§ Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)
I beg to move,That this House is of the opinion that government policies have failed to benefit the consumer and have not ensured that the consumer interest is properly taken into account in the run-up to 1992 and the single European market; and calls on the Government to reform and up-date the 1987 Consumer Protection Act, to introduce a new system of labelling of goods in order to provide accurate information on their health, safety and environmental implications, to implement fully the European Economic Community product liability directive and facilitate a speedy adoption of the product safety directive, and to make provision for regular and systematic consultation with consumer organisations on all aspects of 1992 legislation.I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce for debate a subject of my choice. I feel slightly schizophrenic in that I am raising for debate a subject for which I have Front Bench responsibility, although it is through the private Members' ballot that I have been able to bring forward this subject. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is a subject for which I have partial Front Bench responsibility, because it is my contention that the Government have failed the consumer, and neglected consumer interests, across the whole range of their Departments and policies. I shall refer to the work of Ministers of several Departments and to how their policies have impinged on the consumer and given the consumer a raw deal.
Not least of the problems, as the motion says, is that the Government have failed to safeguard the consumer from the effects of the opening up of the single Europe market in 1992 and all the legislation that is involved. I make no apology for the fact that this afternoon I shall refer to many of the European issues facing consumers. This is a particularly appropriate time to do so, as we are in the last few days before the European elections. The debate on whether Europe will benefit the consumer and the average citizen of the EEC, as well as what its effects on business will be, are subjects about which we are all rightly concerned.
On many occasions, the Government have claimed that their free market approach to economic policy automatically favours the consumer, offering greater choice and reasonable prices through unfettered competition. This attitude, which can most kindly be described as naive, has come to look more and more untenable during the Government's term of office. I shall aim to show that what is now needed is a considerable improvement in consumer protection and consumer rights, both domestically and via the European Community, including the right of the consumer to be fully informed, the right to be consulted, the right to easy and inexpensive channels of legal redress, improved rights of compensation, and so on.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
What makes the hon. Lady say that the European Community is in favour of informing the consumer and giving out information? Is she aware that the Consumer Protection Act 1987 removed origin marking, which was one of the best consumer information services, solely because of an instruction from the EEC? How can she say that that body helps the consumer when the average family in Britain pays an extra £13 a week for its food directly as a result of the EEC?
§ Ms. Quin
The EEC has had mixed effects on consumers. I shall not be wholly praising the EEC, but nor shall I be wholly condemning it. I shall be picking out the various elements of EEC consumer protection and looking at those examples that need reinforcing. I shall not hesitate to criticise certain aspects of EEC legislation that harm the consumer. It would not be wise to take an oversimplified view of the EEC. I hope that the point that I was making will become clearer to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) in the debate.
Let us examine some of the recent actions of Government Departments and see what effects they have had on the consumer. One of the main issues, about which we have had several debates and questions, is the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to protect the consumer. That is particularly true of consumers' worries and fears about food quality and safety. While modern farming practice is good at producing the quantity that is needed—in many cases, it goes way beyond that, with the production of large-scale surpluses—there is nevertheless more and more consumer concern about the quality of food and, in particular, about the amount of information the consumer is given about the treatment of food.
Recently, I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a question about the use of tecnazene—a chemical that inhibits the sprouting of potatoes, thereby improving their shelf life. Potatoes treated with it are not safe for human consumption for six weeks following the administration of the treatment. The Minister informed me that last year about 20 per cent. of potatoes in Scotland were treated with tecnazene, and that a similar percentage were treated in England and Wales, although figures were not available. Apart from expressing my concern that the Minister did not have the figures available immediately, my principal reaction was that consumers are unaware whether the potatoes that they buy have been so treated. If they were treated, they do not know when that happened or whether the potatoes that they are buying fall within the safety limit.
Much concern has recently been expressed about the use of Alar on apples. Again, consumers have no way of knowing whether the apples that they are buying have been treated.
We are now being told that the Government are likely to permit the irradiation of foodstuffs. I oppose that strongly and believe that we should oppose it within the EEC rather than giving way in advance, which is what we appear to be doing. At the very least, food that has been irradiated should be clearly labelled. That will cause the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food problems because there is no foolproof test to show whether foodstuffs have been irradiated, which is a further reason why the process should be banned until a system of proper testing and labelling is devised.
The Consumers Association is calling for the mandatory labelling of all foodstuffs, and perhaps the Minister will comment on that. One of the failings of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is that agricultural produce is excluded. When the Act was being considered, Labour Members pointed out that defect in the legislation. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is present because he led for the Labour party on that issue.
To many hon. Members, it seems that the prodcer rather than the consumer has the upper hand under the 560 Government's agriculture and food policies. Only through the introduction of an organisation such as the food standards agency, which the Labour party has recently called for, will the balance begin to be redressed.
The activities of other Departments work against the consumers' interests. The most flagrant example is the Government's privatisation programme, especially that of the natural monopolies of water, gas and electricity. From contacts with my constituents and my recent experience gained in canvassing at by-elections, I am aware that, while all those measures are unpopular with the voter, the privatisation of water most enrages consumers. People were especially enraged by the advertising campaign, which told them what they already knew—that they are served by a network of water authorities and that water is delivered to their houses—and the pre-privatisation price rises, which they regard as a massive consumer con.
Most British people are drinking water that falls below EEC standards. Most consumers know that the pressing priority is not selling off water to private interests but investing in the necessary infrastructure and remedial works to ensure that water quality, whether it be drinking or bathing water, is fit to use. I strongly believe that safety and health factors are much more in the consumers' interest than the Government's obsession with privatisation.
The National Consumer Council has pointed to many of the problems facing consumers when having to deal with private monopolies. Page 5 of its publication "In the Absence of Competition" states:The monopolist can charge prices higher than the consumer would pay in a competitive market and can therefore make excessive profits.The publication goes on to argue, rightly, for regulation on prices and quality and for proper penalties whenever there is a failure to abide by whatever system of regulation is agreed. The NCC wishes also to ensure that consumers are compensated for any reduction in quality. Consumers are worried that the Government's determination to please their corporate supporters means that consumers will end up with woefully inadequate safeguards. The pre and sometimes post-privatisation price rises have given us prices for certain utilities that are higher than those of our competitors, so not only consumers but industry is set to lose out in the run-up to 1992. Consumers and users are suffering because of Government actions and failings in other Departments. One example is Britain's transport network, which is crumbling because of lack of investment and a short-termist approach brought about by Government cuts and economies which turn out to be false economies when we consider the nation's long-term needs. Whether it is the decaying London suburban rail network, the lack of infrastructure linking the regions to the Channel tunnel or the chaos through bus deregulation in certain areas such as mine in Tyneside, the consumers as users of the services have to bear the consequences of lack of Government support. There is a lack of Government support not because there is no money available for such badly needed investment but because, through dogma, the Government refuse to spend it.
Mr. Tony Faye (Stockport)
Has the hon. Lady overlooked the massive injection of cash for our road system which was announced only two weeks ago by the Department of Transport?
§ Ms. Quin
I have not overlooked that. It is a bone of contention in my region in the north-east. We feel that some of the roads in our area that have been in desperate need of upgrading for many years—the Al, particularly north of Newcastle, and the A69, from Newcastle to Hexham—are not getting the cash injection that is needed. People in my region are worried because, although the announcement is welcome in certain areas, we still will not be adequately linked to the Channel tunnel. That injection of cash is nowhere near the amount that is needed if we are to compete properly in 1992.
Under the last Labour Government, there was a Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, headed by a Minister with Cabinet rank. Under the Conservative Administration, consumer affairs have been progressively downgraded, so that it is now the responsibility of a junior Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. That is an obvious illustration of the lack of importance that the Government attach to consumer affairs. Labour's current policy review again talks about a Cabinet Minister for consumers to protect them and give them rights under Government policies.
The record of the Department of Trade and Industry does not give consumers grounds for confidence that their future is safe in its hands. The Department deals with many matters that are vital to the standards, quality and reliability of the goods we buy. Pricing policy, price indications, weights and measures and labelling are all within the Department's remit. Yet it is clear that when dealing with that variety of issues the Department's instinct is always to come down in favour of voluntary action and self-regulation. Indeed, the Minister is nodding enthusiastically as I say those words.
Self-regulation seems to be the Department's watch-word. Yet consumer organisations and consumers want statutory requirements on standards and labelling that are arrived at independently of any firm or industry which in the normal commercial way has a vested interest in persuading consumers to buy its goods. The consumer wants independent and impartial information, but the Government are consistently failing to provide it.
There was great disappointment, for example, about the Goverment's action on misleading price indications, because the code was not given the full statutory backing which many would have liked. Another issue that has come to the House's attention recently is the system of determining the accuracy of weights and measures. Here, too, the Government seem intent on ignoring consumer protestations. As hon. Members will know, a private Member's Bill—the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill—is currently before the House. The Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs has declared his support for the Bill, although it represents the abandonment of a previous all-party agreement on how to change the weights and measures system. The all-party agreement was embodied in the recommendations of the Eden committee, which met three or four years ago. The committee recommended self-verification of weighing machines in certain circumstances only because the safeguards included were acceptable to industry, consumers and local authority trading standards officers.
The Bill was drafted only after consultation with industry. The Bill's promoter has, rightly, declared an interest, in that he is consultant to the National Federation of Scale and Weighing Machine Manufacturers. Although he has subsequently tabled some amendments, the Bill is 562 still unsatisfactory to consumer organisations, which rightly feel that it was the Government's job—which they were committed to do—to bring forward the recom-mendations of the Eden committee, which were agreed by all parties, in the appropriate legislative form.
Just today I have seen a report that self-regulation and the voluntary approach are to be extended to estate agents and that a voluntary code of practice is being suggested. One newspaper reports that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) has said that he will be calling for a statutory code. If he does so, he will have the Opposition's support. We believe that this is an important matter and that neither a voluntary approach nor self-regulation is appropriate. Estate agents should be obliged through legislation to act responsibly towards consumers.
Another example of the Government's obsession with the self-regulatory approach was provided by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he spoke at a recent conference about the increasingly important phenomenon of what has come to be called "green" or "environmentally conscious" consumerism. In responding to the desire of consumer organisations for a proper system of labelling which would give consumers accurate information about the environmental impact of the goods they are buying, he said that, while he understood the desire to introduce environmental labelling, he favoured a voluntary approach.
I should like an environmental labelling system to be introduced as a matter of urgency. The voluntary approach is not the answer. We need a developed form of the West German Blue Angel eco-label, which is independently assessed and in the administration of which consumer organisations and environmental groups, as well as industry, are represented. I believe that that system is funded by industry but that industry is happy to accept the independent recommendations of the body that administers the scheme.
§ Mr. Favell
Has the hon. Lady observed that environmental labelling is now proving good business to many retailers and manufacturers and that market forces are bringing about what the hon. Lady is requesting at no extra cost to the consumer, whereas if the House were to enact the legislation for which she is calling a vast army would be needed to ensure that each label contained the correct information?
§ Ms. Quin
The Blue Angel system in West Germany is funded by industry, and does not, therefore, involve Government money. In any case, such a system need not be expensive. I shall be dealing in a few minutes with the hon. Gentleman's point about industry itself becoming more environmentally conscious.
Incidentally, the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs did not respond to a question that I put to him during Trade and Industry Question Time not so long ago when I asked him his views on environmental labelling. I hope that he will take the opportunity of giving the House his views on that issue today.
It seems that at last the Government are beginning to realise some of the commercial implications in the important trend towards green consumerism. However, a great deal more needs to be done to encourage industry to respond to the boom in demand for environmentally friendly products. That will be especially important if our 563 "green" consumers are to be able to buy British goods instead of imports from, say, West Germany where green consumerism and industry are more advanced. I need hardly remind the House that we are already running a massive trade deficit with West Germany. Although the Government are beginning such a campaign and industry is starting to respond, I should like more progress. The Government have been prepared to spend many millions of pounds on glossy advertising campaigns in recent years and this is one area in which Government advertising might be welcome.
Consumer organisations are already doing a good job in making consumers aware of the environmental implications of much of what they buy as well as in pointing out the dangers of the pseudo-green claims that manufacturers sometimes make. While I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) that industry is becoming more environmentally minded, I am afraid that there is also some phoney greenery in industry. One can sometimes be tempted to buy a product which claims to be environmentally friendly but which turns out to be wrapped in unfriendly, non-biodegradable packaging. We must take a good, cool and hard look at the claims of many manufacturers to be environmentally sensitive, because theyare not always what they seem.
I am glad that there is also growth in the setting up of consumer organisations specifically to highlight environmental concerns and the need to promote green and socially responsible consumerism. I refer to the valuable work of the Women's Environmental Network, which recently produced a good report on dioxins, and to its campaign to encourage the production of chlorine-free paper products.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
On that important point, and taking up the earlier intervention of the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems is that the Government's reaction tends to be that if the market will bear the offer of a choice of dioxin-free produce, so be it, but that they are not prepared to intervene to ensure that that choice is made available? Is not that the fundamental difference between the Government's philosophy and what consumers really want?
§ Ms. Quin
I agree that that is exactly what is happening, although it is not just to help consumers and consumer organisations but because there is a vital need to protect the environment that we should be taking more interventionist action than most of us would otherwise like.
New Consumer, an organisation whose headquarters are in Newcastle, is doing research into the environmental and social implications of many of the goods and services that are currently being provided. I think that I am right in saying that the Consumer Protection Act 1987 had to be put on to the statute book rather hastily in time for the general election, and Labour Members criticised it at the time as far too weak. It already needs strengthening and updating, in line with some of the difficulties experienced by consumers since it was passed and some of the new developments, particularly the environmental developments that I have described. Better labelling is a key factor, 564 but it is also clear that EEC legislation will be increasingly relevant, and I shall refer in more detail to EEC matters later in my speech.
