§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ LORD MARKS OF BROUGHTON
My Lords, we are beholden to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for drawing our attention to the Molony Report on Consumer Protection. I confess that when I listened to the noble Baroness's speech I found it difficult to follow. If I understand it aright, it would appear that she is in favour of a bureaucratic organisation which is to be superimposed upon a lot of dishonest traders who are well known to the community. If I am wrong, perhaps the noble Baroness will inform me; otherwise I will go on with my few remarks, and I promise not to be long.
We must express our thanks to the Molony Committee on Consumer Protection for their painstaking and most informative effort in the production of their Report. They cover a wide field, dealing with many types of merchandise sold to the public by different methods of distribution. There are over 300 pages in the Molony Report. An abridged version would not be helpful, but perhaps advisory pamphlets for each type of selling organisation might be appropriate and certainly more readable to the majority of traders—a Report which they can understand.
I will confine my remarks to clothing and textiles and foodstuffs, but I would draw your Lordships' attention to paragraph 896 and to the fact that the consumer must protect himself. The paragraph reads:The measures we recommend in aid of the consumer do not aim to relieve him of the duty to look after himself. No system of protection can avert all the consequences of folly or eliminate every possibility of hardship. We have not tried to achieve this and we are sure it is neither possible nor desirable to do so.It is the function of the enlightened retailer, in concert with the suppliers, to 654 protect the customer against inferior quality goods. Most retailers would say that the large majority of shoppers are most discerning and discriminating as to quality and value. There are a few, of course, who are not so discerning and have sometimes to be protected from their own follies. But, believe me, the customers reject what they do not want, and buy what they want, and they are the arbiters of the success or failure of any business. The reputation of a firm is mirrored in the kind and the quality of goods they offer, and particularly in their selling methods. It is of importance, I agree, to label the goods with the kind of material and their special characteristics, so that the customers know what they are buying. But the confidence and the good will of the customers can be gained only by the quality of goods they can buy, and over a period of years—a long period. All this may sound elementary; nevertheless, it is the essence of sound business and proper public relations.
The Committee rightly said in paragraph 911:There can be no doubt that if a higher standard of quality control were generally adopted the consumer would have much less cause for complaint.Quality control is a complicated problem. Many firms are involved in the production of a garment. The spinner is concerned with the yarn, the weaver with the construction of the cloth, and the textile finisher with dye, print, and with applying chemical processes to produce the required effects. Each of these processes requires technical control to ensure quality. The function of the garment manufacturer is to style the garment, to produce efficiently, with up-to-date machinery and with modern manufacturing techniques. All these people and firms are concerned with the production of that garment, and it would be wrong to lay at the door of the retailer responsibility for something which might have happened throughout the chain of production.
I come back to help those who are perhaps not so knowledgeable about trade, to a source of help which is not sufficiently appreciated or recognised by many firms—I refer to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Attached to the D.S.I.R. are 50 research 655 stations which serve industry in many fields. It is estimated that they cover some two-thirds of our national production. The quest for better raw materials, better techniques, better methods of production and improved values is never ending and one which is the subject of continuous research.
The noble Lady spoke of a sum of £35,000 that had been made available for research on the part of the Consumer Councils, or whatever it was, and believed that it would not go very far. My own firm allocated some £600,000 to the development of quality merchandise. The D.S.I.R. in a recent Report stated:There are too many small or medium-sized firms which remain unaware of the nature and the amount of information at their disposal. They often do not recognise the problems which face them.Such an approach to a pool of knowledge based on research and experience would, I feel, be helpful, not only to the manufacturers supplying the home market but also to those who are interested in the export market. It is to be hoped that the National Productivity Year will do much to publicise the kind of specialised help which is available to industry.
Now, my Lords, I turn to foodstuffs. I regret that the Committee have not given attention to problems which fall within the scope of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955. None of the reasons they give is, in my opinion, good enough for avoiding some expression of view in a field where the consumer must be specially protected. In the few paragraphs which appear in the Report there is no mention of quality foods, or of hygiene and cleanliness, either in the factories producing foods or in the shops which sell them to the public.
The Annual Report of the Ministry of Health states that during 1961 over 5,000 cases of food poisoning were reported in England and Wales. This does not take into account all those who have suffered from nausea and vomiting owing to bad food and who must run into tens of thousands. It is obvious that in the field of production in factories and in selling foods to the consumer, public health can be seriously affected if scrupulous attention is not paid to hygiene and cleanliness. The only mention which 656 may have some remote connection with quality is on page 4, paragraph 9, which states:The appropriate Ministers are empowered 'so far as appears to them to be necessary or expedient in the interests of the public health, or otherwise for the protection of the public' to regulate the composition and preparation of food …".Does this mean that another Molony Committee should be set up to satisfy themselves that the authorities should enforce these regulations in the interests of public health and for the protection of the consumer? Do the authorities satisfy themselves as to the standards of hygiene and cleanliness in many food manufacturing plants? And do they approve the methods of handling and the display of foods in the shops? Who has not seen perishable foods, like meat and fish, displayed on open slabs, exposed to all the dirt and flies that may be around?
My Lords, the Molony Report presents only half, or less than half, the picture on consumer protection. There are many progressive food manufacturers and retailers who have set their sights at a level much higher than called for by present legislation. But are there not, too, many food manufacturers and shopkeepers whose standards are far too low? If the public health is to be protected, what steps should be taken to remedy the unsatisfactory position? Much can be done by attention to common-sense standards of cleanliness and to the principle: "Clean as you go". Infestation of all kinds can be eliminated both by attention to cleanliness and by effective measures such as the screening of doors and windows to keep out flies; and also by the use of suitable methods of disinfestation against rodents and other vermin.
My Lords, it is good that these problems should be publicly ventilated. Constructive criticism can lead only to better standards and raise the efficiency of all concerned for the ultimate benefit of the trader, and, above all, the protection of the consumer.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, I do not think there is any need for me to attempt to repeat the eloquent tributes that have been made to the Molony Committee and to the great industry 657 which they have shown, and also to the excellent speech we have heard from the noble Lady this afternoon when making her maiden speech from the Dispatch Box, if that expression is a permissible one. I had one or two things I was proposing to say which have already been said a great deal better. That always happens, so I am afraid what I do have to say will be rather a rag-bag of ideas and suggestions. At any rate, I shall try to keep it short.
I should like to begin with definitions. The Molony Committee on page 154 of their Report deal with the definition of "consumer sale". Perhaps it is surprising that the definition does not arise until page 154; but perhaps, on the other hand, it is not so surprising. I think it was Professor Kenney, in his classic The Outlines of Criminal Law, who saidDefinitions belong rather to the end of one's study of a subject than to the beginning.But, be that as it may, the Committee have put forward one definition in which they do not seem to have complete faith because they go on to put forward an alternative. I am going to suggest to your Lordships that the alternative is possibly superior to their own favourite. They suggest that a "consumer sale" should be defined as a sale by way of trade of goods not exclusively for use or consumption in any trade or business.
I should have thought that completely in that way to exclude from consumer protection goods bought exclusively for business purposes was unfortunate. Take a simple example. A farmer buys a typewriter for the purposes of that large amount of office work that farmers have to do. If a farmer buys a hundredweight of manure he does not need consumer protection for, being a farmer, he is supposed to know something about manure. But a farmer, surely, is not as a farmer expected to know anything about typewriters. It therefore seems unfortunate that, simply because the typewriter is used or required entirely for business purposes, it should be by this definition taken out of the field of consumer protection. For those reasons, my Lords, I would suggest that the second horse the Committee put their money on is a better one. They suggest in the next paragraph, Paragraph 470, that a consumer sale might be defined as a sale by way of 658 retail trade or business at or from any place whatsoever, leaving it to the courts to decide in cases of dispute and difficulty whether or not a particular sale was a retail sale. My Lords, I think that most people can recognise a retail sale when they experience one, and I should not have thought the courts would, in fact, be troubled very much, and that this second definition was superior to the first.
The subject appears to lend itself to division into two quite distinct categories. There is the protection from danger, and the protection from being deceived. Now I apprehend that the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, will probably be dealing with the danger side of this great question. I propose, therefore, in the few further remarks that I am about to make, to deal with the protection from deception angle. Early in the Report, in paragraph 346, the Committee deal with seals of approval. They start by going in some detail into the seal of approval of the Good Housekeeping Institute, which they say is perhaps the best known to the general public. Noble Lords may have had the experience—I have—of going into a retail shop and asking whether or not a particular item on sale is recommended, and being given the reply: "I have not tried it myself, but it is advertised on television and it has the seal of the Good Housekeeping Institute, which is supposed to be a recommendation."
My Lords, it is rather disquieting, when one reads in paragraph 347 of the Report, to find the Committee saying:We are bound to say that the impression left upon us was distinctly unfavourable.In paragraph 350 they say:We are left with little confidence in the Institute, in the quality of its standards, in the reliability of its testing"—and so on. Then in the next paragraph they say:In reaching this unhappy conclusion, we do not imply that the Institute is cynically and deliberately misusing its seal for private profit. It makes little or no money from the operation.Their final words about this Institute are that,the trust which a considerable section of the public places in this seal as an independent assurance of sound quality is without foundation.659 What the Committee say about this well-known Institute, they say in a good deal stronger terms about another, the British Safety Council. In paragraph 360 they describe this Council as a body which is,a potential menace to the public.They say that its seal of approval was discontinued in December, 1960, and the Committee seem to be thankful for that. That is a sad story. I am quite sure that up to now great faith has been placed by many purchasers in these seals given by Institutes, and it is very disquieting to find them reported on so badly. The Committee say, in paragraph 372, that their recommended remedy is registration of the particular seal as a true certification trade mark and the prohibition of the use of all others. They say:Our examination of seals of approval leads us to think that few existing seals, as at present operated, would survive. We do not think that the consumer would lose by the passing of the rest.My Lords, as I say, I think that is a sad story.
I should now like to say a word or two about manufacturers' guarantees, whereby in exchange for certain assurances given by the manufacturer with one hand, so to speak, other and possibly more valuable rights are taken away from the consumer with the other. The Committee put it in this way:A deep objection, already noted, to exclusion clauses—as they call them—is that they deny, or appear to deny, the consumer his general right against both retailer and manufacturer and confine him to the discretionery rights conferred by the guarantee. We think this is an excessive price to pay in return for the limited benefits of a guarantee".They go on to say, in paragraph 435:The overriding argument in favour of prohibiting 'contracting-out' is that it enables well-organised commerce consistently to impose unfair terms on the consumer and to deny him what the law means him to have.They say that a particular consumerwill find it difficult and sometimes impossible, to avoid submitting to the terms of business …adopted",because he possesses no bargaining power of sufficient weight to control and to compel. Even more are the Committee of this opinion, when it comes to the question of possible actions for damages for negligence, where injury is done as 660 the result of dangerous and defective goods. The Committee deal with this aspect in paragraph 475. They say that consumers:are ignorant of, and indeed unthinking about, their rights in the event of an accident attributable to negligently-caused defects. They do not realise what they are signing away.They recognise that manufacturers, on the other side of this argument, may be afraid of heavy claims arising from negligence and could insure against the risk. Well, my Lords, the manufacturers should not put themselves in this position, in my submission, and they can, indeed, if they choose to do so, insure against that risk.
The only other topic that I should like to say a few words upon is hire purchase. The Committee had a good deal to say about hire purchase. They point out that when the Hire-Purchase Act, 1938, was passed, hire purchase was almost exclusively the province of the poorer sections of the community who, quite rightly, were protected by that Act, and given greater protection than applied to the general public under contracts of sale under the old Sale of Goods Act, 1893. But since that time, of course, hire purchase transactions have increased in popularity tremendously, and the point has now been reached where, in many cases, the hire-purchase customer is in a better position, a more secure position, than the person who pays cash. My Lords, the Committee, in my submission quite rightly, do not favour that situation. Hire purchase has its great advantages, but it has its dangers, too. In an economy which is bound to have its ups and downs, surely the proliferation of hire purchase commitments is bound to accentuate those rises and falls in the national economy, which is an adverse thing. For that reason, surely the cash customer should not be at a disadvantage in any respect as against the hire purchase customer. The Committee therefore recommend that there should be at least equation of the two.
