§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, I do not suppose there is anybody in this Chamber this afternoon who has not read about, or has not in some way been involved in, the controversies that have recently been raging over trading stamps. But it is none the less a fact that a great number of people do not really know how the system works, and if some of your Lordships are intensely bored by the synopsis I propose to start off with on how a trading stamp scheme works, I hope I may be forgiven in case there is somebody here who does not know. I believe that it is fundamental to the understanding of this problem that the system should be explained as simply as possible to begin with.
Trading stamps are one of many schemes of sales promotion which retailers and shopkeepers adopt to increase their sales and hence their profits. I was surprised to discover that this particular form of sales promotion was invented in this country in 1880, so it is one of some age, although, of course, it is only recently that it has come into prominence again. In its essential characteristics, it is perhaps not very different from other forms of sales promotion, such as the gift coupons which come with cigarettes or other premium offers, such as plastic flowers, which come with packets of detergent, or some of the competitions one can enter by sending in the side of a packet of corn flakes in the hope of winning a holiday thereby.
However, there is one essential difference between that type of promotion and the trading stamp, in that whereas the ordinary premium offer is advertising a particular brand of goods to which it is attached, the trading stamp is promotion for the whole of a shopkeeper's business. Another thing that stamps are intended to do is to attempt to recapture some of the loyalty of the shoppers who recently, with the advent of supermarkets and other forms of easier 715 shopping and of more competitive and attractive shopping, have been disappearing.
How does the trading stamp scheme work? As a rule, a stamp company is especially formed for the purpose, though it can be done by a large chain of shops or a group of shopkeepers themselves. The stamp company starts off by trying to sell its stamps to retailers. In order to tempt them and their customers it produces a catalogue which has in it pictures of attractive gifts, usually arranged in sections, dealing perhaps with items to be used in the kitchen, items for holidays, toys and so on, all of which can be redeemed against a number of full books of stamps. The catalogue will contain a great number of articles, probably 800 or 900. A large number of them will require only one to three books, to give the shopper a quick return. But there is a leaven of much more expensive things. For example, I saw in one catalogue a motor scooter which could be redeemed for 155 books. The catalogue is very important, because it is almost entirely upon the basis of the goods that can be redeemed and are shown in the catalogue that this whole scheme can be sold to the retailers and will attract customers. The good catalogues will often include a large proportion of familiar branded goods, which can be bought in the shops which deal in wares of these types.
The stamp company buys the goods, which it has illustrated in its catalogue, at wholesale prices and the more of them it buys the lower probably are the prices it has to pay. The company will set up a chain of centres where stamps can be redeemed by the customers, who collect full books of stamps and hand them in. It will set up its warehouses and distributing organisation.
In the shops themselves, once the retailers have been persuaded to go in for this type of sales promotion, the shopkeeper will work out his own system of distributing stamps with his goods. This may not be quite so simple as it sounds, particularly if sales increase as a result, when it may want quite some scheming to enable the shopkeeper to use stamps without increasing his 716 operating costs. He will issue stamps to customers, as a rule, on the basis of one stamp for every 6d. that the customer spends in his shop, although the customer does not get a stamp for a fraction of a 6d.; that is, if you spend 2s. 5d., you get only four stamps. The stamp collectors stick them in their books and when they have collected the number they think sufficient, they go and redeem the articles they select at a redemption centre.
The stamps can usually be collected at more than one shop in an area, because the stamp company will attempt to set up a family of shops or other outlets in an area, each of which will have an exclusive franchise for the area for that type of business and that type of stamp. As a rule, it is at the grocer that each family starts, and the scheme often includes the dry cleaner and the electric shop and other such outlets, and in some cases will even include more unlikely people, such as taxi-drivers. The idea is to set up a family in every area, so that the customer can collect stamps with greater ease than if they are issued only from one shop.
As regards the economic situation of the scheme, I would take as a typical example from one catalogue an article which you would get for one book of stamps. It is called a marmalade jar and is of cut crystal glass with silver plated lid and spoon. I do not know what it costs, and use it simply to illustrate what happens. One book contains, as a rule, 1,260 stamps and in order to collect a full book at a rate of 6d. for one stamp, the collector must spend £31 10s. Probably the shopkeeper has paid about 15s. for the 1,260 stamps. Of course, he paid for them when the stamps were issued to him and in some cases it might take a long time before they are redeemed by the customers to whom he issued them. The retail value of the jar is probably about 15s. 9d. I do not know if that is the value of this particular article, but taking the average over the whole catalogue of the retail redemption value of a book of stamps, it works out at about 15s. 9d. per full book. Therefore, each stamp is worth about [...]15d.; 10 stamps would be worth 1½d. or for every pound spent one would get stamps worth 6d., in terms of the retail price in the shops of the articles redeemed by the collector. 717 Perhaps the stamp company, which buys these articles wholesale, will pay about 10s. for this article—I do not know, but that is the sort of price. So that it has a gross margin of 5s. 9d. Out of the overall margin the stamp company will pay wages, printing—which might be considerable, because the catalogues are expensive to print and I am told that one of the big stamp companies has a turnover of 10,000 million stamps a year, which require a lot of paper and printing; and it will pay for the redemption centres, for advertising the stamp scheme itself and all other overhead costs, and it will make its profit.
Thus, the customer gets about 2½ per cent. discount on the goods she buys in the shops where stamps are given—but it is a discount which is delayed until the books are full and she can go and get the article in the redemption centre. The shop-keeper pays 2½per cent.—perhaps a little more, it depends on many circumstances—and he gets a reduction if he buys over a certain number of stamps. He has to spread this cost over all the sales of goods in his shop and he can vary it. It is a very flexible scheme. For instance, he can increase sales in slow selling lines by issuing more than one stamp per 6d., or increase the number of stamps given at certain periods of the day and attract more shoppers in that way. It is possible, of course, when you are dealing with an item of discount as small as [...]15 of a penny, to make a very flexible scheme of discounting over the goods you are selling.
A survey recently produced by the Consumer Council (of which my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood is head) suggests that the drawing power of the stamp scheme is probably more than it would be if the retailer were to give merely a 2½ per cent. cash discount, on account of the psychological attraction that these stamps have for many shoppers. The District Bank Review of September last year produced a table which indicated that, in order to make an increased profit when stamps are taken on, a shopkeeper would have to increase his sales by about 12 to 14 per cent.—the Consumer Council say 17 per cent.—without altering the profit margin or increasing his operating costs. That may not be impossible, but it may well be difficult. That is an outline of the economics of a typical trading-stamp 718 scheme, and I hope I have got it almost accurate.
There are three comments that I can make on this point. The 12 or 17 per cent. increase that has to take place in order to justify the taking on of the stamp scheme is a fairly large one. It may well be, as a result, that the inefficient shop will not be helped by trading stamps, particularly if it is so inefficient that it cannot keep its operating costs down when issuing stamps, thereby requiring an even greater increase in trade to make a profit, despite them. Secondly, the saturation point for stamps, about which one hears so often, is not a situation when 100 per cent. of the retail shops in an area are giving stamps with the purchases in them, but rather a situation where a new retailer being offered the stamp scheme feels he cannot woo 12 to 17 per cent. new trade to his shop by this means—that is, woo it away from other shopkeepers in the area; and if he does not think he can do that, it is not worth his while to go into the stamp scheme.
There is another aspect of the situation. The non-stamp shop may have to reduce its profit margin in order to remain competitive. This has happened in many cases. Again, this could hit the inefficient shopkeeper, and it may well be one of the by-products of these stamp schemes, not intentionally, but incidentally, that they will tend to weed out the more inefficient shopkeepers.
There are many arguments for and against this system. Some people will say that it is only one of many perfectly legitimate forms of sales promotion or of price reduction, or both, and if it is honestly carried out it is harmless enough, and beneficial in some cases. Some people will say that it keeps prices down. Some people will say that it is only transient, anyway, although it has been going for nearly 70 years in America and still seems to be prospering greatly in that country. Others may say, with varying degrees of vehemence, that trading stamps are wrong and undesirable and that they tend to put prices up. On the question of whether prices go up, down, or stay the same, all the information I have been able to find out is entirely inconclusive, and if any noble Lord has more information than I have so far seen, it would interest me very much. I have made a careful search of 719 all the possible sources of information on the subject.
But, whatever may be the general overall effect or desirability of these stamps, I do not think it affects this Bill: in fact, I think the Bill would probably be necessary either way and in any event. Supposing prices are pushed up, one of the most important things then will be to lessen the customer's confusion about how much the stamp scheme and the stamps themselves are worth, so as to enable her to see really what value she is getting for the money that is being spent; and if prices go up, then all the more reason to provide an escape hatch so that people can get out of shopping at the particular shop if they want to. Furthermore, all the more reason, if the shoppers are going to have to pay higher prices, to see that the trading stamp company does not default on its side of the bargain and so deprive the customer and the retailer of the benefits of the scheme. Equally, if prices stay the same, or go down, I do not think there is any less reason to reduce the confusion in the shopper's mind about the value of the money she is spending, or to reduce the necessity for her to be able to compare between different schemes; and there cannot be any less necessity to prevent an unscrupulous or unfortunate stamp company from defaulting if this should happen.
These are really the matters with which this Bill deals. It does not attempt to legislate radically to abolish trading stamps. This follows the view taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, in the debate which your Lordships had before Christmas, and I would venture to agree with her on that part of the subject.
What does the Bill do? First of all, I will deal with Clause 1. As I have said earlier, the retailer will pay for the stamps to the stamp company before they are issued to the customers, and so quite a long time before they are redeemed by the customer, and, so far as the retailer is concerned, before their promotional effect can be seen. Furthermore, the customer has to patronise the shop or the family of shops dealing in these stamps for a rather long time before she can collect enough stamps to redeem the article from the redemption centre, because, as I have said, of the adverse 720 discount. Both of those groups of people will want to know that the stamp company is solvent and the stamps will be redeemed. I think particularly the retailer will want to know, because he has much more money at stake than the individual stamp collector member of the public, who possibly has only two or three books which have not been redeemed. The retailer has more money at stake, because if the thing goes wrong, he will lose in the odium of the customers much more than he will ever gain from the promotional effect of these stamps if it went on all right.
Clause 1, therefore, provides that only a limited company or an industrial or provident society can carry on business as a trading stamp promoter, and that if the company is a private one it must do certain things as if it were a public company. All those are set out in Clause 1 of the Bill. A copy of its accounts will have to be provided annually to the Registrar of Companies. A copy of every principal resolution will have to be printed and sent to the Registrar; that is to say, a resolution on its own company's affairs. Qualified, and not unqualified, auditors must be appointed. There is a restriction on the power of the company to make loans to directors or to agree to provide security in respect of such loans. Those are things that private companies can do now, but would not be able to do under this Bill if they were promoting a trading stamps scheme. There is a fine for contravention of these provisions.
Moreover, the company must be one registered in the British Isles under the Companies Act, and a foreign company could not carry on business as a trading stamps promoter in this country. I appreciate that this may be a minimal protection, and the individual shopper will probably not take advantage to any great extent of the provisions of that clause. But at any rate it will offer some safeguard to the retailers, and they will be able, possibly through their trade associations, to scrutinise the accounts of these companies.
