§ 3.27 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD rose to call attention to the Report of the Consumer Council; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The first Report of the Consumer Council appeared towards the end of July, and there was at that time no moment for a debate in your Lordships' House. Today is, therefore, the first opportunity we have had to discuss consumer affairs. In the meantime, of course, we have had a General Election: a general post has taken place, and I now find myself sitting on a different side of the House from that on which I should have been had the debate taken place in July. Nevertheless, I do not intend to make a different speech. I propose to make the same speech as I should have made had I been on the other side of the House, because consumer protection is not a 427 Party political subject: it is a subject which applies to all consumers, to whatever Party they may belong.
§ This is a very big subject, my Lords. There is much to say, and I do not want to weary your Lordships with too long a speech. I am, in fact, fortunate in having in your Lordships' House another member of the Consumer Council, the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, to whom I am very much indebted for a considerable amount of assistance on the Council. This afternoon we have arranged to divide between us the many subjects which we are hoping to discuss with you, so that neither of us will, I hope, speak for too long. I am also asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, to say that she is extremely sorry that to-day was an impossible day for her to take part in the debate. She is one of the experts on this subject, and I, too, am very sorry she cannot be with us to-day.
§ As this is the first time that this subject has been discussed, and as I am often asked, "What is the Consumer Council?", "What are you doing?"—and there then generally follows the query, "I suppose you are part of Which?"—I hope that your Lordships will not mind if I make a brief allusion to the origins of the Council and to our terms of reference. We were set up by the President of the Board of Trade as a result of the recommendations in the Molony Report on Consumer Protection, and our terms of reference are set out in this Annual Report which we are discussing. The functions of the Council are
- "(a)to inform itself about the consumer's problems, and about matters affecting his interests;
- (b) to consider, after consultation where necessary with other affected interests, the action to be taken to deal with such problems;
- "(c) to provide advice and guidance for the consumer, in particular through the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other appropriate organisations and …
- "(d) to publish an annual report."
§ We have expressly excluded from our terms of reference the following: preparation or publication of comparative test reports, the taking-up of complaints on behalf of individual consumers, and law enforcement action. Within our terms of reference we have been getting under way and starting our work and, 428 in the first instance, as we cannot deal with individual complaints we have passed these on to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. These bureaux have a grant from the Board of Trade to enlarge their activities, to bring their services into new localities and to increase the number of bureaux throughout the country. It has inevitably been rather a slow process since they have had to train workers, to get premises and to get the support of local authorities, and it has not gone quite as fast as they or we would have wished. Nevertheless, it is progressing and I hope that in another twelve months we shall see a big increase in the number of citizens' advice bureaux.
§ We work closely with the Consumer Association, the groups which form a Federation of Consumers and it is here that the magazine Which?, the magazine of the Consumer Association, comes in. Other sources from which we get information are the Press, the correspondence columns of the Press, letters from Members of Parliament, letters from teachers and from women's organisations, from social workers and, of course, from the general public as shoppers and consumers. We must spread our net as wide as possible in order that we shall be able to serve the community as best we can.
§ My Lords, looking back on the first twelve months I think we have been able to take decisive action in one or two things: the Hire-Purchase Bill, which we debated in your Lordships' House (and with your Lordships' help we managed to get approval for one or two important Amendments to the Bill) subjects in the field of textiles: the danger to children from wearing flammable nightdresses, which have now been banned by regulation under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, and the quality of school uniforms, especially blazer clothing. Here we had many complaints, which have now been met, and the Council have been able to promote discussions between all the interested parties, the textile manufacturers, the makers-up, the retailers, the teachers and the parents. We hope shortly that these results will be effective and that the number of satisfied parents will be considerable.
§ In setting standards and defining quality we have the help of the British 429 Standards Institution and the Retail Trading Standards Association. Both of these organisations have helped us in many matters, and we are extremely grateful. In our Annual Report your Lordships will find many subjects on which we have given our views and taken action, not excluding the Bill to end resale price maintenance, and we shall continue to take a useful part in any legislation which makes things easier for the consumer. But to-day, with your Lordships' permission, I shall try to draw your attention to the programme we have mapped out for ourselves in the future. We have a new Parliament and we want to have new proposals.
§ First, I should like to take a look at a very old service which, with a very large increase in advertising, is assuming a very new look—I refer to the travel business. One of the admirable by-products of the higher standard of living to-day is the way people spend their holidays. Whereas in the past hardly anybody could afford holidays abroad, to-day the ordinary person takes very nearly for granted the annual event, when he may, if he wishes, take his holiday abroad. The increase in holidays abroad is phenomenal. Last year nearly 5 million people went abroad for their holidays, over 2 million on inclusive tours, and the travel business now accounts for a trade worth nearly £225 million annually. The rapid growth of the travel business has drawn into it large numbers of small operators of doubtful quality, and the competition in the industry requires large advertising outlays which the travel agent is frequently obliged to meet either by a bank overdraft or by the use of clients' deposits long before the actual provision of the transport or accommodation. The absence of adequate training facilities for the staff and the way many operators insist on conditions which restrict their liability create further hazards for the holiday-maker.
§ The Council's concern has been justified in the case of Fiesta Tours and the Sigma Travel Service, both of which your Lordships will remember went into liquidation during the past year. The saying "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive" has for many tourists rather a sinister and uncomfortable meaning. The creation by the Asso- 430 ciation of British Travel Agents of a fund of £35,000 to compensate where consumers are let down by the failure of agents gives confirmation to the Council's concern.