The Committee make one specific recommendation in paragraph 512, in deference to their conviction that there are many cases of ignorant customers being persuaded by high-pressure, door-to-door salesmen to sign hire-purchase agreements without realising that they are signing a hire-purchase agreement. They put forward what they regard as 661 a simple remedy for this situation. They suggest that on the document there should he a place for the hirer's signature in a "box" which should also contain, partly above and partly below the line carrying the signature, the words,I realise that by my signature I am offering to commit myself to a hire-purchase agreement on the terms contained in this document.My Lords, even that is 24 words, and I wonder whether the sort of person who might be deceived in this way is really going to read even 24 words while preparing to sign a document, probably while the high-pressure salesman is carefully talking about something else. I would recommend that, instead of 24 words, you have in the "box" on the document for signature the three words,Hire-purchase agreement".The words, "hire-purchase" can be in the "box" above the place where the signature goes, and the word "agreement" can be below the place where the signature goes. I feel that in those circumstances the most ignorant person could not fail to realise that he or she was, in fact, signing a hire-purchase agreement.
The noble Lady referred to this next matter: that, in the case of hire-purchase agreements induced by door-to-door salesmen, there should be a "cooling-off" time, as the Committee call it, granted to the customer; and in paragraph 526 they make their appropriate recommendation to this end. Finally on this subject, my Lords, the Committee recommend the abolition of the £300 value limit which has stood now since 1938 under the Hire-Purchase Act of that year, and point out that nowadays hire-purchase transactions are frequently carried out in cars and caravans—and, of course the £300 value limit does not apply in many cases of hire-purchase agreements for cars or caravans.
The next part of the Report deals with the Merchandise Marks Act. I should not in any event feel competent to venture into this field, particularly as I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cawley, is going to deal with this subject. But I hope that the few random suggestions I have felt it valid to make will commend themselves to Her Majesty's Government.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ LORD SAINSBURY
My Lords, I rise to speak with considerable nervousness, only somewhat lessened by the knowledge of your kindly indulgence to those who address your Lordships for the first time. In welcoming the Final Report of the Committee on Consumer Protection, I should perhaps declare an interest in so far as I am the chairman of the family firm which bears my name and which is a large retailer of food.
I should like, if I may, to make a few general comments. In my opinion, the Molony Committee had to hold a very delicate balance. This is very well put, I thought, in a leading article in the Financial Times on July 26 last. I quote:The Molony Committee had to balance the advantage of protecting the weak against the disadvantage of multiplying restrictions on other people's freedom of action. It is plainly right to stress continually the fact that the consumer's hand cannot be held all the time and that the world cannot be legislated into perfection.The second point I should like to make is that it is easy to exaggerate the amount of consumer dissatisfaction, and it will not surprise your Lordships that, as a retailer, I welcome the Committee's conclusion that, on the whole, the consumer does not think he or she is ill-served. I am sure my noble friend Lord Marks of Broughton, who I regret has left the Chamber, would agree with me in saying that success in retailing in this country largely depends on customer good will, and that equally the manufacturer or processor, if he is to be successful in the long run, has to concern himself with the reputation that is attached to his brand.
In saying this, I do not for one moment want to suggest that there are no sharp or undesirable practices, or to suggest that there is no need for further consumer protection. In my own experience there are, for example, cases of visual deception in certain packages which are deliberately designed to look as large as those of competitors' packages that contain more. There are also manufacturers who, instead of putting the weight in a prominent position on the package, seem deliberately to put it in a place most difficult for the customer to find. There are also instances of ullage, 663 which the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines asWhat a package wants of being full.These are just three examples of misguided practice, in my view, by the manufacturers concerned. But I should like to stress that only a very small minority of firms adopt this misguided policy.
My Lords, I think it is obvious that there is a much greater need for consumer protection in the case of consumer durables, that are infrequently purchased and are expected to have a satisfactory life of some years, than in the case of food which is frequently purchased and soon consumed. In the latter case, if a consumer feels, for example, that she has been misled by an advertisement, she is quickly aware of its false claims. This is obviously one of the reasons why food gets comparatively little mention in the Report.
I should like to express complete agreement with the Committee's view on price control—and here I quote:So long as there is (as now) vigorously competitive trade in consumer goods, and no fear of scarcity or monopoly, price control is an unwanted weapon of consumer protection".If I may say so in all humility, as one who served during the last war on many Ministry of Food consultative committees, the fixing of prices which are fair both to the consumer and to the trader is very difficult. It is easy for people who do not know the complexities of a particular trade to advocate it. I am reminded of this by what my noble friend Lord Trenchard said in another connection in The Times Agricultural Supplement a few months ago…indulging in the easy game of criticising someone else's business when one is not handicapped by a knowledge of the facts".I should like now, my Lords, if I may, to refer to another form of price control—namely, resale price maintenance imposed by individual manufacturers, and to express a mild regret that the Committee sought direction from the then President of the Board of Trade and, as a result of that direction, did not pursue the subject further. The Committee also stated—and I now quote:We subsequently learnt that your predecessor had decided to institute a fact-finding inquiry into this matter, and that the inquiry 664 would be confidential and we have had no news of its outcome".I think I am right in saying that we in this House also as yet have had no news of the Government policy decision as a result of that fact-finding inquiry. The Committee, however, towards the end of their Report, in paragraph 902, state:Restrictive practices of any kind which keep up costs or prices are inimical to the consumer. Consumer interest might require an extension and stiffening of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1956. The repeal of its provisions permitting enforcement of individual resale price maintenance might greatly benefit consumers.In the retail food trade one can say that very few, virtually no, manufacturers, outside possibly confectionery, enforce resale price maintenance. This, coupled with the work of the Restrictive Practices Court, has led to very keen competition at both the manufacturing and the retail level. Of course, this competition is welcomed by some, but not by all the parties concerned.
I do not wish to weary your Lordships and I am very conscious of the tradition that a maiden speech should be short and not unduly controversial; but before sitting down I would say something about the growth of what I personally consider to be undesirable promotion practices. Hardly a day passes without the announcement of some new gift scheme. Recently, for the lover of what I believe is called in certain circles "pop" music, there was a free jazz record with every pound-packet of a certain well-known brand of margarine. For those who like artificial flowers, there have recently been plastic roses with a packet of detergent, plastic carnations with a rival brand, artificial orchids with a famous brand of soap, and only last week I heard that, with the approach of the festive season, there was artificial mistletoe with a liquid detergent. Would it not be better if the manufacturer, instead of playing on the customer's psychological weakness, reduced his price? It is axiomatic that a free offer is never free—somebody pays and that somebody, in my opinion, is ultimately the consumer. My Lords, I believe that a Consumer Council could do a great deal to educate the public and to persuade manufacturers to discontinue these undesirable practices.
May I conclude by expressing the wish that a strong Consumer Council may 665 soon be appointed and that it may have a beneficial effect on the well being of the people of this country?
House adjourned during pleasure and resumed by the Lord Chancellor.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
My Lords, before I perform the pleasurable and traditional task of offering my congratulations on the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, may I hope he will agree with me that ladies come first, and therefore allow me to offer a word of congratulation to the maiden speech of a maiden lady, the maiden speech from the Front Bench of the noble Baroness who introduced the Motion before your Lordships House? I have to be very careful because I think it was a tour de force. I have never heard so many words delivered in such a space of time and never such a very fine review of the mass of words in this document as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, gave this afternoon. I would congratulate her. Some time ago I asked her if she had read the thing. She blushed a little. She did not like to say "No". She said "I have read nearly all of it. I am going to finish it. I have been on it for two and a half months." She showed us this afternoon that she has a mastery of it which I envy.
And now to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. It gives me particular pleasure to congratulate him on a maiden speech. It was not at all controversial, because I agreed with everything he said, and I am going to follow him into some of it. If there is one thing that your Lordships always like, it is to listen to a speech from someone who knows what he is talking about. I think that we are very fortunate in having the addition of the noble Lord to our deliberations, just as we are fortunate in having, on the other side of the House, his counterpart, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton. I hope that we shall hear the noble Lord very often, and that sometimes he will be able to break away from the inhibitions of a maiden speech and be highly controversial, as I know he well can be. Now, to the subject of the Motion.
The Molony Report contains a lot that is good. It says a lot that needed 666 to be said. But, if I may say this in an attempt at a little humour, while there is a lot of good in Molony, there is also a lot of boloney in Molony. I am going to deal with only three things, because I think that we can discuss this Report to better advantage when legislation which is before another place comes to your Lordships' House, if it ever reaches us. It was here in this House some time ago and never reached another place, and I understand that the Bill before another place is little different from the Bill which left here. However, I am not going to pass judgment on that.
The Molony Report says very well that competition is the consumer's best friend. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has said, in paragraph 902 the Report skates lightly over the one predominating fact in retail trade today that militates against competition—that is, resale price maintenance. But the Report shows its cloven hoof—or its Achilles heel, whichever you like to call it—in paragraph 7, which the noble Lord quoted. This paragraph shows that even the Molony Committee were not independent. They went to the President of the Board of Trade to ask whether they could deal with resale price maintenance, and were told that they were to sheer off it, because that was to be the subject of a private and confidential report. That was in 1959. The President of the Board of Trade told them they could not deal with this subject because it was to be referred to the Monopolies Commission at some future date. It never has been. That is not surprising.
The noble Baroness cast some doubts on whether the Board of Trade ever had the consumer's interests at heart. Of course, it never has. It has always been subjected to the pressure of vested interests. It was the pressure of vested interests that kept Sections 25 and 26 in the Restrictive Trade Practices Act. Section 25 makes individual resale price maintenance still operative. Manufacturers can bring sanctions against any sellers trying to pass on in lower prices to retail purchasers the benefit of efficiency; and the consequential part of it, in Section 26, even gives the producer of a branded price-maintained article power to control the price of second-hand products taken in part exchange for his new product. I have 667 never heard such arrant nonsense as that.
As your Lordships will remember, we argued this out in 1956, when the Restrictive Trade Practices Bill was before your Lordships' House, but the Government would not give way, because that was the result of a bargain made behind the scenes. I do not know whether your Lordships have read an informative article which appeared in The Times the other day. The writer discussed the way legislation is framed behind the scenes of a Government Department between the official level and vested interests, so that when it comes before Parliament, Parliament is almost impotent. In another place the other day, the President of the Board of Trade admitted that in connection with the Weights and Measures Bill before the House of Commons his Department had already consulted 200 vested interests. That Bill will largely be the result of the bargains that have been made.
The Molony Report, in spite of saying that competition is the consumer's best friend, did not deal at all with solo selling, which is one of the iniquities of retailing at the present time. Petrol is one of the outstanding examples, but there are others, where retailers are paid a higher discount to refuse to stock the goods of other manufacturers. There are restrictive covenants in many retail agreements to-day that make it impossible for a retailer to stock a range of goods. The result is that the consumer is denied freedom of choice. This practice is still allowed, and I do not know any enactment that can alter it. I believe that some of it is before the Monopolies Commission at the present time, but this kind of thing is rife in the retail selling of consumer durables. There are the keeping up of prices and restrictive practices of the worst possible kind, which the Molony Committee, like the Pharisees of old, ignore by passing on the other side.
After side-stepping the important matters referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury—incidentally, the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, did not build up their huge and efficient businesses by resale price maintenance. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, that his business has been built up on 668 selling articles with a branded name, the only guarantee of quality that the consumer has, because it means that the manufacturer's goodwill is behind the brand—the Report goes on to say, in paragraph 847:…the consumer needs an independent and forceful body to speak and to act on his behalf.Then they propose that the way to do that is to set up a Consumer Council, which can never be independent; which can never be forceful, and which is absolutely devoid of all power of positive action.
§ LORD DERWENT
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I wish he would develop his statement that the Council can never be forceful and never independent.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
I will leave the noble Lord under no illusions. I am going to tell him precisely, if he will let me finish.
Perhaps the biggest piece of boloney in the whole of Molony is paragraph 853, where it sets out the argument against allowing this Consumer Council to have any teeth at all. The noble Lady said that it must have teeth. What does it say in this paragraph? It says that the Council if it is going to do its job as an independent and forceful authority to act on behalf of the consumer, will be continually at odds and in acrimony with trading interests. But if it is going to do its job properly the Council will lead its life at odds with all the people mentioned by the noble Lady and by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. If it is just going to cut out anything that is going to be acrimonious, it might as well never be set up. I know that it will be inconvenient for the Board of Trade, because I imagine that the Board of Trade's idea in advocating this Consumer Council is to have a nice feather-bed or mattress between the consumer and the functions of the Department.
Let us look at the Council. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, wants me to tell him why I say that it will never be independent and will have no force and no authority. It is going to be set up by the President of the Board of Trade. The Committee let one small cat out of the bag in paragraph 824, where they say:For the most part it was said or implied that the power of appointment might most 669 appropriately be placed in your hands as President of the Board of Trade; but we note two suggestions (possibly inspired by the Board of Trade's traditionally close links with trade interests)"—that is a masterly understatement—that this duty should rest upon the Lord President of the Council.But the President of the Board of Trade has said in another place that he hopes to announce the name of the Chairman and the members within a short space of time. So we can now take it that he will be the appointing Minister. The Council is going to issue a Report. May I ask the noble Lord if it will issue the Report to Parliament, or will it issue the Report to the President of the Board of Trade? Who is going to speak on behalf of this Consumer Council? I suppose that it will be the President of the Board of Trade. All we shall get, in reply to any questions we want to ask about the functions of the Council or what it is doing, will be the departmental reply. Is that the beginning of an independent authority?