The rest of the Bill is concerned mainly with a different matter; that is, lessening the confusion in the mind of the shopper to which I think at present she is subject. At the moment, if a shopper is presented with a choice of 721 two or more rival stamp schemes the only way she can compare the two, and the value they give, is to look at the catalogues to find a similar article, or a series of similar articles, in each, and then to find out which catalogue requires the lesser amount of money to be spent in a shop in order to obtain enough stamps to get that article. There is no doubt that people find the economics of this matter very confusing indeed. The latest Consumer Council study, to which have already refered, has a great deal of information about the typical confusion which takes place on this subject—the values of stamps, and so on. Indeed, I am not surprised; because not being very good at mathematics myself, it would have been quite impossible for me to work it out had I not had so much assistance from various learned bodies. It is quite extraordinary how few people get remotely near the right figures—at any rate, according to the study the Consumer Council has made. So a new form of check is being added to these stamps, and Clause 2 requires that a cash value shall be shown on their face with the name of the company which issues the stamps.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, before the noble Viscount leaves Clause 2, may I say that I do not see how it reduces the confusion of the shopper? It requires a cash value to be shown, but it is not related, as I understand it, to the value of any goods that the shopper may be able to obtain. Or is it? Have I misunderstood this? The noble Viscount is making quite a lot of the confusion issue, and this is where it rests.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is perfectly right. The requirement is not at the moment related to any value of any goods. This is an extremely thorny question, which has been debated to a great extent in another place. I have thought about it at length, and I have considered various methods of doing it, and I do not suppose that this is the last we shall hear of it. At any rate, under the Bill a cash value must he shown on the face of the stamp, and no doubt other noble Lords will want to speak further about this point later.
722 Clause 3 requires the stamp company (and this is, in part, at any rate, an answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton) to redeem the stamps at their face value; that is to say, if any holder of the stamps has more than "five bob's" worth of them in his or her book. There are various provisions in the clause to prevent some arrangement in the stamp scheme which cancels out that particular clause.
In order to make this a little easier still, Clause 4 requires that each catalogue shall show the stamp company's name and address of its registered office, so that the shopper can know where to go for the cash if he or she wishes to take advantage of this option. In passing, it is interesting that where this has happened in America only about 2 or 3 per cent. of stamp holders have chosen to take the option of cash, and it remains to be seen whether or not the position will be the same in Great Britain. In Committee, I shall be suggesting that there should be a further requirement in Clause 4, or perhaps in Clause 5, for a current catalogue to be always on display in any shop that has a stamp scheme, so as to keep the information fully up to date for the shopper.
Clause 5 requires the information about the terms of the scheme—the number of stamps received for a purchase, and so on—to be readily ascertainable to all shoppers in the stamp shop; that is, in the shop that issues the stamps. This may have the further effect of preventing what now goes on to some degree, that is, the shoppers' not being aware that there is a stamp scheme, or forgetting to collect their stamps, which are put in the pocket, perhaps, of the assistant behind the counter or somebody else. Clauses 6 and 7 are formal, and need no particular explanation. Clause 8 contains the definitions. I would particularly point out the definition of "to redeem", "redeemable" and "redemption", which is of importance when we consider Clause 3. I would also point out the definition of "stamp", and, further. that this Bill has been carefully drafted so that co-operative societies' dividends are not included within its terms.
The other important definition is that of "trading stamp". This definition exempts from the provisions of the Bill the cash value in the case of small 723 schemes operated by individual shops—Christmas clubs for example—and also the coupons which come with cigarettes, or other types of promotion that accompany specific brands of goods, and which are redeemed with the manufacturer of those goods. I am not altogether satisfied with proviso (c) to the definition of "trading stamp", and I want further to look at this in order to see that the rather larger scheme, which might be similar to an ordinary trading stamp scheme, is not excluded from the terms of the Bill. This might be a matter further to be dealt with at another stage.
There is only one other point in the Bill to which I would draw your Lordships' attention, and that is Clause 9(3), which provides that the Bill shall not come into operation until a year after it is passed and has received the Royal Assent. The reason for this is that there will be a considerable number of administrative changes to be made by the stamp companies and the retailers, such as the printing of new stamps, catalogues, and so on. It has been accepted, I think, by everybody as reasonable that this period of time should elapse in order to make everything ready for this Bill to come into operation. I am certain that many Members of this House, and certainly those who have put their names down to speak, will have many comments of all sorts on this Bill. Some will want to improve it and others, I have no doubt, will want to add things to it. But I hope that everybody in the House will agree that the Bill, with what it contains, is a desirable measure. Whether or not it can be added to, or should be added to, is a matter that we shall come to at the next stage. But I hope that today the Bill will be given a Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount. He got through a pretty tricky subject with great clarity. I fear that, as the debate goes on, the clarity so far sustained may become rather murky, and I feel that I may add to the murkiness. This is, I suppose, one of the most interesting, though certainly not one of the most important, of modern controversies. 724 There has been a sporting element in it, and practically everybody seems to have taken sides one way or the other. Of course, there are a number of interested parties. I must straight away declare an interest as a member of a large company that will have nothing to do with trading stamps and is perfectly happy about the state of the game.
What I have to say to-day is not related to the views of my own company's activities, but represents the views, I think, of most of my noble and honourable friends on this side, and they approximate very closely also to the views of the Consumer Council. It is rather satisfactory that, under the noble Lady's guidance, the Consumer Council has leapt with such vigour into what is a pretty hot controversy. They have produced, very rapidly, an extremely lively and, in places, no doubt some people will say, a slightly tendentious document, with most of which, however, I agree. Even if the style is, in a sense, the reverse of the style of the noble Lord, Lord Reith, in that it goes in for a good deal of hyperbole, it is very readable. It also refers to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, which is itself a pleasure. The noble Earl probably has not read it, but it disposes of some of the arguments (what I might call the "inverted grandmother" arguments, of which the noble Earl is himself an example) of those who say that one must never interfere with little Tommy, and that the State has no business in trying to concern itself in this field. This is, of course, a classic example of the need for a certain degree of regulation by the State. and I think there is a great measure of agreement among the majority of people on the form that this regulation should take and the difficulties that have largely arisen in finding a workable solution.
Some of the remarks I have to make will, I am quite sure, be accepted by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. He may or may not agree with their workability, which has been the difficulty with this Bill all along. I should like to make one or two remarks about the general principles of stamp trading, because the noble Viscount gave some figures as to the extent to which it is necessary for a particular company to increase its trade to get a return on the extra expenditure on stamps. This, again, 725 is obviously a mater of controversy, but I shall be interested to know whether my noble friend Lord Sainsbury would agree that a mere 12 per cent. increase is necessary. I wonder whether I understood the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, correctly.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, I said that it varied between 12 per cent. and 17 per cent., according to the people who save them.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
I should have been inclined to put it at 16 to 20 per cent. Of course this does not allow, in the figures I have seen, for the extra work on the business that is produced. If you increase your density of trade, you undoubtedly have the possibility, utimately, of an increase in the net profit. But, of course, you have still to handle the goods. The main criticism of those who are actively concerned, and who take retailing seriously in an age in which efficiency is of great importance, is that this does not increase efficiency: it is a distraction from the real job of giving price and service competition. It is certainly true that a firm with a low-density trade and relative inefficiency may be able to increase its turnover, and to that extent, increase its density and make better use of its capacity. But I do not believe, either, the argument given by the noble Viscount, that the point at which saturation is reached will be when a new firm trying to break in decides that it is not worth going into stamps. I simply do not believe that that is any test at all. It is conceivably the new firm which is, in fact, trying to break in and get the trade which will go in for stamps because initially, on opening, it will not be trading at a profit and will still have to get its customers.
I do not want to go too deeply into the complexities of retail competition, beyond making this general point for those who criticise those who are opposed to stamp trading. Many people who are opposed to it are not involved with trading. Their opposition is based on the view that stamp trading does not add to efficiency' and does not improve the prospects of satisfactory consumer choice. This point was well made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, when he said that one of the main purposes of this Bill is to reduce confusion. My 726 contention is that it does not satisfactorily reduce confusion, and here I should like to put some of the arguments on this subject against those who say that you can really leave it to the housewife.
It is quite obvious, from this interesting Study, that many housewives have absolutely no idea what they are getting for their goods. When we look at the trend of stamp trading (and my noble friend Lord Sainsbury may be able to confirm this) we see that the less "gimmicky" types of business, the higher end—and I am talking mainly about the grocery trade—lost a certain amount of business in very competitive areas but regained it again pretty soon. I do not know how far this is general: certainly I know a number who have regained it; and there has indeed been a certain switch in the nature of the trade. There has been a tendency for an upper and a lower end for certain people who like the less "gimmicky" trade, who dislike trading stamps and are more concerned with accurate values, to go to those shops that do not go in for trading stamps, while those who are less capable of judging values go in for this particular type of trading. Other people may be able to counter this argument but, in so far as we are concerned with the protection of the consumer, present tendencies are making matters more difficult for those consumers who are less able or willing to judge values.
My Lords, I would commend to your Lordships, and in particular to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—indeed. I do not know how he can take part in the debate unless he has read the Consumer Council Study—the arguments which have been put forward on this matter. It is quite clear that, as they say, the most flagrant source of confusion stems from the blurring together of two quite different values; a blurring which is sometimes consciously exploited by the stamp companies. This is the blurring between the number of stamps, the alleged value of the stamp and its relation to the goods. The interesting point is, of course, that a number of the collectors of stamps—and we may say that this is a legitimate activity, indeed, one might have put this in as one of the leisure activities that will brighten peoples lives—are what is called "compulsive" collectors, who seem to be in 727 the grip of a vision of what sociologists call the Protestant ethic: orderliness, thrift and conscientious achievement, to be followed automatically by a reward.
This may, indeed, be the healthy solution to the problem of "Mods" and "Rockers" and entertainment in a leisured age. The Consumer Council, however, take their responsibilities more seriously. They argue that the real and most important need is still to make it quite clear, first of all, that there is a cash option—and this is provided for in the Bill—and what its value should be. It has been suggested in another place that the amount of the cash option can be determined by the competition, and that the consumer will be perfectly satisfied to make up his own mind and to push up the cash option to the right figure. This is, of course, assuming that there is competition, and it is alarming to see the amount of, shall I say, tendency towards large-scale operators only, which is, of course, encouraged by the Bill. The fact is that certain small companies are already going out of business, and it is not inconceivable that there could be some agreement. But the fact remains that in America competition in cash options where they exist has had no effect whatever on fixing that cash option. That is made clear in the Report on stamp trading issued by the Consumer Council.
This is a Bill which, it is quite clear, Members of another place expect us to do something to improve. In their debates there were a number of references of a very scanty kind. Those of your Lordships who have been in another place will know how rapidly Private Members' legislation moves with the "Four o'clock Rule" and someone trying to get something in at the end. As a result a number of matters were debated only in the very lightest way in the final stages, bearing in mind that the Bill had been enormously altered between Second Reading and the final stages. We have, of course, a definite undertaking from Mr. du Cann, particularly on this question of value, that "in another place" the Minister of the Board of Trade will be paying attention to the Bill. I hope that, on the strength of this assurance to an honourable Member, whose reply I must not quote, there is clearly an expectation in another place 728 that we shall do something on this particular issue.