§ In the light of recent events my Council are convinced that the industry cannot be properly controlled unless those undertaking responsibility for the organisation of other people's holidays are obliged by registration to comply with conditions which will ensure the reliability of their arrangements. These, we think, should include the possession of adequate operating capital; the provision of some kind of insurance or deposit to cover liabilities to clients for obligations which may arise through the breakdown of arrangements; the employment of staff trained to a level established by some kind of course or examination; adherence to a code of conduct similar to that of the Association of British Travel Agents; and the acceptance of liability for the sub-contractors who provide facilities. I mean by that that there should be proper hotels, up to the standards advertised, or, if a villa is at the end of the journey, that it should be built and equipped and not be in process of construction. Some or most of the conditions we suggest are already met by the well-known travel agents; but if anyone can start a travel agency with no capital or safeguards for the client there is something wrong and it should be put right. We hope that the Board of Trade will take steps in this matter before another holiday season starts.
§ My Lords, I now pass to another subject, that of deaf aids. The Council has been discussing with the Ministry of Health the provision of deaf aids under the National Health Service and the number of firms that manufacture and sell the aids outside that Service. One in every ten people has a significant hearing defect and it has been estimated that 1½ million people could be helped by hearing aids. Between 1958 and 1962, 229,000 Medresco hearing aids, the only ones that the National Health Service provide, were supplied through the Service. In 1963 nearly 50,000 new National Health Service aids were supplied; but anyone who wants a choice of hearing aids has to go outside the National Health scheme. Judging from 431 the number of firms promoting commercial hearing aids, there is a large and expanding market for privately promoted aids. We know that a number of deaf people are sensitive about their hearing defects and are particularly vulnerable to the claims and pressures of salesmanship. The commercial aids that they are sold may not give the relief to their personal hearing problem that they have been led to expect.
§ The Council urge that no hearing aid should be sold unless the deaf person has had his deafness medically examined and that people who fit commerical hearing aids should be qualified in the same way as those who operate under the National Health Service. Manufacturers and sellers of commercial hearing aids should be registered to ensure the fulfilment of these conditions. We also feel there should be a lighter, less bulky alternative to the Medresco hearing aid made available under the National Health Service.
§ My Lords, another subject is that of safety—particularly safety in the home. We have given support to the banning of flammable clothing for material for nightdresses and also fully approve the regulations governing oil heaters, both of which were effected under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961. Under earlier legislation, the Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Act, 1952, an Order was made requiring guards on electric fires. In more than ten years, therefore, there have been three sets of regulations governing safety in the home. But we think that this is not sufficient, because fatal domestic accidents amounted to 9,000 in 1963, which is considerably more than the 7,000 fatal road accidents during the same year.
§ Now that the Home Office have power to make regulations under the 1961 Act, the Council regret that so little use has been made of it, and we have a number of suggestions to make about further directions in which urgent action is required. First of all, if I may, I would mention electrical appliances. The British Electrical Approvals Board run a safety test scheme, and this is very successful, but there are still a large number of electrical appliances being sold, many of them imported from abroad, which have not passed the standards of the Board's tests. We should like to see that stopped.
§ There are also the dangers that come from certain types of children's toys— 432 sharp metal points or edges, breakable plastic which breaks thinly enough to provide a cutting edge. There are many ways in which children can be injured by toys. There is also the paint which is used on them. If the paint contains a lot of lead and the child sucks it the result can be serious. A recent issue of Which? highlighted many of these things. I think that some action should be taken to prevent these accidents through toys. Another thing about which the British Standards Institution and the Council are concerned is the kind of baby carry-cot which stands on a little stand; many of them are used in homes and, if not properly and solidly made, they can easily collapse, causing the child to have a serious accident.
§ In addition to the banning of flammable materials for children's clothes, we should like to see manufacturers discouraged—indeed, perhaps prevented—from putting nursery designs on this kind of material to encourage people to buy it and make it up in their own homes. We wish to see all material of this kind clearly marked as being dangerous for making up into nightdresses. We should like the regulations to be stiffened considerably. In another direction, we should like to see local authorities including among the many regulations they have on housing standards, a provision for fixing points for fireguards on open fireplaces in new houses. This should not be difficult to do. It is one of the things which could be easily added to the list and it would add considerably to safety in the home. Then, moving away from the home to the motor car, we wish to see safety belts in new cars made compulsory under the Road Traffic Regulations.
§ I realise that the more we put on to local authorities—as your Lordships know, I am a member of a local authority—the more we are going to impose difficulties on officials and the more difficult it is going to become for them to carry out their new responsibilities. For instance, the weights and measures service is most important, but it is understaffed and in many places underpaid. There are various other important services which are now devolving on local authorities and for which the personnel is not there to carry them out. I think that we have to face up to this and see the recruitment of both men and women 433 (I believe that in the weights and measures service there are no women—I cannot think why, because they could easily be employed in that service), so treated as to be able to carry out these responsibilities. If we do not do this, all this legislation will simply remain on paper
§ Most housewives spend a certain amount of time in shops. The question of shopping is a controversial subject and one which we have discussed in your Lordships' House before at considerable length. I realise that the Council's views may clash with the interests of some of the retail establishments and the banks. Nevertheless, we have our views and I am going to state them. We realise that the standard number of hours and the five-day week must be adhered to, but when we think of the 24¼ million people who are gainfully employed for at least five days a week we realise that they must shop on Saturdays or late on weekdays. The Council think that the interests of the consumers are of great importance in this very difficult problem. They think that the, Shops Act should be revised to enable shopkeepers who wish to do so—because this is a voluntary suggestion—to open for six days in the week. The decision in the case of individual shops should be left to the discretion of the proprietor in accordance with his ability to secure part-time staff and reliable alternative supervision to fulfil his wants.
§ So far as the banks are concerned, they have much larger staffs and by organising a rota system it should be possible to allow for normal working hours and yet have the banks open on Saturday morning. This is more important than ever, I think, as many businesses pay their employees by cheque and the cheques are often cashed on Saturday morning. I know that they are open now on Saturday morning, but there has been talk about Saturday closing.