The Chairman is to be paid £3,000 out of public funds, and the members of the Council £500 each. They will be officers of profit under the Crown. So no Member of another place will be able to accept one of these positions, and any noble Lord or noble Lady who accepts one will be gagged: because we have at the present time noble Lords who are Chairmen of public bodies, and some supposedly independent bodies, who are inhibited from speaking in your Lordships' House. I suppose the best way for the Government to gag the noble Lady who moved the Motion on any of these subjects is to offer her £500 to be a member of the Council. She could then sit in splendid isolation and hear the Government spokesman giving forth about the work of the Consumer Council.
Let us at least learn from experience. Parliament has set up a Council on Tribunals. The purpose of that Council is to safeguard and be the watchdog of the interests of the citizen against the Administration and against bureaucracy. It was to be absolutely independent. If your Lordships remember, you fought tooth and nail right through the whole of the procedure on the Bill in this House to get some teeth in it in Clause 1(1)(c), which is written across my heart.
670 That was achieved over almost the dead bodies of the Establishment. But time has gone on, and now the Council on Tribunals, the watchdog of the rights of the common citizen and his privileges against the creeping paralysis of bureaucracy, is almost an appendage of a Government Department; and, if the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack will not mind my saying so, it is the appendage of his Department. From an Answer given by the Government the other day in your Lordships' House, and from the subject of a very informed article in The Times the other day, it is clear that we can expect no more real progress in that direction. The Chairman of the Council on Tribunals is a Member of your Lordships' House, inhibited from speaking in the House, and when anybody interested in the work of that body raises any subject he has to be content with the departmental reply. The same thing will happen with this Consumer Council. That is why I say to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, in answer to his question, without any equivocation and from past experience, that that is what the end of this Consumer Council will be.
I think we have to make up our mind whether a Consumer Council is necessary. It is set out clearly in this Report that at most it is going to be advisory. The Molony Report sets out four things with which the Council should not be entrusted. It is to do nothing objective. It has no powers. It cannot deal with any complaints. It cannot have executive action and it cannot have any say in the promulgation of regulations having statutory force. But it can have a lot of other functions, all of them advisory:…to provide advice and guidance… to offer advice…to offer advice and …to use its influence.I sympathise with the noble Lady's difficulties. While she asked for teeth for this Consumer Council, she did not suggest how one could give it teeth. I will only say that it will not have any teeth because the President of the Board of Trade has publicly stated that this Consumer Council will not require any legislation to bring it into force. So that is that. If you want to give a body like this teeth; if there is a real necessity to add to the number of advisory bodies; if there is any real necessity to give any other body legislative power except the 671 local authorities—and I quite agree they have fallen down flat on their faces in carrying out a lot of these things; and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Cawley, will bear me out—there is only one thing you can have, and that is a body something like the Restrictive Trade Practices Court, and something like an Ombudsman. But I do not think we shall ever get that through a bureaucracy who are not going to have their powers in matters such as these curtailed. This is one of the things we shall be continually fighting.
So I say quite frankly to all the advocates who want to put teeth into this Consumer Council that they are up against an almost impossible job. I agree that there are many things that want doing, such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. The public are deluded. I should like to see printed on every cigarette packet which contains a coupon, "Do not forget that in order to give you a gift we have reduced the size of the cigarettes", Which would be true. There is also the scandalous thing that these coupons and all these free gift schemes are licences to print money. Whether or not we want to have legislation for them, I think is a matter for consideration.
I think the Molony Committee have served only one useful purpose. They have made an attempt to pinpoint some of the objections. But do not forget that it is getting old now, and with the advent of the self-service store and the supermarket the consumer choice is getting wider. Although I would not attempt to enter into the mystical field of sizes of ladies' dresses and wearing apparel, from my own personal experience I have never yet known a woman who could not get the better of any dressmaker or gown shop if she set her mind so to do. So I think we could do a lot better than wasting the public money and wasting our time in setting up another advisory body, by strengthening the bodies we have and strengthening the legislation which we have; because we have the Merchandise Marks Act and the Weights and Measures Act and if that legislation were properly carried out and properly enforced—which it is not by a long way—I think that would be the most sensible way to 672 go about it, without having this little bit of sugar and trying to pacify the consumer by having this grandiose Consumer Council.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, I would add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject, and my congratulations on the matter and manner of her speech—her maiden speech from the Box. I was with my noble friend a month ago, and heard her then say that she hoped that eventually she would read this Report right through. I think she has to-day not only given us proof that she has read and assimilated it but given us a very comprehensive picture and some useful comments, for which we are grateful. I would also add my word of congratulation to my noble friend Lord Sainsbury on a first-class maiden speech, delivered, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said, with knowledge, which we would expect from him, and also with clarity and humour, which we enjoyed. We have indeed witnessed this evening a new formidable combination in the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Marks of Broughton and Lord Sainsbury. I always understood that the quickest way to a man's heart was through his stomach. I think we can therefore say to my noble friend Lord Sainsbury that he is closest to men's hearts and Lord Marks of Broughton is closest to their skins.
We had a good deal of criticism of the Molony Committee's Report, much of it just now from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, with a great deal of which I agree. But I think we must agree that this three years' task and this monumental Report of the Molony Committee represent a great service to the consumer, and whatever constructive criticisms we make should not obscure that fact. In fact, the Committee themselves underline the difficulties of getting to grips with the problem in one pregnant sentence, in paragraph 21, where they say:Consumer protection is an amorphous conception that cannot be defined.That is tantamount to an admission that, except in general terms or in certain limited fields, consumers cannot be protected by Statute. Whatever we do, 673 and whatever the Government do, I think that the greatest protection for the consumers will always be the honesty, integrity and good sense of manufacturers and traders, and the common sense and good taste of consumers themselves. But understandably Molony was right to advocate the setting up of a Consumers' Council as a continuing body for the purpose of education, propaganda and indirect control of both manufacturers and the Government.
I would submit, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, when he comes to reply, that there is one important field in which the Government can do much more than they are doing, and that is in the field of safety standards which should be enforced with all articles wherethe consumer incurs undue risk of personal injury.The Home Secretary already possesses the necessary powers under the Consumers Protection Act which we passed last year, and it is most disturbing that he has been so slow to use these powers. For example, there are mentioned in the Report matters such as, in paragraph 227, wrongly coloured electric cables. Is there any reason at all why the Molony Committee recommendations that their sale should be prohibited should not be immediately implemented? We all know that they are mainly, if not entirely, imported, and are usually inferior articles. Why should they be foisted on an unwitting and defenceless public?—because people are defenceless in matters of that kind. Then there are the oil heaters mentioned in paragraph 230. It is two and a half years since the Government promised to make regulations, and they have not done so. Why is there this regrettable lack of urgency? Must we wait this winter for a few more horrifying fires before action is taken?
Then I would mention inflammable clothing. I know, regrettably, that the Molony Committee in their Interim Report did not recommend the compulsory use of flame-resistant material for children's nightdresses. I think that was a great mistake, because improvements in the proban process have overcome the earlier objections. Surely we could take this matter up and safeguard children from a horribly painful death. Only last week in a local West Country paper—you see these cases only in local 674 newspapers; they axe not thought to be important enough for the national Press—there was this story about a little girl of eight:Child's nightdress caught fire. 'Shocking tragedy', says coroner at inquest.She lived for three days and the report went on:She said she placed some 'conkers' on top of the stove and two of them had fallen through the grill. Apparently she was trying to get them out when her nightdress caught fire… it was not made of flame-proof material.I think this is something which should not be left to the discretion of either traders or consumers. We know that this material can be produced; it has been improved; it costs a little more. In clothing of this kind, children's night clothes, we should insist that the material used should be flame resisting.
Then there is electrical equipment generally. Some progress is now being made in safety standards for electrical equipment by the British Electrical Approvals Board. Articles are now being tested against British Standards, and the "BEAB" mark, as we have to call it for short, can be fixed to successfully tested lines. The Electrical Development Association is co-operating and arrangements have been made for check testing, and manufacturers have to give notice of any change. I should like to draw attention to the fact that the Molony Committee pointed out that in the first year nearly 50 per cent. of applications for the mark were rejected. That is very encouraging evidence of the standard of testing, but it is most alarming to reflect that there is nothing to stop these sub-standard and possibly unsafe goods from continuing to be sold. I learned on inquiry that the latest figures show that out of 754 applications for the mark 455 have been approved; that is, over 60 per cent. We are moving in the right direction.
As already reported, B.E.A.B. has the full approval of the Molony Committee, mainly for the reason that application has been made for certification of the mark. Naturally that is important, but it must not be forgotten that it is a manufacturers' organisation, paid fox by manufacturers, and it will have value to them only if, presumably by extensive advertising, the public becomes "BEAB" mark conscious and buys 675 articles bearing the mark in preference to others. I would say that that is an added reason for the Government, after a reasonable time, a year or two I suppose, to step in and prohibit the sale of unsafe equipment. They may decide that unsafe equipment is that which does not satisfy thus particular mark or standard of testing.
But it is not enough to ensure that appliances are safe; we should also see that electrical wiring and installations are safe. There is the National Inspection Council which has been going for six years. It approves lists of contractors and private firms and the Area Electricity Boards, and inspects their work in order to ensure a high standard. I think the Government ought to ensure in their dealings with local authorities and other bodies who are going to put up new buildings, factories and housing estates, that these standards should be observed. It ought to be in the contract. It is not going to make it very difficult. We should not need any legislation for it but it would add greatly to safety.
Whilst agreeing with the Committee's approval for B.E.A.B., I am rather at a loss to understand their hypercritical attitude to all other existing testing organisations. There is no proposal at all for setting up a Government testing or sponsoring organisation, and we cannot therefore, in my submission, dispense, at this stage in any case, with the independent organisations. Nor should we make it virtually impossible for new ones to be set up.
In this connection I would accept the Committee's recommendation in paragraph 315 for a reliable scheme for granting seals of approval. The absolute essential, to my mind, is that, whoever pays for it, the testing must be completely independent and free from direct or indirect pressures. I even find that the B.S.I. certified trade marks come in for substantial criticism in the Report. Certainly the Institution draws its funds, in part, from industry but there is not a jot of evidence that its recommendations are not free, unbiased and of great value. In the last ten years I myself have had two experiences in my own industry and I can certify that the long-drawn-out negotiations do not arise out 676 of the desire to accommodate anyone but to ensure technical accuracy and the highest possible standards.
The offshoot of B.S.I., the Shopper's Guide, is described by Molony as a "struggling orphan", suffering from its dependence on manufacturers' contributions. Last week I received a letter from the Cornmarket Press, Limited, advising me that because of this criticism in the Molony Report it has been decided to set up a consumer advisory trust to publish Shopper's Guide. This, I am informed, will be a non-profit-making body. Editorial control will be independently vested in a council composed mainly of Consumers' Advisory Council members. Management and distribution will be sub-contracted to Corn-market Press for a cost-plus fee; in other words they will make a profit out of it. I do not say that is essentially a bad thing; I am merely recording the fact. This new organisation, in their latter, are satisfied that they had met the Molony objection. I wish them well; but for my part there was nothing wrong with the old arrangement with the B.S.I. Someone has to find the money. What really matters is the integrity of the Council, and I submit that that was never in doubt.
The one valid Molony criticism of both Shopper's Guide and its more successful competitor Which? is that their assessments are admittedly and unavoidably incomplete and they may therefore be damaging to manufacturers whose products are left out and excluded from consideration. At the same time, the suggestion made by Molony that the directors of Consumers' Association Limited, who publish Which?, might conceal profits through the payment of extravagant salaries to staff is, I think, a bit far-fetched. From its very early days I have been an admiring subscriber to Which?, but only this month, as a manufacturer, have I had first-hand experience of their methods—I happen to be in Which? for November. I can say that so far as their working is concerned it is of great value to the consumers, and, with one reservation, which I will mention later, it is absolutely fair to manufacturers.
The first intimation you get that you are under scrutiny is a letter informing 677 you that they have bought a number of your products at retail shops, and they send you a schedule setting out the dimensions, materials and other particulars on it—their own description, of course—and they ask you if all this is right. You are then entitled to say whether it is correct or not, and I believe they allow you to add any remarks. The next thing you know is what you read about it in the book.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, does that mean that the manufacturer is given the opportunity of agreeing with the assessment of the article in Which?
