 will still be a good precedent and will still be quoted in the courts.
This is a costly Bill which does very little. We are in grave danger, as a nation, of becoming over-tender to the consumer, who is also the person who has to pay for the services, the good services and the good goods, that he or she buys. If we over-coddle consumers, we shall only put up the price to those same people.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells). I regret to say I disagree with almost the entirely of his speech. It was based on a bizarre assumption that the effect of this legislation would be to introduce new law and practices into consumer affairs. I do not believe that is the case, because the Bill, in every respect I think, is declaratory of existing common law provisions.
That being so, although the Bill might bring the law more clearly to the consumer's attention, it in no way adds to the substantive legal burdens already imposed on the producer or person who renders services. Therefore, the premise on which my hon. Friend founded his criticism of the Bill is extremely unsafe and doubtful, and I do not agree with his conclusions.
It is not an interest that I ought strictly to declare, but I am a council member of the Consumers Association. That organisation has lent its weight and support to the Bill. I should like to be associated with other right hon. and hon. Members who have congratulated the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on bringing the Bill forward. It was a sensible and wise decision, and we are grateful to him.
I am entirely behind the main substance of the Bill. I do not need to rehearse the arguments already advanced. The 1893 legislation did not include a number of important contracts. I am delighted to see that the Bill will now bring into existing law contracts of bargain and contracts of hire. That I do not praise the right hon. Member or commend the virtue of the Bill at greater length is to save time, and for no other reason.
I have two criticisms of the Bill. I hope that they will be borne in mind at a later time. They do not go to the root of the Bill, but they are significant. My first criticism relates to the position of finance houses. On this matter, I have the misfortune to differ from the Minister.
575 Finance leasing or hiring arrangements with finance companies are becoming an increasingly important part of commercial life. A customer visits a retailer, chooses a certain item—such as a car or agricultural machinery--and it is delivered to him. An arrangement is made between the retailer and the finance company, and ownership of the item passes to the finance company, which hires it to the customer. There is no contract, and thus no privity of contract between the consumer and the retailer. The only contract will be between the finance company and the consumer, and that is becoming increasingly common-place. Such arrangements allow sophisticated equipment to become available to ordinary or specialist consumers.
It should be an implied term of such an arrangement that the goods to be hired should be reasonably fit for the purpose for which the consumer requires them. That would be the position if there were a contract of sale or a hire purchase agreement. Does the Bill or any other legislation mean that there is such an implied term on which the consumer can call? I do not think that there is.
I apologise for speaking in the debate so late in the day and after the Minister has replied. I think that my right hon. Friend relied on section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. That section does not apply for two reasons—first, it has not been brought into effect; and, secondly, its intended effect is to make the finance house liable only to the extent that the retailer is liable. However, the retailer can be liable to the consumer only for misrepresentation or breach of contract. I have already said that there is no contract between the retailer and the consumer in the majority of cases. Therefore, section 75 cannot apply.
That view was taken by the Law Commission in its report—I commend page 30 to the Minister—and also by the Finance Houses Association. That body said in a letter that the Bill might impose such terms upon finance houses. I submit that it does not. Does the Bill impose any obligation upon the finance house if the goods are not reasonably fit for the purpose? I believe that it does not. The obligation arises only if the criteria in clause 9—and especially clause 9(4)—are satisfied. Under that provision, the implied condition of reasonable fitness arises only if the purpose is made known either to the bailor—the finance house—or to a credit broker The purpose will never be made known to the bailor because it is remote. Will it be made known to the credit broker? The definition section of the Bill makes it clear that, although the bailor may occasionally be the supplier, in the great majority of cases he will not be.
Representations making known particular purposes to the retailer in the first instance should be sufficient ground to give rise to the implied term. Therefore, if I go to a supplier, say that I want something for a particular purpose and enter into a finance arrangement with a finance house, I should be entitled to the implied protection that the article will be reasonably fit for its purpose. That aspect is not covered by previous legislation or the Bill and it ought to be.
Two other considerations might influence the Minister. First, under a hire-purchase contract, the hire purchase company is liable for representation made in antecedent negotiations. I ask for parity in that situation. Secondly, the finance company can always recover from the retailer, if there is an appropriate term in the contract between 576 them. My proposal would not, therefore, be unfair to finance companies. I shall never cry over finance companies. They are often party to increasingly sophisticated commercial transactions, and they should not escape from contractual obligations which should be imposed on them. The Bill needs strengthening in those respects.