§ Another subject which deeply concerns us, and which also has its controversial side, is the question of advertising. The Council have been giving careful consideration to the question of misleading advertisements. In the course of a very small survey which we did—I stress that it was very small—of a number of newspapers, both provincial and national, we found l20 examples of advertisements which seemed to us to 434 contravene the Advertising Association's code of advertising practice and we have sent details of this survey to the Advertising Standards Authority. The trouble is not so much the wording of the code as inadequate supervision, both by the editorial staffs and by the various advertising organisations.
§ Taking a look across the Atlantic, where advertising is a gigantic industry, I see another scheme which is worth considering, although it might not be appropriate for ourselves. The Federal Trade Commission has a staff employed to supervise printed and television advertising relating to goods in inter-State trade. This Commission can compel the immediate withdrawal of undesirable advertisements. The Commission makes its own judgment on whether advertisements transgress the very general lines laid down by the law for their control. Whether this could be done in this country I do not know, but it might be possible to give some statutory force to the voluntary codes which are at present in existence. I believe that more effective machinery than we have now is needed, and we on the Council shall continue to think about it.
§ There is another field where the problem of giving more information to the consumer ought to be considered. This is the labelling of consumer goods in the shops in such a way as to enable intending buyers to make an accurate assessment of the potential performance of the articles they are buying. At present there are great discrepancies between labels on different goods and few of them contain enough information to guide the customer to a wise choice. The Consumer Council plan to introduce a national informative labelling scheme, based on a label of standard design. The contents of the label will vary according to the goods concerned and must be worked out with those industries which are prepared to co-operate in the scheme. Such information as the durability of carpets, the boiling time of kettles or the shrink resistance of cloth can be shown by a comparative scale which will enable the buyer to relate performance to price and to his precise needs. It is not intended that the Council's labels should guarantee any specific level of quality, apart from safety. It will be strictly limited to giving information.435
§ The Council have already obtained the co-operation of the British Electrical and Allied Manufacturers' Association for this scheme, and also that of the British Standards Institution, who will collaborate with each industry in evolving the tests by which the performance of the goods will be measured. The different levels of performance, the tests and methods of measurement, will be evolved by the industries in consultation with consumers, but the actual items which will be carried on each label will be decided on a consensus of consumer opinion. This scheme will depend on the voluntary co-operation of manufacturers who will use our labels in accordance with the formula laid down by their particular industry. The Council realise that the consultation with different industries will take time, but we are confident that the labels when defined and in use will help the shopping public, and that they will give support to this scheme. This will have a cumulative effect on manufacturers' attitude to the scheme.
§ I realise that this scheme will not meet with the wholehearted support of all manufacturers. I was recently in Bradford, addressing the woollen and worsted trades, and they were critical and suggested that already there were too many labels dangling about. But many of these labels are not easy for the ordinary shopper to understand, and they do not always give the information which he or she wants. We hope that when our labelling scheme gets going some of the existing labels (with the exception of brand names) will be superseded by the informative label we describe.
All this, I realise, requires a lot of preparation and thought, and we are deeply concerned to make practical suggestions which can he translated into action. But there is one subject, and quite a big subject, which is a long-term one and in which I am particularly interested, and that concerns education of the consumer, at, I may say, all ages. There is a Scottish saying that runs:
Cheat me once, shame on you,
Cheat me twice, shame on me".
We have not approached our task, by any means, from the point of view that the consumer is always right. Even when right, circumstances often indicate that if a complainer had been more know-
ledgeable and better advised, disappointment with the goods or services acquired might have been avoided. In the contemporary climate of an ever-widening choice of goods of ever-increasing complexity, sold by highly skilled marketing techniques in new market places, the Consumer Council believe that individual members of the public badly need a good grounding in shopping techniques and in their legal rights.
§ With this in view, we have set in train a comprehensive programme for enlightening and educating the consumer. On the one hand, the Council's publications will increasingly provide advice and factual information about goods and services and the way they should he used. This will help to put the public in the position of making their selection of goods in a considered and informed way, so that they can assess the promise of performance against their own needs and wants. The project for a national informative labelling scheme, which has already been mentioned, will also help consumers to choose goods on the basis of factual information. The Council are also, as I previously mentioned, pursuing the subject of misleading advertising, so that the information in advertisements about goods and the performance which can be expected from them is accurate and does not give a false impression.
§ In a sense, this programme of enlightenment is a first-aid measure designed to stop the gaps in people's information and knowledge. But the Council would like to go further. We want to introduce into subjects taught in schools, technical colleges and institutes of adult education what we call a consumer emphasis. This does not mean that we want to make a case for a new subject in the already overcrowded curriculum. But much of current educational thought is on our side when it embraces the concept that school subjects can include an approach that relates to practical realities of day-to-day living with the subject that is being taught. We think that this consumer emphasis can be a valuable educational tool that will help to a better understanding and appreciation of subjects—. English for example. The language that is used in advertisements, the descriptions that manufacturers devise for their products, the way in which information is 437 presented on packages, all provide practical examples of an everyday use of English where the meaning of words is often blurred. Children can relate the claims on a package to the performance they have themselves seen. In arithmetic a consumer emphasis is implicit in exercises involving everyday problems, such as interest on hire purchase or credit trading, and on calculating costs of different quantities of everyday goods.
§ In commerce, the importance of personal budgeting and national budgeting, the different ways of buying, the different organisations that help to educate and protect the consumer, the meaning of credit and its place in modern society, can be considered side by side with the commercial, the selling aspect. Domestic science is a subject which can be seen to have a relevance to adult life, and, here again, there is a place to study the different methods of shopping and credit facilities, the use of different services, the methods of salesmanship used to promote products, the laws about labelling of foods and the agencies and legislation that exist to protect consumers in their home and family situation. Such examples are not valuable merely for the information they contain, but because they can help pupils to think out a situation in an inquiring way. Other subjects where this consumer emphasis is receiving attention from teachers include art and design, applied science, social studies and applied economics.