§ LORD STONHAM
No, not at all. You do not know what they are going to say about it. The kind of thing you are asked to agree with is whether the article is 30 inches long or 36 inches. They have bought your product, measured it, and decided what materials are in it, and they tell you only that. They even tell you the retail price, if you do not yourselves fix it. My firm never fixes the retail price, and I was astounded to find there was a variation of some 15 per cent. in the retail prices they had obtained from different shops. But that is by the way. They buy the articles from the shops so that the consumers know that standard goods are being tested. That is how it should be, and nothing so far could be fairer.
Certainly I was well satisfied with the outcome of Which?, if only for the fact that the publication of good photographs to 300,000 subscribers has made a substantial difference to the sales. I was also astonished but highly gratified; astonished to think they would try a test like this, but gratified to learn they had held a flame to my job for one minute and it had not caught fire; most others did. That was splendid. After correctly saying that the job was well ventilated and airy, they described it as a fault that it was not watertight. The article is made from woven fabric in which thousands of holes are visible to the naked eye. One of its virtues is that it is airy, and that is why we use that particular material, so that babies can breath. You might as well expect a sieve to hold water. Such silly mistakes—and this was the one reservation—could be avoided if they simply told the manufacturer beforehand just these 678 points; and that nonsense could be avoided prior to publication.
This proviso is particularly important if these tests are used on television. Silly mistakes do not matter very much in Which? but they could matter if broadcast to millions of people who could not feel and handle the product. I wish that the Consumers' Association would sell their publication on the bookstalls. Naturally, we wanted a large number more to send round, and on inquiry we were told we could have as many copies as we liked at £1 a time; that is the cost of a year's subscription. That is painfully autocratic, in my view.
As the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, mentioned, the Molony Committee was a bit rough with Good Housekeeping, in which I declare an interest because I am a director of a company which acts as advisers to the Institute. The Report describes it as best known to the general public, with whom it enjoys a fair standing, but declares that it has little confidence in the Institute or the quality of its standards. Paradoxically, the Committee say that the merchandise which bears the seal generally satisfies the customer, but regard this as due more to the calibre of the manufacturers who seek the seal for its advertising value. It is difficult to imagine manufacturers seeking the seal for any other reason; nor would they seek it if it had no value or the customers had no faith in it.
The fact is that this non-profit-making Institute has been in useful existence for 38 years. It is the only organisation which refunds the purchase price of an article if a customer claims that its performance does not justify the seal. There are very few claims made out of millions of seal-bearing articles sold, and this, allied to the fact that out of every five articles offered for testing only three are awarded the seal, has made it a household word which should not, in my view, be lightly cast aside.
I am quite sure that there is room for improvement in all the organisations' methods. I think that the Committee's definition of a seal of approval and their proposals for registration should be acceptable to all bona-fide organisations. Indeed, I do not doubt that they will all apply for certification. This being so, I would submit that the obvious course 679 would be for the proposed Consumer Council to negotiate the necessary changes with these bodies and maintain a close liaison with these established organisations to ensure the widest possible publication of the Consumer Council's periodic reports and instructions.
I entirely agree with what my noble friend Baroness Burton of Coventry and others have said; this Consumer Council must not be a mere façade. We have had the expression that it must be given "teeth", and I think we all agree that we have not seen yet where the teeth are going to grow from. The Molony Report is adamant that it should not handle consumers' complaints. Indeed, the modest scale of finance proposed in the Report would not permit that, in any case. But someone must handle complaints or the whole report will be a sheer waste of time. Therefore the Council must act through agencies, and obviously it must make a beginning with those agencies which are already established.
Certainly the Citizens' Advice Bureaux have an important part to play, as my noble friend Baroness Burton of Coventry made clear; we do not want to underrate their importance in any way. But as of now they have not the equipment, they are not open sufficient days or sufficient hours; their staff to a large extent is voluntary; they have not got the technical knowledge. When I was a Member of another place, in common with the 615 other Members we were all citizens' advice bureaux every Friday night on all kinds of subjects. My noble friend may have been competent to answer some of the questions that must have been addressed to her, and I should have thought our general knowledge as Members of another place was equal to that of members of the staff of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Certainly they used to send a lot of people to us to answer questions they could not answer.
It is no good the Government thinking, "We are going to set up the Consumer Council, give them £125,000 a year, and the job is going to be done". It will not be done—it cannot be done—unless they have the agencies to do the job, to tackle complaints, to disseminate information 680 and to see that the whole thing works. I think that the Molony Committee's Report is just the beginning of this very big and important job. We need the help of all existing organisations and some new ones, and we need a big, sustained and persistent effort if consumer protection is to become a reality.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
My Lords, first I would apologise to your Lordships' House because, due to a longstanding engagement in Surrey, I have to leave the Chamber as soon as I have completed my speech. I should particularly like to apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and to my noble friend Lord Derwent on that account. I now have much pleasure to be the first person on these Benches to congratulate the noble Baroness on her first contribution from the Opposition Front Bench. It was a most interesting speech, full of sensible and practical knowledge, and we all hope that she will make many more similar speeches from that position.
It also gives me much pleasure to be the first from these Benches to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, on his admirable maiden speech. It was the speech of somebody who has had a lifetime of experience in the food trade. It was modest, but it was full of sound practical sense. I may say, as one who has purchased many goods from his chain of stores, that the most vital aspect of this particular chain of stores is that it has two hallmarks—civility and efficiency. I think that a Consumer Council or any other Council would find few complaints about that organisation. It is a great pleasure to have had the opportunity to listen to Lord Sainsbury's contribution, and I am sure that I voice the opinion of the whole House when I say that we hope to have many more such contributions in the future.
The Molony Committee, whose Report we are considering, have been sitting for three years, and no fewer than 472 written statements have been taken from various organisations. I believe that the Report has many admirable facets to it, but I must confess that to me it is in many respects a confusing Report. It tends to be repetitive. However, this is a subject which it is difficult to discuss with any semblance of logic, because, on 681 the one hand, the consumer must be protected from illegal practices and from overcharging and so on, while on the other, the consumer would soon complain if he were told too much as to what he must and must not purchase. Any Report of this nature needs to fall into a happy medium to avoid these difficulties.
I wish to deal primarily and briefly with three aspects of this Report: safety, advertising and the setting up of the Consumer Council. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has already made some admirable comments on the subject of safety. This is a subject of which he has a great deal of experience, and he has made many valuable contributions in regard to the subject in your Lordships' House. I am a member of the all-Party Home Safety Committee, and I think that the Molony Report is to be commended for its writings on this matter of safety, although I cannot help feeling that the Committee have been a little complacent in one or two of their comments. For example, in paragraph 234 they mention that the number of injuries and deaths due to burns in children and old people has declined. I have not the figures with me, and I should not like to dispute what they say without having them, but the figures are still far too high, and I think that that paragraph might conveniently have been omitted.
I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said about the sale of flameproof clothing. One of the difficulties of making such sales compulsory is, of course, that the general public do not like being told what they must or must not buy. But having myself closely examined treated materials, I do not see any reason why their sale should not be promoted more vigorously. The general public can now get flameproof materials at reasonable cost and attractively styled. One difficulty is that the ladies, and particularly the younger ladies, like to be in the fashion; they like to wear attractive clothing. But now attractive clothing, properly treated and flameproof, can be obtained. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, to whose speech we listened with such interest, is to be congratulated because his large organisation has done so much for the advertising of flameproof and safety clothing. In fact, I think I am 682 right in saying that Marks & Spencer were the pioneers of treated clothing which would at least afford some protection against these terrible injuries.
I should like just to say a few words about toys. Being the father of three young children, I can perhaps declare something of an interest here. Quite often I purchase toys for my young children and for relations and friends. I have been much impressed by the high standard of British-made toys. Some years ago there were a number of complaints about the poor quality of goods manufactured by the British toy industry. I think that a number of improvements have been made here—I refer particularly to the cuddly type of toys, the teddy bears and so on. But there could still be safety improvement—for example, the eyes of some of these toys can be too easily removed and find their way into children's mouths. I am glad to see that the Molony Report has touched on this question, and I hope that the Government will look into it. Then there is the danger of lead poisoning from some of the painted dolls. That is still quite prevalent. It is particularly applicable to dolls, to certain types of wooden cars and other vehicles. But, by and large, the British toy industry has now a most creditable record so far as safety is concerned. There are, however, still a number of imported toys with jagged edges which can cause nasty cuts and which merit looking into in connection with the recommendations of this Report.
I should like to say a few words now about advertising. This business of free gifts, particularly with cereals and toothpaste, has gone much too far. This is particularly true when one has two or three young children in a family, and one is persuaded to buy two or three packets of cornflakes or something, because there are free gifts and there is a quarrel as to which child should have which gift. We all like free gifts, provided that they are free. But as has been said by other noble Lords, these are not free; frequently, the goods are sold at short weight. That may not necessarily be the fault of the manufacturer, because in the processing short weight may result; but we can discuss that further in dealing with the forthcoming Weights and Measures Bill. Then the quality of the toys is usually very poor; they are often made of some 683 kind of plastic material which is probably pretty dangerous, anyway, because it inevitably goes into the child's mouth. I think that either the price should be cut, or the full value of the cereal or other commodity should be given.
Of course we are told for advertising purposes that the firm must advertise. Well, that is fair enough—but not at the expense of the consumer. Then, provided with our tooth-paste we get a biro pen or a toothbrush, usually of inferior quality. Why not provide a properly filled tube of tooth-paste at a reasonable price—if you like, at the full economic price? I feel that these things should be looked into. I know that Government legislation on these matters presents a number of problems, but, after all, the idea of consumer protection has, I think, at least got through to the Government's mind, and these are obvious matters to be investigated.
Finally, in regard to the question of the Consumer Council, on paper this sounds an excellent idea. The consumer must be protected. Frequently he has not sufficient redress against the manufacturers of inferior quality goods or against shops who may tend to employ illegal practices. But I feel that the composition of this Council must be given great care. I should like to quote from an article which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 4, an article written by Jean Robertson. She said:The Government is not forced to go along with Molony; I shall, however, be amazed if it doesn't. What a weight of responsibility this has put on the Whitehall selectors. The job of picking the people to make up the first national Consumer Council dwarfs even the tense and awful task of selecting the eleven men most likely to bring the Ashes home from Australia.My Lords, I think the chances of our cricketers bringing home the Ashes from Australia are a good deal brighter than those of a Consumer Council, unless it is very carefully chosen.
I feel that if the names have not already been selected, consideration at any rate should be given to having at least one housewife on it. After all, it is she who has to do the shopping. I am not saying this is always so, because I, like many other noble Lords, I am sure, frequently do the family shopping, 684 particularly on a Saturday morning. Therefore, I feel qualified to make some of these comments. At any rate, it is to be hoped that the composition of this Council will not have too much of a rigid, Civil Service mind. It must be composed of those who have experience of industry, of the retail and wholesale trades, and also of shoppers themselves so that the members really know something about what is going on. We are not, of course, told very much about their terms of reference. It is obviously going to be difficult to insist that they can be in a position to promote prosecutions because, obviously, certain areas of the country must require different forms of legislation. But if the Government are going to become favourably disposed towards the idea of a Consumer Council—and I think there is a lot to be said for it—the composition of this Council is of paramount importance.
My Lords, in this coming Session the Weights and Measures Bill will presumably come back to this House, so I do not feel that there is any need to say anything about that. But I think that this Report, with all its defects, will be of great benefit to the consumer, because it is at least an attempt to thresh out some of these problems of resale price maintenance and other technical problems which those of us who are laymen find difficult to understand. I hope, therefore, that the Government will take serious cognizance of what has been said to-day.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ LORD PEDDIE
My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for providing an opportunity for discussion of this most important subject. I think, too, that I must join in the congratulations that have been extended to her for the remarkable way in which she presented her case. I must also join in expressing my sincere congratulations to my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. My own maiden speech is not so far distant that it obscures my recollection of the occasion, and my heart went out to him when he rose to his feet. But I realised, after he had been speaking but two minutes, that he did not need my sympathy. He made a first-class speech, and, as other speakers have indicated, all the better because it was based upon 685 practical knowledge. I am sure that all Members of this House will look forward with great interest to more speeches from my noble friend Lord Sainsbury.
More than one noble Lord during the course of this debate has given a clear indication of the importance of consumer protection, and, while it is true one can easily exaggerate, nevertheless there are very many traps and pitfalls to catch the unwary shopper to-day; and if Molony has done one thing, he and his Committee have focused attention upon these traps and pitfalls. In this regard I suppose they have served their purpose. They have also given us some indication of the tremendous range of the problem of consumer protection—a startling range indeed.