The consumer also needs much easier and cheaper access to legal redress. Hon. Members may remember the recent case of two sisters who were accused of shoplifting by Tesco. Although in the end they were pronounced completely innocent, they faced ruinous costs. An improvement in the legal aid arrangements is vital for consumers.
We also need a proper statutory code of advertising practice and proper powers to order the correction of misleading advertisements. That would certainly help to counter the many misleading advertisements that appear in newspapers in which loan sharks offer people easy credit without explaining to them that there is a catch, or displaying the rates of interest that they will have to pay.
As I said, agricultural produce and unprocessed foods will also need to be brought within the Act.
There are other anomalies. The Food and Drugs Act 1955 does not cover microwaved or cook-chill food. That is not surprising, but both have recently caused outbreaks of food poisoning and they should be covered.
It would be nice if the Government would announce today their help and support for the establishment of a proper, comprehensive, nationwide network of consumer advice centres. The citizens advice bureaux and many specialised advice agencies do a terrific job, as I know from my contact with them, but I am perturbed by the fact that the network of local authority consumer advice centres has been cut, largely because of the Government-imposed economies that local authorities have had to make. I am even more perturbed to learn that the Government do not even seem to keep centrally the figures relating to the number of local authority consumer advice centres or information about where they are to be found. That lack of figures was made clear in an answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown).
Some excellent consumer advice centres disappeared when the Government abolished the metropolitan county councils. That was certainly the case in Tyne and Wear, where the Tyne and Wear consumer advice centre did a very good job. The result of all these cuts is that there is now patchy provision of consumer advice, with certain regions clearly under-served. I am glad that the Labour party's proposals in recent policy documents would rectify that deficiency.
The Government should closely examine the so-called lemon laws in the United States because its consumer protection legislation could teach us a great deal. It is difficult for people in Britain to get defective goods replaced or to obtain adequate compensation. Years after the problems were first highlighted, there are still far too many cases of, for example, substandard cars being sold and then purchasers having tremendous difficulty in obtaining compensation or a replacement vehicles. There are also far too many examples of poor garage servicing, with cars sometimes being delivered back to their owners in conditions that might endanger them and even other road users.
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
The hon. Lady made a valid point about the difficulty of maintaining good consumer standards because of scarce resources in many local 565 authorities. Will she pay tribute to the local authorities' co-ordinating body on trading standards? I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister takes his responsibilities seriously —for example, he has made resources available to tackle the problem of flammability of upholstery. However, it would be ridiculous for every local authority to carry out that exercise when it could be co-ordinated by one or two local authorities. It is therefore right that proper co-ordination is acknowledged.
§ Ms. Quin
I am happy to acknowledge the importance of proper co-ordination and also the good work of the Association of Trading Standards Officers. However, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I do not agree with all of his remarks. It is astonishing that the Government are no longer even informed about the remaining number of local authority advice centres. They have not carried out a study to determine the areas where consumers need a resumption of that service.
I wish to refer to other issues which consumer organisations have raised directly with me and which I hope the Minister will consider. The Consumers Association is concerned about the lack of an adequate certification scheme for gas equipment. Before British Gas was privatised, it had to approve all domestic gas appliances to ensure that they met the appropriate British standard. As, in theory, British Gas is no longer a monopoly, there is no longer any requirement for such items as gas-fired boilers and heaters to meet any particular standard, although I understand that gas cookers are covered by some regulations. The Commission in Brussels has issued a directive that all British gas appliances must meet safety requirements, but the responsibility for that rests solely with the manufacturer as there is no requirement for independent verification. That is another example why we believe that the self-regulatory and voluntary approach is not appropriate.
The Consumers Association is also concerned about the wiring of electric plugs on home appliances. Like most consumers, I am annoyed that I have to buy a plug separately from an electric appliance. Legislation is necessary to ensure that consumers can buy appliances that are already fitted with plugs. Because of the great variety of prices for goods, without legislation consumers may still buy the appliances and plugs separately if that makes the total purchase less expensive. A survey by Which? highlighted th problem of consumers not knowing how to wire plugs correctly, which could lead to accidents.
In the latter part of my speech I will deal with consumer affairs within the EEC and, in particular, the consequence for British consumers arising from the opening of the single European market in 1992. Recently the Consumers Association and the London-based Consumers in the European Community Group produced interesting research and literature on the consumer in 1992. The publications of those bodies made important recommendations to the Government and to European institutions. I hope that, by now, the Minister has read them. When I referred to them at the last Department of Trade and Industry Question Time, he said that he had not read them. They are essential reading for many people, even before European election day on Thursday.
A Department of Trade and Industry press release refers to a speech that the Minister made before the Scottish Consumer Council. It states that the Minister 566dismissed criticisms that the Government neglected consumers in planning for the Single Market in 1992.'Nothing could be further from the truth. We recognise the Single Market is everything to do with consumers.'Mr. Forth explained that the Government's awareness campaign was deliberately targeted at businesses because it was they who needed to gear themselves up for change, whereas consumers do not have to make special plans.However, consumers certainly need to be aware of all the decisions being made in the run-up to 1992. I am sure that they wish to know whether their interests will be safeguarded. Consumer organisations certainly need to be geared up just as much as industry does, because they have the job of advising their members and the general public about legislative changes and changes that must be introduced if the consumer is to have adequate protection.
In his press release, the Minister went on to say that he wanted to explode three myths. The first concerned the statement:the Single Market will not result in lower safety standards.The second related to the statement:Furthermore, the UK will continue to negotiate to ensure that the harmonised European standards take place at the higher end of the spectrum—levelling up and not down.There is a certain inconsistency in those two myths. If it is true that standards are not to be endangered, why is it so important to negotiate to ensure that they are riot so endangered? The negotiations are important, and the results will determine whether standards are to be reduced or raised as we hope.
On 1 June, the Minister attended a meeting of the EEC Consumers Affairs Council. Given all the EEC directives that have already been agreed and those that are currently under negotiation and affect the consumer, the agenda for that meeting could have been endless. However, in answer to one of his hon. Friends at Question Time, the Minister seemed to say that such meetings were rather pointless and infrequent. None the less, some positive gains seem to have been made by the meeting.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth)
It is important that the House understands that the setting of agendas and the frequency of the meetings, as the hon. Lady probably knows better than any other hon. Member, are entirely for the presidency. The Spanish presidency chose to wait this length of time before having a meeting. The Greek presidency immediately beforehand did not choose to have a meeting with the Council of Ministers. I am sure that the hon. Lady understands that.
§ Ms. Quin
I accept partly what the Minister has said, but, given the number of directives that directly affect the consumer, I wonder whether he will now be arguing for more frequent meetings of the EEC Consumer Affairs Council than has been the case.
Some gains appear to have been made at the meeting, notably the joint position agreed by the Council of Ministers on a common system for calculating the annual percentage rate of interest under the consumer credits directive, which I welcome. However, other developments at the meeting give rise for concern. I understand that the draft directive on package travel was raised by the European Commission, but that the United Kingdom Minister was strongly opposed to the directive, even though all consumer organisations to which I have spoken are very much in favour of it, as it offers better protection for the consumer than anything at present.
567 I remind the Minister that it was not only Labour but Conservative Members of the European Parliament who, in the European Parliament supported amendments which in certain cases strengthened the directive for the benefit of the consumer. However, perhaps that is just another area where there are disagreements within the Conservative party over European issues. There certainly appears to have been a difference of view on that issue between Conservative Members of the European Parliament and the attitude adopted by the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
The hon. Lady is talking about differences of view apparently within the Conservative party on the future of the European Community. Will she confirm that the former leader of the European Parliament Labour group said:It is obvious the Common Market is utterly incapable of reforming itself. The sooner Britain gets out the better"?He said that in 1987, and that is perhaps why he was sacked from that job. However, the new leader said:The Common Market … has been a disaster for British people.Does that go along with the pro-European flavour that the Labour party is pretending to give to the British people?
§ Ms. Quin
The hon. Gentleman, of course, has used the labels loosely. I do not know whether he was here when I responded to an earlier intervention, when I said that in my speech I would be criticising certain aspects of the EEC and praising others. I believe that there is a mixture of good and bad, certainly in consumer protection. If we want to widen the debate to talk about the state of the major parties as we approach the Euopean election, I would say that the Labour party is in much better shape to fight that election, and has been much more united that the Conservative party has been during recent weeks.
Will the Minister continue to oppose the draft directive on package travel? If so, will he take national action to prevent tour operators from continuing to breach the code of the Association of British Travel Agents? The breaches of that code were highlighted recently in a report from the Office of Fair Trading. I note that the Minister said something recently about the creation of a holiday ombudsman. While I see the need for someone in authority to follow up the many complaints about package travel, I do not believe that that will in any way contradict the need for an EEC directive in the form that will most benefit consumers.
At the EEC Consumer Affairs Council on 1 June there was a worrying lack of agreement on the general resolution covering consumer protection and 1992. I have been told that our Minister was in a minority of one in disagreement on an issue which centred on EEC rules on the safety and quality of consumer products. The British view was said to mystify the other member states, in that the Minister made no attempt to find a solution that would have allowed an overall agreement. As usual, we have managed to antagonise the other member states without having achieved anything in return. Perhaps the Minister will tell us by what steps he proposes to reach agreement at the next meeting of the Council on that issue.
At the meeting the priority to be given to consumer education was also discussed. Apparently, Ministers do not disagree about the necessity for some system of 568 consumer education within the member countries, but I wonder whether the Government's recent refusal to countenance the use of the Lingua programme in schools will signify a similarly negative approach to consumer education. I believe that the better informed and educated consumers are, the better that is for our society.
There are other EEC-related issues to which I shall refer briefly. The product liability directive was agreed and is already in force, but it has not been satisfactorily implemented in the United Kingdom to the full advantage of the consumer. The development risks defence, which was a contentious issue at the time of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, has proved to be a problem in relation to the United Kingdom's implementation of that directive.
The United Kingdom should work determinedly for the adoption of a product safety directive which would underpin many of the agreements on standards and so on set within the EEC as part of the 1992 programme. Without a directive such agreements on standards will be unsatisfactory.
The current EEC standards and those to be adopted on a range of consumer products also raise different issues. I shall not go into details, but there is concern among consumers in this country about the standards relating to refrigerators—that is particularly important because of recent worries about food—cooker surface temperatures, electric room heaters, spin extractors, ultra-violet skin treatment appliances, hedge trimmers, chain saws and so on. A tremendous variety of goods and products are part of the discussions on the harmonisation of standards in 1992. The list of issues related to consumer protection is long, but the conclusion is obvious. In all the regulations and the negotiations on safety standards, those standards should be set at the highest level.
§ Mr. Favell
We are living in a fast changing world. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that the EEC should set standards for every product on the market now or in the future? If so, she is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. It is impossible for every product to be examined and a standard set before its manufacture and retail.
§ Ms. Quin
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that a more general system for standardisation has already been agreed in Europe. Within that general system one must try to ensure that the standards are as high as possible. That need also reinforces my earlier point about the need for a product safety directive to underpin many of the broader agreements on standards that have been reached.
The EEC cannot simply be about a Europe open for business; it must be about consumers and society. The Community must benefit all citizens within Britain and Europe. The Government may protest that they are concerned to see standards for consumers set as high as possible, but the Government's opposition to recent EEC initiatives to improve the health and safety of workers is well known. I believe that the health and safety of consumers cannot be anything but a related issue.
The organisations concerned with the well-being of the consumer need to be consulted more about all aspects of 1992 legislation. The Consumers Association and the consumers of the European Community group made that point strongly recently. Consumers must be formally involved in the European standard-making process. From 569 contact with the European institutions, many of us know that many of the EEC decisions are taken by officials behind closed doors. Therefore, it can be extremely difficult for consumer organisations and others to have an adequate input in such decisions.
We are all consumers, and when talking about consumer protection and rights we are talking about something which is vital to a civilised society in which commercial forces operate for the general good, not to the public detriment. Therefore, concern for the consumer is an essential part of concern for society as a whole. Given this Government's record, I do not think it will surprise anyone that it will become increasingly clear that the Labour party is the natural ally of the consumer, to which the consumer will increasingly look in the future.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
I shall comment on one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), and address one or two agricultural issues. In doing so, I declare an interest to the House because I am the parliamentary adviser to the Produce Packaging and Marketing Association.
In Committee, we had an interesting debate on a European directive on product labelling in the produce industry. We raised issues such as Alar and the other chemicals which the hon. Lady mentioned. The controversy surrounding Alar is a classic example of how information emanating from the consumer industry in the United States, where there were clearly differences of opinion about whether Alar was as bad as one group said, was suddenly picked up by the consumer body here and led to a major scare. When it examined the scientific evidence which lay behind the scare, our own committee on pesticides, which is an independent body with no commercial or Government connections other than the fact that it reports to a Government Department, found no scientific evidence for banning Alar for the treatment of fruit.
The debate did not go on to expose the wider issue of the benefit to the consumer of using Alar. It ensures that apples stay on trees and do not fall off too early and means that the consumer is not presented with a poor quality, bruised fruit which may have other disadvantageous aspects. A hint of a problem is seized on without scientific evidence and promulgated as a new gospel. The scientific evidence surrounding Alar suggested that, for an individual to obtain the same level of input of Alar as did the mouse with the tumours, he or she would have to eat 25,000 times the normal human consumption of apples. I cite that as an example to show that realistic and scientific evidence must lie behind our discussion of many of these consumer issues.
Consumerism touches on the important issue of information. Often, when a consumer has to make a choice about goods, he or she has to fight a battle against ignorance. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East was strong on solutions, but weak on how we could improve the information flow to the consumer. She also gave the impression that we have little consumer protection and that what there is is utterly ineffective. She made it sound as if we were standing at the abyss of consumer abuse, and that she, on behalf of the Opposition, had all the solutions. That is palpably not true.