§ We are glad to say that we have the support of the Department of Education and Science in working for this consumer emphasis to be included in appropriate subjects. We have, in our contacts with teachers and lecturers, local education authorities and educational organisations, been encouraged by their response to this emphasis. This response comes from all levels of education in all parts of the United Kingdom, and we are busy preparing material for teachers to use. I went to Manchester and Birmingham earlier this year and I saw for myself extremely brilliant classes in which this type of emphasis was already being used in schools and adult colleges.
§ I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Peddle, to tell your Lordships our views on the revision of the Merchandise 438 Marks Acts and the Sale of Goods Act, on the problems of doorstep salesmen and on the need for examination of standard printed contracts and guarantees. I think between us we shall have covered most of the ground up to date. I could have mentioned a lot of other things, such as drug labelling and house buying, furniture buying, children's shoes and so on, but I have already spoken for too long.
§ Our job is not a static one; it alters as circumstances change. It is no exaggeration to say that there has been a revolution in sales techniques—new methods of shopping, new materials and new manufactured goods—and this revolution is still going on. It is happening abroad in European countries; it is happening in the American Continent; it is no doubt beginning in Africa and wherever trade and marketing are developing. We are engaged in a new personal service and one which through-out society is an essential service and so can never remain static.
§ There is a difference in appearance between the picturesque blue-turbanned Nigerian ladies who sell goods at the weekly market in an African village and the girls in neat overalls and the spotless conditions of, say, Lord Sainsbury's stores or the Marks and Spencer establishments. But the principle of manufacturer, salesman and purchaser and their relations is the same all the world over. But in the more highly developed countries, particularly in the Western world, the individual consumer has to stand up to a different kind of service and salesmanship, and often one cannot blame him or her for being somewhat overwhelmed by it. It is in the light of these new conditions that our Council have to do their job.
§ I do not believe that we need necessarily clash with the manufacturers or with the retailers. Consumers want to buy and manufacturers want to sell. These are the simple facts. It must, I think, be to the interests of the manufacturer or the retailer that the consumer should be an informed and discriminating shopper; the two interests meet at the point of sale. The more customers are satisfied, the more they will buy or, in the case of services, the more will they use the service of the agency concerned. In our modern society the organisation of men and women into associations with 439 common interests is the accepted principle. But a representative voice for consumers as such is a new venture. We have embarked on an uncharted sea in a ship in which our Council might be termed a mixed-manned force. If we can steer it into channels useful to the consumer, I shall be well pleased. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, on rising to address your Lordships' House for the first time from the Government Benches, the trepidation I feel is only slightly less than when I made my maiden speech some nine months ago from the Opposition side of your Lordships' House. I must say that I do not feel quite as nervous to-day because of the friendship and understanding which I have received from Members on both sides of your Lordships' House, and I greatly appreciate it. The humorous animadversions of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, on my duties as a Lord in Waiting were typical of those who, I think, love our Parliamentary institutions. Nevertheless, in all seriousness I appreciate the import of his words, and particularly in the context in which they were made.
To-day we have had an explanation of the work of the Consumer Council from the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. I think it was a fine and comprehensive explanation of the work that had been accomplished, and an outline of a future programme. At the outset, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, I can tell the noble Lady that it is the intention of my noble friend Lord Rhodes to answer so far as possible all the points that she has raised. She will appreciate that there was quite a long list. Nevertheless, certainly in the field of wool textiles I know, coming from the same county, that Lord Rhodes will be exceedingly well informed, not only from theoretical briefs, but from a profound practical knowledge. As for myself, of course I am going to take that lesson, too. I have considerable experience in the electrical industry. The noble Lady raised the question of the safety of electrical appliances, and for a few minutes I shall deal with that problem.
As your Lordships are aware, when the present Administration was in Opposition, we took the line that the Consumer 440 Council set up in 1963, should be given a fair run. That was our view. It is our view to-day, and we see no reason at all why we should not continue to give it support and as a Government we shall do so. Of course, we attach great importance to the complete independence of the Consumer Council from Her Majesty's Government. That not only helps the Consumer Council, but it probably helps Her Majesty's Government, too. As the recommendations come forward and are made by the Consumer Council, the noble Baroness can rest assured that they will receive prompt consideration, and even on very difficult questions which are often raised, the question of manufacture, and international agreements sometimes, they will endeavour to arrive at a decision within a reasonable time.
The Council's first year was certainly a very busy one indeed. I have a list of the subjects on which they passed an opinion and, indeed, in some cases, acted. Certainly so far as school uniforms are concerned—and I do not want to transgress on to the field of my noble friend Lord Rhodes—flammable nightdresses, and on one or two other questions, action has already been taken. I personally fully agree with the Molony Committee that any conclusions which the Council publish should reflect a balanced judgment on the problem under discussion, taking fully into account the production, commercial and practical difficulties. This sets the Council a very high standard. If they live up to it, their remarks will carry greater weight with the Government and the community as a whole.
The Council themselves seem to recognise that they have to walk the tightrope between the pitfalls, on the one hand, of dissipating their resources and, on the other, of disappointing their public on particular issues. I myself am a great believer in patience in this field. There is, after all, no consumer crisis at this or at any particular time which we have to put right quickly. But I would agree that a series of small but, nevertheless, important reforms might benefit the consumer, and are for this reason to be aimed at. Neither the Government nor I think that the community as a whole expect the Council to be able to do everything at once. It is a matter of deciding priorities.
441 If I may express a personal opinion, having studied the contents of this Report I feel that the Council have exercised their discretion exceedingly well in that regard. I do not intend to say too much about individual subjects covered by the Council's Report, or on their programme as published last month. I have no doubt that a number of your Lordships will wish to do this in the course of the debate and, as I have said, the points that will be raised in the debate it will be the duty and. indeed, the pleasure of my noble friend to answer.