Many of the aspects of consumers' problems have been dealt with during the course of the debate this afternoon-such as questions of quality and purity of foodstuffs. I might mention, in passing, that there are no fewer than 700 additives to food. I agree that the overwhelming majority of them are probably necessary, and certainly not harmful, but we have no assurance to-day that all are without some deleterious effect upon the human.
We have had reference to a further aspect of this problem, that of the question of just and honest measure. I might quote the comment which the Molony Report make, concerning the matter of weights and measures. In paragraph 8 they say:we never doubted that before our Report was completed there would be a new Weights and Measures Act on the statute-book. We have been disappointed about this. If our recommendations are acepted in whole or part, we trust that in the interest of the consumer their implementation will not suffer the monumental delay which has characterised the treatment of the Hodgson Committee Report.The question of misleading presentation has also been touched upon. My noble friend Lord Sainsbury gave many indications of that. I would point out that many good firms of high repute are being forced into such practices. We have advertising, high-pressure advertising. Although I recognise that the profession itself is attempting to impose certain standards, nevertheless there is an increasing tendency for information to be subordinated to persuasion. Then 686 there are gimmicks—gimmicks which descend to trickery and, in some cases, almost to knavery. Then there are monopoly practices, and the situation where 25 per cent. of the consumer goods which are sold in the market to-day shall have a maintained price. That is the range of the problem, my Lords.
We could lead ourselves to believe that traders are less honest than they used to be. Such is not the case. Nor do I believe that the public are more stupid than they used to be. But the fact remains that we experience to-day far more complicated shopping. We have almost an absence of adequate standards. We have a general shopping public who have little knowledge of the law that could protect them. We are living in a producer's world, where not only have we the pressure of the manufacturer and distributor, but even the vested interests among our own ranks of Labour can press a particular vested interest, without any recognition whatsoever of the consumer as such. I would point out that competition, although it has been mentioned in the course of this debate, is no protection at all; indeed,I would go so far as to say that in many cases competition forces bad practices. The consumer is almost defenceless in this type of atmosphere, and I believe that no single body of law offers complete protection, even with far better enforcement than we have had in recent years. But the consumer needs the law. He needs the protection of the law; secondly, he needs accurate information which will enable him or assist him to judge such products; and, thirdly, he needs the protection of an organisation to give him collective strength, and an organisation that can exercise a continuous watch, because the whole scene of distribution, shopping and marketing is in a constant state of flux.
Now I turn to the question of the Molony Committee and the way they have dealt with these problems. I believe that the task that was presented to them gave an opportunity for the consideration of a vast subject, which could have made possible bold and imaginative proposals. In that regard I think the Molony Report falls far short of our expectations. In the first place, I am at a complete loss to understand why services were ruled out, were ignored, 687 despite the fact that services constitute a significant part, and an increasing part, of consumer expenditure.
Secondly, my Lords, I think that to exclude food and drugs, in spite of the explanation offered, is nothing more or less than a scandal, particularly in the light of recent experiences. We know the harrowing experience with thalidomide, and the Committee knew during the time it was sitting—true it was in Holland—that in 1960 60,000 people suffered serious skin disease through the use of margarine additives. We also know that only recently an investigation was made of certain proprietary drugs, and that, from a medicinal standpoint, 250 of them were found to be utterly worthless. Other noble Lords have made reference to this aspect, and in this particular field, to my mind, lies an overwhelming justification for consumer protection. I fail to understand why it was not considered. I appreciate, and would emphasise, that I do not think any body of law, without becoming too restrictive, can create a situation that will protect the general public absolutely, so far as the drug field is concerned, but at least Molony could have suggested some improvements.
Next, to by-pass price maintenance and ignore the whole fabric of price and monopoly is, to my mind, strange. I would join in the criticism of the Molony Committee, for I believe they were far too easily directed—and I use that word deliberately—by the Minister to exclude activity in that particular field. Molony says that the manufacturers and distributors have a powerful voice and the consumers are voiceless. I agree. The Committee go on to concede that the need for consumers to organise themselves is expressed in the genesis of the Co-operative Movement. It is a great pity that that theme was not developed, and an indication given of the considerable contribution which is made to consumer protection by the voluntary association of no fewer than 13 million people, who are members of consumer organisations in this country. I would agree with the Molony Committee when they go on to make reference to the fact that, in the vast field of consumer need which it would be impracticable to cover by legal safeguards, consumer education should fill 688 the gap. I would make the suggestion that consumer education, apart from using all the instruments of popular and public education, deserves a place in the curricula of schools. I would suggest that household budgeting, selective buying and the like, are just as important as the teaching of carpentry in schools; and, certainly, they are as important to the potential wife or, for that matter, to the husband, too.
I turn now to the question of the Consumer Council. I know I shall be told that other noble Lords have made reference to the fact that this is a first step. It is a very timid step. The Molony Report has dismissed, almost with contempt, suggestions that were made for the establishment of a Ministry, or even a separate Government Department under a Minister of State, who would have the responsibility for coordinating all aspects of consumer protection. They dismiss that idea as grandiose. They go on to acknowledge the need for Government departmental co-ordination, but, strangely enough, they leave it to the Consumer Council to discover whether and in what respects that could be done. I would suggest that no Government should delegate to some other body their responsibilities for the administration of Departments of State.
The full responsibilities that are likely to be placed upon the Consumer Council can be borne only by a powerful organisation; and unless it is powerful it is doomed to failure. To give some idea of the financial backing of the Council's power, the total funds available in the first year will be £125,000. The Molony Report makes reference to the fact that the Consumers' Association are only touching the fringe of the job they have to do, yet their income is £300,000. This Council, if set up, will need to challenge Government Departments, and the appointments, we note, are to be made by the President of the Board of Trade while the Treasury will pay the bill. I only hope that the Council will find themselves completely immune to any lobbying that may be done by comercial or industrial interests which they may have need to criticise.
I have also very grave doubts, my Lords, about the suggestion that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux should undertake 689 this local work. Tributes have been paid to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and those I would accept. But I doubt whether this organisation could, with the small grant that is being offered, perform such a service. I doubt whether it possesses the co-ordination or uniform service. I would mention, in passing, that there are 93 towns in Britain having more than 30,000 population but no citizens' advice bureau. To me, the suggestion smacks rather of "passing the buck". I would rather have seen the services of the local authority called in. I know that there are difficulties here, and I know it is said that local authorities already have many responsibilities. But at least this would achieve a unification of the many services in relation to consumer protection which have already been undertaken by local authorities, and it would also, I believe, introduce a greater sense of public accountability. I believe that that was important to the Molony Committee, because they themselves chided the Consumer Association for not having a more democratic control; but at least if the local authorities accepted this measure of local responsibility there would be more public accountability.
To turn to another aspect of this matter, I noticed that in another place, I think on Monday, the statement was made that there would now be no need for a Bill to bring the Consumer Council into being. If my memory serves me aright, that is somewhat different from the statement that was made in the gracious Speech, and I am wondering whether or not both Houses will have an opportunity of discussing these matters related to the creation of a Consumer Council. I think that both Houses would be entitled to ask what are the precise terms of reference; What is the scope of work; how is the money to be provided; What precise staff will be available, and who will compose the Council. I do not know how both Houses are going to get that sort of information unless there are facilities for discussion of this whole matter.
It has already been indicated (and on this I would put a specific question to the noble Lord who will be answering for Her Majesty's Government), I think, that there will be no legislation this Session to deal with some of the pro- 690 posals made by the Molony Committee. How does that tally with the Government's previous declaration on this particular matter? Because we have all had too much experience of Reports coming along, of suggestions being acclaimed on all sides and then being carefully buried and forgotten.
There are one or two other aspects of the Report, my Lords, on which I should like to make comment. The first is credit trading and hire-purchase. Seeing that I have been criticising the Molony Report so far, I think I ought to take this opportunity to pay them a compliment. While credit trading and hire-purchase do serve a useful need, the Molony Report draws attention to the many abuses; and one would say that the field in which the buyer should really beware is in that field of hire-purchase which is outside the scope of the Hire-Purchase Act. I saw some figures recently which startled me (and I think they will startle the House) in dealing with this question of the effect of stimulated trade. The Commissioners of Prisons, in their Report for 1959—and I quote:…noted a striking rise in the number of prisoners received from county courts. They were: for 1951. 499; 1957, 2,148; 1959, 4,821; 1960, 5,057".The Commissioners of Prisons go on to state—and I quote:These prisoners come, we have reason to believe, largely as a result of failure to pay commercial debts, of which the bulk will have been incurred as a result of hire-purchase agreements".That extract gives an indication of the result of high-pressure salesmanship—not in all cases, but in many cases. Reforms are needed, and with many of the reforms suggested I would agree, particularly the idea of giving the power to have second thoughts over a period of 72 hours. At the same time, I feel that this should not be restricted merely to door-to-door sellers. I agree that there should be a statement of interest rates if advertised, and that it should be stated on an annual basis. But I do not think the problem is confined solely to one of falsely-expressed rates. I think it is the failure of the consumer to be clearly cognisant of the total interest charged. I think that is just as necessary, and that steps should be taken to achieve that.
691 I turn now—and I am conscious of the passage of time—to the merchandise marks law. Molony agrees that this legislation is not adequately enforced, and that there should be a co-ordinating body to ensure uniform administration. It is difficult to believe that the proposed Council would have the authority to achieve anything in that direction. I believe that the Molony Committee is right: that the main body of legislation in this field requires simplification. But I would also agree (and I am sure my noble friend Lord Sainsbury would agree with this) with the recommendation to improve the defences of the honest trader; he should not be held responsible for false trade descriptions ascribed to goods by someone else. I think there are helpful precedents in this regard in the Weights and Measures Bill and in the Food and Drugs Act, 1948.
When we come to the Merchandise Marks Act, 1926, there are some really remarkable inconsistencies. In the first place, Molony says—and I quote from the Report:We think that the best interests of the consumer require free competition "—I agree—and that imported goods should not be placed under any disadvantage in contributing to the stimulus of the market-placeIt goes on:We do not regard as a real consumer concern the ability of the consumer to discriminate against imported goods on patriotic, political or personal grounds, and we feel under no obligation to facilitate this type of discrimination.In view of those statements and of other statements in the Report, one would have expected the Committee to declare that the 1926 Act serves no useful purpose, so far as consumer protection is concerned. However, I believe that the whole circumstances in connection with their judgment on the Merchandise Marks Act, 1926, are unsatisfactory, because no attempt was made, so far as I am able to see, to secure the views of people other than those with vested interests in discriminating against foreign produce. I could produce lists of goods that are now governed by marking orders—skewers, pokers; even fly-swatters—where consideration of the real interest of the consumers in the origin of those goods is completely lacking. If the purpose of the Act is 692 to enable the consumers to make a choice between home and foreign goods, it should be reviewed. I think it is quite cynical to suggest, as the Molony Report does, that the marking orders governing foodstuffs, should be enforced by local authorities, yet those on dry goods are enforced at discretion. I am at a loss to understand the reason for that. The marking orders in the Act of 1926 are not being adequately enforced and the law is falling into contempt. Enforcement might have the effect of multiplying prosecutions, with no benefit to the consumer, and I am amazed that Molony did not give attention to this particular point.
My Lords, I have dealt with a few points of interest to me. I would end by stating that at least one great virtue lies in the Report; that it helps the general public and ourselves to focus attention upon these important problems. I hope also that it will stimulate the Government to action, because consumer protection should be not merely in the interests of justice but also in the economic interest. A very great improvement could be made in the whole field of distribution with tremendous advantages to the nation itself, and if the Report inspires action in that particular regard it will have served a useful purpose.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ LORD CAWLEY
My Lords, I intend to speak only on Chapters 14 and 15 of the Report; that is to say, those chapters dealing with the Merchandise Marks Act. I hope the noble Baroness will not consider me discourteous if I do not refer to her admirable speech, to which I listened with interest, but I usually rise in this House to talk about something rather technical; and this evening is no exception. I therefore absolve the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, from replying, if he will assure me that my remarks will be given consideration when legislation is proposed in this field.
As soon as this Committee was appointed I noticed that no person had been appointed to the Committee who had some knowledge of the law of industrial property or, so far as I can see, the Jaw of trade marks and similar law. The result has been that the recommendations in this field have gone 693 somewhat astray. I think it is very necessary that these recommendations are criticised, so that no unfortunate stops should be taken when legislation is put forward. The Merchandise Marks Act is, in my view, a most important weapon for use in consumer protection. We cannot ensure fair trading without just laws which axe adequately enforced.