§ Mr. Willey
We will, of course, consider that aspect, but I hope that the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) will take the opportunity of serving on the Standing Committee to ensure that that aspect is properly discussed.
§ Mr. Hogg
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. I hope to serve on the Standing Committee. We are all agreed that there is no pre-existing legislation. The finance houses expressed concern that the Bill may impose such a term on them, but I am telling the right hon. Member that it will not. That is the division between us.
I dissent from what was said by many hon. Members about part II. I believe that part II should not be included in the Bill. First, we must understand that it is only declaratory of common law. There are only three terms—reasonable price, reasonable time and reasonable skill. That does not add to consumer protection; it merely states the common law.
The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said that part II would enable legal rights to receive wider publicity. That is a fair point to be put into the balance. What are the arguments against that? First, contracts for services are much more involved than many hon. Members appreciate. Many other questions must be answered. For example, should we follow the Australian model and say that, when the work is done, it should be reasonably fit for consumers? Secondly, what is the extent of the lien that the service company should be entitled to exercise? Thirdly, what range of damage should be recoverable? Fourthly, to what professions should this extend? I am a barrister and declare an interest. Should the provisions extend to the Bar? Those are all questions which cannot be ignored and which touch materially on any changes in the law. It was because of such considerations that the Law Commission's recent report on implied contractual terms for the supply of goods recommended that it should consider the matter before coming forward with draft legislative changes.
The Minister told the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will request the Law Commission to consider clause 16, or the limitation exclusions of liability covered by that clause.
§ Mr. Hogg
I see the Minister agreeing with me.
The Law Commission will consider the law on contracts of service. There will not be an enormously long delay—perhaps 18 months or two years—before it issues a report. I urge caution, bearing in mind that the provisions are declaratory only of existing common law provisions.
We should delay any legislative changes in this area until the Law Commission has reported on the law relating to services. I am sure that it will provide a draft Bill as an annex to its report. No doubt a public-spirited hon. 577 Member will follow the example of the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North and adopt it as a Private Member's Bill. Let us not have part II, because it is premature.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
I support the general concepts of implementing the Law Commission's recommendations on the sale of goods and extending sale of goods protection to the supply of goods and services, but I approach the Bill with the greatest caution. Although most contractual law is enshrined in statute, the old concepts still apply and there are still references in court cases to "assumpsit" and "action on the case". Many of the old common law and equity terms are still relevant.
Hon. Members have spoken about the implication for the legal practice of a change in the law, but perhaps they have not turned their minds to the implications for business men and those who advise business people and consumers. Millions of forms include the contractual law as it stands and legal advisers have to advise companies on the law as it stands. If there is a change in the law there will undoubtedly have to be changes in the millions of forms covering contracts. The Law Commission has more representatives of the law and substantial business than of smaller traders.
I approach the concept of a redefinition of the law with the greatest concern and apprehension. Knowing that laymen sometimes rush in where lawyers fear to tread, I took the liberty of checking the qualifications of the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) to introduce such a Bill.
If there is another right hon. or hon. Member with a first class honours degree in law who also won the Blackstone, Harmsworth and McMahon prizes—I did not know that anyone had ever won all those prizes—and is also a soccer blue, I would defer to him as much as I defer to the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North. The Bill has the best possible provenance and I am reassured by that.
However, the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to acknowledge that what appears simple is often nothing of the sort and that consolidating and simplifying the law may lead to further complications. There are many phrases in the Bill that will need judicial interpretation. Matters that appear to be extremely simple will require definition and may result in complication rather than simplicity.
For example, clause 3(4) refers to goods that are "exposed for supply"—a term which appears simple, but which I am sure will require judicial definition. Clause 4(3)(b) refers to defects that "examination ought to reveal". That will also require definition. Clause 4(6) mentions "where the circumstances show" and clause 4(9) refers to "the price if relevant".
Those points may merely be matters of definition, but the courts will have to decide whether the Act is a matter of redefinition.
When I see in part II that two matters are referred to as being matters of fact, I become even more apprehensive. What is a matter of law and what is a matter of fact has always been the subject of dispute among lawyers.