Perhaps I might reflect here a little as to why more measures to protect the consumer are needed now than, say, before the war. One thing of which I am sure is that it is not because manufacturers and traders are any less honest nowadays than they used to be. It seems to me that it is rather because the things they sell are so much more complicated, and are offered in such wide variety as sometimes to bewilder and confuse the purchaser. We have so many domestic electrical appliances to help us in our homes. We may all be able to learn to work them, but we know very little about their construction, and we need informed help in choosing the right one for our own purpose. So far as the home industry is concerned—and it is just as well to pat Britain on the back occasionally—I think that our manufacturers have done a jolly fine job. I am quite aware of the difficulties about imported electrical appliances. and I am glad to see that, because of the competitiveness of British industry, these are not of necessity increasing. But, of course, there are real problems. It is not so long ago that it was possible to purchase an electric fire that did not have a guard. To-day it must have one.
There is also the question of the wiring of electrical apparatus. All British electrical apparatus to-day, certainly fires and refrigerators, is what we term three-core, negative, positive and neutral. But very often, because of the difference in size of plugs in houses, a plug is not fitted. The result is that very often an amateur electrician endeavours to couple them up, and if he couples the earth with the positive he gets into real trouble; which is the 442 cause of accidents. I do not want to be too technical on this matter, but we in Britain have given an international lead as far as standardisation of colouring of red, black and green for positive, negative and neutral, are concerned, and it will be our earnest endeavour to get our views accepted internationally. In the same way, in the field of electrical toys, model railways and things of that sort, and the question of the low-voltage transformer, we are doing all that we can to get standardisation. As far as at least 70 per cent. of the British toy manufacturers are concerned the standards are certainly at a very high level indeed.
Another point which is often over-looked—and I cannot stress this too forcibly to your Lordships' House—is the question of the wiring of property. Many old properties have been rewired for electricity, and people think they can put any amount of apparatus on the wiring, with the result that serious accidents occur. Nevertheless, here I think a word of praise is due to the Electricity Boards who now, when a house changes hands, inspect the wiring, as a result of which many serious accidents are avoided.
My Lords, I come back to the Report. The scope for confusion in a choice of apparatus is very wide indeed, which also means that the scope for deception by the few unscrupulous traders is also wide. It is information and education which will, I am sure, in the long run prove one of the most important contributions which the Council can make to help the shopper to shop wisely. I was therefore very glad to read that the Council regard informing and educating the consumer as one of their primary functions, and that they have formulated a policy and started a programme of consumer education, of which the noble Lady gave us some indication during her speech.
It is particularly important in any education to "catch them young", and this, I see, the Council intend to do. Now that people tend to marry earlier, they cannot learn too soon how best to set up home. Often they have not time to pick this up and learn wise shopping piecemeal by trial and error. Of course, the Council are doing other things, too, but their educational programme will, I think, bring much wider benefit and exercise a greater influence on the whole 443 community than can any consumer protection legislation, which is, after all, generally designed to outlaw bad trading practices which, as I have just said, are mercifully not widespread. My Lords, the consumer must be protected; but he must be protected, not against the manufacturer and seller, but against abuses by the manufacturer and seller. It must be one of the important functions of Government that the consumer is provided with ready and relatively simple remedies against such abuses. But it will be for the consumer himself to avail himself of these remedies, and here again education is important.
I should now like to say a little about the other organisation which is receiving Government money for consumer protection work and which is closely associated with the Consumer Council, the National Citizens' Advice Bureaux Committee. The aim is that this organisation should provide a country-wide service of information and advice for the individual consumer, and I am glad to see that the number of bureaux has increased in the last two years, though there are, no doubt, still some areas without one. The Citizens' Advice Bureaux have just celebrated their Silver Jubilee and are, as we hope the Consumer Council will be soon, a well-recognised national institution. They are completely impartial and they can help both the consumer and traders. Working as they do at local level, their services are readily at hand and they can help to sort out a lot of individual problems locally. They can also act as the eyes and ears of the Consumer Council, and bring to their attention problems which are becoming widespread.
It is obviously very important that there should be good and close working relations between the two bodies. The Consumer Council needs the intelligence work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, who, in their turn, need guidance from the Council on both general and particular matters. On page 7 of their Annual Report, the Consumer Council list a number of bodies who are also working for the consumer and with whom they are in close touch. Perhaps I might say a little about one of these, the British Standards Institution. They are a very old institution. They were founded in 444 1901 and, of course, those of us who have had the happy and useful experience of working in the engineering industry know the tremendous service that they have rendered throughout the years not only to Britain but to the world by their standardisation of specifications. That they, too, are now interested in standardising what are called, to use common jargon, which I do not like, "consumer durables" is, I think, a welcome step and one that should be encouraged, because the reputation of the British Standards Institution is first class internationally.
With the formation of the Consumer Council, the Institution disbanded their own Consumer Advisory Council, but their Women's Advisory Committee remains in being and continues to do much useful work. The Consumer Council will, I understand, be looking to the British Standards Institution for technical help in their efforts to introduce a voluntary labelling scheme, and as the Council say in their Report, there is a joint working party of the two bodies to keep the consumer standards under review. All this is, I am sure, important. I do not want to take up more of your Lordships' time. I am absolutely convinced that, as in the past, we shall have an interesting and illuminating debate. And let me say again that I am grateful to the noble Lady for introducing this Motion.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ LORD PEDDIE
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity of joining with the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, in drawing attention to the Report of the Consumer Council. I think the Report itself shows a range of activity far beyond anything envisaged by the most optimistic supporters of the Consumer Council. I must say that I myself, in the early days when invited to serve upon the Council, had some reservations and some misgivings. I felt, and indeed indicated my impression to the Minister, that there was some little doubt as to the capacity of the Council to achieve a great deal within their limited income. I have found subsequently that in spite of the restrictions that were imposed upon them they have done a job that most certainly justified the decision to establish the Consumer Council. I think a great deal of the credit is due to the noble Lady who serves as 445 Chairman and to the Director of the Council, Miss Ackroyd. Both these ladies have undoubtedly fired the Council with their enthusiasm and shown tenacity of purpose that has reflected itself in the achievements of the Council over the past year.