As it is, it is a rather meagre Bill. It has been described—and I do not know whether the Consumer Council should go quite as far as saying this sort of thing—as thinly researched and clumsily contrived. It may be it has been produced in too much hurry, such was the anxiety and the desire to do something about it. Obviously when people get "steamed up" they want to do something about it, but it might have been better if we had taken a little more time to think about it. I hope we shall have time in this House and shall in fact succeed in getting into the Bill certain other provisions which will achieve the undoubted intentions of the Promoters. There has been, I fear, an inevitable tendency to arrive at a compromise, because Members of Parliament like Members of this House are reasonable people, and wish to look after the reasonable interests of the stamp companies, and they arrive at any old, more or less workable solution. I think we ought not to ignore the main purpose of this legislation, which is to regulate in a field where Governments have properly regulated in the past; it is comparable to regulation of weights and measures.
As I say, we have the advantage not only of the Consumer Council Report but of the presence of the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. I do not know how far she will be dealing with the Report of her own Council, but they do have a number of suggestions which I believe can be turned into Amendments. They propose an indemnification scheme to insure against default. It has been suggested that such an indemnification scheme would be impossible; it has been suggested it would absorb too much of the capital of the stamp company, and it would in fact be impossible to deal with this by some means of fidelity bond. But in fact the Consumer Council have looked at this and have established that it is not so, and a reputable company should be able to operate by some form of fidelity bond or other guarantee.
They also propose that certain types of misrepresentation should be banned; there is the particular type of objectionable misrepresentation when some special voucher is given bearing the value not of the goods to be obtained but the value, if in fact people have bought the goods, 729 of the stamps they would have got upon them. In other words, it might be £1 for which you would get 6d. stamps; and to receive a voucher bearing "£1" when you are going to get 6d. stamps is a pretty gross form of misrepresentation and ought to be dealt with.
Finally, we come to this controversial issue of the cash option. I do not propose to go into the details. There are a number of proposals. It has been suggested that this cash option should be related to the gross profit figure. Here I am surprised in looking at the figures in this particular Report at the size of the gross profit, which is certainly very much greater, I would have thought, than most reputable traders are making in this country to-day. It may be it is possible for the stamp traders; I do not know; but it is certainly higher than the profit prevailing in general stores and supermarkets, and indeed in department stores and small shops. I find this a most surprising figure and one we shall have to look at again. But whatever the figure is, there is this in the proposal. There is a certain simplicity in relating it to wholesale price with a certain margin to allow for swing. I hope that whatever we may think about stamp trading we shall accept that one way or another it is here and that we ought not to try to drive it out by legislation, however much we should like to do so in personal terms; but we will seek to regulate it in such a way that those who do not go in for trading stamps are prepared to accept that situation. As to our duty to regulate it, I think there can be no doubt at all, and I hope before we finish with the Bill we shall be able to improve it considerably.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, if I may begin on the same kind of note with which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, began, I hope that I, too, shall not be guilty of muddying the crystal clear waters in which the noble and learned Viscount was swimming when he introduced this Bill just now. I would begin by making one general observation which does not seem to have been given a great deal of publicity up to now. I wonder whether it is realised by retailers who go in for stamp trading that they are handing over quite a lot of retail trade to the trading stamp companies whose stamps they are distributing. If these gift halls 730 are being opened, as I understand they are, all over the country, at which goods of all kinds are being handed over as gifts in exchange for stamps, presumably a great many of these goods would otherwise have been retail sales, and I only hope that retailers know where they are going and realise this is happening, and take that into account before they decide to sign upon the dotted line with the stamp trading company and enter one of the schemes.
I should be quite pleased to see the total abolition of stamp trading, but I realise that in this wicked world, in which we may to our heart's content bet and play Bingo and smoke and drink, the abolition of stamp trading would not seem to be high on any sensible Government's list of things which ought to be abolished in our society. Therefore, we are, rightly, I think, concerned this afternoon with regulation rather than with abolition.
I had worked out for myself that stamp trading seemed to operate as a form of deferred discount, and I was fortified to hear those very words come from the noble and learned Viscount this afternoon. It confirms that I was right in that regard. But I would suggest to your Lordships that it is a deferred discount which is available only to those who have the leisure and the opportunity, and indeed the inclination, to go through a very considerable rigmarole. First of all, you have to see that you are collecting the right number of stamps to which you are entitled every time you go and buy something. You have to see that the shop assistant is not adding to his collection some of the stamps to which you are entitled. You then have to stick all those stamps in the books, and then a long time after you began you eventually go trudging over to some gift hall where you hope to find something which will appeal to you and which you will duly exchange for this enormous number of stamps you have collected.
I am sure this appeals greatly to those stamp collectors whose husbands pay the bill and who regard the gift in exchange for the stamps as something which they get for no expenditure of their own at all. But I very much doubt whether stamp trading schemes stand up very well to close examination upon economic 731 grounds. As to all this sticking in of stamps, I do not know whether I ought even to suggest this, but I wonder whether any of your Lordships has ever been in that position—in which admittedly you should not be—of having to stick 52 weekly national insurance stamps on to somebody's card all in one go. We know from the noble and learned Viscount that a stamp trading stamp book contains 1,260 stamps; so that the notional exercise of sticking in 52 stamps has to be multiplied by 25, and then you have one stamp book. But if your objective is the motor scooter which the noble and learned Viscount mentioned, you have to multiply your task by another 155 to get the 155 stamp books filled in, in exchange for which you will get the motor scooter. I suggest that that is a considerable rigmarole, and that there are worthy people in our society—students and so on—who badly need any cash discount which is going on their grocery or other purchases, but who really have not the time to go through all this rigmarole.
There was a letter in the Press some time ago from a business executive who said he had discovered that, for a quite astronomical number of trading stamps, he could get a television set. The difficulty was that, like most of us, he had not the spare time in which to stick all these stamps into books, and he was faced with two alternatives: in this age of full employment he had either to try to find somebody whom he would pay to stick all the stamps into books, or if he could not find somebody, to take a week's holiday from his work and stick them in himself. He worked it out that it was going to be cheaper to stay on at work and then "stump up" 75 guineas to get the television set which he would choose for himself, rather than have one, probably quite a different model, chosen for him by the stamp trading company. So I suggest that this Bill provides a good opportunity for laying down a straight cash discount to be obtainable from the retailer as an alternative to accepting and collecting stamps.
I realise that the optional cash redemption scheme goes some way to meeting this objection, but I do not think it goes all the way. To begin with, it 732 seems, at present at any rate, as though the cash option is going to be a poor bargain by comparison with what I may perhaps call gift hall shopping, and secondly, to get the 5s. worth of trading stamps which is the minimum redeemable amount, one has, I think, to spend £10. There must be many classes of people, such as motorist[...] and caravanners on holiday, who are continually spending £5 and £10 at shops here and there in different parts of the country, and perhaps in the process collecting stamps of all the colours of the rainbow, but never achieving 5s. worth of any one colour of trading stamps representing £10 worth of purchases.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, may I just interrupt the noble Lord to say that it is not quite right to say that, because the £10 is related to the retail value of the goods. The value of the stamps would probably be nothing like as high as that; so one would have to spend more than £10.
§ LORD AIREDALE
I am sorry. My arithmetic is faulty, but I think that the general tenor of what I am saying on this subject is probably true. At any rate, I am not very worried about this matter from the point of view of each individual stamp collector. Five shillings lost here or there in these days probably does not matter much to most people. What I am a little concerned about is all this unjust enrichment in the pockets of the stamp trading companies, because all these unredeemed stamps amount to an enormous sum in total.
Therefore, I should have liked to see in this Bill provision for a straight cash discount on the spot as an optional alternative to stamp collecting. I could have hoped that the Board of Trade would come into this and would agree to examine all stamp trading schemes and produce an official Board of Trade notice which the shopkeeper could put in a prominent position. In this notice the Board of Trade would state the fair cash discount equivalent to the value of the stamps, this being available as an alternative.
As to the cash redemption provided for in this Bill at present, it is obtainable only from the stamp trader and, as was mentioned in another place, that means that if the stamp trading company has 733 its offices in London, the housewife in Dundee has to send to London for her 5s. I should have thought that it was most necessary, in order to be fair to housewives, that each 5s. of redemption of stamps should be obtainable by her at the shop at which she makes her purchases, or at any rate at one of the shops at which these particular stamps are dealt in.
In another place a rather extraordinary objection to this course was taken. It was suggested that somebody might buy a car for £1,000, collect an enormous number of trading stamps, and then go to the village post office which happened to be within the same trading stamps scheme and suddenly demand on the spot an enormous sum in cash redemption which the small trader would be quite unable to deal with. I think that might be dealt with within this Bill by saying that no person should redeem more than 5s. trading stamps at any one shop on any one day. I do not think that rather extraordinary objection taken in another place has much weight.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that it would be a good deal simpler to require in the Bill that the stamp trading companies operating in a particular area are to ensure that there is adequate facility for redemption, either by cash or by kind'? That would meet the noble Lord's difficulty.
§ LORD AIREDALE
Yes; so long as there is easy and adequate facility for the shopper to achieve cash redemption. I was greatly attracted by the suggestion put forward in another place by the honourable Member for Bristol, South-East, who came forward with it only at the Report stage, which really did not give him full scope for developing his argument. It went through my mind that perhaps upon this one and only occasion the honourable Member for Bristol, South-East, may have wished to have had his seat in your Lordships' House, so that he could have expanded his argument here this afternoon.
The suggestion was that trading stamps should be freely available to those who wish to buy them at the value which is placed upon them. This would free both the retailer and the 734 customer from the shackles of the trading stamp company. I think it is fairly freely admitted that one objection to a stamp scheme is that once the retailer is in it he cannot get out of it for fear of disappointing his customers who are busy collecting the stamps; and the customer who is half way to the motor scooter cannot really take her business elsewhere and get better value from another shop, if she can find it, but is tied to the stamp scheme.
This suggestion would free both the retailer and the shopper, and it would ensure that the value placed upon the stamp was a proper value. If the value on the stamp was too low, the shopper would get a bargain, and that would not he allowed to continue indefinitely; and if the value placed upon it was too high, then the shopper would go for cash redemption and would get justice in that way. I hope that that bright suggestion from Bristol, South-East, may find some favour with your Lordships. Finally, I shall be proposing in Committee one Amendment to Clause 5(4) of the Bill, which mentions what happens if any person "injures" any notice posted. I thought one spoke about injury to persons but damage to property. Therefore I consider that in that subsection "damages" would be a better word than "injures".
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Viscount on the admirable way in which he has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. Although we are told that trading stamps are an old gimmick for increasing retail sales, for me, and I should imagine for the majority of Members of your Lordships' House, they are fairly new; and certainly fairly new to the ordinary shopper in this country. One knows that in the United States they have been used for a long time, but as I have not often had the opportunity of shopping there, I have never taken them seriously. Now, with the great invasion from the United States on the question of stamps and stamp companies, one is forced to examine what is happening and to study the effect, willy-nilly.
As Chairman of the Consumer Council, I am naturally deeply concerned with any movement, whether it be old or new, which affects the consumer and from 735 which there should be sound protection, so I have been drawn into the subject. At the beginning I was continually asked what my views were, but I did not wish to be drawn into the subject and my Council had not taken any particular stand upon it. I felt that this was just another kind of advertising, comparable to the various gifts, the plastic flowers, little knives and what-have-you, which are given to us when we buy different objects. But now it has gone further than that, and the Council felt that we should have a study made of the effect of the trading stamps and what was happening in the country. For this we commissioned Mr. Jameson, to whose report the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has referred in kindly terms.