570 I have looked for facts and figures to aid me on the subject of information. An article in The Sunday Times of 6 November 1988 showed that:According to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) 40 per cent. of people in the sample of 2,000 did not know the seller is responsible for correcting matters if, say, an electric kettle does not work.If we are still at the basic stage of educating the consumer about his or her rights under existing law, I see little hope for the panopoly of legislation suggested by the Opposition in this debate as a solution to the mind-boggling range of problems before us.
§ Mr. Jack
I am not blaming the consumer for this. I am pointing out that one of the key aspects in any consumer transaction is information. Even if European directives or regulations covered every item mentioned by the hon. Lady, could we say with confidence that the consumer would quickly become aware of them and act on them? A short time ago, in November 1988, 40 per cent. of a large sample did not know their basic consumer rights, so I doubt whether a lot of new legislation would take us any further forward.
I note also that the present consumer legislation ventures into the realms of second-hand goods. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 deals with that point. Many of us have received letters from our constituents complaining about defects in products that they have bought, especially second-hand products, yet the Sale of Goods Act already protects people in this respect.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
Would it not have been better if the Government had spent millions of pounds on advertising on television and explaining consumers' rights instead of publicising the privatisations of the water and electricity industries in the past few weeks?
§ Mr. Jack
The hon. Gentleman might have made a more telling point if he had paid tribute to the £50 million that the Government put into trading standards and the £8 million grant-in-aid that the Department of Trade and Industry gives to the citizens advice bureaux. So it is not true to say that we are not meeting our financial responsibilities to look after the consumer. The Securities and Investments Board has produced a video and booklet discussing its own affairs.
It can be seen from these examples that consumerism is a complicated business. It covers every sort of purchase of goods or services, and it takes a lot of effort to get through the basics that we already have. I fear for what may happen if the line adopted by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East is pursued; we shall have yet another Euro mountain—this time, a paper mountain of ideas that may be well intentioned but are weak when they come to be applied.
I have some limited experience of consumer affairs—at one time I was employed by Marks and Spencer and had to deal with consumers' inquiries. It was interesting to see how even that reputable business encountered the problem, when dealing with consumers, of working out whose the responsibility is when something goes wrong. We had to point out, for example, that inadequate attention to washing instructions on shirts might result in holes appearing in them, and that was not the company's 571 fault. If we take some of the hon. Lady's arguments to their logical conclusion, industry will be made responsible for every fault, which would be wrong.
From the front line of a retail establishment we observe a strong relationship between the price of goods and services and their quality. The Conservative Government can take credit for having increased earnings by record amounts. We have reduced taxation and put more money back in the pocket of the consumer, so that, generally speaking, he can afford a higher standard of goods.
§ Mr. Jack
If the hon. Gentleman had worked in a retail environment as I have, in Marks and Spencer and latterly in the produce industry, he would have clearly understood that we are upgrading. When did he last visit his local Tesco? The range of goods on display there and in Sainsburys has vastly improved in quality compared with a few years ago because people can now aford to pay for quality.
Inherent in the Opposition's argument is the seductive idea that consumers can be safeguarded. People do not like buying goods that fall apart and are inherently poor in quality and safety. They quickly say, "No, that is not for me." They prefer to buy a good branded item that has been proven in service and they buy it from a reputable retailer. In that way, the market place can best serve the consumer in giving adequate consumer protection.
The laws on goods of a merchantable quality start to open the door to ways in which people can obtain redress if poor quality goods are offered. I had an example of this when I bought my wife a handbag which fell to pieces. After much remonstrating with the shopkeeper, I took him to the small claims court and won the action on the ground that the goods were of unmerchantable quality. I know that the existing legislation works and provides good and cheap redress for the consumer who runs into a problem. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East about the expense of the law. The area of the small claim is the one that most often hits the consumer, and it is the area in which the consumer most often seeks protection through the law.
I have been involved in an interesting area of consumer protection. For the past 18 months I have been working with members of the House Builders Federation to produce a code of practice to regulate the area of private sheltered accommodation for the elderly. It deals with a classic consumer problem that started in an industry that was growing rapidly and had growing pains. Its management and sales style led to problems in that people were getting a deal that was not quite the one that they thought they should be getting. Service charges were going up more rapidly than people had anticipated and the quality of the service in the industry was not as good as they had expected.
We worked first with Age Concern to identify the problem more clearly and with the House Builders Federation to produce a code of practice. On 27 June, before the whole of the industry and with the help of the National House-Building Council, we shall launch a voluntary code of practice to regulate some of the excesses in sheltered accommodation. The code will give excellent 572 protection to buyers. We have interlocked that code of practice with the rules and regulations of the National House-Building Council on housing quality. If a house builder does not acknowledge the National House-Building Council rules, he cannot get the "build" mark and without that he cannot sell his house of flat. That cunning interlocking of an existing regulatory mechanism in house building with our code of practice on sheltered accommodation will provide for the first time truly meaningful protection against abuse in that area.
There will be an element of discipline because somebody who buys sheltered accommodation in a development and finds that it is not being run in accordance with the good practice in our code will be able to go to the National House-Building Council which will be able to discipline its members. That discipline puts the house builder in a difficult position, because he may not be able to sell the property that he has built. I put that example before the House because the hon. Member for Gateshead, East condemned any kind of voluntary code of practice. The work that we have carried out in this area and on the many other voluntary codes which are registered by the Office of Fair Trading under the 1987 Act is a useful and effective way to go forward in consumer protection.
In relation to the 1987 Act, I have mentioned our code of practice. One of the key features in the Act is the question of misleading price indicators. That is a valuable addition to our consumer protection law. It means that for the first time in sheltered accommodation people will not be able to make false claims about the way that service charges are likely to go. That is a good example of a piece of general—not specific—legislation that helps a group of consumers. Would those consumers be aware of that protection if it were not for the information emanating from my code of practice? It has generated much newspaper comment, and I pay tribute in particular to The Daily Telegraph which has assiduously followed through on the code. Newspapers have a vital role to play in putting forward such consumer information, because they reach a large number of people and can get the message across quickly and effectively so that people can react accordingly.
It never fails to amaze me that we still have the confidence trickster, or the pressurising salesman. Many consumer problems that we are seeking to address result from such people. We have all heard stories of double-glazing salesmen saying, "If you don't buy today, you will lose your 25 per cent. discount." Those are the main bones of contention, rather than some of the more sophisticated consumer arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East.
The hon. Lady mentioned the interesting case of the produce industry and Europe. There is already European legislation on common grading standards. All produce sold as class 1 in Europe has to follow these rules and regulations. They are down there, they are agreed to, they are in statute. Has the hon. Lady ever bought a bruised apple, a soft tomato or a flabby lettuce? I imagine that she is honest enough to admit that she may have found such defective produce. However, the EEC grading standards say that such produce should not be sold. The point is that we need good, human input to make the standards work. That is why people such as trading standards officers and Ministry inspectors have an important role to play.
573 Above all, the trust that the buyer and the seller have in one another is what will determine whether rules and regulations are followed through, and followed assiduously. That is the best form of protection for the consumer. It will mean that if leading retailers find that products are not in line with their specifications they will take action straight away. They will not need an inspector. However, the human input is required to make the rules and regulations work. The hon. Lady put forward many specific ideas, but I wonder whether we shall have the resources to make them work. I know that what made our rules and regulations work in the produce industry was our agreement that we wanted to make a high quality product, because if we did not, our customers would not buy it. That is straightforward and simple.
Other common European regulations work to our mutual benefit. The hon. Lady's suggestion that there should be a European statement on safety can be compared with the reality of what happens in the motor industry. Cars have been produced for a long time, so we have construction and use regulations that lay down the technical specifications against which cars can be built. They are highly geared towards producing safe motor cars.
What will happen in 1992 will lead us further down that road, because we shall then have common standards. That is the right way to go, rather than the way in which the hon. Lady is pointing us. Making general statements about safety in a technical sector such as that of motor cars is no substitute for the detailed objectives of our construction and use regulations and the pan-European requirements for cars on, for example, exhaust emissions. Specific and detailed regulations are worthwhile, but general statements tend to be meaningless.
The hon. Lady's speech gave the impression that there is no legislation on safety. I am glad to see that she now shakes her head, because that underpins the point that I am making. In many sectors—for example, motor car manufacture—excellent legislation deals with the consumer protection and safety issues to which she drew the attention of the House.
I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to look at a few specific points because no one can claim that consumer protection is perfect. The Consumers Association magazine Which? does an excellent job in highlighting the continuing need for activity, and local citizens advice bureaux are a useful source of information. I work closely with my local office in Lytham St. Annes. It keeps me fully appraised of important factors.
I am concerned about one or two points in particular. One is consumer credit. Many people, perhaps through lack of education and information, take on consumer credit obligations that they later cannot meet. I was disappointed when the previous Minister would not take up an idea that I put to him. It was that everybody, on taking out a consumer credit agreement, would be given a booklet laying down precisely the nature of the agreement that he was taking on and the obligations that it gave him. It is all too easy to get credit from a shop. Those who may not be as financially aware as others suffer when they take on such obligations without due notice of what they have let themselves into. The credit industry could do something like this itself, but to make certain that it does it should be required to give the information to the consumer. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—but the buyer must be aware to beware.
§ Mr. Favell
Consumer credit is an issue that exercises all our minds and I regularly come across not only young people but parents who are worried about their children who get into debt. As my hon. Friend will be aware, as an infant, which one is until one is 18, one is not responsible for repaying debts. However, once one has reached the age of 18 and is free to vote and fight for one's country, one is responsible for getting out of debt, if one is in debt. That should be spelt out loud and clear.
§ Mr. Jack
I thank my hon. Friend. I do not disagree with his solution. However, I am concerned about the question of information, and I should like to see more information made available when people take out credit. There are financial implications and obligations in taking out a life assurance policy, and there is a cooling off period during which one can decide whether the policy is exactly what one wants and one can study the implications of one's signature on the bottom line.
Some interesting things have been said by Opposition Members about guarantees. I notice that in 1986 the Office of Fair Trading estimated that the amount spent by consumers on unsatisfactory goods was £3.5 billion on cars and accessories and £346 million on household appliances. I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily by reviewing the question of guarantees, but the Department could do much good for consumers by looking at the terms of guarantees, particularly those that say, "Woodworm treatment: guaranteed for 20 or 25 years." How many companies will be around for such a time to honour long-term guarantees? We all look to guarantees as a reassurance that the product will do the job that it says it will. We should look at the bonding of guarantees, and I know that such a move is supported by the National Consumer Council.
Let me pray in aid of my argument on the general subject of the direction of Community law on consumer protection a speech made by Sir Gordon Borrie which was published in the Journal of Business Law in March 1988. I hope that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East will have a chance to look at it. Sir Gordon says that, originally, the Commission tried to introduce many directives on specific functions, but that they were not taken up very much. He went on to say that the Community developed, in a way that he approved, its approach to more general statements on the subject of consumer law. That is an important observation, by one who sees that as a welcome direction in which the Community should go. It also underlines why the Government are sometimes the odd man out. They see Europe trying to be prescriptive and detailed when what it needs to do is to set the scene, point out the problem and then allow the individual Government, and then the individual state, to solve the problems. The most appropriate and Conservative way of proceeding is to trust the individual, to give him information and to provide him with a framework of protection, which is what the Government have done. I am certain that on Thursday people will take that view rather than agree with the hon. Member for Gateshead, East.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
May I argue one specific case and cause—the need for a complete and separate department of consumer affairs? About 15 years ago, I was Minister of State for the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. I shall argue for a return to the 575 basic concept but not the form. I shall be relatively non-political, and while I shall criticise the Government I shall also be critical of the period for which I and my colleagues were responsible for consumer protection.
It is important to emphasise a point that tends to be forgotten. Implicit in talk of the consumer society is that the consumer is king. The history of the consumer society has been one of erosion of the consumers' power in the market place and of an increasing need for the Government or, now, the EEC as a sort of continental authority to back up the consumer's diminishing power. Long gone is the day of the local market, when local producers and local sellers knew local buyers and were dependent on their reputations in the local market. At that time, there was parity of status between individuals. By the nature of the highly desirable changes that had to occur if we were to move to the levels of affluence that the western world now enjoys, a market has inevitably evolved in which that relationship altered massively against the power of the consumer. Mass marketing and mass production removed the decision-maker from the purchaser, making it more difficult for consumers to make representations that matter and count.
Some of the new techniques that are used, such as the use of quality control, have led to the market place discovering errors and, if enough pressure is applied, suppliers putting them right. A quality control system that checks one in every 10 products detects a mechanical error in the system, but the converse is that there is a one in 10 chance of discovering an inadvertent human error. Statistically, such human errors pass through the system more than is identified. If a remote marketing company or remote international manufacturer is involved, it is difficult for the consumer to obtain redress.
§ Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)
Is not the remoteness that the right hon. Gentleman is describing covered by the most basic of our Sale of Goods Acts, which allows a consumer who has bought a defective product to return to the local shop where he bought it and demand redress rather than have to try to seek redress from a remote manufacturing company? The process is rather closer to home and easier for the consumer than the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
§ Mr. Williams
It can be as difficult to obtain redress from a mass marketer as it is from a mass producer. I have written many letters to firms that have branches nationally on behalf of my constituents, because sometimes it is very difficult for them to obtain their legal rights. That is not a political point but a reality of the market place.
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is difficult for the consumer to know whether he is making a good or bad purchase decision at the time of purchase because of the increasing complexity of products. Domestic appliances are becoming increasingly complex, products such as foodstuffs have increasingly complex additives and there are technical problems with the irradiation of food. The complexity of products makes it more difficult for the consumer to make a considered judgment about the version of a product that he should buy. It is important, therefore, that there is back-up to 576 ensure that if something subsequently goes wrong with a product the consumer can be adequately assured that it will be put right.