I would also pay this tribute, as one who serves on the Council. It has been really remarkable to see how a group of people who have been drawn together in the staff at very short notice and in so rapid a space of time have welded themselves into a team that is undoubtedly inspired by a sense of social purpose. I think the Report itself indicates that the greatest single achievement of the Council over the short period of its existence has been to high-light the vast range of consumer problems still to be tackled.
To-day, as my noble friend has indicated, consumers are more vocal, but it would be wrong to believe that it is only in recent years that the consumer has found any defenders. Indeed, I find pride in the fact, due, to my own personal association with the co-operative movement, that Molony himself pointed out that the need for consumers to organise themselves was first expressed in the genesis of the co-operative movement. There is no doubt that the growth of voluntary associations over the past years has given an indication of the increasing awareness of the consumer. That is important. The theory was once held—it is probably still held by some—that competition and free choice in themselves are adequate safeguards for the consumer. I think that theory is exploded to-day, because competition tends to disappear, and free choice is all too often an illusion. You can have the same products in twenty different packs, and the housewife would be under the impression she is having a free choice.
New conditions have emerged over the past years which have entirely transformed the consumer field—new conditions which have been expressed in the greater varity and complexity of goods to which my noble friend, Lord Hobson, made reference: synthetic fibres, drugs, electrical appliances and so on. Those conditions make it utterly impossible for the consumer to form an accurate assessment of the value and worth of those products. We have, in addition, the powerful force 446 of advertising, which is indeed an effective persuasive element. I say nothing to condemn advertising; it serves an exceedingly useful function in modern business. Nevertheless it provides an instrument which can, on occasion, distort the true assessment of a particular product by an individual consumer, Another factor, too, which I think is important and which undoubtedly justifies the activities of the Consumer Council is that under modern conditions, increasingly so, even the integrity of the trader and the manufacturer is not in itself a complete safeguard for the consumer. In commerce as in currency, a Gresham's Law can operate and the bad can drive out the good. All too often one finds that if a bad trader is allowed to flourish the good traders, the good manufacturers, are reluctantly forced to degrade their standards, because of the existence and tolerance of the bad trader. Therefore, there is an undoubted necessity for legislation to enforce minimum standards and also encourage consumers themselves to be more discriminating.
That is why I believe that the item mentioned on page 8 of the Report, dealing with direct approach, is of considerable importance. Here is indicated a particular work of the Council which I believe has considerable possibilities. Effective contacts have been established with organisations in commerce and in industry to improve standards. Moreover, the Council has worked closely, and will continue to work closely, with consumer organisations, consultative bodies of nationalised industries, and the Council of Industrial Design. In addition, it will have, and has had, regard to the views of suppliers and manufacturers. For example, it has contact with the British Electrical and Allied Manufacturers on the subject of labelling, and the National Dairy Council on matters relating to homogenised milk. In addition, the Council itself has welcomed the opportunity of membership of such bodies as the House-builders' Registration Council, because in the field of house building and house construction there is undoubtedly a tremendous need for the protection of the consumer. When we think of consumers we have to think not merely of the person who is buying a pack of butter over the counter but also of those persons who are buying houses, because in that 447 particular field there is unquestionably a great necessity for close examination of consumer rights.
But I would emphasise—and I think this is tremendously important—that it is a mistake to assume that there are two permanently opposed groups constantly and inevitably at each other's throats, one the traders and manufacturers and the other the consumers. The majority of traders and manufacturers in this country seek to maintain good standards, if not from a sense of public duty then from enlightened self-interest, because enlightened self-interest will undoubtedly justify the maintenance of good standards. But there are organisations and individuals who deliberately—and emphasise "deliberately"—exploit the consumers' inadequate knowledge. Therefore it becomes the responsibility of the State, through its legislation, and of bodies like the Consumer Council operating under the blessing of the State, and in addition of voluntary organisations, to correct the balance and give that very necessary protection.
We are entering into an era of law reform and I am sure the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack will himself be the spearhead of those changes that I hope are in prospect. There are signs of a concerted effort to bring the law into tune with modern conditions, and the Council itself hopes to benefit from this proposed forward movement by gaining favoured conditions or better conditions in the consumer field. I might draw attention to one or two aspects of Acts of Parliament that relate to consumer conditions where the Consumer Council feels there is an urgent necessity for some change or improvement.
The Sale of Goods Act is a very important Act and one which unquestionably is to-day the keystone of consumer protection. Nevertheless, we should like to see a new Sale of Goods Act which would govern and protect the needs of both consumer and retailer in modern marketing conditions. We believe that such an Act must recognise that there is an unequal bargaining position which lies at the heart of most consumer contracts to-day. The present Act of 1893 was based on the mercantile conditions of the last century, not the conditions of to-day. It 448 has been a worthwhile Act, there is no doubt, but it does not meet modern conditions. We believe that in many respects there should be change. For instance, the whole basis of that Act creates a picture of the buyer and the seller meeting as plain citizens endeavouring to strike a mutual face-to-face bargain as they would in the old market place. But to-day that picture is ridiculously unreal. The market place has gone and the supermarket has taken its place, and the seller, however enlightened he may be, has become an anonymous powerful giant—not the individual trader in the market place but a great giant possessed of tremendous power and completely anonymous. Those are the conditions under which the modern consumer has to operate.