Mr. Jameson has done a good job. He has carried out a considerable amount of interviewing, and there has also been a national poll of 2,162 people to find out their reactions to stamp trading. This does not seem a great many, when compared with the millions of shoppers, but the poll was taken of sample personalities and sample areas, and has covered a wide range. I do not want to go into the report in great detail, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has pointed out many of the things to which Mr. Jameson has referred. The question of housewives being confused about stamps and prices is brought out clearly, as is the question of the price of an article The fact that many people do not know the prices of articles, try to remember them and get the price wrong comes out quite often in the report; also the point about the number of people who are not sure whether collecting stamps is a method of saving or a method of spending.
Those who are conservative and loyal to the shops with which they have always dealt are not affected so much by stamp trading because they are not on the search for stamps but are content with their own shops. But the shoppers who go around exploring prices and types of goods find that stamp trading has added adventure to their daily or weekly shopping trips. To show how much this has affected shopping habits, a survey made by the Alfred Bird Company in 1957 showed that 50 per cent. of shoppers stuck to the same shops; the proportion had dropped by 1961 to 15 per cent. The 736 advent of the supermarket has no doubt helped in this change, and if the forecast for supermarkets in 1966 comes true, 50 per cent. of food sales will be done by this method of shopping, and the change will become even more marked.
These new habits, and the controversy about stamps, have made the Consumer Council very much concerned for the protection of the shopper. It is not that we want to stop stamp trading—and I would make that quite clear—but we want to see that the consumer is protected against unfair trading or exploitation. The proposals which Mr. Jameson outlines in his report, and which the Consumer Council support, appear on pages 60 to 62. They amount to an indemnification scheme against default on the part of the trading stamp company, and a cash option for the buyer of stamps, and deal with the question of misrepresentation, which we think is unfortunate. The Council would like the stamp companies to register with the Board of Trade and make a cash deposit or lodge a bond of indemnity approved by the Board. In the event of a company's defaulting this bond would be used to pay the person who had saved the stamps. We make suggestions in our report of how the percentage of gross sales should be estimated. As this is not included in the Bill I will not enlarge upon it now, but I hope to have an opportunity to put forward an Amendment to this effect on Committee stage.
The other safeguard we should like to see is a cash option, about which the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has spoken. Clause 3 of the Bill includes such an option, but as the cash value of the option is to be decided by the stamp company, we do not think this is sufficient safeguard for the consumer, since the level set by the company might be too low.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lady? When one looks at Clause 3 one sees the words:If the holder of any number of redeemable trading stamps which have an aggregate cash value of not less than five shillings so requests, the promoter of the trading stamp scheme shall redeem them by paying over their aggregate cash value.Then if one looks at the interpretation clause one sees that'cash value' means, in relation to any trading stamp, the value stated on such stamp".737 So if stamps are going to be printed with 6d. value on them, the customer will get 6d. for them.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
The real point, on the question of cash value, is that we suggest that the requirement that each stamp should carry its value expressed in relation to coin of the realm is not practicable without further confusing the purchaser. One stamp is customarily given for 6d. worth of purchases. In terms of "gifts" the stamp is worth approximately only 2½ per cent. of this sum; that is to say, six-fortieths of a penny, or, in decimals, 0.15d., or in cash perhaps about half of this, say, three-fortieths of a penny or 0.075d. I think that that is much too complicated and will require a mathematical genius to work it out.
In practical terms what is required is that each stamp book, which, when completed, normally represents about £30 worth of purchases, and thus has a value in gifts of about 15s., or in cash of, maybe, 7s. 6d., should carry the latter cash value clearly. This would provide the stamp company with an occasion to underline the superior attractions of the gifts in the catalogue in preference to the cash value of the book. What it would work out at would be the wholesale price of the goods, with 10 per cent. one way or the other. That would be ascertained by a formula which is somewhat complicated, but which I think would work out all right in the end. But we think that there should be a cash option, and that it should be decided not by the companies but by a formula which would be approved by the Board of Trade.
On Clause 1(2) of the Bill, we think that the accounts of stamp trading companies should be published, as is suggested. This is to demonstrate, I think quite rightly, the stability of the stamp trading company, so that collectors shall not be deprived of their reward through failure to redeem stamps for gifts or the cash option. But I do not think that there will be enough interest taken, either by the Press or members of the public, in the accounts of comparatively small companies so that the collectors will be sufficiently safeguarded. In any case, investigation of the accounts which reveals weaknesses will only serve to close the stable door after the horse has escaped, as collectors will then only be compensated 738 in retrospect. Publication of accounts as a safeguard may be adequate when the interests concerned are those of the shareholders, who have their contractual rights as holders of share certificates and participate in the election of directors. Stamp collectors, however, have no such protection as their stamps confer no legal rights—at least, none which has clearly been established by any decision of the courts.
The study which the Consumer Council commissioned, and to which I have referred, shows that collectors' interests could be protected by the deposit of cash or collateral security by the stamp companies, to the equivalent of only 15 per cent. of their gross sales of stamps outstanding. I should like to see stamp companies obliged to lodge either cash, or a bond from a bank or insurance company, or other security as a protection for those who collect their stamps, in the event of the company's going into liquidation. This is not a theoretical suggestion, because several examples of insecurity have come up in the last twelve months, including the fact that the second biggest British company has gone into liquidation. So I think that this is a very important point for the protection of the stamp collector.
Another point which I should like to make concerns something which has been omitted—namely, misrepresentation on stamps themselves, on stamp books and on so-called gift vouchers, of the value which they represent. The study which Mr. Jameson has made, which includes the result of a survey conducted on our behalf by Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Ltd., revealed the confusion, to which we have referred, among the public as to the value of their trading stamps. Some 85 per cent. of all collectors are unable to estimate the worth of a gift voucher correctly; 39 per cent., even, of avid savers and 32 per cent. of experienced savers miscalculated the value by as much as 300 per cent. This confusion is added to by such practices as the printing of the simple figure "6" on the stamp, or of the words "worth £1 in stamps" on the gift voucher when it is actually worth 6d. in gifts. That is something which we should like to see banned in the Bill, and I am sure we shall want to put down an Amendment to deal with it on the Committee stage.
739 A second omission is that of any statutory control of the level at which the cash option shall be set. The intention of the Bill that this shall be left to the discretion of the individual stamp companies, is something which we do not consider is correct. Therefore, we should like to see another formula setting, a value which would be accepted by the stamp companies, and which would definitely not be decided by them. Our consultant includes a suggestion as to how such a formula might be worked. In essence, the cash option would be based on the overall average of wholesale costs, and not on the cost of any particular item offered as a gift. The accounts of the stamp companies will continuously record for any given period the payments made to manufacturers for goods, and, if the total for any given year is divided by the number of books redeemed for the corresponding twelve-month period, the cash value per book can then be readily calculated. This calculation, of course, would be left to the stamp companies themselves, subject to an annual check by the Board of Trade.
In order, as I said, to allow for fluctuations and alterations which happen between one year and another, there would be a variation of 10 per cent. either below or above the average figure established. This system sounds complicated, but I do not think it would be so complicated in view of the fact that publication of figures, and of numbers of stamp books, which would be essential in this matter, has been discussed by Mr. Jameson with the stamp trading companies and also with other people interested in this particular matter. Although the former may complain on principle, they concede that there is no practical administrative difficulty in bringing this calculation into effect.
We believe that these specific weaknesses and the omissions from the Bill before us mean that in its present form the Bill would constitute too weak a measure of protection for the consumer, and at a later stage I should like to put forward a number of Amendments designed to make it into an effective instrument. In the meantime, I would only say on the Second Reading that I 740 support the way in which my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross has put this Bill forward, but that on Committee stage I shall be putting down Amendments to strengthen it in the interests of the consumer.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ LORD SAINSBURY
My Lords, may I at the outset declare an interest as a retailer and as an opponent of trading stamps? Nevertheless, I hope I may be permitted, in spite of this, to give my general support to the Bill and, also, to mention certain weaknesses in the Bill as it now stands, which have already been referred to by other speakers in this debate.
During the controversy about trading stamps we have had a spate of generalisations about housewives. In a very well-known and respectable Sunday paper recently, under an article headed "Sociology", the writer wrote about the secret vices of the woman buyer and suggested that the rational housewife was a myth. Not being a sociologist but a mere retailer, I should like to put it quite simply that some women like stamps and other women do not, but I happen to hold the view that the more sensible women are in the latter category. There are members of my own Party who would like to see trading stamps abolished by law, as they have been in other countries, such as Norway, certain States in the United States, and in two Provinces in Canada.
I am not an abolitionist; I am a protectionist, because you do not need, in my view (to quote a phrase which has already been quoted this afternoon) a steamhammer to crack a nut. I believe that the housewife should be protected against certain misleading features of stamp trading, and against certain possible abuses, as she is protected by the new Weights and Measures Act and by the new hire-purchase legislation.
If that is accepted, the question is: what form should protection take? The Bill, as has already been stated, has been criticised in certain quarters as a half-hearted measure. I think that, although it has weaknesses, to which I shall refer later, it also achieves some very worthwhile objects. First, it establishes the principle of cash-convertibility; secondly, it makes it obligatory 741 for the stamp company to put a cash value on the stamps. On the other hand, there are certain inadequacies in the Bill as it stands at the moment. First, the Bill does not specify a minimum rate of cash redemption; in other words, the stamp companies could fix the redemption rate at such a low level in relation to the retail value of the gifts that it would penalise the person who wanted to redeem her stamps for cash and increase that confusion in her mind to which so many speakers have already referred. This has happened in America, and I think it is a little naïve to think that it will not happen here because of competition between stamp companies. In my view, they are much more likely to put their heads together and not to cut each other's throats.
The second weakness is that, although there are restrictions in the Bill on persons who may carry on business as promoters of trading stamp companies, in my view there is no real safeguard for the public against the possible insolvency of stamp companies. Several stamp companies, as is known to your Lordships, have already gone into liquidation, and only recently there was a meeting of the creditors of a firm called Winning Stamps. Their failure was attributed to trying to expand too quickly, lack of capital, competition, the effects of the campaign against stamp trading and employing too many salesmen. The company's assets were £44. The original promoters of the company certainly chose an unfortunate title. I think the consumer should have a guarantee that stamps will be redeemed in any circumstances. I have stated before in your Lordships' House that in certain aspects stamp companies resemble insurance firms. They ought to keep sufficient reserves for outstanding stamps; and I suggest that the provisions of our company law are not adequate in respect of stamp companies. The Bill should, in my view, make provisions to meet their special requirements.
Furthermore, I believe that the public should be protected against misleading stamp advertising. As a rule, stamp companies and retailers, in their advertisements, refer to the nominal but not the real value of the stamps. To take an example, a stamp trader recently advertised a quarter-pound packet of tea for 742 1s. 9d. and offered 5s. worth of trading stamps with each packet. I wonder whether the average customer has a clear idea how much real value these stamps represent. In point of fact, I calculated their real value was l½d., and not 5s. May I suggest, further, that the regulation of this sort of advertising would not be a new legal departure, for the Advertisements (Hire-Purchase) Act, 1957, found it necessary to regulate the contents of hire-purchase advertisements in order to provide the consumer with all the information she needed. In conclusion, although I consider this Bill could be considerably strengthened during the Committee stage. I think that, even in its present form, it is worthy of your Lordships' support.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
My Lords, I would join immediately with other noble Lords in praise of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for the admirable way in which he introduced this measure and for the facts which he gave us. I would also join with the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, in saying that I should like to declare some personal interest in this Bill. I am by trade a printer, and I am glad to say that among many thousands of our customers we include several of the stamp companies. We normally print for any customer who, we first of all assure ourselves, can pay the bill and who, secondly, does not require us to print what is, in our submission, illegal, obscene or subversive. Apart from that, we do not think it is our duty to censor printing. But, naturally, before embarking on any printing for any relatively new form of advertising, it is necessary to make inquiries, and my people made very considerable inquiries about this form of stamp trading before we came to any conclusions as to whether we wished to include the stamp companies among our clients. We, of course, handle only a very small proportion of their present requirements.