The House has had to take action against even reputable international producers, who have not hesitated to use the complexities of the law to shelter from what consumers consider to be their rights. One or two hon. Members who are present today were present when we discussed exclusion clauses. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) referred to guarantees. I well remember the exclusion clauses that we had to make illegal whereby major companies were offering people guarantees that, if they were silly enough to sign and return, removed the rights that they already had at law and conferred on them a lesser set of rights.
The use and type of the market, the nature of products and the increasing sophistication of those who want to protect their selfish interests against those of the consumer have diminished consumers' rights. Further, we are moving increasingly into a credit economy—I shall not make any political points about that, tempting though it is —one of the inevitable effects of which is that if someone makes a mistake they may pay for it long after they are able to get any use from a faulty product.
It is clear that a countervailing force is needed in favour of the consumer. The hon. Member for Fylde referred to Sir Gordon Borrie. I was in the middle of an interview with Shirley Williams to appoint him when I was called out by Jim Callaghan and switched from the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection to the Department of Industry. Despite the shortcomings of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, for a while it reversed the power balance within Whitehall between the consumer and producer to such an extent that the Confederation of British Industry began to squeal that protection had moved too much in favour of the consumer.
I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer affairs has found his work fascinating. What I am about to say is not a personal attack on his role, because one must first be an Under-Secretary and then a Minister of State before becoming a Secretary of State. Since the Conservative party came to office, there has been a progressive erosion of the protection for the consumer that was provided in the 1970s. We saw first the abolition of the separate Department of Prices and Consumer Protection and then the subsuming of consumer responsibility within one of the major industrial sponsoring Departments. Within that Department we saw the downgrading of ministerial status so that, instead of the job going to a separate Cabinet Minister, it was given to a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Under-Secretaries of State can argue their corners belligerently —I am sure that that is true of the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs—but the final say rests with senior Ministers. Those who have been members of the Government know the close relationship that exists in a sponsoring Department between the sponsored industries, their officials and their Ministers. It is difficult for a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to win the argument in an enormous Government Department, with a hierarchy of Ministers of State who are responsible for different sectors of the economy and a Secretary of State who believes that 95 per cent. of his responsibility is directed towards industry and commerce.
§ Mr. Forth
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that important changes have taken place in the Department since he was such a distinguished member of the ministerial team? The sponsoring relationship has been radically changed as well so that there is now, deliberately, no direct involvement by the Department with industries in the way that he may recall from his days in the Department. That may well have changed things greatly in the context of the right hon. Gentleman's argument.
§ Mr. Williams
I well understand that point. I understand that the sponsoring divisions no longer exist, but an analysis of the work of civil servants within the Department would show that their work time is devoted more to industry and commerce than to consumer interests.
The sponsoring Department even appoints the consumer watchdogs. The Department of Energy, which has a close relationship with the gas, electricity and coal industries, appoints the members of Ofgas. Because of technology investment, the Department of Trade and Industry has a close relationship with British Telecom. It appoints the members of Oftel. That is not to say that Professor Carsberg is not a formidable man and that he will not do a good job, but the person who is responsible for consumer interests is aware that the Minister who decides whether to reappoint him must consider the demand by the industry that his office is intended to monitor.
The hon. Member for Fylde argued a case for self-regulation and I was interested in the instance that he put forward. The reality is, however, that a voluntary code is only as strong as the coverage of the trade association that has underwritten it and that association's will to enforce it. If a trade association covers only 60 per cent. of the suppliers of a particular good or service, another 40 per cent. are outside its scope. That makes it difficult for the trade association to take a tough line with its members, because they are likely to say, "We will do exactly the same. We will go outside."
It is not just that responsibility for consumer protection has been relegated—it is highly fragmented between Departments. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for food standards. Even if we accept that Ministers want to ensure that food is safe and standards are high, the Department is automatically laid open to allegations of whitewash the moment a major case arises and it appears to be dilatory. In terms of self-interest, it makes sense to take those responsibilities from that Department and give them to a separate Minister for Consumer Affairs.
The Treasury is responsible for credit policy. Incongruously, the Department of Employment—a matter of great interest to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory}—is responsible for tourism. That is an anomalous allocation of responsibilities. The Department of Energy has responsibility for gas and electricity. The Department of the Environment has water responsibilities. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for safety standards in respect of weights and measures and such large sectors of industry as British Telecom. The Home Office has responsibility for standards in television, radio and the media generally. The Department of Transport has responsibility for consumer interests in relation to those companies that supply ferry, air and rail services. Legal services come within the Lord Chancellor's 578 domain. Taking a wider view of the consumer, all those instances ignore the consumer element in education, health and so on. There has been fragmentation of responsibility for consumer interests in so many Departments that it is difficult to get a cohesive and coherent consumer strategy.
In 1974, we had the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. It did a worthwhile job within a limited context. By creating a Department, the Government pulled together people with a single objective, but the Department failed because its scope was too narrow. Without the price element, it did not merit the status of a Department. Originally, the prices side took half the Department's work but, as that became less important, it was clear that the Department was not viable as an administrative entity. That happened not because the concept of an independent Department was wrong but because the Department was too narrowly based.
One of my first battles in the Department took place when I wanted to take responsibility for safety from the Home Office, which, in fairness, the Home Office was only too happy to relinquish. I lost the battle to get tourism from the Department of Trade. The Department flatly refused to surrender to the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection responsibility for package tours, hotel standards and so on. Clearly, those aspects should have been covered by a separate Department.
It is time that we stepped back, looked again at the consumer functions that are submerged throughout Whitehall and considered which could and should be extracted—not which ones the Departments are willing to give up—and given separate Cabinet status through a Department of Consumer Affairs. Such a Department would have the muscle to match the powers of' the sponsoring Departments. It will be even more important after 1992 when we have to struggle with Brussels as well as Whitehall.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
I welcome the opportunity to debate this key subject and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) on her perspicacity in pursuing it. For a long time, I have had an interest in consumer matters. In the 1983–87 Parliament, I took the initiative through a private Member's Bill to pioneer the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, which became law.
Although Conservative Members may be full of moans and groans—and I shall add to those shortly—I must say at the outset how delighted I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs and his colleagues take the matter so seriously. I want to draw the House's attention particularly to the fact that the Government acted with great speed a short time ago in introducing regulations to ensure that much safer upholstery was used for furniture. With the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), I expected to have to carry out an all-party campaign, which might have taken years to achieve such a regulation. However, the carpet was removed from under us and he and I were delighted by the speed with which the Department of Trade and Industry acted.
The Government have protected the consumer and the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is but one of the initiatives taken by the Department of Trade and Industry. Although I welcome the debate, I deplore the tone of the motion. I 579 recall the Labour party's lack of interest for a long time in consumer matters when it was in office and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the motion.
The Consumer Protection Act 1987 exempts secondhand goods from the general safety requirements. Although some second-hand goods such as electrical goods are covered by specific safety legislation, others are not. The safety of second-hand and repaired tyres is wholly uncontrolled and there is considerable evidence that potentially dangerous tyres are being sold to the public without any warning or advice about previous use or, more important, major repairs.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East will recall that section 14 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 deals with:False or misleading statements as to services".Section 14 has proved virtually unworkable because it requires a level of proof far in excess of that required by other trading standards legislation. It was a Labour party initiative, but it has not worked in practice although trading standards officers have tried to make it work. The Labour party also scratched at the surface of major issues, such as misdescribed holidays, which I shall speak about in detail in a moment. Do the Government intend to review the provisions and to bring them into line with section 1 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which applies to all goods?
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East referred briefly to loan sharks and I wholly concur with her remarks. Too many people are getting into debt with second or third mortgages. I am concerned, as I am sure you are, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you have read the national press today, to see that some hon. Members are trying to persuade the Minister to remove warning statements such as "Failure to maintain payments may mean you forfeit your house." That warning should be displayed by all reputable bodies to those seeking a loan. I am surprised that certain finance houses have been trying to persuade hon. Members to have such warnings removed.
Another important matter is shop notices. I was appalled to hear about certain notices in Winchester, to see them in Coney street in York, and in other places, advertising closing-down sales, but without any apparent intention to close down. I remember that a jeweller's shop in Regent street claimed that for some 10 or 12 years. However, in Winchester, the notice said that it was only four days until the closing down sale and another was written in similar terms. When are those shops intending to close down? Will it be next week, next month or the year 2000? Shops can continue with such notices and keep refreshing them. As long as no malice is intended, members of the public can be hoodwinked. If they are not familiar with a town or city, they may believe that they are entering a shop where prices have been reduced artificially because it is closing down.
I want now to turn the spotlight on the travel trade, in view of its importance, and its lack of response to complaints. The trade's constant inability to take action has seriously undermined consumer confidence. After the purchase of a car, a holiday is probably the most expensive regular item bought out of a family budget. Travel agents and operators alike market dreams that rarely reach expectations. In 1977, fewer than 4 million package holidays were sold. The growth in package holidays has 580 been so dramatic that Britain's tour operators expect to offer just under 14 million charter holidays with a value of £3.7 billion in the year to the end of March 1990.
However, consumer satisfaction has hit rock bottom. The Office of Fair Trading reports that as many as one in five people make a formal complaint about their package holiday and that 40 per cent. of foreign trips are plagued by difficulties. Part III of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which came into force on 1 March this year, presumably gives consumers more protection over pricing. The guidelines state:Travel agents should make sure that correct price indication for holidays is made clear to consumers before booking.Our travel agents would do well to have those guidelines placed before every clerk,in every booking office, whether Lunn Poly, Thomas Cook, the Co-operative, Hogg Robinson or whichever, and to be reminded of them every 10 minutes of the day for a good month. Do the guidelines mean that consumers should be given accurate prices with no hidden extras?
§ Mr. Gregory
The hon. Lady has pre-empted my remarks. I give hearty support to that directive, which does not go far enough.
I want to deal now with the problem of inaccurate fares. Travel agents frequently fail to find the lowest fare. In a survey carried out by Which? published in May, 83 per cent. of travel agents quoted the wrong fare. I want to stress for the record that the figure was not 8.3 per cent. but 83 per cent. The agents were not asked a difficult question. They were asked to quote the cheapest scheduled air fare to Geneva, Paris or Brussels. Only 17 per cent. of agents found the cheapest fare. Some quoted more than £82 too much, either through incompetence or through instructions to quote only the fares of certain airlines.
Most operators' forms insist that insurance is taken out at the time of booking and not a minute later, and suggest that otherwise the form in invalid. They require the consumer to accept that, unless they tick a box to the contrary—
§ Mr. Favell
I bow to my hon. Friend's superior knowledge on consumer affairs and, in particular, congratulate him on being a pioneer in consumer legislation in recent years. However, does he agree that it is fair to point out that Britain is a European leader in the provision of cheap package tour holidays? One hears regularly of people from abroad flying with scheduled air fares to this country to take advantages of the many offers here. Are not the reasons why the industry is so successful the fact that tour operators have entered into voluntary agreements and the activities of a private organisation, the Consumers Association, and Which?, its journal?
§ Mr. Gregory
My hon. Friend may be correct to say that the industry has the greatest proportion of sales, but it also has the greatest number of complaints. Rarely do people go back to the agent who has booked their passage. I recall seeing a cartoon recently of an individual in a travel agents who was asked by the clerk where he wanted to go. 581 He said that he would like to go on holiday somewhere close to his baggage. That does not strike me as wholly inappropriate.
I have already referred to the difficulties with travel insurance forms. In addition, the cover is inadequate and the premiums are unacceptable. Holiday insurance premiums are usually higher than any broker would obtain and the cover is not as extensive. Exclusion clauses apply if someone becomes redundant or pregnant after booking a holiday, but that booking could have been made many months before the intended holiday. Therefore, the question of liability must be considered.
I also draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that many agents are either misinformed or unimaginative. If a consumer purchases a product, it should serve the purpose intended. There is little point in recommending a hotel or venue with no lift or in an area with steep hills for someone who is physically disabled, because such a recommendation could mean that that person is confined to just a few rooms of the hotel.
I do not wish to restrict my remarks entirely to the retail sector and to the travel agents because they often say, "That is not our problem—not in our back yard. The difficulty is with the tour operator." Tour operators have a cavalier approach, often cancelling holidays outright or changing dates. I shall give an example. A couple from Tamworth booked a holiday in Turkey with lntasun. It was cancelled. They were offered an earlier date but could not take it. The holiday was supposed to be a celebration. They chose to take a holiday in Scotland instead and I am jolly pleased that they did so.
Tour operators also change the timing of journeys. I know of pensioners who booked a holiday in Corfu with Horizon specifically because the tour was to depart at 1.40 in the afternoon and return at 8 o'clock at night. However, within days of the intended departure, those people learnt that they were to leave at 11.25 in the evening and return home at 5.40 in the morning. Understandably, they cancelled because the new arrangements represented a quite separate contract from the one that they had entered into.
Many people would like to use their local airport, which makes more sense than bussing people halfway across England. It was for that reason that a family with young children and an elderly aunt chose a holiday that started from Luton, their local airport. However, the operator switched it to Gatwick, a one and a half hour train journey away.
There is also the vexed matter of surcharges, which are not explained and which are operated on a maverick system from one operator to another. Indeed, some firms quote different surcharges for the same holiday. Kuoni Travel Ltd., which normally has a very good reputation, produced separate brochures that quoted different sterling rates for the same holiday. Therefore, people on the same package could face different surcharges—could anything be more ludicrous than that? Yet one faces an uphill struggle if one wants the trade body, the Association of British Travel Agents, to take effective action.
There is also the problem of hotel changes. One can find the chosen destination to be fully booked once one is abroad. I know that ground handlers try to help by putting people in cheaper accommodation for say three nights and then switching their hotel or making the facilities of the intended hotel available later, although they may be four streets away.