We believe that where the consumer has no real room to negotiate, the Act must prevent sellers from avoiding their obligations by way of exemption clauses. A common incident of this is in many printed guarantees when the consumer buys goods. The new Act, we hope, would give the consumer a practical means of getting his money back where the seller's promises are not fulfilled. Reform is needed, perhaps beyond the confines of the Sale of Goods Act, to qualify the very one-sided nature of many standard contracts now in use in the insurance and public utility fields. Contracts for the supply of electricity, telephones and travel bookings are all examples. Many private builders' contracts also fall into the class which, in my opinion, deserves to be scrutinised.
The whole basis of the contention I am trying to make is that many of the so-called guarantees to which I have referred allow the manufacturer to be the judge in his own cause, and often seek to avoid his liability for defects and dangers to users inherent in his products. The Council would urge that measures be taken to remedy the situation where the present Act fails to fulfil its original purpose because of the changed conditions in which it has to operate.
The second Act which I think is of tremendous importance is the Merchandise Marks Act. The Council have been asked to make comments on the Board of Trade proposals for the revision of these Acts, which certainly fall short in a number of ways of what is required 449 in the way of effective statutory protection of consumers. I believe that the Board of Trade have not entirely welcomed all the suggestions that have been made by the Council. I should be glad if my noble friend, when replying, would give some indication of the attitude of the Government towards some of the recommendations that have been made by the Consumer Council.
One of the main recommendations of the Council has been that a broad definition of trade descriptions should be included to cover cases where vague claims are made in imprecise terms. The Council believe that the falsity of such claims should be judged by their cumulative effect on the buyer—whether this is achieved by fact, implication or omission. For example, there are many medical preparations which rely on the implication that the vitamins or hormones included in the product will bring certain benefits. Whilst in some cases there may be just a grain of truth in this, the much wider implications which the makers have successfully put across are often quite unfounded. Your Lordships have seen the advertisements of a powder which is offered for sale and which contains "20 per cent more". But more than what? Nobody knows. But it is expressed in such a way as to bamboozle the poor unfortunate buyer.
I am sure that noble Lords in this House are not likely to fall for the blandishments of such advertisements. For example, there may be an advertisement merely making a plain honest statement that a particular soap is good for washing the skin. That can be sold at a normal price. But sometimes the impression is created that the user will be given beauty, and the purchaser is asked to pay ten times the price for the same product. It may have a different smell, but the poor consumer suffers. I know that this does not apply to anybody in your Lordships' House, but there are people who honestly believe that the type of scap which they use is capable of making them beautiful.
The Council also take the view that the Acts should cover services well as goods, and that oral misdescriptions should be made an offence. Finally, a revision of the Acts should make them generally acceptable to advertising which at present escapes through the legal diffi- 450 culty of relating a particular advertisement to a particular sale. For example, in order to prosecute a false claim made in a television advertisement, it would be necessary for the buyer, at the time of buying the goods in the shop, to refer to the precise advertisement shown on the screen. Naturally, it is seldom, if ever, possible to establish this link.
Lastly, as an indication of the sort of things which I think this Government should tackle at an early date, I would make reference to a subject that I have referred to previously—namely the problem of the doorstep salesmen. I shall not say a lot about this problem, but noble Lords may have noticed that a national newspaper recently carried an article on this subject. I am informed that this same newspaper, in the subsequent week, received 4,000 complaints from their readers indicating criticism of the activities of these doorstep salesmen. Many of them are reputable traders doing an honest job of work, but there are many who are not so honest. We believe that the law relating to hawkers and pedlars seems to be inapplicable in modern conditions. Licensing may help to offer some measure of the control needed, but there are awkward problems attached to it, such as the circumstances in which a licence can be cancelled, and so on. But I hope that my noble friend will in his reply give some indication as to whether or not the Government are giving some attention to this exceptionally difficult and thorny problem.
I would say that this Report of the Consumer Council marks a tremendous step forward over the whole field of consumer protection. State intervention to protect consumers and restrain the dishonest trader is quite old—it has been in existence for a long time; but in modern times there has been a certain reluctance on the part of the State to adjust the protection to meet modern conditions. I hope that there will be a change in that attitude. I am sure that there is a change in the attitude so far as manufacturers are concerned.
Noble Lords may remember that only a matter of six or seven years ago a statement was made by a director of one of the largest international food concerns, if not the lamest, in the world. He asked: why do we have a lot of unprofessional 451 busybodies trying to protect the shopper, who is quite able to look after herself? Three years after he made that statement, that same firm had to withdraw a complete brand of margarine on the Dutch market because there were 70,000 cases of suspected poisoning. Yet, as I say, three years previously the director had said that the shopper was quite able to look after herself. Those 70,000 cases indicated that the shopper needs something more than his own ability to protect himself in these circumstances.
Over the years some, at any rate, in this House have played a great part in this field. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough is not here. I should like to pay tribute to all that he has done in this respect. As far back as 1925, forty years ago, he came along with a Consumers Bill. It was rejected, but that did not diminish his continued efforts in the cause of the consumer. My Lords, I have great pleasure, and indeed pride, in joining with the noble Baroness in drawing attention to the work of the Consumer Council, often under extremely difficult conditions; but it is work that will undoubtedly give increasing protection for the consumer.
§ 4.37 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
My Lords, I regard it as a privilege to be associated in this debate with the noble Baroness. If large numbers of the population are producers, all of us are consumers: we cannot escape from that. Even I as a Bishop am driven to recognise the strength of the consumer interest of the man in the pew. For all that, consumer organisations and the protection of consumer interests have never kept pace in this country with the growth of large-scale industry, and the creation of the Consumer Council by the President of the Board of Trade last year, following the recommendation of the Molony Committee in 1962, marked an important step forward in a field which has been far too long neglected.
We live in a complex and highly technical society in which the rights and needs of the individual can, and may be, overlooked and overshadowed by expediency and the necessity to organise for large numbers. The Council seek to protect and educate the individual 452 against those who would exploit him, and, indeed, in many cases, to protect him against himself. In this respect the Council are serving a useful purpose as a watchdog.
