HC Deb 11 February 1994 vol 237 cc633-4

Order for Second Reading read.

2.22 pm
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

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

Despite its length, the Bill is simple and, I hope, uncontroversial. It is intended to tidy and clarify one of the more antiquated corners of the law and at the same time update and strengthen consumer rights. Essentially, it will implement the recommendations of the English and Scottish Law Commissions in their report on the sale and supply of goods published in 1987.

Hon. Members may find it convenient if I say a few words about the historical background to the Bill and then summarise some of its provisions. English and, indeed, Scottish law relating to the sale and supply of goods is of considerable antiquity. It is an area of law which to this day remains largely untouched by statute. Instead, over the centuries, certain common law principles emerged.

Among them were the principles that goods sold by way of trade or business must be as described, must be fit for their purpose and must be of merchantable quality. Those principles were codified but not significantly altered in the Sale of Goods Act 1893. That Act was consolidated but not significantly altered in the Sale of Goods Act 1979. The result is that purchasers' rights when buying goods are essentially those conferred under the common law as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is not surprising that those rights have become a little antiquated in the light of modern trading conditions.

It was for those reasons that the Law Commissions were asked to look at the matter in 1987. While they saw no need for radical reform, they did conclude that one of the central principles of present law—the doctrine of merchantable quality—was out of date, and that the definition of what constituted acceptance of goods was both untidy and unclear. They accordingly made a number of recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South-West (Mr. Jones) introduced a Bill to implement the recommendations in 1989, but for various reasons it failed to reach the statute book. I hope that I may be a little more fortunate.

Clause 1 implements the most important of the Law Commission's recommendations, which was that the outdated phrase "merchantable quality" should be replaced by a phrase more in tune with today's trading conditions. The Law Commissions suggested "acceptable quality", but the present Bill follows its 1989 predecessor in preferring the phrase "satisfactory quality", which I think is better.

A non-complaining buyer might decide reluctantly that goods he bought were of acceptable quality, even if by objective standards the quality was not satisfactory. The Law Commissions then went on to list some of the aspects to be taken into account in judging whether goods were of the required quality. These included fitness for purpose, appearance and finish, freedom from minor defects and safety and durability, and those are duly included in clause 1

Clause 2 tackles the question of acceptable goods. Although it does not substantially modify the existing law in this area, it does clarify it and, in particular, makes it clear that in judging whether a buyer has accepted goods, account must be taken of whether the buyer has had a reasonable opportunity of examining the goods to determine that they are in conformity with the contract. The clarification is important, as there is considerable uncertainty over the extent of a buyer's right to reject faulty goods. A tidying-up operation is overdue.

The rest of the Bill can be dealt with quickly. Clause 3 provides that if a buyer has accepted some of a batch of goods he does not thereby lose the right to reject the rest if they are not in conformity with the contract. Clauses 4 and 5 provide that where a buyer is not acting as consumer, he may not reject goods if the breach of contract is so slight that it would be unreasonable to do so. Because English and Scots law is slightly different in that area, separate provision must be made for each country; hence the need for two clauses.

Clause 6 provides for the introduction of provisions equivalent to part I of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 for Scotland. That was a separate recommendation of the Scottish Law Commission which was taken aboard in the two Commissions' 1987 report. It does not substantively change Scottish law in that area, but is a useful clarification and will bring Scots law relating to the supply of goods into line with that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Differences in terminology between English and Scottish law mean that the new law needs to be set out in full, and that is done in schedule 1.

Finally, clause 7 calls up schedule 2 which makes a number of necessary consequential amendments to other legislation, and schedule 3, which makes some consequential repeals. Clause 8 deals with short title, commencement and extent.

To sum up, the Bill is intended to bring about a long-awaited amendment to an area of law which, although it does not have a high public profile, nevertheless governs every transaction that we make. In a sense it is historic, in that it represents a serious attempt to modify by statute what has hitherto been, to all intents and purposes, the preserve of the common law. The Bill is not intended to bring about any major shift in the balance of rights and obligations as between a customer and a supplier, but by updating and clarifying the law I believe that it will be of benefit to both. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received any notification from the Secretary of State for Health that she intends to make a statement to the House about whether she intends to introduce an urgent review of ambulance services in the west midlands—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I shall take the hon. Lady's point of order after we finish the Bills.