582 Holidaymakers travelling abroad expect a high standard of safety in the hotels and apartments in which they spend their holidays. However, the safety levels all too often fall well short of those required in the United Kingdom. I am sure that many hon. Members regularly watch the Esther Rantzen programme on Sundays and will have been appalled to learn of potential hazards such as lifts without internal doors, inadequate railings on stair and balconies, the lack of life-saving equipment at swimming pools and dangerours cots. A list of consumer dissatisfactions would be longer than a month's supply of Hansard, yet operators continually seek to get out of the problems by saying, "Take your claim to the ground handler in the country in which you suffered on that holiday." Clearly, United Kingdom operators and United Kingdom agents should accept their responsibilities.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes
My hon. Friend has made some valuable and important points, especially about safety. Has he received many complaints, and has he any reflections, about the other side of the coin—the medical care that people seem to be denied by so many companies? Many of the company representatives seem to deny the people in their charge access to the medical care that is available or that should be available from the expensive insurance that those people have taken out. Such representatives are risking the lives of the people who put their trust in them.
§ Mr. Gregory
I echo my hon. Friend's remarks. Ground handlers seem to be ignorant of the E111 form and its uses. They seem constantly to depend on the travel insurance that has been taken out and do not provide the adequate safeguards to which most consumers are entitled unless the holidaymakers have taken out a more expensive policy with an organisation such as Europ Assistance, which is again to the benefit of the travel agent, when such safeguards could and should have been organised more properly at the beginning of the process.
When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies to the debate, I hope that he will at least confirm that he is unhappy about safety levels and that he would like to see greater responsibility from the tour operators and agents. I hope that he will call on them to ensure that they accept liability, because operators cannot continue to shirk that important point. The regular horror stories in all our postbags would not be so intense if the travel trade took its responsibilities seriously and did not make so many errors in the first place. It should be prompt in offering proper compensation.
Far too many operators try the hard-sell through glossy brochures and have no compunction about cancelling holidays outright or offering different destinations, departure times, airports and flight times.
The message that appears to be coming through is that, although one may have thought that one had entered into a contract, one cannot be sure if, when and where one is going on holiday.
Much of the anger and frustration could be deflected if the travel trade offered adequate compensation. Two tour giants, Thomson Holidays and Horizon, last year launched "no cancellation" offers. I am sure that with his laissez-faire approach my hon. Friend would say that they are splendid companies to do so. That offer seemed to be a guarantee that arrangements would be honoured and that the small print would not be invoked. However, 583 consumers booking with those companies already know that that offer is not worth the paper that it is printed on because the companies have been sliding out of their responsibilities, offering as little as £15 compensation. That is derisory and it ill becomes their press officers to have made so much of their approach last year.
Tour operators have had their chance in voluntary codes of conduct and have been found lacking all the way along. The time has come for some Government intervention. It is because Government action is called for that I turn now to the EEC draft directive on package travel. It contains a great deal of commonsense and even the Association of British Travel Agents, which is the main body for both agents and operators in the travel trade, has stated that itaccepts that there is a need for additional protection for EC travellers.That is quite a statement from ABTA, which rarely admits anything. I am delighted that it has accepted that point even though, in its consultation documents to the Minister, it has tried to erode each point of the draft directive. I am glad of that admission from ABTA because we need some redress and the consumer, whom we are trying to support in this debate, needs help.
Press comments have suggested that my hon. Friend the Minister would like a package holiday ombudsman. Indeed, the consumer must have statutory rights which could, by all means, be backed up by a trade body. An ombudsman would be welcome, but we need a trade that is willing and anxious to participate and the holiday trade seems reluctant to do so.
The draft directive calls for compensation to holiday makers who have reasonable complaints. ABTA's submission states:Many of the risks resulting from the Directive would be uninsurable.I wonder whether ABTA has heard of Lloyd's of London. Perhaps we could introduce the two parties to each other because there is no such word as "uninsurable".
I remember debating insurance with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) when discussing the major consumer legislation of the previous Parliament. We discussed covering the liability for pharmaceutical risks, the extent to which consumers were exposed to risks with new pharmaceutical products and the extent to which the risk was insurable. The answer is that it was insurable; Lloyd's is prepared to underwrite the risk. It is unrealistic, and unbecoming, for a great tour industry not to fulfil its responsibilities properly.
ABTA says that consumers can only realistically expect an organiser to use his best endeavours and have third party liability, which would be limited. In other words, ABTA seeks to transfer liability to anyone other than itself—to the ground handler or to the consumer, perhaps, for having been unfortunate enough to book a package holiday in that particular place. ABTA is shirking its responsibility.
Let us consider the objections. The travel trade says that it is reluctant to offer compensation or take responsibility for the difference in price of the holiday if the price has increased by more than 2 per cent. Other industries quote forward, and stick to their quotes. Take the example of the motor car industry. One may book a new motor car three or four months in advance. The price 584 may change, but a contract has been entered into and the motor trade honourably allows the purchase to take place at the earlier price.
ABTA says that bland and unhelpful expressions would enter the brochures—for example,There are sporting facilities usually available.But that is all that the consumer gets now. Virtually no operator and few agents reveal information about noise. One rarely knows, for example, whether a hotel is close to a busy road. Then there is proximity to the beach. I have yet to see a brochure that properly informs its readers whether it is a sand or a shingle beach. Few say whether there are lifts in the property or set out costs of using a swimming pool, towels or a sunbed. Anyone who has been to the Mediterranean will be aware that war almost breaks out on the beaches between the British and the Germans over the availability of sunbeds. One may discover unexpectedly that there are no shops at the airport. That is one problem that Intourist faces, as I discovered when I had the pleasure of visiting Moscow and Leningrad over Easter. For someone with a young family, it is vital to be able to find soft drinks at the airport, especially if one is to be held there for three or four hours or, as in my case, five hours. We went without refreshment.
What compensation do operators offer for such delays? I cannot find a brochure that offers a penny until 12 or more hours have elapsed. Imagine that. A holidaymaker may go to the airport an hour or two before the required time for the flight and then may have to wait 11 of the 12 hours without compensation. The start or end of a holiday should not be ruined by excessive delays such as that, and we need compensation for shorter delays. In the case of someone who has gone on a weekend break, half a day—a large proportion of the time available—will already have been used, yet he will be offered little or no compensation.
In view of that catalogue of complaints, it is not surprising that Blackpool attracts more British visitors that Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey put together, and long may that last. Operators offering the splendid United Kingdom destinations operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Holiday packages in Great Britain and Ulster are first class, and all concerned take their responsibilities seriously, but those selling primarily overseas lack consumer commitment.
We have waited too long for the overseas package holiday trade to put its house in order. Now is the time to act, and every traveller will journey with confidence this summer if he knows that the British Government have insisted on a fair deal.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Unless speeches are shorter, some hon. Members will be disappointed at 7 o'clock.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for raising many important issues. I declare an interest, as the speech that I shall make had its genesis a fortnight ago when I looked at some of my flowers and vetegables and found that they were covered with greenfly when they ought not to have been covered with greenfly. I am 585 indebted, too, to Nicholas Carter, a senior scientist at Rothamsted, who provided me with a great deal of information.
The subject of my speech is the future of the national insect survey at a time when aphids are filling fields and gardens throughout the summer. If this were a personal complaint, I should not raise it in the House, but as it is a widespread complaint, about which something could be done, and as the Government are taking unjustifiable action in cutting agricultural research, I feel fully entitled to do so.
We have had a mild dry May, and the biggest explosion in the aphid population for 15 years. Greenfly, blackfly and other pests are threatening crops but apparently it is intended that the Rothamsted insect survey should close many of its insect traps, provide less information about the spread of aphids and cut its forecasting activities, which are vital to farmers.
One consequence will be that more insecticide will be sprayed as an insurance, in the absence of information about pests. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East, therefore, for bringing me into order by making environmental consequences part of the subject of her motion.
The Rothamsted survey monitors insects using traps sucking insects out of the air and collecting them for future counting and analysis. The first British suction trap was set at Rothamsted experimental station in 1964. By 1970, 10 more traps had joined the survey. By last year, 23 traps, each 12.2 m tall, were in operation—including six in Scotland. As a Scottish Member, I emphasise that we are greatly concerned about the problem that is now upon us in Scotland.
Rothamsted has the most extensive network of suction traps in the world. During 446 site-years its researchers have counted almost 10 million aphids from 300 species. This invaluable database, which allows scientists to make accurate predictions about times of infestation by many aphids, is threatened by the Government's policy on agricultural research, which they regard as a commercial spin-off. An unpublished Government review of agriculture research and development, known as the Barnes report, has identified aspects of Rothamsted's work, such as its forecasting activities, as near market as it can save farmers money by pinpointing times at which they need to apply insecticides to their fields. The Government believe that that work should be paid for by the farmers.
Funds for the insect research survey which come through the Agriculture and Food Research Council's institute of arable crops research are being reduced. As a result, the survey will have to close some traps completely and monitor others for only part of the year. The IRS weekly publication The Aphid Bulletin and Aphid Commentary, distributed by post, free of charge, to more than 300 interested people will not appear this year.
The Government's shortsighted approach threatens an unrivalled database for entymological and ecological research, as well as for farmers. It is likely to lead to the more profligate spraying of chemicals by farmers, who will be unaware of the true extent of any likely aphid attack. The loss of data also threatens efforts to assess whether environmental changes, including climatic changes, are having long-term effects on the insect population.
Workers who empty suction traps look not only for aphids but for aphids' many predators such as ladybirds, hover flies, lacewings, spiders and beetles. All those 586 captured are kept and catalogued. The damson hop aphid attacks hops. Insecticides can prevent it from causing larger reductions in the yields of hop gardens in Herefordshire and Kent every year. The spraying of insecticides has been so intensive that the damson hop aphid has developed a resistance to many of the chemicals used. The time to spray for maximum effect is when the aphid migrates from its winter hosts—damsons and sloes—to hops. Samples taken in Kent and Hereford over the past 15 years combine with weather details to provide a good database from which to project the start and finish of the migration. The samples revealed that it is possible to use data on temperatures in early spring, rainfall figures for winter and spring and the amount of sunshine in summer to predict the migrations.
All that work is threatened, yet with greenhouse effect conditions, it is even more important. For example, the black bean aphid spends the winter on spindle trees and migrates to crops such as spring beans in May or June. Suction traps provide more data, from an elaborate system of constantly updated forecasts, of the size and timing of the migrations. The system was developed by IRS together with the Government's agricultural development and advisory service and Imperial college, London. Forecasts are based on the size of the previous autumn's migration as measured in suction traps, egg sampling and sampling of aphids on spindle trees in the spring and, finally, the early stages of spring migration. In 1989 researchers expect damage to bean crops in much of eastern England and the west midlands. Crop infestation by aphids has already occurred some two weeks earlier than usual.
You asked us to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I have made my point in general and, as the Minister is nodding, I assume that he believes it to be a serious point. Nicholas Carter and others—I consulted widely before the debate—have produced a great deal of information, of which much is available to gardeners. Long-term data such as those provided by the IRS will prove valuable in determining trends in aphid population biology, and such trends may be linked to changes in land use or climate. That role for the survey has not yet attracted a great deal of attention, but it may turn out to be its most important as concern about the changing climate gathers ground. Unfortunately, the long-term monitoring that is essential to such work is often the poor relation of science because it is non-experimental and needs no sophisticated equipment. Thus the Natural Environment Research Council gives a low priority to its biological records centre. The problem is that long-term monitoring is often incompatible with short-term decisions about funding. Once a continuous sequence of data is broken, it can never be recovered.
If such work is interrrupted, let alone brought to an end for some short-term financial gain—quite frankly, an accounting gain—to make the books of a Department look good, great damage will be done. There must be some sort of sequence in that work. There are several million gardeners in this country. Indeed, the Minister represents a Worcestershire constituency. Worcestershire is famous for its gardens and many of the Minister's constituents will think it a heck of a pity if any of the work relevant to the national insect survey is interrupted.
I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has done me the courtesy of coming into the Chamber. He represents a beautiful part of a beautiful city and I can assure him that his constituents are most concerned about 587 the problems of aphids such as greenfly and blackfly. If the Under-Secretary does not believe that, he should ask his constituents in Davidson's Mains. I hope that the Scottish Office will take an interest in this matter. I shall tell him exactly what I have said and where I obtained my information when we are behind the Chair. I am hoping for two detailed answers—one from the consumer Minister, once he has contacted his MAFF colleagues, and the other from the Scottish Office.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
I apologise to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for not wishing to follow his speech because, quite frankly, I did not understand it—[Interruption.] Some of us admit that we do not understand matters, unlike certain Labour Members who interrupt from sedentary positions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) on raising this important subject for debate. I apologise for having missed the beginning of her speech, but I was doing some work on something to do with Europe that will occur later in the week, although what it is escapes me for the moment. I was disappointed with much of what she said. She gave a long shopping list of aspirations and ideas about what could be controlled and what sort of standards should be introduced, but I heard no strategy for how to do that. I assume that her remarks came from the same stable as those of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), although he put forward a strategy largely based on his experiences as a Consumer Minister. I had a great deal of sympathy with what he said, although I did not necessarily agree with his strategy.
Two separate roads could be taken in approaching this problem. I am not entirely sure that the Labour party and I want to take the same road. It is right that people should be protected from buying dangerous goods or a service that does not live up to its description. A number of ideas have been put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the House suggesting changes in the law, new regulations and new codes of conduct.
I do not want to go down the road of seeking to tell people what are the best options in what is available, but from much of what the hon. Lady said I detected her wish to go down that road. She concentrated many of her remarks on information. My experience of some of the consumer information services provided by local authorities is that they tell people, "This is the range of goods available and this is what we think you should buy." Local authorities are not equipped to give such advice. It is certainly not the purpose of Government, whether central or local, to spoonfeed people as though they always know what is best, what consumers should be buying and how they should spend their money. Spoonfeeding is very much a Labour party approach—indeed, it is exactly the approach set out in its 1983 election manifesto. No doubt that is why it did so disastrously. The manifesto contained 100 pages telling people how the Labour party would run their lives for them. From the hon. Lady's remarks, that still appears to be very much the Labour party's approach.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
The hon. Gentleman would do well to concentrate on what my hon. Friend the Member for 588 Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) said rather than on what he wishes she had said. I hope that he will now get on with the reality rather than the fantasy.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman was rather peripatetic during the hon. Lady's speech. I thought that he entered the Chamber after me and so could not have heard all that she said. I can understand his wish that the Labour party's 1983 election manifesto did not exist. Perhaps he wishes that he had not stood on that manifesto.