"The Beginner's Guide to Contract" states:the distinction, it is feared, must still be maintained, the exact demarcation between fact and law has never been determined.Later it states:It must be said, in conclusion, that the whole relationship of law and fact remains incoherent and continues to embarrass many branches of English law.What is apparently simple may not be as simple as it looks.
578 I urge caution on the Committee that will examine the Bill. I hope that it receives a Second Reading, but I wish to add one further point of caution. We are told that many complaints are made by consumers, but how terrible are the wrongs that the Bill seeks to right? I heard earlier in the debate that there have been about 124, 000 complaints about services. An hon. Member asked how many complaints that represents per day. I calculate that 124, 000 complaints about services means that only one person in 40 has complained. That does not seem to be many, because people tend to be dissatisfied with the services with which they are provided.
A survey in the United States showed that 78 per cent. of the world's population believes that it is badly governed. Of course, people are dissatisfied with services that are provided, and with their Government. If we tighten up consumer protection—I urge hon. Members to recognise this—we shall increase the responsibility on honest traders and increase the cost disparity between the honest traders and the cowboys.
Examples have been given by hon. Members of ways in which consumers have been badly treated, notably that given by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth. Drake (Miss Fookes) of a man who volunteerd to apply tarmacadam to her mother's drive for £200. He subsequently turned out to be a liar who had only an accommodation address. Such people will continue to get away with deluding and deceiving honest purchasers and consumers. We are codifying the practice which will be incumbent upon the honest trader.
My right hon. Friend the Minister warned against cowboys. I agree with her, but we must be careful when applying the law in favour of consumers. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) made an important point when he said that we need to protect the small man who says that he will do his best.
One of my life's nightmares is when a workman does a small job in my own house. My wife is fond of saying "While you are here"—a phrase used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell)—"would you be good enough to look at some defective plaster? While you are here, would you help with this bit of rewiring?" If the chap is helpful he will be prepared to do that and may find the whole panoply of law descending on him like a ton of bricks.
I urge all those concerned with consumer affairs to recognise that not every small trader wants to develop around him a panoply of lawyers and financial advisers. Many want to get on with the job. Every time we tighten the screws on behalf of consumers we are making life more difficult for the man who is trying to do his best.
I believe that the Bill deserves a Second Reading. I hope that it will proceed. However, I urge a firm word of caution. My right hon. Friend used the phrase "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", but such an attitude to the reform of law can be very dangerous and extremely complicated because of the millions of people who will be affected by changes in the consumer law. The Bill should go into Standing Committee, but I urge caution on the Members of that Committee.
§ Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on his good fortune in being able to bring forward this Bill.
579 I am surprised that I am one of the few hon. Members to declare an interest. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) said that the majority of hon. Members sponsoring the Bill were from the other side of the fence and that they were mainly lawyers. It is important to realise that the supply of the majority of goods and services and other transactions occur in a satisfactory manner at a fair price and within a reasonable time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said that, when asked, the public are inclined to say that politicians do not give a satisfactory service. The same is said of lawyers and many other professions, but on reflection we discover that we are given good value. I have been horrified at some lawyers' bills but on reflection I realise the enormous amount of work involved. The same applies to plumbers and others. It would be wrong to give the impression that we are surrounded by rogues and vagabonds.
I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North when he suggests that there might be more rogues today than there used to be. I believe that there were just as many rogues in days gone by, but that people did not know their rights. They tended to keep quiet and hope that they would learn by their experience.
I welcome the fact that these days people know their rights. They know where to apply if they believe that they are not being dealt with as they should be. Most of my colleagues have experienced that. We often wish that our constituents would go to the Consumers Association with their complaints first and come to us later. We often receive consumer complaints at an early stage. Most people realise that they have rights and are determined to find out how to exercise them.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) was misguided in suggesting that local authorities should be invited to compile lists of approved contractors. That would be open to all sorts of abuse and would be entirely wrong. Already local authorities are heavily criticised for producing lists of contractors that they are prepared to use. If local authorities had to take on that additional responsibility for consumers or, heaven forbid, had to follow up the hundreds of complaints that would follow, they would be left in a very unsatisfactory state.
The only sensible solution is self-regulation. I hope that the Bill will not encourage the general public to believe that they can leave their responsibilities and duties to look after themselves entirely to the State. When one wishes to employ a person's service one should ensure as best one can that the person is properly qualified.