There are two grounds, in particular, on which I part company with the Committee. The first is that they have not suggested there is any criticism of the fact that merchandise marks proceedings are heard by magistrates' courts or juries. I shall deal with that in detail later. The second recommendation, which I cannot understand, is that the right to prosecute for infringement of registered trade marks, which runs parallel to the right to sue for infringement of registered trade marks, should be retained. The remedies under the Merchandise Marks Act are prosecution before magistrates or before a judge and jury. These cases are decided on the evidence and are not conclusive against third parties. They are not binding on any other court, and no injunction can be granted. So the accused can commit the offence again and again, subject, of course, to an increased penalty for a second offence.
Another very serious difficulty is that the choice of venue in which prosecution can be conducted is very wide. Let us suppose that it is desired to prosecute somebody who is distributing goods all over the United Kingdom. Wherever a packet of his goods can be bought there can be a prosecution. The result is that a prosecutor can choose his venue, can choose the bench of magistrates whom he desires. He can go round until he gets the bench he thinks will be in his favour. And, as noble Lords know, magistrates, by their nature, vary enormously all over the kingdom. I know some cases (and I believe the case I shall mention is one) where the prosecution went from court to court failing to get a conviction until they arrived at a stipendiary magistrate who convicted the defendants.
That case was the "Non-brewed vinegar" case—a very curious case. The Ministry of Food had licensed numerous people to sell a product 694 under the name of "Non-brewed vinegar", though they did not, in so many words, give them permission to use that name. The brewers of genuine vinegar then brought proceedings under the Merchandise Marks Act against these people. Now, an ordinary bench of magistrates, when an order by the Ministry of Food is brandished before it showing that the Ministry of Food have licensed the making of this stuff, is unlikely to convict. Prosecutions went without success, until they met a stipendiary magistrate. He said: "I don't care a rap for the Ministry of Food. This is a false trade description". There was then an appeal, on the grounds that the decision was against the weight of evidence, to the Divisional Court, and the Divisional Court decided that, although they might not have decided that way themselves, they would not interfere with the magistrate's decision. I must say I think that is a very unsatisfactory way of obtaining a decision which is important to all of us—for about 300 people in that case were producing this commodity.
An even more curious case recently was that of "Spanish Champagne". In that case, the Costa Brava Wine Company were prosecuted at the Old Bailey for using the name "Spanish Champagne", on the ground that it was a false trading description and that champagne was wine that came only from a small area in France. The jury acquitted the company, and the effect of this was shattering on the Continent, because the French immediately thought that a court in this country had given permission to Spaniards to use the word "Champagne" in reference to their wine in this country. It is almost impossible to explain to a foreigner that if the case had been taken to a stipendiary magistrate the next day he would have had a perfect right to find the other way. It has not done our jurisprudence any credit at all. Of course, there is a happy ending to this. The champagne growers got together, went to the High Court and were granted an injunction, which is a much better remedy, because if the Costa Brava Company did it again they would face sequestration.
The Merchandise Marks Act, 1953, made it a new offence to apply false or misleading trade descriptions to goods, 695 as to fitness for purpose, strength or behaviour. And the Committee, in paragraph 638, suggest that there should he added to this the wordsor any other physical characteristic whatsoever".I have had experience, which probably few people have had, of the working of this subsection even without that very wide qualification, because in 1954 I was junior counsel in a very curious case which took place in a town near London. A firm who were selling homeopathic prophylactics for cows against mastitis were prosecuted by the county council for putting a false trade description as to the fitness for purpose of the goods. They had, in fact, put a rather wide claim as to the properties of these goods, but the case was really based on the fact that certain people had induced the county council—and I say this advisedly—to fight this case in order to extinguish homeopathy in the veterinary world. Of course, this is a respected branch of the medical profession, which is carried on by about 400 practitioners in the medical, as distinct from the veterinary, would.
There was no evidence as to fact. All the evidence given was as to opinion, and the poor magistrates were absolutely overwhelmed by this. They found that, in effect, homeopathy is all rubbish, and they convicted the company. There was a happy sequel. On appeal to the Appeals Committee, which was made up of highly-qualified legal men, the Committee said, quite correctly, that there was a complete conflict of evidence of opinion honestly given, and therefore the prosecution had not proved its case. The sequel to that was that the county council had to pay £500 in costs.
I do not think that this case was fair either to the magistrates or to anybody else. Paragraph 679 is headed "Laxity in enforcement", and paragraph 682 states:We have no doubt that the proper course is to lay the enforcement duty on local authorities".Is it fair in these complicated cases that a local authority should be faced with a bill for £500 if they fail? Is it surprising that they are somewhat loth to take the risk of failure? And this is not an isolated case. In a case before 696 the Greenwich magistrate some years ago, when it was suggested that the phrase "California Syrup of Figs" was a false trade description, the costs awarded against the prosecution were £250. So it is not an uncommon occurrence in these complicated cases.
I put forward various tentative suggestions. The first one is that a local authority should be entitled to an indemnity in costs from the Board of Trade, if the Board approve proceedings being taken by that local authority. Secondly, local authorities or the Board of Trade should be given a locus to sue in the High Court for an injunction to obtain a more authoritative decision on such matters as Spanish champagne and non-brewed vinegar, which are important to the public generally, and for that matter in complicated cases, subject to the same indemnity as to costs, the Board of Trade in every case being permitted to decide which court would be more appropriate, if and when they sanction the indemnity for costs. Thirdly, I agree with the Committee in their recommendation in paragraph 651 that it is desirable that the Board of Trade should have power to define terms in use in trade. However, I think that this would not go very far, as they indicate in paragraph 653.
Now I turn to the question of trade marks. In 1958, your Lordships repealed a Statute, 34 and 35 Henry VIII, chapter 8. It is "An Acte for the Preservation of the Ryver Severne". That may seem to have nothing to do with this subject, and indeed the provisions which your Lordships repealed had nothing to do with the River Severn. They provided a method of proceeding against persons who shovelled garbage into harbours. The reason why it was repealed was that there are many better ways of enforcing a sanction against people who do that disgusting act. In 1887, certain provisions were placed in the Merchandise Marks Act to deal with the false application of registered trade marks. This is exactly the same as infringement, with certain minor exceptions I need not mention, and most of us who practise in this branch of the law think that those provisions are about as out of date as the provisions of the Act for the preservation of the River Severn.
Therefore it is surprising that the Committee seem to think that these ought to 697 be preserved. The criminal proceedings for infringement of registered trade marks are very archaic, but in paragraph 577 it is recorded that the Committee had received what is described as "expert legal criticism" of the 1887 Act in its application to registered trade marks, and it was said (almost certainly by the late Mr. Hugh Fletcher Moulton, one of the greatest authorities on trade marks) thatIn an infringement action there are available broad defences more generous to the defendant.I note that the word "broad" is used. I say that those defences are defences for the better achievement of justice. They are defences which were put in by Parliament in 1938 and before to see that justice was dispensed. Those defences do not exist in the Merchandise Marks Act.
I give your Lordships one example. It is a defence under the Trade Marks Act that the defendant has been using the mark prior to the plaintiff's registration of his mark. That is not available in the Merchandise Marks Act. Therefore, I was staggered by the recommendation in paragraph 614. It says:But it appears to us that such infringements are likely to be deliberate and capable of being particularly damaging to the consumer and we conclude (that the public should not be deprived of the protection of the criminal law in this respect. The consumer can be misled by the misuse of a well-known trade mark such as 'Terylene' as much as by misuse of a purely descriptive word such as 'silk'.Paragraph 615 is headed "Subsidiary trade mark proposals". It begins:Our study of general trade mark law has not proceeded beyond the point reached in the previous paragraph.My answer to that is that if it had they certainly would not have made the recommendation in the previous paragraph. The Committee then go on to say, and in my view quite correctly, that they regard Section 3 (1) of the Act, which provides that a particular description which is a registered trade mark may nevertheless still be false, as a valuable safeguard for the consumer.
A trade mark is an indication of trade origin. The consumer does not need to be protected if the quality of the goods sold by an infringer of the registered trade mark is the same as that sold by a registered proprietor. In paragraph 21 698 the Committee have defined consumer protection asthose measures which contribute directly or indirectly to the consumer's assurance that he will buy goods of suitable quality appropriate to his purpose.At the risk of being attacked by the owners of the registered trade mark "Terylene", I say: how many con sumers care who has made the Terylene which is woven into their garments so long as they get the quality which they expect? Terylene is an extremely bad example of a registered trade mark. If these provisions are continued in the new Act, other trade marks will, of course, be covered and not only those such as Terylene. Terylene is as much a trade description as silk, and the fact that it is a trade mark is quite irrelevant. If these provisions are continued, they will cover such trade marks as Daz for detergent, or Swan for ink, or Smiths——
§ LORD CAWLEY
No. For motor accessories, or Johnsons for wax. I think your Lordships will see how barren this recommendation really is. I cannot help pointing out that the noble Lord, Lord Auckland (he is not here at the moment), talked somewhat lightly about Biro pens, but I think he must have meant ballpoint pens.
I cannot deal with all the points in these chapters. There is no doubt that the Committee were very much overworked, and in fact they gave 55 full days to considering the various matters in this Report. But I hope that the Board of Trade will not accept their recommendations as to merchandise marks without further careful inquiry; and I would especially draw their attention to the ironic recommendation of paragraph 610, in which the Committee state:We think however that legislation… should be contained in a single enactment and stated in language as plain and simple as modern draftmanship can provide.Your Lordships will remember the Copyright Act which was passed recently. I can only say that the drafting of that Act, which was the last piece of important industrial property legislation passed through this House, is such that it is giving a lot of trouble already to practitioners. I think that the Committee might have substituted for the words 699 "modern drafting" such words as "that used in the Sale of Goods Act, 1893". That Act was not drafted by a Parliamentary draftsman, but by a retired Judge from India, and it is still an example of what good, plain drafting can be.
In conclusion, I do not want it to be thought that I am damning the findings of the Committee on merchandise marks in toto; far from it. There is much in chapters 14 and 15 with which I agree, but there is no time to deal with it. I feel that, considering the enormity of the task the Committee have been faced with, they have done very well.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, the Molony Committee complained that there was some apathy among the consumers towards their deliberations, and as I look across the House I cannot help feeling that the same sort of apathy exists in the Party opposite. Certainly the number of them here now is very different from the massed array that we had when we dealt with the last Weights and Measures Bill, when the Government, with the Whips, made it perfectly safe for the Government to proceed, irrespective of the case that was put up by the Opposition. But in spite of the thin House and the rather late hour, I think I can say that we have had a very good and constructive debate.
Certainly the foundation of the debate was laid by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry—and who in your Lordships' House could better have made the case for the consumer? If there are any qualities that the Government require on the Consumer Council, I hope they will look in the direction of my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry; but I hope also that she will not accept any nomination, because in the course of the next year we shall need as many guns to fire from this side of the House as we can get. However, the qualities of tenacity and attack that are required are certainly there in my noble friend. Speaking of guns on this side, I am sure we all very much welcomed the maiden speech of our noble friend Lord Sains-bury. He spoke with knowledge and clarity, and I am sure it was a speech that many of us will look back upon with pleasure.
700 Is consumer protection necessary? There are many who say that competition, greater education and knowledge make it possible for the consumer to receive a square deal. One hears from time to time serious allegations of faults in materials, in articles and in services. But I think it should be said that we in this country in some of our retail shops, and particularly the stores which are represented by three noble Lords this evening—namely, Lord Marks of Broughton, Lord Sainsbury, and Lord Peddie from the co-operative—set an example not only to this country but to the Europeans into whose Market we may be going. I do not think there is any doubt that the retail offering in this country, particularly for the working class and the middle class, is infinitely superior to anything that can be found on the Continent, with the exception perhaps of Switzerland.
But having said that, I believe there are many loopholes for shoddy merchandise, shoddy service and sharp practice. As I listened to Lord Marks of Broughton speaking about quality control and giving a competitive price to the customer, I could not help feeling that there is another side to the story. The noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Sainsbury are able to produce quality and price because of their large organisations and large turnovers. There are many other organisations, particularly the smaller retailers, supported by the wholesalers, who, in order to compete with the price of these big stores are forced to reduce the quality of their own merchandise. I personally have seen cases where the supplier finds out that he can reduce so many threads in the weft or warp in order to save the extra ½d.a yard or the extra 6d. or 9d. on the shirt. Therefore, the public may be well served by these larger stores and chain stores, but they can be open to the purchase of shoddy materials by force of nature from other stores. I should not want it to be believed that it is only in the bigger chain stores that you can get first-class merchandise, because that is not true. I wanted to show that, in this element of competition to produce an article, there is a limit to which you can go, and to make any other gain you may have to reduce your quality, and in the end, of course, the consumer will lose out.