§ Ms. Quin
At what point during my speech did the hon. Gentleman enter the Chamber? He complained about the absence of a strategy, yet I began my speech by saying that consumer interests needed to be taken into account across Government Departments. I referred to certain matters that were later taken up and enlarged upon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams).
§ Mr. Hughes
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that point and I shall certainly read the early part of her speech. I remember looking at the clock when I entered the Chamber at 3.42 pm. I am, of course, delighted to hear that the hon. Lady covered those points.
I wish to take a different approach from other hon. Members to the food issue, and pick up a phrase used by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West. He said, in many ways quite rightly, that gone are the days of the local buyer knowing the local producer. Of course those days have gone. We do not necessarily know who produces the goods. It is important that people should have trust in stores such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsburys and the manufacturers.
That point has been brought home to parents who are concerned about the problems that have been faced by some baby food manufacturers. It is interesting to look at the manufacturers' different responses. Farleys had a milk problem. It is instructive for all food manufacturers to think carefully about what caused the problem in the Farleys factory. In the end, the company went out of business or had to be bought out by, I think, Boots. The company went out of business because people lost trust in it. Did they lose trust in that company because of the problem in the factory? They did not. They lost trust in the company because of the way in which it reacted to the problem in its factory.
The managing director of the company appeared on BBC television and said that there was a problem. That was several days after the problem appeared in the factory, and, until then, the company had failed to tell the public about it. When he finally admitted that there was a problem, in that live BBC interview, the managing director advised people not to buy that company's products any more and to throw away the products that they had at home. The advice to throw those products away was rather ungenerous. As subsequent manufacturers who have had similar problems have said, the managing director should have said, "Return the products to us and we will refund your money." That would demonstrate a more generous attitude.
What finally killed the Farleys company was reluctance on the part of the senior executive to admit that there was a problem in the factory and the company's failure to close the production line when the problem was discovered. As 589 a parent, when I heard that the company had not closed its production line, I lost confidence in the company. I was clearly not alone, as the company went bankrupt.
§ Mr. Hughes
I hope that I heard the hon. Gentleman say from a sedentary portion, "Quite right, too." I agree. [Interruption.] One day the hon. Gentleman will treat hon. Members to a speech. It will be a rare thing. He makes only sedentary contributions when I am in the Chamber.
There has been a marked difference in the problems that are faced by other baby food manufacturers such as Cow and Gate. As the parent of two small boys, I still have every confidence in Cow and Gate and other companies.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for mentioning Heinz. I am sure that he will agree that those companies were totally honest and, therefore, deserve the support and trust of all parents. From what they say about their sales figures, it is obvious that they are getting that trust. We place enormous trust in the retailer and the producer. Whatever the Government might do and whatever regulations might be in force, that trust is foremost in buyers' minds.
I may have missed what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East said, but I was surprised that she did not pay tribute to the consumer safety statistics that have been collected by the DTI. Important changes have been made in the updating of consumer safety statistics and the basis on which they have been collected, including the extension of the system to cover leisure accidents. I am the sponsor of the Safety in Children's Playgrounds Bill. Many groups are seeking to improve safety standards in children's playgrounds. It is important for them to get from the DTI relevant statistics about the number of children who need to be hospitalised, and why. It is easy to have a preconceived idea of why accidents happen in playgrounds. For instance, most people believe that the hard surfaces in two thirds of our playgrounds cause most accidents in playgrounds. However, the DTI has revealed that most accidents happen because children collide while running from one piece of play equipment to another. Without further statistics, how can we introduce further legislation, standards or codes of practice, as I hope that the Department of the Environment will do?
It is important to pay tribute to the work of the DTI—
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is the relevance of the contribution by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes)? His remarks about play schools and playgrounds are interesting, but how are they related to the EEC? He is talking about the presentation of British standards rather than EEC standards. Some hon. Members have been waiting a considerable time to debate the poll tax.
§ Mr. Hughes
People will read that intervention with great interest and note that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is clearly not interested in safety in children's playgrounds, and the parents in his constituency—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) to the terms of the motion. I am bound to say that he seems to be ignoring the motion, whatever the merits or demerits of any later debate may be. I ask him to have regard to the number of hon. Members who are waiting to speak in a short debate.
§ Mr. Hughes
I acknowledge that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman's point of order is rather amiss. As you will have read, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the first line of the motion statesTo call attention to the failure of the Government to protect the consumer".It goes on:that government policies have failed to benefit the consumer".I was making consumer points. They belie the motion. I should have thought that it was not only reasonable but important for those points to be made.
It is essential to have not only consumer safety statistics but consumer safety campaigns. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on conducting the campaigns. The first was on toy safety. Most of us in the peak shopping time before Christmas saw giant teddy bears in the shops, with retailers helping to promote the safety message There has been an improvement in consumer awareness of fireworks safety. Fireworks are dangerous things. Anything that can be done to limit their use or to persuade people not to use them is good.
There have been electric blanket campaigns designed to encourage the elderly in particular to get their old electric blankets serviced. There is nothing that the Government can do to make that happen. How can we get someone to take an old electric blanket to be serviced merely because the Government say so? However, people can be persuaded, and persuasion is important. In conjunction with the Child Accident Prevention Trust, two booklets on child safety equipment and on the safety of nursery equipment have been made available through the clinics to all new parents. I was impressed, when our last baby was born five months ago, when I received copies of those booklets. I pay tribute to the Minister for making those booklets available.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East said that part of the Government's response to the issue—as she put it, the Government's inadequate response—was privatisation. I do not understand how she can make that point. She said that privatisation had failed to protect the consumer, especially in terms of price. If one considers the prices charged for electricity and gas, they are lower in real terms than those charged previously—certainly those charged under the Labour Government. Those who pay electricity and gas bills know that prices are lower than they were, and that they have not gone up in line with inflation. [Interruption.] It is interesting that Opposition Members either laugh or shout ridiculous comments from a sedentary position, when both the Labour party and its friends in office, the Liberals, did so much to hike up the prices of those two basic commodities. They know that they are responsible for the twin evils of high prices and under-investment in those two industries.
Privatisation of those industries has, first, protected the consumer by keeping the prices down, and, secondly, has caused a substantial rise in investment in those industries, which is another important protection for the consumer.
§ Mr. Hughes
As the hon. Lady has mentioned the water industry, I will comment on it now. We must compare the record of this Government with that of the Labour Government. As we know—after all, the chairman of the Water Authorities Association has told us this—we are still suffering from the massive under-investment of the Labour Government, which is causing problems on our beaches and with our water supply.
§ Mr. Hughes
I shall give way when I have answered this point.
That under-investment is still causing problems. [Interruption.] It is all very well saying that was 10 years ago, but it is the experts who are trying to run those businesses who tell us the answers, not hon. Members speaking from a sedentary position.
Water privatisation will give us a guarantee that we can have decent standards for our water supply, because the supply will have to be to the standards laid down by the National Rivers Authority. The Labour party, having voted against all those provisions in the Water Bill, has put itself on to the side of those people who are the polluters of the water supply and who do not care about higher standards for water. Of course, we shall have higher water standards. We do not need the Labour party, with its dreadful record in government, to give us any lectures on that point.
Those are important areas for consumer protection. I believe that the Government have a good record on consumer protection, and that they have given it a higher priority by ensuring that there is real work carried out, rather than the pretence of a Ministry. We have heard from the Labour party today that it wants to return to the pretence of wrapping these things up in words. It wants to over-regulate and to tell people that politicians can make decisions better than ordinary people making their purchases. I do not believe that that policy will wash with the public. They want the freedom to make their own decisions, providing that they know that they can have protection from shoddy goods and from false promises. Once we have made more strides in that direction, as we shall in the next few years, people will understand, as in so many other areas, that the Labour party's approach to this matter is entirely fraudulent.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I fear that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) missed almost every relevant point at the core of the debate. If one wants to take the two extremes of the argument, there is the extreme view that says that the free market will solve all our problems and the one that says everything will have to be regulated down to the last detail. Having said that, the main contributors to the debate are saying neither of those things. I believe that the constructive debate is to recognise the limitations of the market place and those of the 592 regulatory authority, and determine how one can secure a sensible balance. That is how we might achieve a constructive debate.
Given that the context in which the motion is set is the move towards the single market in 1992, the point to stress at the outset is that there is obviously an argument as to what the single market will mean for the consumer. I want to make it clear that I believe that the single market offers great opportunities for the consumer. The creation of a unified economy of more than 320 million people offers a very wide range of choice and opportunity for the consumer, economies of scale for the producer, which will help to bring down costs by securing access to a bigger market, and a higher rate of innovation, both of the product and of technology. Those are the kind of benefits that I believe can and should accrue. Indeed, I am advised that a report by Alber and Ball to the European Parliament in 1983 estimated that the existing regulations across the Common Market amounted to the loss of a week's wages for every worker within the Community. One must assume, therefore, that removing many of those restrictions will be of positive benefit.
I want to make it clear that I believe that the single market is something to be welcomed and to be encouraged. I understand the arguments from Conservative Members that we do not want to go into that situation only to impose a whole range of alternative regulations. I believe, however, that we need to approach the matter in an objective and sensible manner. One argument is to say that a free market is the best possible protection for the consumer. My comment on that is, perhaps, but "it ain't necessarily so," and that there are tendencies within a free market to create monopolies and a situation where consumers are disadvantaged and where they need active intervention to secure redress.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) and other hon. Members have mentioned the Government's programme of privatisation. I do not want to dwell on that matter for very long, but it is worth saying that in the run-up to the privatisation of British Gas and to the current privatisation of electricity, the Government have pursued a policy of deliberately raising the prices of those commodities to the consumer by a rate far higher than the rate of inflation. I do not have to defend the last Labour Government—indeed it is not my intention to do so—but to refer to something that happened 10 years ago and to ignore the fact that the price of oil went over $40 at that time—
§ Mr. Bruce
The hon. Gentleman says than any excuse will do, but $40 of 10 years ago has to be compared with a price that actually dipped two years ago to $9 and is now under $20. That is a substantial difference. That rather goes with the Government's claim that they have presided over record investment and earnings. Almost every year of this century, barring wartime and the first two years of the present Government, Governments have been able to say that. If they were not able to say that, they would not have been re-elected, so it does not amount to a very substantial or radical claim.
One takeover that I feel has not necessarily added to the benefit of the consumer has been the takeover of British Caledonian Airways by British Airways, which I believe should not have happened. It was brought about as a 593 direct consequence of the Government's refusal to recognise, when British Airways was privatised as a monopoly, that it was such a dominant player in the domestic scene that it effectively destroyed the possibility of British Caledonian Airways remaining as an independent airline. As somebody who has to make frequent use of British Airways, I do not believe that, as a consumer, I receive adequate treatment in choice or service. Too often British Airways cancels planes at short notice—it is very often the last plane of the day—very often because it has to divert that aircraft to a route on which it faces competition. Therefore, the exact opposite to what is intended follows. Because it has a monopoly on certain routes, the consumer who is completely dependent on British Airways suffers the greatest. Those who would have the opportunity to divert to another airline find that they have a choice, because British Airways cannot afford to leave them without the choice and lose the business to its competitor. The Government should address such problems and should ensure that British Airways operates as a competitor on routes, but, if it is accepted that a certain route cannot sustain two operators, the Government should ensure that the consumer is given the same treatment as would be given on a route where competition exists.
When companies have been privatised as monopolies it has been argued that regulation is necessary. That argument does not divide the House—why else did the Government introduce Ofgas and Oftel if they did not recognise that such regulations was necessary? The argument that divides the House is the extent to which that regulation should be effective. I have no doubt that when the Electricity Bill comes back to the House two important amendments accepted in the other place will be reversed. That is regrettable because those amendments were in the interests of the consumer. When the Gas Bill went through the House, I and other hon. Members pointed out that the provision of choice in the industrial sector was totally inadequate and that British Gas would be taken to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. That proved to be correct.
One of the concerns about the single market and its implications for consumers is its effect on and drive towards mergers and takeovers. In recent years we have seen evidence of that. The takeover philosophy is different in different member states. My party believes that the obligation to prove that a takeover is in the consumer's interest should be put on the hostile predator and not on the recipient of the bid. Evidence collected by the Minister's Department suggests that the vast majority of takeovers are, almost by definition, designed not to increase competition or consumer choice, but to consolidate the larger, hostile bidder's position within the market. By definition, that is contrary to consumer interest. General statements of good will are made and we are told that economies of scale will be made and rationalisation procedures will be followed that will benefit the consumer. Analysis, however, suggests that once the bid has been accepted the consumer is worse off. Our proposals would lead to a dramatic improvement in the protection of consumer interests. It is to my continual regret that the Government have said that such takeovers are a matter for the shareholders and that consumer interests do not count. They believe that if the shareholders are willing to sell, that is the only basis on which most takeovers should be decided.
594 Shareholders are always delighted to sell because increasing their standing in the market place enables them to exploit the consumer for an even greater profit. Why on earth should shareholders resist such an obvious temptation? The Government and the wider community have an obligation to ensure that takeovers are examined for their possible benefit to the consumer.
It is worth making a comparison between the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany. In that country hostile takeovers are almost unknown, essentially because the structure of ownership within German industry means that it is almost impossible to secure such a takeover without the consent of the main banker of any corporation, who also tends to be the major shareholder.