Before I come to the Bill itself, I must confess that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, in endeavouring to make confusion a little less confounded, rather left me feeling that, if it is quite true—and I am sure it is—that many of the purchasers of these stamps have little idea of how much they are worth, I 743 had little idea of what the Consumer Council were driving at in trying to make this clearer. However, I have no doubt that this will come out during Committee stage. If the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbusry, will not mind my saying so, I am sorry that he talked about misleading advertising. We all want to stop misleading advertising of all kinds—and there is far too much of it in this country—but I do not think we can single out stamp traders in this regard any more than anybody else.
I have heard Lord Sainsbury's own advertising, under the heading, "Lowest possible prices at all times", strongly criticised. I think it was unwarranted criticism. Who is to decide what is the lowest possible price? Therefore, I think we should be careful when criticising other people's advertising. On the other hand, the more we can get realistic advertising the more the advertising industry will prosper. As a printer, I am naturally very interested in all forms of advertising and all forms of sales promotion, and it is obvious, I think, that trading stamps come into the category of sales promotion, although only a very small part of it. I think it is generally accepted that the total amount spent in this country on advertising in all its forms at the present time is something over £500 million a year.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him? Does he not see a difference between an advertisement which says, "Lowest possible prices" and one which says that you will get 5s. worth of stamps when they are in fact worth only 1½d.? Or, you are given a voucher with "£1" on it and it is worth only 6d. Can he not see the difference? Surely there is a difference.
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
I think that, fortunately, the consumer has learned by now to take all advertising with a small grain of salt. Of course, he does not think he is going to get 5s. worth of goods, any more than he thinks that in Lord Sainsbury's shops everything is sold at a lower price than anywhere else. The prices are the lowest possible prices for Sainsburys, and that is quite right. But I am pleading that we should not rush into criticising other 744 people unless we are quite sure of all the facts.
I would go back to what I was saying. It seems to me that we have this matter out of proportion. There is something over £500 million spent every year on advertising activities of every sort. I gather from inquiry that the total spent on trading stamps in this country, although it is growing slowly, is not more than £10 million in one year, or 2 per cent. of the total advertising expenditure. Therefore, 98 per cent. of all that is spent on sales promotion and on advertising is spent in media other than trading stamps. So trading stamps are not of such enormous importance compared with other forms of advertising. Whether advertising raises prices is, in fact, a completely insignificant part of the whole argument. I think that most people would agree—I would, certainly—that advertising is a good thing and helps to raise the living standards and to reduce costs; and, indeed, that our whole modern civilisation could hardly exist at the present time without advertising in its different forms.
We are constantly urging and being urged to adopt aggressive sales action abroad. The business people in this country are constantly criticised in the Press for not being aggressive enough, for not being modern enough, in their selling and advertising methods. We are now considering a relatively minute affair compared with the whole gamut of sales, and I think all the noisy controversy that we have had outside has been rather overdone. So far as the public is concerned, I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is on record as saying, during the Second Reading debate in another place, that so far as complaints are concerned, we get far more complaints about door-to-door salesmen than about any of the activities of stamp collectors. I go further. I read on page 11 of the Consumer Council Report which we have just received:The intelligent bystander has been suspicious, and for good reason, of a Bill which was sponsored by vested interests and has never been able to live down its origins.So the Consumer Council were suspicious of this Bill in its original form.
§ LORD SAINSBURY
My Lords, I do not like to interrupt the noble Lord, but would he justify the phrase "vested 745 interests"? So far as I know, the Bill promoted in the other place was an all-Party Bill, and the promoters consulted not only the vested interests, as represented by Messrs. Sperry and Hutchinson and the Distributive Trades Alliance, but also the Consumer Council and the Board of Trade. In view of that, how can anybody say with accuracy that the Bill was promoted by vested interests?
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
I was quoting the Consumer Council Study by Conrad Jameson, which has been praised by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and was sponsored by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. They are not my words; they were taken from the Consumer Council's Study. I suggest that in its original form this Bill would have killed stamp trading in this country. Indeed, I noticed that during the Third Reading debate in another place Mr. Noel Baker expressed his disappointment, and that of his friends, that the Bill had departed in so many ways from its original form.
My Lords, I cannot help feeling that Parliament has been called to give a great deal of attention to this matter, to pass legislation of this sort, in order to protect the anti-stamp traders from legitimate competition—as I assume it is—from the infinitely smaller section of stamp traders. But the figure that has not yet been quoted is that, of the traders of this country, only some 7 per cent. are indulging in the sale of stamps. The remaining 93 per cent. are not. If the 93 per cent. are so afraid of the activities of the 7 per cent. it surprises me very much.
I see also that some more advanced people have even suggested that this is a moral issue; that there is something immoral in trading stamps unless the exact cash option is printed on the stamps. Let me quote from an article, headed "The rôle of trading stamps in retail competition", which appeared in a certain evening paper. The writer points out that the average trading-stamp catalogue contains 800 or more items, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, quoted: and this compares favourably with the more restricted choice of most retailers or manufacturers in this connection. For example, there were 50 746 week-ends for two in Paris offered in a competition by Maypole Dairies; a holiday in Guernsey, and gift vouchers, operated by J. Sainsbury & Company; free icing sets for a purchaser of Persil, or a free pair of scissors for two packets of Lyons Premium Tea. If trading stamps are immoral, then all these offers are immoral. But of course they are not immoral. It is ridiculous to say that they are. I would say that trading stamps are certainly no more immoral, and certainly no more ill-established, than the "divi" paid out by the "Co-ops".
What about these trading stamps? Who are the people really involved? They are the traders and the consumer. It would appear at once that the general public like trading stamps very much. Mass Observation disclosed in the paper I have quoted (they took a poll in December last) that no less than 25 per cent. of all the people in this country between the ages of 18 and 65, especially the younger ones and those in the lower income groups, collected trading stamps. Incidentally, the Gallup Poll and Mass Observation poll people asked those who did not themselves collect trading stamps—people like myself—whether they approved of the whole thing, and no less; than 90 per cent. of those who did not collect stamps expressed the view that people should be left alone to collect stamps if they wanted to do so. It would appear that, from the general public's point of view, 25 per cent. of the people collect stamps, and that, of the others, over 90 per cent. say that people should be allowed to collect them if they wish to.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, is it not right to say that this Bill also says that people shall be allowed to collect stamps if they wish to do so?
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
My Lords, I am in support of this Bill; but some of the suggestions being made—notably by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale—to amend it would kill trading stamps altogether, so preventing that 25 per cent. from having their trading stamps and going against the wishes of the 90 per cent.
§ LORD SAINSBURY
My Lords, I do not wish again to interrupt the noble Lord, but is he suggesting that insistence on a fair relationship between the cash 747 value and the gift value would kill trading stamp companies? If he is, that is a very interesting statement.
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
I never said that. I said that they were some of the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. Perhaps the noble Lord was not listening to what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, said.
The figures I have quoted prove convincingly that the public like trading stamps. Of the outlets with whom Green Shield Stamps deal—and they are one of the large trading stamp people—85 per cent. are small, independent traders, and they evidently find trading stamps a useful device for attracting trade in the severely competitive conditions of today. A considerable number have tried trading stamps and given up. They find that it does not suit them. Others come to take their places. It is entirely up to the trader to judge.
The distributive trades are extremely competitive, and all sorts of promotional efforts likely to attract trade are in vogue. There are point-of-sale devices of all sorts: price cuts on certain days, "divi" in the co-ops, extended credit, extra personal service, home delivery, beautiful carpets on the floors, restaurants, lifts, car parks—all these things are provided in order to compete with the next man. Why should they not have trading stamps as well? At any rate, 7 per cent. of them do. I suggest that the trader should be left free to decide which methods of sales promotion serve him best. I have endeavoured to show that the inquiries made lead to the conclusion that stamps are popular in this country and that some traders like them.
It would appear that stamp schemes have trodden on the corns of one or two people, who have shouted rather loudly; but I would say, "Good luck to them!" At the same time, there is one proviso that I should like to make, and make strongly. I believe that the issuing of stamps to a trader by a stamp company, and by a trader to his customers, implies a moral obligation that the stamps will be honoured as indicated in the current catalogue. I do not like the idea that a company might possibly be set up. with a nominal capital, to sell stamps to 748 traders and then go into liquidation, leaving the stamps valueless. I believe that the Bill is perfectly right in facing up to this problem. It might be said that a trader ought to make sure that he is trading with a responsible, financially sound company. That is not always possible, however, and accidents do happen, even with the most careful arrangements. I think that the Bill goes a good way towards ensuring proper safeguards to eliminate this danger, and I strongly support the Bill in this respect.
I would say that to the rest of the Bill, as it stands, none of us can really object. It is, of course, entirely different from the Bill originally presented, which appeared to me to be an attempt to make stamp trading quite impossible. I should have strenuously opposed that Bill, and I hope that there will not be an effort, during the Committee stage of this Bill, to reinstate some of the clauses which were dropped in another place. But the Bill as it is, and the clauses aimed at seeing that only responsible firms, with financial resources able to meet any demands upon them, are operating, and that the value of the stamps is printed on them, might well, I suggest be accepted by your Lordships' House as a proper attempt to regulate this young industry—and I use the word "regulate" advisedly. I also believe that the Bill will be accepted willingly by the stamp companies. I do not believe that in its present form it interferes with legitimate interests, and I suggest to your Lordships that it may well fortify the present substantial good will that exists between traders and consumers in this field. Therefore I hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading, and eventually pass it in its present form.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
My Lords, my vested interest in this matter goes to the extent of having received a brief and documents on the trading stamp system from the two important companies trading in this country, one British, one American, and an invitation to go out and see a large emporium or redemption centre for myself before the Committee stage of this Bill, which I hope to do. Otherwise, I have no connection with the trade whatever.
I should like to come immediately to the business of the face value of the 749 stamps, because I am in considerable confusion about it. I suspect that noble Lords, being much better informed on the details of these schemes than I am, have all got tidily put away in their minds what the answer is. I do not ask for anyone to interrupt me to put me right, because the last part of my short speech will not hang on this matter at all, and if my noble friend the Minister of State or the promoter of the Bill, to whom we are all grateful for his most felicitous speech, will be good enough to state what the situation is, I shall be only too obliged.
As I read out just now when the noble Lady was speaking, Clause 2(1) states specifically that there should be a cash value on the stamps. I do not know whether that is, going to be sixpence or what somebody is toying with, a fractional part, 075 of a penny; but one or other figure must be put upon the stamps. When one turns to the Interpretation Clause, one finds that it says:'cash value' means, in relation to any trading stamp, the value stated on such stamp;So that anybody with a large volume of stamps can tot up the face value on the stamps and send them to the trading stamp company and receive cash in return equivalent to the total face value of the stamps. It does not make any difference whether it is a fractional sum or a substantial sum—one pound. According to what we are about to make law, if words mean anything at all, it seems to me that that is going to be the case.