The trade associations should be encouraged in every way possible by the Government to promote their trade so that people know that there is someone to whom they can go with a complaint. It would be unfortunate if we gave the impression that by passing such a Bill the general public can just relax and not worry because there will be some retribution in relation to their complaint. That is far from the truth.
We have heard of constituents who have suffered from those who offer their services on the doorstep having no regular business address and the service that they offer being beyond their ability. This form of trading requires the separate licensing that my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned was under review. My personal belief is that it would be right for local authorities to have a large 580 say in deciding those to whom licences for door to door offers of services should be given. This is an area in which old people particularly suffer. Many are approached by the type of person that hon. Members have been discussing—the cowboy with no known address whose main object in life is to prey upon those who are least able to look after their own affairs. Hon. Members should not try to suggest that the Bill would take away the responsibility of every consumer to look after his or her own affairs. We should therefore encourage the setting up and promotion of trade associations for internal regulation.
I do not personally accept the suggestion that there should be a postponement of part II of the Bill until the Law Commission has deliberated. We criticise the length of time taken by traders in providing services. Everyone knows that lawyers are among the worst examples in taking time to consider their recommendations. It would be wrong to postpone a matter of this importance until the Law Commission has reported. There is every reason to have an interim provision. If the Law Commission can come up, in a few years' time, with a better answer, so be it. I do not subscribe to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) who suggests that we should leave well alone until the case has been presented.
I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill. I hope that it will receive a Second Reading and make further progress. I hope in the interests of all good traders and consumers that it will not be delayed purely and simply on the technicality of a reference to the Law Commission.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
I should like to be associated with those hon. Members who have congratulated the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on bringing forward the Bill. In view of the full debate that has taken place, I do not propose to extend my remarks beyond a few minutes, especially as I see the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) in his place. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a Bill that he wishes to lay before the House. I believe I am right in interpreting that the wish of the House is to see the Bill receive a Second Reading and go to its Committee stage.
I wish to read briefly from a letter that I received from the secretary of the consumer advice bureau in my constituency. It is an excellent consumer advice bureau, as I know my right hon. Friend the Minister recognises. She also knows that my constituency is an important shopping centre in the north of London to which many people come from all parts of Hertfordshire and north London. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells). It is important to the vast majority of honest and decent traders providing goods and services in my constituency that a good consumer advice centre should exist, as is the case in my constituency. It is important that I should read out the view "from the field" about the Bill. The secretary and organiser of the centre says:The Bill is a very important one which if passed will strengthen the position of consumers considerably in an area where at present there is no statutory provision and reliance is laid essentially on common law rights and voluntary codes of practice. Problems that do arise in considerable quantities in the field of consumer services such as motor repairs, home improvements, servicing of domestic appliances, etc., take up a great deal of time and attention and effort since at present there is no Act of Parliament dealing with the provision of services. If advisers could refer to a specific statute, as is the case, for example, in the matter of goods purchased and the Sale of Goods 581 Act then their work would be made somewhat more straightforward and the users of services…will be much better placed than at present in sorting out such issues as bad workmanship or exorbitant charges.That sums up very well the merit of the Bill.
I re-emphasise that the Bill does not attempt to make new law. It seeks to codify present rights, implied or existing, in the common law. I take the view not only that it is good for the consumer but that it is also good for the vast majority of honest traders in commerce or in services.
I listened with great interest to what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) said about part II. I can see some merit in what they say. Perhaps there is a risk in introducing a piece of legislation when we know that the Law Commission will be providing us in one, two, three or four years—there is some dispute about when it is likely to materialize—with a fully considered Bill that we can examine and which no doubt another hon. Member will introduce. Equally, although I have no legal qualifications, it seems to me that if this Bill seeks simply to codify existing rights and, if the Secretary of State already has powers to intervene in cases where, perhaps due to the shortage of time, errors have been made, on balance I support part II as it stands, accepting that the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North has shown considerable flexibility and agreed that clause 16 should not remain part of the Bill.
Without wishing to detain the House any further, I join other hon. Members and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs in giving the Bill a very warm welcome.
§ Mr. John Grant (Islington, Central)
I wish to take only a minute of the time of the House simply to welcome this measure, to say how important it is to consumers, and to express the hope that it is dealt with in its entirety and that there is no delay in dealing with part II. I know that the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) is anxious to secure support for his Bill, and rightly so. In view of that, I shall simply welcome this measure.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).