As 1992 approaches Britain is increasingly vulnerable to takeovers from countries inside and outside the Community and, at the same time, we are unable to secure similar access to the ownership of those countries' markets.
It is interesting to consider the financial characteristics of the European markets in comparison to our own. Mention has already been made of consumer credit. I shall not be mealy-mouthed about it. I believe that the ethic the Government have advanced has fuelled a consumer credit boom that has fundamentally weakened our economy and has meant that many people face genuine financial hardship. I do not believe it is just a case of loan sharks, but the way in which our retailing operators conduct their business. When people go to a shopping centre they are actively encouraged to take out lines of credit for goods and services which they do not actually need, but which they are tempted to buy. They are not aware of how they will pay for such goods and services. I do not believe that consumers are adequately protected against being tempted to take on levels of credit that they cannot afford to sustain. Such credit is even more damaging since the Government have lost control of the economy and have been forced to jack up rates of interest dramatically over a short time. People now find that their level of repayments is far greater than they had anticipated or budgeted for. The code of practice that has operated in some of our retail stores must be altered radically.
It is interesting to consider the two most successful economies of the developed world—Japan and West Germany. They operate on highly conservative financial principles and the level of savings is far, far higher than our own. It is between 15 and 20 per cent. Long-term strategies are carefully considered by those countries. We operate on a short-term basis and our propensity to save could well move into a negative index soon as a direct result of the climate created by the Government.
The Government's policy is extraordinary, as they seem to encourage people to buy goods and services that are not produced in this country with money that most people do not have. On that basis it is not surprising that our economy is getting into trouble. The Government continue to claim that the thrust of their policy is the need to keep inflation under control and yet they refuse to join the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system. All the evidence suggests, however, that our membership of that mechanism would not only help to bring inflation under control, particularly in the long term, but that such inflationary control could be achieved with lower rates of interest. It is interesting to note that the French found a direct correlation between that and—
§ Mr. Favell
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The European monetary system has nothing to do with the motion on the Order Paper and you should bear in mind that a number of hon. Members still want to speak.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) is straying considerably from the motion on the Order Paper, but I am sure that he will bring his remarks back to the motion.
§ Mr. Bruce
Yes. My simple point is that every consumer I meet would like us to have a level of inflation comparable to that in France and interest rate levels comparable to those of other countries. Consumers would benefit from our membership of the European monetary system. It appears that the Prime Minister and her adviser, Professor Alan Walters, are alone in the conviction that their argument is right.
It has been argued that consumers, in order to make a rational choice in the market place, must have access to information, particularly in the case of environmental protection. Earlier it was suggested that the market was already responding to consumer concern and that retailers had managed to give people information by better labelling and that that had meant that, at no cost and without Government action, environmentally offensive products had been and were being phased out. That argument has been advanced in relation to aerosol cans and CFCs, but they represent a relatively small part of the problem in comparison to the range of environmental concerns. Many of the companies that had introduced ozone-friendly aerosols still operate large amounts of refrigeration and air-conditioning machinery and they do not make adequate provision for that machinery's disposal through recycling. Therefore, they are in danger of destroying all the marketing benefits which they have given to the consumer, because of their own industrial effluent. The consumer should know about that.
The importance of information has recently been highlighted by a couple of specific issues. In an intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East I drew attention to the issue of dioxins, which she had mentioned. I represent paper manufacturers and fully understand the balance of the arguments. The American markets have proved that consumers demand information and a right to choose. They want to know whether the products that can produce dioxins are being used in the bleaching of particular paper products. They also want the right to buy dioxin-free products.
At the moment, the Government's reaction, which I have raised with Ministers, is that that is entirely a matter to which the markets should respond. That is not good enough. First, there should be regulations to ensure that the information is provided and, secondly, there should be, at the very least, a Government push to ensure that choice is provided. That has happened in the United States. One benefit of the larger single market may be that it will make that easier to happen within the European Community: I hope so.
Last week, I also raised the issue of Alar, which has been banned in the United States, but which is still used in the United Kingdom. Consumers need to know whether an apple product has been treated with Alar. If they have that information, they may well ensure that the market determines that Alar is phased out, but without it they are 596 unable to do anything other than refuse to have anything to do with apples, which seems to be a draconian response to force on consumers.
I appreciate that other hon. Members wish to speak so I shall draw my remarks to a close. The Government should acknowledge that there is a role for them, as for local authorities, in the process of securing information, alerting the public and providing the necessary facilities. In a number of ways, the Government are being asked to promote good environmental practices and, so far, they are not providing the support needed. I commend local authorities which, for example, have established a code of practice in their contracts on the protection of tropical hardwoods and the recycling and use of CFCs. It is regrettable that, so far, the Government have not been prepared to promote an initiative to enable the recycling of CFCs or labelling—never mind a code of practice—for tropical hardwoods, ensuring that they come only from sustainable sources. If they do not come from sustainable sources, the community should be entitled to set up a collective ban against them. That is the one way in which the promotion of sustainable tropical hardwoods could be ensured. On both these issues, local authorities such as Sutton and my own council of Gordon have taken initiatives and asked the Government to support them to enable them to increase their services to the consumer. However, so far, their requests have fallen on deaf ears.
When fully developed, the single market offers a wide variety of opportunities for consumers. However, because of the wide differences within the Community, there must be a recognition of common consumer standards and the Government must recognise their responsibility to set that balance. I fear that, to date, they have not done so. I have received all sorts of concerned representations on many matters of developments in a rapidly changing market.
Those people feel that, at the very least, more information should be made available and that, if the Government are not prepared to be the agents to secure the information, the market response is often too slow.
Sheltered housing and the voluntary code of practice have been mentioned in the debate. Only last week, I was approached by a councillor, who was of a more Conservative than SLD persuasion and was concerned at the way in which nursing homes and sheltered housing operations for the elderly in the private sector seemed to be able to pitch their price according to a person's ability to pay. The industry effectively built its profit on running down people's money and was happy to allow them to continue on social security when their money had run out. That suggests simple profiteering: if it is not, I assure the Minister that there is great worry among Conservatives who feel that it looks awfully like it. Those are the sort of matters for which the Government have responsibility.
I hope that the Minister will accept that this debate is about securing a sensible balance between a totally unbridled free market and excessive regulation. The Government are in danger of leaving the balance too much on the side of the free market, which does not work exclusively in consumers' interests.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
This has been an interesting debate for me, and I think that I speak for other hon. Members. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for introducing this 597 interesting subject, which has exercised the minds of the Government throughout the 10 years in which they have been in power.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East, is wrong to suggest that the Government are not interested in consumers' interests. The Consumer Protection Act 1987 was wide reaching, far ranging and far from popular with many of the organisations and concerns which the hon. Lady would consider to be natural supporters of the Government. There was much opposition from manufacturers to the first part of the Act which, for the first time, gave the man in the street the opportunity to sue manufacturers for damage without having to prove negligence. That was completely new to British law and has been, and will be, vastly popular with the consumer. It was, of course, unpopular with the manufacturers.
Under the Act it became an offence, with certain exceptions, to provide unsafe consumer goods. For the first time, it imposed a general duty on suppliers to ensure, with some exceptions—one or two of which, particularly food, I agree with the hon. Lady ought to be reconsidered—that goods supplied were safe.
The Act also made the provision of misleading price indications an offence.
The Act said what suppliers of goods and services should not do. It is far easier for the Executive and those who have to enforce the Act to do that. It is far more difficult to do what the hon. Lady suggests: to say what the suppliers of goods should do. She suggested, and I intervened at the time, that there should be far greater regulation on the make-up of manufactured goods. In a changing world it is impossible to lay down standards for goods that people do not even think will emerge on to the market, to say what they should and should not contain.
The hon. Lady also suggested that there should be far greater labelling. Before I entered the Chamber, I bought a Marathon bar from the Tea Room.
§ Mr. Favell
I am not going to admit to my wife that I bought it or, at least, that I am going to consume it. It is absolutely smothered in information, most of which I do not understand. I understand that it contains fresh milk chocolate with fresh roasted peanuts and a peanut butter nougat and caramel centre. However, I do not understand 62 g E. It gives me the following nutritional information:Energy 1248 kJ/298 kcalCarborhydrate 33.5 gProtein 6.3 gFat 16.4 g(of which saturates 7.4 g)It goes on to tell me how I can win a trip to the Super Bowl, and gives me various other guarantees, which I cannot read because the print is far too small. There are various competition rules for yet another competition. Finally, it says that it is best before 2 September 1989, which I understand, with another hieroglyphic on the side. It is the first time that I have read the cover on this product and it will be the last. I do not think that any other hon. Member has ever read one of these before.
I suggest that we keep these messages simple. Already, my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, products' labels must show safety warnings and, on food, they must tell us the "best before" date and give details of the product. That 598 is fair enough, and it is quite enough to go on any label. It is simple and intelligible to someone like me and to 99 per cent. of the population.
It is unreasonable to attack the Government for failing to protect the consumer; we have a long record of protecting him or her. The first great act—some might say it was also the last—of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was to introduce his retail price maintenance legislation. That was a great act on behalf of the consumer and it was certainly not popular with those who would be regarded as the Government's natural supporters. We have not stopped there. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will remind us of the Financial Services Act 1986, which was highly unpopular with many of the Government's natural supporters.
We are now introducing legislation to protect the consumer against the lawyers, of whom, alas, I am one. With my lawyer's hat on, I must say that that legislation is not popular with me, but I can understand it from the consumer's point of view. We are also questioning the activities of the brewers—organisations regarded by the Opposition parties as natural supporters of the Conservative party. We fear no man, however, and we are seriously looking into what we regard as the brewers' abuses of their monopoly power.
Finally, we are tackling the doctors. The doctors themselves tell us that, almost to a man, they voted for us in the last general election, but we are not in the business for votes: we are in business for the consumer. We genuinely believe that our reforms are for the benefit of the patients. They are certainly not intended merely to garner votes.
§ Mr. McCartney
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been here since the beginning of the debate, during which hon. Members who have gone in and out have spoken for considerable lengths of time and were called out of order on numerous occasions by another Deputy Speaker. It is unfair that I should not be allowed at least two minutes in which to place on record a point to which the Minister may want to respond in writing—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth)
I regret the position in which the hon. Gentleman finds himself, but it is not for me to get involved in the way in which the debate has proceeded—until now, it has been most orderly—
§ Mr. McCartney
I want to raise the issue of hazardous chemicals and of possible changes in EEC legislation which will undermine the position in Britain. If I am prepared to write to the Minister, will he make arrangements for him or a colleague in the Department of Transport to meet me to discuss this matter?
§ Mr. Forth
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that whenever he contacts Ministers of any Department he will receive a courteous, full and—I hope—speedy reply. I hope that he will in this case. I certainly undertake to reply to him if he writes to me.
599 I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for raising this matter in the way in which she has and for using what is always a precious occasion—coming high in the ballot for motions—to do so. That has enabled her and other hon. Members to set out their anxieties and some important points about the vital matter of consumer protection. It also gives me the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to set out some of my and the Government's thoughts on the subject.
I start, unashamedly and with some pride, by quoting from the White Paper put out by the Department of Trade and Industry in January 1989:In consumer protection, the policy emphasis will reflect the Government's belief that the best form of protection comes from consumers making well-informed choices and acting in their own interests. To achieve this, information can be more effective than regulation. However, where the case is made out for regulation on safety or other grounds, the Government will not hesitate to act.That not only encapsulates the Government's view but it reflects the tone of many of today's contributions—and not only from the Conservative side. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) made remarks along these lines. We are not necessarily separated by much on this matter. I want to deal with as many of the detailed points that have been made as possible.
To illustrate the Government's attitude, I want to give an example of the sort of approach that we tend to adopt, based on a combination of information when appropriate, and regulation when appropriate. In this context, I want to mention the promotion of timeshare developments, which has worried many hon. Members and their constituents. I have received a number of complaints about timeshare, most relating to the award schemes used to entice people to presentations at which they are often subjected to high-pressure sales techniques. Some end up signing contracts which they subsequently regret. I hasten to add that these practices are by no means universal and I have publicly acknowledged before, and do so again, the efforts of the industry, through the Timeshare Developers Association, working through its code of practice, to improve and maintain standards in the industry. The association's membership now represents about 60 per cent. of timeshares sold to United Kingdom consumers.
The Department of Trade and Industry has actively tried to promote the development of these standards. For example, in 1987, we produced a leaflet for consumers entitled, "Your place in the sun—or is it?" It warned people interested in timeshare developments to be wary of prizes, discounts and half-price offers—
§ Mr. Frank Cook
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understood that the Minister, quite properly, wanted time in the debate to reply to it. I have sat here for the best part of the debate and can remember no hon. Member mentioning timeshare. If the Minister wants to make a statement on that subject, he should take time out of the proper schedule of the House, not out of a private Member's debate.
§ Mr. Forth
I am trying to develop an argument that combines the provision of information, on which I have just touched, with a reference I am about to make to the role of the Office of Fair Trading, which is directly relevant to consumer protection. If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, we shall get there fairly quickly.
600 I was talking about the information provided by my Department's leaflet, of which we have now distributed about 650,000 copies. Thus far have we gone with information, but from time to time that can be deemed not enough, and this is a case to which that applies.
I have therefore asked the Director General of Fair Trading to conduct a review of the whole range of timeshare problems which will cover marketing and other issues to do with United Kingdom properties advertised here, and overseas properties wherever they are promoted, and which may involve a review of legislative and self-regulatory controls. The Office of Fair Trading would then come up with such recommendations as it saw fit. The director general agrees that this is an appropriate time to examine this problem, which has recently caused some anxiety to consumers.
This is a good example of the recognition of a need for such action, and I am delighted to say that the director general has agreed to involve his staff and expertise in it. I look forward to receiving his conclusions early in the new year.