My noble friend said that there was the equivocal position where stamp values do not relate to the price of the redemption goods. That is quite a different matter. One sends the stamps at so-called face value to the redemption centre and they do not necessarily purchase the full amount of the goods as stated in the catalogue. It seems to me that this is no different from ordinary trade, where prices may rise and fall and your pound does not go so far as, or goes further than, you thought it was going to do.
I want to get this absolutely straight and I shall be glad if the Government will be good enough to explain whether we are not talking about two different 750 things. The redemption value of the stamp is at its face value, so that every person who buys petrol at a garage and goes away with stamps knows that this is eventual cash in his pocket, less the 4s. 11½d., which he cannot get. It might amount to tens of pounds. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, talked about caravanners stopping at places and being embarrassed because they could purchase only a certain amount of goods. What is to stop them from spending a year caravanning, until they have spent hundreds of pounds and got their redemption stamps, and from eventually deciding to send these to the trading stamp company and get back the cash value? So the discount is there from the beginning, less the 4s. 11½d.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, the noble Earl said he did not want to be interrupted, but he has mentioned me by name, so perhaps I alone may have the privilege of interrupting. I do this also because the noble Viscount whose Bill this is also interrupted me on this point, and evidently I did not make myself clear. The point I was trying to make was this: that people travelling about may spend between £5 or £10 in all sorts of places and get all sorts of different coloured stamps. I believe you have to spend £10 to get 5s. worth of stamps.
§ LORD AIREDALE
Apparently I am wrong. But you have to spend a considerable amount. You may end up with a great many stamps of different colours, but none of them add up to 5s. worth, and you have really been done out of quite a lot of money that you may well have had.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
It depends how many trading stamp companies are in operation. This is one of the things no doubt the consumer has to look out for to make sure, if he is interested in cash discounts by redeeming his stamps, that in the end he does not collect stamps of all the colours of the rainbow. But why he should be protected by law (I agree with the robust speech made just now by the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton) and by the Consumer Council from considerations of this sort, instead of being schooled, by making mistakes from time to time, into 751 being a selective buyer and a skilful man I simply cannot understand.
I thought that all the points of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, were good, and this was quite a small point: that the catalogue should be in the shop. I am not quite sure where else it is. I take it that you can send for one from the stamp trading company and have it in your house, but I agree with the noble Viscount that it should be in the shop. I suppose it would have to be made obligatory under the Act that the book should be in the shop where the stamps are given.
The noble Viscount made a point on Clause 9(3):This Act shall come into operation at the expiration of a period of twelve months beginning with the date on which it is passed.It may be passed on a Wednesday towards the end of July, and I am wondering whether it would not be better for the Board of Trade to make an appointed day for the operation of this Act, taking into account public holidays, the trading year, quarter days and things of that kind. That would be altogether more easy. But that is a minor point. Incidentally, if we had had an appointed day for the operation of the Peerage Act, I should have been in a happier position than I am now.
Then we come to the noble Lord: Lord Shackleton, who pointed out that the Consumer Council's Report had passed certain strictures upon myself, and he reproved me for not having seen the Consumer Council's Report. Well, here it is:H.M.S.O. 4s.It has a nice cover.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
Well, June, 1964: and June, as Shakespeare remarked, is only wasted eight days. Was it on the 1st? I do not think so. Anyway, it has only just appeared, and it is a study by a Mr. Conrad Jameson.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
He apparently was educated at Harvard and the London School of Economics, and is an American research consultant, now living in London.He carried out all depth interviews in the study himself, motivational research being his particular specialisation.As befits a young American, he is fascinated by the poetry of Ezra Pound, because he quotes it on page 41. If I may pour some coals of fire upon the noble Lord's strictures upon myself, may I read out this phrase, which I think is characteristic of the noble Lord and his friends in the Labour Party, particularly at the time of tribal dancing before their annual conference begins?… so a fraternal lord seeks abundance. only in equity".
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
in his mode is no crookedness.That is very fine, and I am sure very applicable to the Labour Party.
The noble Lord said that stamp trading was a distraction from a better service and lower prices. What better service? There she is, the housewife, going into the shop where she has always been, and she finds it is now just about to indulge in stamp trading. She goes in with all the greater zeal. But what was that shop to do to help her other than introduce the stamp trading scheme? It was helping her a great deal; she was a regular customer; it was packing up her goods and sending them to her, or, if not, it was because she preferred to do the shopping herself and go there, as many do in the large stores to-day. I think the noble Lord at a later stage of the Bill might tell us what better service a shop can do for this 2½ per cent. discount than it is doing by operating a stamp trading service.
As for lower prices, well, the lower prices can be immediately achieved, if I am right in my figuring calculations—and we shall be told later in the debate—by redeeming the stamps that have been given, less 4s. 11½d. I am sorry it is 4s. 11½d., but I do not see how you can operate the scheme more 753 precisely than that. It is up to the housewife to secure her lower prices directly by the redemption of her stamps, or keep the stamps, fill up a book and get something which she would otherwise have paid for—the radiogram or motor scooter which the noble Lord told us about. She could argue that she is getting better value for money and having a great deal more fun in doing the thing that way than in insisting on the retailer giving her lower prices, which he would not do, anyway, or has not done, and which resale price maintenance abolition is going to compel him to do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said that she was not an abolitionist, and the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said that he was not. Only the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, said that he would like to be, but is not. The noble Lady represents the Consumer Council in this House—she is, indeed, the Chairman of it—and if she continues to make the enlightened and witty speeches that she does make, and if the authors of the various studies which are produced by the Consumer Council are as light-hearted as the author of this particular one, then the Consumer Council is going to be saved from being the greatest bore the nation has ever had to suffer. I am very surprised that in a competitive, free society, which is proceeding to be even more so from day to day through the abolition of resale price maintenance, we should need to have a Consumer Council at all. Only in a socialised, monopolised society do you really need a Consumer Council, because the great safeguard to the consumers of this country is pure competition, and pure competition which drives people, if necessary, into bankruptcy. Not enough inefficient firms are going bankrupt to-day; many more should do so.
This leads me directly to what I thought was a valid point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, whose opposition to this whole business of stamp trading I otherwise so much deplore, and it was echoed by the noble Lord who spoke before me. The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said that the consumer must have some sort of guarantee that the stamps should be redeemed in the end by somebody; and, of course, it is true that if some of these stamp trading companies 754 are going to be bucket shops and simply go west, and if the stamp is going to have the value of a coin of the realm (although it is not, in fact, redeemable at a bank or a post office) actually put on it, with the letter "d", then it seems to me to be imperative that there should be some carefully worked out safeguard, with Board of Trade supervision, of these companies to see that they remain in flotation.
If somebody has collected rare stamps, and he walks round the corner to sell one, and finds that the little man with whom he has always traded has gone "bust", at least there are hundreds of other stamp dealers along the same shores of the river—if we are thinking of Paris—and he can get his stamp redeemed somewhere. The market exists. But what is the market to be if a single trading stamp company can issue stamps, which are then in the possession of somebody else, and it goes bankrupt and they become irredeemable? This, I think, is a serious matter, and should be looked into by the Promoter of the Bill. I speak with very great humility on this subject. I am by no means an authority on it, but I hope to become better informed before the Committee stage and, if possible, to assist your Lordships further.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE, BOARD OF TRADE (LORD DRUMALBYN)
My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross, who has not only assumed responsibility for this Bill in this House, but has explained the background for the Bill and its objects so lucidly. We are also grateful for the very careful study he has made of this subject. I should like to express my own personal gratitude for the survey which was sponsored by the Consumer Council, and to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood for coming here and expounding the recommendations of the Consumer Council. I should also like to express my gratitude for the careful and erudite study by Mrs. Christina Fulop which was made with the aid of a panel of distinguished economists. I think both of these documents have stimulated thought.
To illustrate the way in which this subject is approached, I might perhaps mention—I hope without discourtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury—that 755 among those organisations which made this research done by Mrs. Christina Fulop possible was his own. I think it is a valuable piece of research. My purpose in intervening is to indicate the attitude of the Government towards this Bill which, of course, is a Private Member's Bill, and clearly not a Party matter in any sense. I suppose the attitude of the Government to it would best be stated by "an attitude of benevolent neutrality". For that reason, the Government spokesman in another place described it as "useful and workable", and if it commends itself to your Lordships, we shall be quite content.
While opinion is divided as to whether it is really necessary to legislate about trading stamps, the Bill, as your Lordships know, received general support in another place, and the broad tenor of to-day's debates suggests that your Lordships consider that legislation is desirable. Indeed, if I understood my noble friend Lord Sandwich correctly, he, too, considers that legislation is desirable on this subject. There seems to be rather less agreement as to what the legislation should contain. The Government's concern in this matter is that, whatever legislation is passed, it should be both appropriate and workable. As has become quite clear in this debate, some people like the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, would have liked trading stamps to be banned entirely. They regard them as a costly irrelevance. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said that the trouble about them is that they do not increase efficiency. I am not entirely sure that that, as a generalisation, is correct. For example, Mrs. Fulop argues that where there is spare capacity it may enable a retailer to increase his sales and so enable the slack to be taken up, and thereby he becomes more efficient.
The fact remains, however, that there are others, both traders and consumers, who like trading stamps. There are countries in which most sorts of free gift or bonus offer in the form of goods are forbidden. But there seems no reason to distinguish between sales promotion practices of that character, and to ban one of them. My noble friend Lord McCorquodale of Newton gave a figure of the total of retailers whom he thought were engaged in stamp trading. I have not got that figure, but at present we 756 estimate that some 3 to 4 per cent. of total consumer sales of goods are covered by trading stamps, and about 7 per cent. of the consumer sales of groceries. There are very strong grounds for believing that they are never likely to cover a higher proportion of consumer sales. Opposition to them, for one thing, is far too strong, and the more prevalent they become the less marginal advantage they offer to retailers over their competitors. I am not going to enter into an argument about saturation point, about which different views seem to be held.
Others would like trading stamps in general to be more closely supervised and regulated than this Bill proposes to do. But the belief of the Government is that the right course is to open the shutters and let in as much light as possible, so that retailers and consumers can have adequate information on which to choose for themselves. We certainly think that consumers should be protected against unfair trading practices and malpractices, as my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood suggested.
Reference has been made to failures of trading stamp concerns. So far as I can ascertain, there have been three failures, two of them of small local concerns. In the third case, as I am informed, it appears that the trading stamp schemes of the company concerned which gave coupons have been taken over by another stamp company, Atlas Promotions Limited, and Atlas has undertaken to redeem these stamps subject to certain conditions—that is, that the stamps should continue to be handled by the retailers, and that the retailers should continue to deal with Atlas for a minimum period. Where the public stand to lose heavily it may be necessary for Parliament to step in, as it did in the case of depositors, to protect them by laying down detailed conditions of trading. What we have to judge—and this is a matter of proportion, as I think my noble friend Lord McCorquodale of Newton brought out—is whether there really is a case for the detailed regulation of trading stamps to the extent that some noble Lords have suggested in to-day's debate. Certainly as the Bill now stands it does not do that.
757 It is perhaps relevant to remind your Lordships—and I hope your Lordships will not mind that I do so—that we are now in the last lap of this Session, and that if the whole character of the Bill were to be changed in your Lordships' House to a great extent there would be some risk of the Bill's not reaching the Statute Book at all. That is not a threat in any way; it is merely an observation of fact.