701 At this stage of the evening I do not wish to say a great deal about the Molony Report. A good deal has been said this afternoon, and we shall wait with a good deal of anxiety for what the Minister will tell us. But I think I should say to the Minister that we require some action on this Report. In fact, I think the country expects some action. The noble Lord will remember—because he took part as a Back-Bencher in the debates on the Weights and Measures Bill—that whenever we raised any question of consumer protection we were told to wait for the Molony Report. Now I understand that in another place another Weights and Measures Bill has been produced, similar to the one we had here and certainly with very little advance. Therefore, we have been led to believe that the Government intend to take some action on the Molony Report. But the Minister on Monday evening said that legislation was not required for the appointment of a Consumer Council. It would rather appear that the basis of the recommendations in this Report is going to be shelved. I hope the noble Lord, when he replies, will say that this is not the case.
There are a certain number of reforms that could be done very quickly, and I think with the support of all Parties—reforms that would not require a great deal of legislation. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who mentioned the question of hire purchase and the fact that, under the present legislation, anything in excess of £300 is not now covered by legislation and the protection is not available. It means that in a year perhaps 2 million or 3 million cars are being sold on hire purchase without any protection under the present legislation. There is a good deal of other goods that are sold that are well above the present limit. That would not require a great deal of legislation.
Again in the case of hire purchase, in the last Session a friend of ours in another place endeavoured to obtain what was called the "cooling off" period—the 72 hours' break between the signing of a hire-purchase agreement in a home and before it becomes operative and binding on the family. I believe on that occasion the Government resisted the Bill. Their built-in majority successfully destroyed the Bill. But I think it is now 702 generally accepted and supported by the Molony Report that there would be great advantages, not only to the purchaser but, I think, also to the hire-purchase companies, if this "cooling off" period was to be brought in. If an Act of Parliament is necessary, I do not believe it would require much more than one or two clauses to effect that change. I am sure I am speaking for my friends on this side of the House when I say that if the Government were to bring that Bill forward we would give it all our support and would speed it on its way.
It is up to the Government to produce this Bill. So far as I gather, if it came from a member of the Opposition, even with this Report, we should not he likely to get the support of the Government or, at least, if we did not have the support of the Government, it would be unlikely that the Bill would get through Parliament because of time. Therefore, if the Government wish to create the appearance that they are now, within a few months of a General Election, wishing to become the protectors of the consumer, now is their opportunity to act, and we shall be very willing to assist them. The noble Lord may smile that I am suspicious. The noble Viscount, Lord Mills, on many occasions last Session said that I was a very suspicious man. I have spent all my time in this House in the Opposition. I have looked across at the Government day after day. You cannot really blame me for being suspicious.
May I remind them that in 1948 a Labour Government appointed the Hodgson Committee to look into the question of weights and measures? They produced a Report in 1951, and there was then a Conservative Government. We had to wait until 1960 before we had legislation. I suppose it was owing to the absence of the Housewives' League, which disappeared very conveniently in 1951. But the Government waited a very long time, and even the legislation they proposed did not go quite as far as the Hodgson Committee recommended.
We have this Report, and there is much that could be done. Perhaps the consumer is in some way a free agent, but one must take into account the manner in which the household is bombarded by advertisements—it used to be in the newspapers and on the hoardings, but now it 703 gets into your fireside. In fact, my youngster now uses "Pepsodent" because he is rather fond of the song. He wants to know "where the yellow has gone" since he has used "Pepsodent". An advertisement will be exaggerated, and most people will accept it, and are rather amused by it. But there is a good deal of advertisement which is deceptive, and very little appears to be done. My noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry drew our attention to the new Advertisement Council and this new code which they hope the advertising industry will accept. It is not greatly different from the code that the I.T.A. tried to establish and, as we well know from the various television debates we have had in this House, the I.T.A., with their big authority, have been unable to curb many abuses that have taken place on their screens.
I am quite prepared to give this new authority, this new Council, a chance. What if it fails, as the other organisations have failed? Are the Government going to take action on it? I think the public should feel that, if abuses continue, the Government will step in and give some protection. There are many other points, but what we really want to know to-night from the noble Lord is this. In the Commons there is the Weights and Measures Bill. There is the Government's intention to appoint a Consumer Council, that will have very little power; it will act mainly by persuasion, with no "teeth". We shall have the Weights and Measures Bill and the Consumer Council, but there are a number of very special proposals, and it is too late to mention them all, in this Report.
If the main proposals of the Molony Report could be implemented this Session and go on to the Statute Book with the Weights and Measures Bill, and if we had a Consumer Council that was a great deal stronger than my noble friend anticipates it will be, I am quite sure the position of the consumer would be very much strengthened. But unless we get the legislation proposed in the Molony Report together with the Weights and Measures Bill and a strong Consumer Council you will not give the full protection that the consumer needs and is entitled to. Therefore, I beg the Government—and I know Parliamentary 704 time is short—to see whether it will not be possible in this Session: to bring legislation forward to support the main proposals of the Molony Commission.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, may I give my personal thanks, as well as the Government's thanks, to the noble Baroness for introducing this Motion?—my personal thanks because I enjoy the way she states her case with such vigour. She may remember that I, too, before I became a gamekeeper, the other day, was a poacher. Her Majesty's Government are also very grateful to her because we are particularly anxious that this consumer protection should be discussed, before the next steps are taken. We believe it is most important. What the Other place is going to do I do not know, but we owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lords who have spoken for the help they will have given us in coming to decisions. The noble Baroness must be rather pleased with herself, because she is a pioneer in this matter, as we all know, and she has obtained a debate with very strong speakers. She has got on her slide a remarkably able maiden speech from a remarkably able man on this subject, and I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, on his speech. She has also got, from this side of the House, my noble friend Lord Marks of Broughton, who is also an expert; so that we can say we have had proper advice from all sides of the House.
Before I come to the main part of my argument I should like to quote certain paragraphs from the Molony Report because the background of this question is perhaps two-sided and not so one-sided as the noble Baroness perhaps indicated. The paragraphs from the Report that I should like to quote are, first, paragraph 895, in which the Committee say—and this is borne out by what the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said:We assert our firm belief in the probity and honourable standards of the great mass of British manufacturers and traders and their desire to maintain this country's historic traditions of quality and accurate description.Secondly in paragraph 39, they say:The most potent influence operating in favour of the consumer is the desire of the retailer to retain his custom and to preserve 705 the general good name of the establishment: and, it might be added, the retailer's sense of decency and morality which readily comes into play without any threat of resort to law.I am sure that is right, and so we must not exaggerate that question. I am equally certain that the British housewife is not a fool, and most housewives do not want protecting very much. But the fact remains that there are certain trade practices, not necessarily amoral ones, but often due to laziness in marking and so on, which makes it absolutely necessary that in certain respects the consumer must be protected. Let us get this fact quite clear: the duty of Her Majesty's Government is not necessarily to accept the whole of the Molony Report as it stands, but to see that 'the consumer is protected while, at the same time, the trader is not 'unnecessarily interfered with.
May I put the main part of my argument in somewhat of a narrative form, because it will answer most of "he questions that have been raised? I thought I knew some of the questions that the noble Baroness was going to raise, so I devised the main body of my speech to answer her; and, in fact, it answers other noble Lords, too. When I come to the end of what I may call the narrative part of my speech I shall try to deal with any points I may have left out.
I should like first of all to say that it must not get about that nothing has been or is being done for the consumer at the present time, because I think it is also necessary to consider the background. I should like to point out a few of the more notable landmarks in the development of consumer protection. I must say (hat the development of this protection is due mainly to quite a handful of pioneers, of whom the noble Baroness is a leading figure. One of these landmarks was the setting up in 1955 by the British Standards Institution of the Advisory Council on Consumer Goods, or the Consumer Advisory Council, as it is normally called. This Council is composed of representatives of women's national organisations, and of individuals of standing with experience in retailing, wholesaling, market research and information services. This Council, I should like to make quite clear, has done a great deal to press for standards of labelling, legislation and other measures in the consumer's interest.
706 They have undertaken the comparative testing of consumer goods and services, of which the results have been published in their magazine Shopper's Guide, which is distributed to their associate members. The Council has also operated a complaints service for their members. Many of the Council's functions will soon be taken over by the new Consumer Council, but it deserves honourable mention as the first body of its kind with wide-ranging interest over the whole consumer field.
The British Standards Institution has also been advised since 1951 by the Women's Advisory Committee, which consists of representatives of the leading women's organisations in the country. Their aim has been to ascertain the views of the members of its constituent organisations and to submit proposals to the B.S.I. for the preparation of new standards and to review all draft British Standards of interest to women. Its members have brought experience and devotion to these tasks, and I understand that the B.S.I. will continue to have the benefit of their advice after the Consumer Council is set up. They have informed the President of their intention to give the Consumer Council their full co-operation, and the B.S.I., of course, has itself played a key rôle in recent years in devising standards for consumer goods, particularly in matters concerning safety and so on.
An event of great interest was the formation in 1957 of the Consumer Association, Limited. The Association was founded by a small band of enthusiasts. The enterprise touched off a ready response, and their publication Which?, first published in 1957, which is largely devoted to reports on the comparative testing of products, now enjoys a monthly circulation of over 300,000. More recently we have seen the spontaneous formation of local consumer associations all over the country. Oxford was the first off the mark on this occasion, with, rather surprisingly, Cambridge second. There are groups also in Carlisle, Dagenham, Hampstead, High Wycombe, Nottingham, Slough, Swindon, Watford, Weybridge, and Teeside, Tyneside and Wearside; and most of these are known to be active. Half of them produce their own publications. They undertake a variety of 707 activities of local interest and concern and it seems to me that local people, when they know of their activities, should spread the knowledge. Both the Consumer Advisory Council and the Consumer Association have given these groups advice and encouragement.
Then there are the British Electrical Approvals Board for Domestic Appliances, which tests domestic electrical appliances for safety; the Advertising Standards Authority, which has been set up by the advertising industry with the object of enforcing the British Code of Advertising Practice—and I shall say a word more about that when I deal with the noble Baroness's own questions; the Retail Trading Standards Association, which has maintained a crusading spirit in promoting a satisfactory quality of consumer goods; there is also the fidelity scheme which was launched last year by the Motor Agents' Association. I need not go into the details of that scheme at the moment. In commending these various enterprises I wish in no way to play down the responsibilities of the Government, but I do not share the noble Baroness's often expressed view that the Government have been tardy or unsympathetic in recognising the swelling body of interest that has grown. The Government fully supported the setting up of the Advisory Council of the British Standards Institution, and since 1957 they have made a special contribution to the financing of the British Standards Institution in respect of their word on consumer protection.
Much has been done also to protect the consumer in matters of safety. My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport is devising compulsory standards for car seat belts which is all part of the same consumer protection, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Office has decided that regulations governing the colour coding of flexible cords attached to electrical appliances should, if possible, be made. There are certain delays about agreement with foreign countries. It is as well to get agreement if we can. The Government have been active also, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, said, in the field of food and 708 drugs legislation, which regulates the sale of food to safeguard the health of the consumer, to ensure that he knows what he is buying and to protect him from being supplied with food which is not of the nature, substance or quality he has asked for. The Government in this important work are advised by the Food Standards Committee.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Peddie was the first person to mention what are rude words in this House—weights and measures. We had a lot of that subject, and it will be coming back to us in due course in this Session, we hope. The Molony Report describes weights and measures legislation as part of the basic vocabulary of consumer protection. The Government have got through the Second Reading in the other place. It is all part of consumer protection.
As regards this actual Committee, when it was appointed I believe the noble Baroness thought rather poorly of the appointment. In a debate in another place she criticised its membership on the ground that most of those concerned were not experts in the subjects they were charged to examine. I myself would not be entirely in favour of a committee composed of experts. I have the impression that she is a little happier now but not entirely satisfied, because much of it is very controversial. I should like to pay tribute on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to the hard work, public spirit and skill of those who compiled the Report. For years to come it will stand as an authoritative document and work of reference. I hope I may be allowed to speak for your Lordships in expressing gratitude to Mr. Molony and his colleagues, one of whom was a member of your Lordships' House, Lord Geddes.