Another matter that is repeatedly mentioned is safety. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the home accident surveillance system, the provision of statistics by our hospitals which give a firm, factual basis from which to launch policy developments. It is not often appreciated that accidents in and around the home result in about 5,000 deaths a year—as many as, or more than, occur on the roads. About 3 million people receive injuries serious enough to receive medical treatment.
We must not only recognise the problem but develop policies and approaches to deal with it. This is being done. The United Kingdom legal system governing consumer safety provides a level of protection equal to, and probably better than, that in most other countries. Many speakers today have referred to the Consumer Protection Act 1987 which introduced significant changes in the law and resulted in major improvements for the consumer. The introduction of the general safety requirement in that law means that it is now a criminal offence to supply a consumer product that is not reasonably safe. This general duty has many advantages over an approach that relies on detailed and restrictive regulations covering individual products. For example, it means that the enforcement officers can take action when a dangerous consumer product appears on the market.
§ Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)
There is a problem with that legislation because it is not always applied in a logical fashion. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Minister of Health is considering using the powers in that Act to ban a certain brand of smokeless tobacco. When my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was Under-Secretary of State, she acknowledged that cigarettes were more dangerous than the product that my hon. Friend the Minister proposes to ban under the legislation. Will my hon. Friend urge some caution about the way in which that legislation is sometimes used, because there is not always logic about the way in which it is employed?
§ Mr. Forth
If I did not know my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) a bit better, I would suspect that he was being mischievous because he is trying to draw me into commenting on 601 something that another Department may be doing. If it is using the excellent legislation that I am describing to the House, so much the better, but my hon. Friend must not try to draw me into the substance of a decision that may well be made by another Department. That Department is quite capable of coming to the right conclusion on the matter and I am sure that my hon. Friend is giving it as much advice as he can.
Several hon. Members have mentioned labelling. The Consumer Protection Act 1987 fully recognises the importance of adequate warnings and instructions in relation to the safety of products. The guidance given to the courts on the factors that they should take into account in deciding whether a product is unsafe specifically includes both the manner in which goods are marketed and the instructions or warnings that are given with the products. To support this feature of the law, my Department published an authoritative guide to producing better instructions and warnings for consumer products. That is an important area but it is not often highlighted and has not been referred to during the debate.
Giving people adequate and workable instructions on the use of products can make a considerable contribution to their safe use. We continue widely to promote that practice among manufacturers and designers, and I hope that even in the courts we will see the kind of best practice set out in the guide regarded as a benchmark for considering cases.
The Consumer Protection Act also introduced changes to the law on product liability. The system of strict liablility means that it will be much easier for people injured by defective products to obtain redress through the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) rightly said, there is now increasing redress available other than through the full court procedure. For example, there is arbitration and the small claims procedures, and in many ways we are rapidly improving the way in which consumers, as individuals or through the many consumer organisations, can seek and obtain redress. Experience of these features of United Kingdom criminal and civil law will do much to deter those who may be tempted to supply goods that do not come up to adequate safety levels.
The motion calls on the Government fully to implement the EC product liability directive. Hon. Members may have seen reports that the EC Commission had expressed some dissatisfaction with the way in which our Consumer Protection Act implements the directive, particularly over the so-called "Development risks defence." The Government have made it clear that the Commission's objections will be considered carefully but that we believe that the Act properly implements the directive. I can confirm that the Commission has now written formally to the United Kingdon setting out its concerns, but it is usual practice, and I propose to stick to it, to preserve the confidentiality of these exchanges. However, it will be obvious from what I have said that dialogue is continuing.
§ Mr. Favell
Is it not true to say that we are one of only three of the 12 EC countries that have implemented the directive?
§ Mr. Forth
I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point because it gives me the chance to say that we are way ahead of most of the other member states on most of the directives, not just in that regard but also in effective implementation. We tend to differ greatly from most of the 602 other member states in the extent to which we comply with and implement directives effectively and in detail. We do that through our excellent system of trading standard officers who are independent of Government and report to local government. It is not always easy for central Government to deal with that system. Given his background, my hon. Friend well understands that our compliance with EC directives is certainly as good as that of any member state and better than that of most member states. In that respect, we are among the best Europeans, and we can be proud and happy about that.
The hon. Lady asked for the speedy implementation of the product safety directive. She knows that a proposal for an EC general product safety directive was tabled by the Commission at the recent consumer council meeting in Luxembourg. The hon. Lady spoke about that. That was the first time that Ministers had been given an opportunity to discuss this very wide-ranging proposal, and it was clear at the meeting that much more work will need to be done before the draft is anywhere near ready for detailed consideration, never mind implementation. We and other member states expressed varying degrees of reservation about the scope of that draft and about the powers proposed in it. It is in the very early stages and it would be quite unreasonable at this time to expect us to approve it or seek to amend it in any detail. It has started its procedure, and we shall work with other member states to see that it develops in a workable and effective way.
I should like to make another point about general safety matters and about the sort of action that we can take when we think that it is necessary. I have mentioned the provision of information and the general legal framework. We take action against individual products or producers when a serious safety hazard comes to our attention and we are persuaded about the nature of the hazard. I shall give two examples. In recent months, we have banned, as we are able to do under the legislation, two products. One was called "Crazy Hands", a novelty toy. We thought that there was a danger that young children might swallow it and choke. We also banned three-wheel all-terrain vehicles which were imported from the United States where they had a track record of being extremely dangerous. We thought that we were justified in banning them, and we did.
Evidence shows that most accidents are caused riot necessarily by faulty products but by people's behaviour. They sometimes use them in a wrong, ill-informed or occasionally irresponsible way. Therefore, we are keen to inform people of the hazards that they may face. As one of my hon. Friends has said, we have conducted and will continue to conduct campaigns covering toy safety, the safety of electric blankets and child safety. We also run an annual fireworks campaign and a Christmas campaign.
I was recently involved in launching a campaign housed in a hazard dome. It is an imaginative and sophisticated exhibition and it will tour the United Kingdom. We hope that eventually it will be brought to millions of people. The exhibition clearly illustrates in an imaginative and exciting way the sort of hazards that can exist even in the home and the measures that people can take to avoid them. That is the sort of positive and helpful contribution that we can make to provide information about hazards and the way in which we want to tackle them.
§ Mr. Michael Brown
I presume that the hazards to which my hon. Friend refers are health hazards. Why is his 603 Department responsible for those while the Minister of Health is responsible for the hazard that I mentioned earlier?
§ Mr. Forth
I see that I have not deterred my hon. Friend. He well knows that the hazards I am describing can result in accidents in and around the home. Details of those accidents are provided by our excellent information system which is based on hospital figures. We take steps to inform people about them so that they may be able to avoid accidents.
Many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Gateshead, East and for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and some of my hon. Friends, spoke about environmental implications. Of course we recognise the importance of consumers being fully informed about the environmental effects of products and services in order, if nothing else, for the market to operate effectively. We are aware of the growing interest in labelling as a constructive way in which one can tackle the problem. We welcome the moves that industry is already making to provide and improve information about the environmental impact of its products. In the Government's view, the voluntary approach is the right one, but we are keeping the situation closely under review and looking carefully at the problems that labelling poses and at the experience of other countries which have set up national schemes.
We are discussing the level of interest in such schemes with representatives of consumers, producers and retailers, not least because of the need to respond to likely moves within the European Community. However, I stress that the issues involved are not simple. It is not easy to identify what is or what is not environmentally beneficial, not to identify straightforward ways to describe these problems to the user. It is not always clear how best to illustrate or describe these factors on packaging, sometimes of small articles. We are still at the early stages, and there are many ways to identify the best ways of communicating to the consumer the environmental impact or implication of the products that the consumer is being offered in the market place.
Reference has been made to the importance of informative food labelling to help consumers to choose a healthy diet. Food labels are already required to show the name or description of the food, an ingredients list, the date of minimum durability and the name and address of the responsible packer or seller. In addition, where appropriate, details of storage instructions for use and place of origin must be given.
Food labelling is kept under regular review and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food responds to the need for changes as they arise. For example, it has drawn up and circulated guidelines on nutrition labelling that aim to standardise the presentation of nutrition information on food labels so that consumers can compare products more easily and to help them to choose a balanced diet. The guidelines have been widely adopted and the Ministry will continue to encourage their use until EC-wide proposals are agreed. In many ways, these proposals follow closely the United Kingdom lead and the Ministry will be able to draw on the United Kingdom experience during negotiations in Brussels.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food also recognises the need to provide consumer informative 604 material about food and to help them make best use of information on food labels. In particular, it has recently issued a revised version of its free booklet called "Look at the Label", which explains the meaning of the terms used in labelling.
In all these ways we have provided a framework for the general approach that we are taking on consumer protection and, in detail, shown how some have been able to work, either in terms of provision of information or in terms of specific cases such as the banning of the products that are mentioned.
§ Mr. Dalyell
As five different Government Departments are probably involved in the questions that I asked about greenfly, could we not have some response by letter from the Departments involved?
§ Mr. Forth
I was going to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point later, but I shall do so now. I listened carefully to his, as usual, impeccably researched and briefly presented case. I undertake to ensure that not only my Department but all other Departments involved look carefully at what he said and give a considered answer. I am sure that he would not want me to give an off-the-cuff answer. We have made careful note of what he said, and Hansard will be scrutinised carefully, so he will get a full and proper response.
§ Mr. Favell
Will my hon. Friend deal with the point about keeping information on food labelling to basics? I have already spoken about the Marathon bar label, which contains so much information that a safety warning would not be read by anybody. Most of that information is unintelligible, except to the most dedicated "muesli".
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend has made an important point of which we must not lose sight, which is that a balance has to be achieved—the hon. Member for Gordon used the word "balance" and I agree with him—between providing to the consumers usable and practical information that most would be able to understand and use, and overloading a product with unintelligible information. My hon. Friend gave a good example of something that came close to the latter description. We must be careful on what we mandate or regulate for. It is much better to leave the producers to make their own decisions about what consumers can use and make the product more attractive as a result.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East asked about the Council of Ministers' meeting. She knows that the meeting of the Consumers Ministers covered a number of different issues, to one of which I was delighted to give my full support, that is, the effort to give consumers and their organisations a better voice in the European Community. I have met and continue to meet most of the main consumer organisations here in the United Kingdom, and we are better served than almost any other country by such organisations—a factor of which we can be proud, although we often take it for granted. It meant that when I went to the Council of Ministers' meeting I was able to support any moves—Commissioner Van Miert is interested in this—to promote the representation of consumer bodies in the European Community in the most effective way.
I was also able to reach agreement with the other member states on the directive covering consumer credit, which will be an important step forward in making the 605 information available right across the Community, to all of our consumers. We agreed on continued support into 1990 for the European level of the hospital information system referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) in order to provide, Europe-wide, a firm statistical basis for carrying forward the detailed consumer protection policy in which we are all interested. We are interested in a policy which is on a firm statistical basis, which is why we are happy to carry along with us the other member states of the Community in continuing to fund that policy.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East asked about something that I was unable to support, and I want to tell her why, because this is an important point. It concerned the draft resolution for the relaunch of consumer policy in the Community. There was much in the proposal that I was able to support, in particular the principle that I have just outlined—that consumers' views should be taken into account in policy development. I was also committed to the need for effective representation in all Community institutions. However, I was unable to support the resolution because of the one important point that the presidency insisted on including references to quality. The United Kingdom is fully committed to the principle that consumers have the right to effective and accurate information to ensure that they are able to make fully informed choices about the products and services available to them, but we cannot agree that it is necessary, practical or desirable for the Community to relaunch a Community consumer policy programme—
§ Mr. Frank Cook
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), having given the Chamber the opportunity to discuss the subject, has the right to reply. As the debate has to finish at 7 o'clock, may I ask you to protect that right and ensure that she has sufficient time?
§ Mr. Speaker
That right depends on the availability of time. I understood that the hon. Lady wanted only two minutes to answer.
§ Mr. Forth
I will be guided by what you have said, Mr. Speaker. I wanted to reply to as many as possible of the points that have been made. It would not be ungallant of me to point out that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East spent 50 minutes introducing her motion, and I hoped to take full advantage of the time to reply.
The Government's policy is based on a firm, practical and pragmatic approach which strikes a balance between a legal framework, effective action within that framework and dealing with these important matters on a case-by-case basis. I shall look carefully at what has been said during the debate, but I hope that the House will agree that the motion is an unjustified criticism of Government policy. Therefore, if there is a vote, I ask the House to reject the motion.
§ Ms. Quin
With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the debate.
I have listened carefully to the various contributions and in particular welcome those of my hon. Friends who spoke in support of my motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) gave the House the benefit of his experience of dealing with consumer affairs in government. I am glad that he reinforced the point that, under this Government, consumer affairs have been downgraded, a trend which Labour is pledged to reverse. I understand that the hospital safety certificates, to which hon. Members referred, were introduced by my right hon. Friend in 1975, not by the Government.
The Minister, not surprisingly, strongly defended his position, but I hope that he has listened to some of the comments made by his hon. Friends, in particular the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) who spoke strongly in favour of the EEC package holiday directive, which the Government are blocking.
Consumers have a choice in what they buy, but they cannot exercise it properly in the absence of clear and helpful labelling. Such labelling should be independently monitored because voluntary self-regulation will not be good enough.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) defended the Government's position on certain vested-interest groups and said that the Government were not in the business of votes. The Government will not get many votes unless consumers believe that the Government are taking their interests far more seriously than their record over the past 10 years suggests.
I have listened carefully to all the interesting contributions that have been made, but I still believe that my motion is valid.
§ It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of public business).
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your protection. I came third in the ballot for private Members' motions, but today Conservative Members have wasted time. Government Whips have been drumming up support. When I look about the Chamber, I see that there is a sole Scottish Minister and no pit bull terrier from the Scottish National party. Is this another example of the alliance between the blue Tories and the tartan Tories to keep issues affecting Scotland off the political agenda—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member came third in the ballot; the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) might feel slightly more aggrieved because he came second.