What we are all concerned with is: what sort of protection do we want and for whom? I think we want to be quite clear what the essence of trading stamps is. There has been a great deal of discussion about this. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, thought that they were deferred discounts. I would prefer to describe them as stamps given with and in proportion to retail purchases of goods or services which entitled the purchaser to a sort of contingent bonus in kind. The bonus is provided either by the retailer or by the trading stamp company which sells the stamps to the retailer. If a line is to be drawn between these two it is bound to be drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Under the Bill the broad test is whether the stamps are redeemable by the retailer who has sold the goods or by somebody else. This does not seem unreasonable, although, as we shall no doubt see when we come to examine Clause 8 of the Bill in Committee stage, the definition as a whole would perhaps give rise to certain anomalies.
However that may be, it is the retailer who gives the stamps with all or most of the goods he sells. It is the retailer's good will and reputation that are at stake whoever is to redeem the stamps. It is he who is using the trading stamps as a means of promoting the sale of his goods or services. It follows that he is, or ought to be, wary of entering into an arrangement with the trading stamp company for the disposal of that company's stamps. If something goes wrong, he will be blamed. If he is not to lose custom, he will have to ensure that his customers are not deprived of the expectations which he holds out to them.
It is to help him to assess not only the value, but the reliability of the offer which he makes to his customers, of stamps given with goods bought, and it 758 seems right to require that concerns selling stamps to retailers should be subject to the Companies Act or to the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, as my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross said; that they should have to state their directors and the address of their registered office, and to submit accounts for public inspection audited by qualified accountants. They will not be entitled under the Bill (and this is a point I think that my noble friend did not mention) to any of the privileges of an exempt private company. A trading stamp concern will not be able to be carried on by an individual or a partnership, but only by a company. Of course, not many retailers, still less the shopping public, would study the accounts of trading stamp companies, but it will obviously be the duty, I would suggest, of retailers' trade associations, which exist to protect their interests, to study them and to give their members guidance. And the Press, no doubt, will also play their usual vigilant part.
Nobody would pretend that this provision, though giving some safeguard, would stop the fraudulent operator who might try to sell as many stamps as possible in the shortest possible time and then decamp with the proceeds. But I doubt whether retailers are likely to be caught by doorstep salesmen of trading stamps. No one in his senses, and certainly no ordinary businessman, would take a policy decision of this kind affecting his whole business without having made very careful inquiries to check the statements and claims of the trading stamps salesman. If there ever was a time when he would do so, before trading stamps began to get the publicity they have, I believe that time has passed.
The proposed requirement that every stamp issued to the public should bear on its face a statement of its cash value and the name of the promoter seems to be generally welcomed, and so does the provision that the holder should be entitled, if he prefers, to claim the cash value after saving a reasonable number of stamps. I am not certain that I know exactly what question my noble friend Lord Sandwich was asking, but it seems to me that the phrases he read out were fairly plain in their meaning and that all that is required is that the trading stamp, besides bearing the name of the promoter 759 should bear on its face in clear and legible character the value expressed in, or by reference to, the current coin of the realm. Whether it is expressed by decimal or by fraction, or in any other way, does not seem to me to matter, in accordance with that definition.
§ THE EARL OF SANDWICH
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. I raised that question only because there was some comment earlier in the debate by other noble Lords that, somehow, when these stamps got back to the trading stamps company they lost their value and therefore the customer did not get so much benefit as he thought he was going to get.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I think noble Lords who put this idea forward had in mind that the stamps should not only bear on their face a cash value but should have a predetermined relationship with the total value of the goods the articles that are available to stamp collectors.
In other words, as I understand it, every year, for example, a statement should be issued of the retail price value of the articles with, related to it, a statement of the number of books that have been issued. Between the two there should be cast a relationship on which the cash value stated on the stamps should be based. Some, certainly, would go further and require that the relationship between the cash value of the stamp and the cost of the article should be not less than this stated proportion. I should like to deal with this proposition first of all.
Let me say this, that if the proportion were prescribed, someone would have to be given the duty of ensuring that it was observed. I would say, in passing, that I doubt whether that would be quite so simple as the advocates of the scheme would have us believe. Certainly it would mean inspection—presumably by the Board of Trade; and that would need staff and would cost money. It would add to Government expenditure, and such a provision would require a Financial Resolution: and at the present time this Bill is not accompanied by a Financial Resolution.
The general idea, so far as I can see, is that the cash value of the stamp should be approximately the same as the 760 cost to the promoter. I think the idea is that the value should be 50 per cent., not of the cost to the promoter, but of the retail value of the goods offered. That, of course, is not by any means the same as the normal retail price of the gift, as I understood the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, would like.
I do not think, if I may say so, that we could dictate to traders that if they give stamps they must also offer the alternative of a cash discount. For one thing, as the essence of trading stamps is the offer of articles, in the long run it would be extremely odd if, at the same time, you were to insist that there should be a cash discount without any stamps being given at all. It is one thing to say that there should be a cash value for stamps that you can save up, and that when you have 5s. worth you can then redeem the stamps for 5s., but it is quite a different thing to say that the customer should be allowed to prefer not to take the stamps but, instead, to receive a cash discount in advance. it is difficult to see how the provision that my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood has put forward would really eliminate confusion from the mind of the customer, because the customer will naturally think in terms of the cash value of the stamp, on the one hand, and of the ultimate article that he is saving up for, on the other. The point seems to be that he will be able to realise the cash value at a different time and with a different number of stamps than he would have required to buy that article. Therefore it is not easy to see how confusion would be eliminated.
I do not know whether noble Lords have read the leading article in to-day's Financial Times, which said:There is nothing wrong with the suggestion but it is probably unnecessary. Irrational consumers will almost certainly continue to be irrational and enjoy it. The calculating shopper can probably make her calculations already.I would suggest that the main purpose of insisting on cash value being marked on the stamps, and that the holder should be able to claim from the promoter, is to ensure that if, for any reason, a stamp—holder wants to stop saving stamps—for example, because he is moving or wants to transfer his custom, or because he gets tired of collecting—or if he is obliged to. because the retailer has ceased to give stamps, he can get something for 761 the stamps collected. Once it is an obligation to state the value of the stamp on its face, it surely will be easy for consumers to compare the deferred cash value they are being offered by different stamp companies, and it is difficult to see why competition between stamp companies should not keep up the cash value without any need for a prescribed minimum.
The question then arises: what happens if the promoter goes out of business or goes bankrupt? It has been suggested that to protect the interests of customers we should require promoters to deposit with the Board of Trade cash or securities, as I understand it, to the value of 15 per cent. of their total sales of stamps, or obtain a bond or guarantee from a bank or insurance company to that amount. This. again would involve Board of Trade supervision, and therefore Exchequer money, and a Financial Resolution would be required. Its advocates assume that in the event of the promoters' failure the money could be made available entirely for the benefit of stamp holders; that is, that they would have a prior claim before any other creditor. But even if it were possible to draft such a provision satisfactorily, would it be right to give them that kind of priority over, for example, the community as a whole, as represented by the Treasury; or, for that matter, a priority right over ordinary trade creditors? What justification could there be for creating a special new class of preferential creditors in this particular and rather narrow field? After all, trade creditors may have to face substantial losses in respect of goods supplied to the promoters if there is a bankruptcy. Stamp holders presumably can claim only the I cash value, since it would scarcely ever be possible to provide each of those having the requisite stamps with the article of his choice. In any case their loss would be for trivial sums, which would scarcely justify the expense of a formal claim.
It is conceivable that large established promoters would have little difficulty in obtaining a guarantee from a bank or insurance company—although I presume they would not get it for nothing, and to the extent that it cost money the value of stamps to the consumers would plainly be reduced. It would certainly be a 762 costly matter for promoters wishing to start up in business. On this I would suggest that while we should do our best to safeguard the consumer from fraudulent promoters, we should be wary of weighting the scales so heavily in favour of established interests as to make it almost impossible for newcomers to enter into competition with them.
In matters of consumer protection the basic principle which the Government have espoused is to give the consumer as much information as possible on which to exercise his choice. By providing for the publication of audited accounts, for the indication of the name and address of the promoting company on catalogues and stamp books, and for the marking of the cash value and the name of the promoting company on the stamp itself, and by requiring the number of stamps available in relation to purchases made to be displayed in the shop for all to see, the Bill goes a fair way towards informing the public. The Bill would also give the stamp saver the right to redeem his stamps for the amount printed on them. I have not seen much evidence or a demand on the part of stamp savers for such a right. Certainly in America those who prefer cash seem to be much in the minority: the great majority prefer goods. Indeed, it is, I think, the wish to acquire some article which the stamp saver would not normally be able to afford to buy that seems to me to be the main attraction of a trading-stamp scheme. But the Bill gives the right to cash for those who prefer cash. And that should make things easier also for the retailer to cease giving stamps without losing his customers' good will to the same extent as I believe he would lose it if the right to cash were not there at all.
To sum up, my Lords, in the view of the Government these provisions are reasonable and workable. I understand that some minor Amendments may be needed, in particular to deal with a problem which is worrying some stamp companies and of which neither the sponsors of the Bill nor the Government were aware while the Bill was being considered in another place. I believe that these Amendments would also put right what the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, seemed to feel was an abuse; that is the description on the stamp in relation to the total amount of goods bought, and not to the value of the stamp. Provided 763 that matter is put right, in our belief the administration of the Bill should not give rise to practical difficulties. Many ideas have been put forward for amending the Bill, and no doubt we shall have an opportunity of considering these in our Committee stage. I would just add this: in these days, in the Government's view at any rate, and I hope also in that of your Lordships, it is important not to absorb in Government service resources of time and manpower which could more usefully be employed elsewhere. The Bill as at present framed seems to us to avoid this pitfall. I hope that I have said enough to indicate that the Bill is acceptable to the Government and that we shall watch its passage with benevolence and give whatever help we can.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, may I join with all those who have spoken, and I am sure all those who have listened, in expressing our appreciation to the noble Viscount who introduced this Bill for a speech of great clarity? I think he does this so often and without any lapse that we might now he able to save time in making these remarks. but I thought his introduction of what is a difficult Bill was most admirable. May I also at this stage congratulate the Consumer Council and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood? I believe this is the first publication her Council has issued. When the Council was set up and prior to the noble Lady's appointment there were a number of us on this side of the House who were very sceptical of what the Consumer Council were going to do. But this type of paper is very instructive, not only to those in the two Houses of Parliament, and perhaps if it could be written with a little more conciseness it would he a very good seller, particularly in the libraries. Since it is one of the duties of the Consumer Council to spread knowledge, I think this is a very good augury for the future.
I thought the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, most restrained. I found myself in agreement with two parts of it. My speech is not going to be pro or against stamp trading, because I frankly view this in the same way as advertising and perhaps some of the other gimmicks. Although they may be 764 said to be unnecessary to our life, if there are some people who like to have them, let them do so, so long as it is not proved to be against the public interest. The noble Earl drew our attention to Clause 9(3), and he suggested that, instead of the Bill's coming into operation at the expiration of twelve months, there should be an appointed day. I think this is a most admirable suggestion. It will make for clarity for all concerned.