That is the general background. I should like to turn now to the Report itself. Perhaps I may be permitted to run through some of its main recommendations. Its central recommendation was that a Consumer Council should be set upto ascertain and review the problems experienced by the consumer, and to devise and advance the means of resolving them.Linked with this was the organisation of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux with financial assistance from the Government, 709 strengthened so as to improve the service which they give to the individual consumer who is in trouble. May I pause there and talk about these two bodies first? The Government are at the moment studying all these recommendations, but it is too early for them to be able to announce any decisions other than the actual setting up of the Council. The establishment of the Council does not require legislation. The terms of reference are not yet settled. We hope that the functions, responsibilities and composition of the Council will be announced fairly soon. But it is quite wrong to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, says, that this has no teeth. The terms of reference and the Council's powers are not yet decided, nor is its composition, but every word your Lordships have said to-day will be taken into account when arriving at both the functions and the composition.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, who asked what was the method of dealing with powers, and so on, as regards public debate, and the answer is that it does not need legislation, but, through the usual channels, of course, debates can be arranged. The noble Lord cannot expect me to say whether debates will be arranged, because I do not arrange the Business of this House.
As regards the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the Committee's recommendations on the rôle of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in consumer protection work are now being discussed by the President of the Board of Trade with their National Committee. We are waiting for these discussions to come to an end.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this point? I do not know whether he shares my view, but I feel that this question of the local advisory service and the enabling of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux to carry it out, if so decided, is of greater urgency than the Consumer Council. Does not the noble Lord realise that to set up the Consumer Council without this organisation to help them beforehand is really to court trouble?
§ LORD DERWENT
Of course when it is decided what is to be done they must in fact be set up at the same time, because the parent body, as it were, will be the Consumer Council. So much for 710 the Council and for the Citizens' Advice Bureaux.
§ LORD PEDDIE
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, I wonder whether he could answer the problem I posed. I indicated that there are 93 towns that are not covered by the work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. What is the intention of the Government in regard to those?
§ LORD DERWENT
That will be one of the jobs of the Consumer Council; that is clearly one of the jobs they will have to tackle.
May I say a word about legislation. The Committee made numerous recommendations about legislation. On hire purchase they proposed that the protection of the 1938 Act should apply to all consumer transactions, that there should be a "cooling off period" after a hire purchase agreement had been signed at home as a result of door-to-door salesmanship, and that the hirers right of redress should be strengthened. They recommended that the Merchandise Marks Acts should be amended and consolidated in a newly entitled enactment, in particular that the definition of "trade description" should be enlarged, that the definition of applying a trade description should be extended so as to catch false or misleading descriptions contained in advertisements, and that the duty of enforcing this law should be laid on the larger local authorities. That is their recommendation and it is quite a mouthful to consider. The amended Act would also include provisions empowering the President of the Board of Trade to define trade terms and to compel the labelling in any prescribed fashion of consumer goods. They also recommended more legislation in amendments to the Sale of Goods Act by which certain implied conditions of sale would be made irrevocable. Finally, they recommended that powers should be taken to regulate seals of approval.
In addition to these legislative proposals the Report addressed numerous suggestions and admonitions to trade bodies, industry and indeed to Government Departments. I would just add this as regards taking up time; the last chapter of the Report lists 214 "Principal Conclusions and Recommendations" 711 covering sixteen and a half pages of print. I know everyone wants to get everything done at once, but can I say something further about this legislation? The Molony Committee considered the Committee's recommendation relating to hire purchase deserved first priority after the Consumer Council is set up, and after that should follow an amendment of the Merchandise Marks Acts, and next amendment of the Sale of Goods Act. That was the order they recommended.
The Government accept in general this assessment of the relative order of priorities, and are accordingly giving particularly close attention to the Committee's recommendation on hire-purchase law as it affects the consumer. That, from the legislative angle, is the first thing that Her Majesty's Government are considering. There will not be an opportunity this Session for a Government Bill on hire purchase, but this is traditionally a field in which Private Bills often take over. In view of the programme this Session there is no possibility of a Government Bill to introduce this matter. A good many inquiries have still to be made.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, from those remarks am I to understand that if a Private Bill were introduced, perhaps in this House, and received the approval of the House, the Government would find time in another place for it to be out on to the Statute Book?
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, the noble Lord really cannot expect me to say anything about the business in another place. But he might try it. Obviously, we can promise nothing, and there might not be time. Naturally, it depends on how involved and how controversial it is. As regards the merchandise marks legislation, there are the far-reaching recommendations of the Committee which, if they were accepted, would in effect involve a completely new piece of legislation. There is no question of amendment here; it would be entirely new legislation. It needs detailed study, and Her Majesty's Government are of the opinion that it should not be embarked upon in too much of a hurry. The same applies to any amendment in regard to the Sale of Goods Act. The Molony Committee did not consider that 712 there was any great hurry in regard to those two matters.
The Government have made what I hope will be regarded as a good start by promptly announcing their acceptance of the recommendation that a Consumer Council should be established and, as I have already said, that does not require legislation. There has been a good deal of debate of all kinds about the powers and functions of this Council and its composition. The Government have taken note, and will take note after this debate, of the many divergent views that have been expressed. Whatever decision may be taken on these matters—and I hope we shall be able to make an announcement very soon—the Government are fully convinced that this Consumer Council will mark a major advance in what the noble Baroness in her pamphlet has called "the Battle of the Consumer". With the Molony Committee, we plan to give it the supreme position in consumer affairs, and hope that it will win leadership, authority and respect. It is going to have full Government support in whatever action it wants to take. I have no doubt that the Council will have much to occupy it. The Molony Committee have already pointed out some of the fields to which the Council might pay attention. I have not the slightest doubt that it will find many other directions for its activity.
I do not think I need say anything else about the actual Report. I should like now, rather belatedly, to start dealing with the questions that were raised. I should like to deal first with those of the noble Baroness. She had certain things to say about advertising. The first thing she asked, I think, was whether the Advertising Standards Authority could initiate an amendment of the British code of advertising. Of course the Board of Trade are not responsible for the Authority, which was set up this year by the advertising industry itself. But it is my understanding that while the Authority could not itself bring about an amendment of the code, there is no reason why it should not propose to the Code of Advertising Practices Committee any amendment which in its view is desirable.
§ LORD DERWENT
I think that is in fact what they would do. But the Board of Trade are not in control of them. This Authority was set up by the industry itself. There was one other matter I should like to mention about advertising. What steps Her Majesty's Government can take are fairly complicated, because this is a most important subject. In addition to the Molony Report the Government have the Reports of the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting and the Royal Commission on the Press. All three of these Reports involve advertising, and I think it is only reasonable to ask that the Government's decision should allow for the dovetailing of all three Reports, and that the Government should be given some time to consider the matter.
There was mention of the sizes of women's clothes. Of course this does not apply only to the industry in this country. I know about this question—I have come across it in other ways; it also applies to foreign clothes which are sold in our shops. The noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the industry itself is in fact trying to do something about this. It is a slow business, but I think they have got quite a long way towards agreement—or so I have been informed by members of the industry; I hope it is true.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, made the point that the consumer must look after himself. That is a point I made at the beginning. Of course in certain cases the consumer cannot look after himself or herself. The noble Lord spoke about research, which the noble Baroness also mentioned. I think he took the view (and I must say that I am inclined to agree with him) that research is best done by the big firms, and that the knowledge acquired should, if possible, be spread. This is one of the things about which we are most hopeful from the National Productivity Year, which, incidentally, has started in various parts of the country. We hope that this sort of information will be passed on to the smaller firms. I know of cases where it has already been done. I think the only other question the noble Lord raised was about food, and that I have already dealt with in my speech. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, asked so many questions that 714 I do not quite know how to deal with them.
The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, in his maiden speech to which we have referred, spoke particularly about free gifts. I do not suppose that one can do away with them altogether. Sometimes they probably do not affect what is being sold because the value of the free gift is so small. But this is a matter to which the Consumer Council will have to give attention. It is for them to give attention in the first instance to these matters. If legislation is required in any way it will be the Consumer Council which will ask for it.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, told me that he would not be here for my reply, and I told him that I was going to be rather rough in regard to what I said about him. I thought his was the most destructive speech I had heard for a long time. He took the view that the Consumer Council was bound to be a failure, without knowing what its powers were going to be or of whom it was going to be composed.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, in fairness, I think he was basing the idea of its power on what the Molony Committee had recommended.
§ LORD DERWENT
I have already said that this matter of the power of the Consumer Council is one for Her Majesty's Government. We know what the Molony Committee reported and recommended; but we also know what your Lordships have said to-day, and it is a matter for Her Majesty's Government. To assume that this Council is going to be a failure is, I think, purely destructive.
Turning to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, perhaps I may expand a little on safety, which I think was the main line that he took. First of all, there is the question of kerosene heaters and so on. The regulations made under the 1961 Act and based on the current British Standard 3300 of oil heaters were laid before Parliament on May 4 of this year and came into force on June 1—that is, between the submission of the Molony Report and its publication. There has been some criticism about the delay in promulgating these regulations. I think the noble Lord had that in mind. Bearing in mind that the Oil Burners 715 Standards Act came into force in 1960, the Molony Committee commented on this in strong terms in paragraph 230. The delay, quite frankly, was due to the complexity of the subject and the need to consult the many interested organisations.
The basis of the Consumer Protection Act is that regulations made under it are to create legal obligations, civil and criminal, enforceable in the courts. One of the consequences of this is that the code of requirements laid down in regulations must be precise. There were many technical points in the British Standard which had to be elucidated before they could be put into a sufficiently precise form for a court to administer. The task of drawing up the statutory instrument was a complicated and difficult one. I do not think it was just an excuse. It had to be very precise, and there were a great many consultations.
Then I think the noble Lord raised the question of the colour code of flexible cables. I have dealt with that. That has been held up for a short time in order to try to obtain foreign agreement on the matter.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, could I ask this question? That is the burden of my objection. Most of these wrongly coloured cables are of foreign importation. It should be our job to say "We will not have them at all; we do not want to confuse the consumer." We do not need foreign Governments to agree about that.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, I think the noble Lord will find that there will probably be agreement, in spite of what he has said; otherwise, I agree, we shall have to move on our own.
I think it was also the noble Lord who mentioned the flammable code. In 1959 the Board made proposals under the Fabric (Misdescription) Act, 1913, prescribing the tests required before textile materials can be described as "non-inflammable" or of low flammability. The publicity given to the danger of burns from flammable clothing has resulted in a welcome reduction in the number of fatalities. I refer here to actual publicity in the newspapers, and so on. There is available on the market 716 a wide range of materials and made-up clothing satisfying the requirements of the Standards laid down in these regulations. It is to be hoped that consumers will take advantage of the safety offered by the use of these materials for both the very young and aged who are most liable to this particular hazard.
I think the other safety question was raised by my noble friend Lord Auckland (who is not now here) on toys. Since the Molony Report was published the British Standards Institution has issued a code of safety requirements for children's toys and playthings, which deals with this matter. In any case, the use of celluloid for toys has virtually ceased. In their Final Report the Committee recommended that these requirements of the code should now be supported by regulations made under the Consumer Protection Act. This recommendation is at present being considered by the Home Secretary.
My Lords, the next noble Lord who had matters to raise was the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, who suggested that schools' curricula should include "How to buy things". I suggest that that should be taught in the home—but I know what he meant.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, I think the noble Lord was not talking so much about the children, as about trying to teach manufacturers and other people about these things. I believe that is what he had in mind. I have answered, I think, his question about how to deal with the powers of the Consumer Council. Then he raised the question of services and food and drugs; he asked why they were excluded by the Molony Report. They were, in fact, excluded by the Committee, but they are not excluded from the consideration of the Consumer Council; and undoubtedly these are matters which will be dealt with by the Council. The Consumer Council will also deal with matters of education to protect the consumer.
My Lords, I find it easiest to answer my noble friend Lord Cawley, because he has said that he does not require a reply. But I can assure him that I have already made arrangements: he was kind enough to give me advance information and everything he has said has 717 been carefully taken down, and will be used against us later. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I think, raised principally the question of legislation. He asked why we did not get on with it. As I say, the necessary studies for hire-purchase legislation have already started, but we shall not have time for a Government Bill this session.
My Lords, I do not know if I have answered all your questions. I shall have another look tomorrow. As I say, Her Majesty's Government are grateful for this debate, because they were anxious to have your Lordships' views; and those views will be seriously considered.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, obviously I should never seek to trespass further than I have to upon the kindness and patience of the House. We have had an excellent 718 debate, and I would thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am sure he will realise that I disagree with a good deal of what he had to say. However, this is not the time to air that disagreement, and I would thank him very much for what he has said. Before I sit down, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. I appreciate that in saying that, I have no greater seniority here than the noble Lord—though I did manage to get in first. At any rate, I should sincerely like to add my own congratulations on his speech. My Lords, as I say, we have had an excellent debate. I now beg leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past eight o'clock.