However, I question the point that was made by the noble Viscount in his introduction, on whether it is necessary for the whole Bill to come into effect on one particular day. I well recognise that to print the stamps with names and addresses, the values and the like, may take time, and therefore a twelve months' period is not unreasonable. But particularly with regard to Clause 1, and possibly Clause 2, which concerns the second point on which I agree with the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, of providing security and standards for these companies, I think there is a considerable case for bringing in these matters at an earlier date. Perhaps we could have discussions on this, and the noble Viscount might consider it. It is not unusual for parts of Acts to come into force at different periods according to their importance.
I am grateful to the Minister for permitting me to speak after him. I made the case that, from an Opposition point of view, we should, before we wound up, like to know what the Government are going to do about this. I must say that in this particular case I am pleased that he agreed to my suggested course, because one or two aspects of his speech gave me concern. This Bill is part of consumer protection. Therefore, I was a little worried to hear the noble Lord in regard to this Bill use the phrase "benevolent neutrality". I would suggest to the Government and the House—I am not going to enlarge on the point, so the noble Lord need not get too worried—that if we are to err in regard to consumer protection we should err on the side of the consumer. Therefore, I would suggest to the noble Lord that he move a little away from neutrality between now and the Committee stage.
765 Another point in regard to which I agreed with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, was as to whether we should see in this provision that the stamp companies in the first place are of such substance, that they conduct their business in such a way that the stamps that they have issued can be redeemed. I do not think that there is any doubt that that is the wish of the whole House. I spoke about this specifically on an Unstarred Question in December, and I illustrated the position by which stamp trading companies were issuing stamps for cash from the retailers and that they would not be called upon to redeem them for some months. In fact, the Consumer Council shows that many of the stamps which people are collecting for fairly sizeable, valuable articles will be in the possession of the customer for some considerable time, perhaps twelve or eighteen months. Individuals might think that an easy way of obtaining cash is by the sale of stamps that are printed by the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, and, when the time comes to redeem the bulk of the stamps, they may think it opportune to go into voluntary liquidation. I suggested then that this was possible, and I think in some ways the Bill has dealt with it. Perhaps the noble Viscount will confirm this, because it is important: it seems that in fact the stamp holder will now be able to rank as a creditor in a winding up.
When I was speaking in December I referred to the stamps that were issued by Sperry's. In the past, the sole right of the stampholder was to place the stamps in the pool, and it was clear that if the terms were the same for all stamp companies then one would not rank as a creditor when there were any difficulties. I hope that that is being taken care of by the fact that a stamp company is now called upon to redeem the stamps in cash or kind.
I must ask the House whether it thinks that the provisions of Clause 1 are sufficient. It says thatNo person other than a company or an industrial and provident society shall carry on business as a promoter of a trading stamp scheme.766 We all know that one can easily turn oneself into a company. I forget the figure, but I believe it is possible to buy a company for as little as £25. Therefore, if an individual wishes to be fraudulent, this particular part of the Bill will give no protection at all. One can just become a small private company so long as these provisions are carried out. I would suggest that this is not adequate.
I listened to Lady Elliot of Harwood's suggestion of a bond scheme. I listened also to the noble Lord the Minister raising objections to it. I was attracted to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, although I think there may be some legal difficulties, particularly if a winding up takes place, as to who would rank with whom. If the suggestion is not accepted, then I would suggest that we look at the original Clause 6. This was struck out and was not considered in Committee because a Money Resolution had not been passed. This particular clause said thatThe Board of Trade shall by regulations make provision with respect to the issue and renewal of stamp traders' licences.It then went on to lay down the various provisions and requirements about which the Board of Trade should be satisfied if the stamp trading company was to continue business. I agree that this would not be entirely foolproof, but if there is no bond scheme I think this would be a move forward.
I think my noble friend Lord Sainsbury quoted the case of the gift coupon company which got into difficulties. The noble Lord the Minister also dealt with it. But these, I think, are significant figures. This group consisted of four companies. Winning Stamps was incorporated in 1954 with an issued capital of £125. The Gift Coupon Company, which was linked to it, had an issued capital of £1,000, and Top Tokens Limited, which was a subsidiary, had an issued capital of £100. That group failed to the tune of £101,000. In fact, I wonder whether the loss was even greater, because I am not sure whether that figure included the unredeemed stamps which the Atlas Company have taken over.
If we are considering consumer protection we should ensure that companies undertaking this type of business start off with some foundation. What that foundation may be is something for the 767 Board of Trade to decide by regulation. I do not think that in this matter they can have a benevolent neutrality. I would also suggest (I thought of this at the last moment, when the Minister said that we needed information) that when dealing with the catalogue we should include in the Bill a provision that the issued capital of the company must also appear. This would be a vital piece of information to the retailer, who might not have asked for it when he undertook the business, and it would certainly be illuminating to the housewife who is offered the stamps by the retailer.
There are a good many other matters with which one could deal in this Bill. In regard to Clause 5, which deals with the notice, I would ask the noble Viscount if he would consider an Amendment to the effect that the notice should be clear, legible and understandable to the public. One knows of notices (one can remember some of the old railway notices) which are issued but which nobody really understands. If a notice in the shop is to be required, it is right that it should be clear and understandable.
§ LORD McCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
The noble Lord suggested that the capital value should be printed on the catalogue. I see no reason why it should not be printed on each book of stamps.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
This is a matter that I had not considered, but as soon as the noble Viscount mentioned the need for information I felt that this was one of the most salient and important bits of information to the public.
That is all I need say this evening about this Bill, except this. I think it was my noble friend Lord Sainsbury who said that if we cannot improve the Bill he would be satisfied to let it go through as it stands. The Minister also quietly warned us that we should not amend the Bill too far, because it might be lost in another place; and he also waved before us Commons privilege in regard to cost. But if this House felt seriously about the provisions, particularly in Clause 1, to ensure that these companies are of sufficient standing, I wonder whether we should not be running a great danger in relation to consumers if we were to pass an inadequate Bill.
768 I beg the House not to be too worried over what went on in another place or in relation to Commons privilege and the Money Resolution, but to set out in Committee to make this Bill a Bill of the sort that I think all of us would have liked to see: a comprehensive Bill, initiated by the Government, dealing with all the aspects as they should be dealt with. And I hope we shall not be satisfied until we have achieved this aim. If this House—and I feel that this House has built up some confidence in the country that it has an understanding of these matters—lays down what it thinks should be included in this legislation, then I am sure that, even at this stage, the Government, with only a short time of life left, could find time for the alterations to be made. I therefore hope that we shall proceed to Committee stage making a serious effort to forge the Bill into a better Bill than it is now. If we can achieve this—and it is not a Party matter, but a matter of consumer interest—it will redound to the credit of this House.
§ 7.25 p.m.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, it remains for me to thank noble Lords and Ladies who have spoken for what must have been a particularly constructive debate. There are a certain number of small points which have been suggested from various quarters of the House for me to consider before Committee stage, and this I will gladly do. Then there are the rather larger considerations about which I should like to say a word or two in a moment.
Before I do so, perhaps I could deal with one or two other points that were raised. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale—and, I think, also to my noble friend, Lord Drumalbyn—for pointing out that I made one omission in my explanation of the principles behind the Bill when I was dealing with the cash value to be printed on the stamp and the ability to redeem the stamps, if they are worth more than 5s., at that value. It is not only to clear up confusion, but is also to provide a way out for the consumer who gets sick of the thing and wishes to transfer to something else, and also for the retailer who wants to do the same. If he cannot say to his customer "Although I am going to stop, you can still get the money 769 from the company at the face value of the stamp", he will be bound to go on and will not be able to get out at all. This is an important consideration and I am glad it has been raised. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn was marginally wrong in saying that none of the exceptions which are now available to an exempted private company would be left for these companies. There will be two small ones which are not taken away by the Bill, but I do not think they altogether matter.
I am also attracted by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, about the appointed day. I should like to look into this, and possibly my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn can overcome his most charming reluctance to interfere with the business of this particular trade to the extent of arranging an appointed day. This is a possibility that might be put into the Bill. I think that I can satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, about the position of the stamp holders in a winding-up. It is unlikely that any of them would have enough stamps in terms of the face value to be able to institute a winding-up, but I think the provisions of Clause 3 would enable them to rank. It may well be that in certain cases—in fact, it happens already—the whole scheme would constitute a contract between the customer and the trading stamp company, but the addition of a face value might make a favourable difference to the consumer in that respect also. I feel that there is a double strengthening of the consumers' protection in this Bill.
I hope my noble friend Lord Sandwich is no longer under any misapprehension about what is the controversy of the cash value. It is, of course, one thing to say that a cash value in terms of coins of the realm should be printed on the face of the stamp, and it is another thing to discover how much that value will be and whether it bears any relationship at all to the retail price of the goods one would get if one were to go to the redemption centre instead of taking cash value. Upon the point as to how high the cash value happens to be will depend how much money or e will spend (as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, said) before one is entitled to redeem the stamps at all. If the cash face value is low, the customer will have to spend much more 770 money on other goods in order to collect the stamps necessary to redeem them.
Now for the three major points on which the debate has largely turned. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has warned of some of the difficulties that may attend on us if we try to put these particular matters in the Bill. I have no doubt these are real, and must be weighed up in their correct balance with all the other arguments in favour or against having the provisions, or some of them, which have been mentioned this afternoon.
In regard to the matter of the accounts being sufficient protection, which was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, it must be borne in mind that it is not the customer who is the first link in the chain in putting these things into operation. Of course, it will not be easy for the customer to go and inspect the accounts of a trading stamp company, or to understand them if he or she does, but it will be vitally in the interests of the retailer to make sure that he selects a trading stamp company which is reliable and which is not going to let him and his customers down. That is because it will be very much the worse for him and for his trade, his shop and everything else, if he does select a bad one and if all the people who have been brought in on the pretence that they are going to get something in the way of a trading stamp scheme are then disappointed. They will dislike him, and rightly. Therefore it is he who is the first protection.
I very much hope that the accounts which will be made available under this Bill will enable him, perhaps through his trade association, to get close to the truth and to spot the small company bought for £25 in a certain shop, about which I expect your Lordships will all know. That is the sort of argument which I shall expect your Lordships to consider in Committee.
Similarly, there are many arguments for and against the pegging of the cash value to some other price in relation to the whole of the stamp company's operation. There are difficulties of a practical nature, there are difficulties of principle, and until there is some chance of studying the actual Amendments which noble Lords would like to put down, and studying them in great detail, 771 because that is what they will need, I do not think it is going to be possible to say—in fact I certainly cannot do so this evening—whether or not I can accept them. Of course my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn will also have his say, if the Board of Trade is involved as a policeman or as an inspector, or in any other way. However, I look forward very much to seeing the Amendments which noble Lords would like to put down and would like to discuss. I think we shall have a lively Committee stage and one well worth while.
Therefore, my Lords, may I end with this? I do not think that my noble friend Lord McCorquodale of Newton was really saying that there was any vested interest behind this Bill. I can assure him that there was none in the case of the honourable Member for Sheffield, Hallam, who introduced it in another place, and, so far as I am aware, there is none in my case either. Instead of protecting the companies and the retailers who do not like using stamps—as I think he thought it might do—what will happen, I think, if this Bill becomes law will be that trading stamp companies will be made respectable, the disreputable ones will be kept out, and the consumer and the retailer as a whole will be found to be better protected than 772 they are at the moment. Therefore, with my gratitude for the reception that this Bill has received this afternoon, I ask your Lordships now to accord it a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.