In its short life, under the chairmanship of the noble Lady, the Council have done work of outstanding importance. Their attempts, for example, to call the attention of the industry concerned to the consequences of the continued sale to the public of flammable children's nightdresses merit the highest praise. That it finally became necessary for the Home Secretary to issue regulations under the Consumer Protection Act. 1961, showed that where profits are concerned suasion does not always work, and points the moral that it will be necessary from time to time for legislation to be promoted to protect the consuming public.
All the recommendations of this Council merit the most serious consideration. Such subjects as those to which the noble Lady refers—for example, the compulsory registration of travel agents; revision of the Sale of Goods Act, 1873, to prevent suppliers from contracting out of their liabilities to the customer; the revision of the present Merchandise Marks Acts to cover services as well as goods—while not in themselves constituting major social reforms, would form a useful addition to the social legislation upon which the general wellbeing of this country depends. Her Majesty's Government are already committed to a heavy programme of legislation. Here are matters largely non-controversial which could usefully be added to the programme so soon as opportunity presents itself.
I was particularly impressed by the measures advocated in the Council's Report on hire-purchase. From personal experience when I was a parish priest in a large industrial city, one of the most heart-breaking problems I had to face, over and above the tensions and depressions of industrial life, was the hidden problems of hire-purchase payments—namely, the hardship and suffering caused to those who had been encouraged, sometimes through their own stupidity, sometimes through the pressure of slick salesmen, to enter 453 into, often unwisely, hire-purchase agreements.
Until now the Council have proceeded on the good British democratic principle of gentle persuasion. One wonders, however, whether the time has not come to give the Council just a little more "teeth", at the same time not interfering with the right to trade freely, which is a valued part of our heritage. I have in mind the following example. In the electrical appliances trade there is nothing to stop a salesman of a particular heating product, after receiving instruction in the art and wiles of salesmanship, from setting himself up as a heating specialist". He may put a plaque to this effect outside his door, or use the title on his letter-paper. In fact, he is nothing of the kind, his sole object being to sell his particular product. But the unsuspecting housewife is duly impressed. The British Standards Institution are trying to persuade the public not to buy goods of this kind unless the Institution "kite" of approval is attached. But this, as I am sure the noble Lady will tell us, is uphill work. In fact, the housewife has redress, but does not know it, in the form of by-laws lodged with the local council, against false representation and can take the matter through the courts.
At the moment the Council work through the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, but, in spite of what my noble friend says, I wonder if it is altogether sufficiently widespread and adequate for present-day needs. It occurs to me that were the Council to persuade local authorities to open a consumers' protection department, set against the framework of existing bylaws and therefore requiring no further legislation, strength would be added to their work. The housewife's reply to the visiting salesmen, "I will ask the Council", might have the desired effect.
My Lords, it is not my intention to-day to consume more of your Lordships' time. I simply wish to add my voice to those who have expressed their appreciation of the remarks of the noble Lady, and to ask for your approbation of the important work in which her Council are engaged. It is an approbation which could be properly expressed in the support of such legislation as the noble Lady's Council recommend.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, I hope that my noble friends Lord Hobson and Lord Peddie, whose speeches I so enjoyed, will forgive me if I do not go all the way with them in the rosy picture which they have painted of the set-up of the activities of the Consumer Council. I enjoyed what they had to say, but it is more with the future of the Council that I am particularly concerned.
First, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, on the attractive layout of her first Annual Report of the Consumer Council, and on the way in which she herself has presented it. It was much more comprehensive than the Report itself and it taught me quite a bit. The Report has a beguiling cover; it is short; it is clear and it is well written—a model of what such a document should be.
Because of its conciseness and clarity the Report is also more revealing. It sets out plainly what the Conservative Government claim to achieve through the Council, and any criticisms I may make spring from that claim. For if the Consumer Council was just another addition to consumer protection organisations, one could welcome it on that score and accept it at its face value. It is because the Council's terms of reference closely follow the recommendations of the Final Report of the Molony Committee on Consumer Protection which proposed—and I quote from the document,that a powerful and national body should be set up to promote the interests of consumers",that I venture to suggest that "a powerful and national body" cannot be launched with a grant from the Board of Trade in the first year of £60,000. The Government, I feel, could not have been serious. I know that this sum has now been stepped up to £125,000 for the year 1964–65. Perhaps this was with the wry knowledge that an incoming Government takes on the liabilities of an outgoing one.
It is when we come to examine the terms of reference of the Consumer Council that we are assailed by doubts and reservations. The fact that in the first year there seems to have been a duplication of ideas from other bodies with consumer interests is due to what is left out of the terms of reference. The 455 Council Report states that their activities are supplemented by the use of public media. I feel that they just trail behind when dealing with consumer interests and grievances, giving them a blessing here and a cheer there. The fact that the Council's terms of reference preclude it from comparative testing and from taking up individual complaints also preclude it from the consumer pressure group that such an organisation should aim to be. It is another case where a limited idea of objectives and too little money inevitably lead to small dividends.
The Board of Trade appointed ten members, all distinguished in their own field; but they represent themselves as consumers: they do not represent their organisations. This is one weakness. The Council is lucky in its Chairman, the noble Baroness, who is engaged in many other activities. In the freezing weather of last spring, I had the pleasure of attending an Anglo-German conference which she conducted with enormous skill and charm. Lady Elliot of Harwood is endowed with a powerful voice whose volume owes nothing to any loudspeaker. I was discussing this conference with one of our leading journalists, telling him about the highlights of the conference, when I just added that, with such a magnificent voice, Lady Elliot of Harwood should be the C.I.G.S. His comment, quick as lightning, was, "Isn't she?" But as Chairman of the Consumer Council she has a very mixed "General Staff", and practically no professional troops.
With all respect to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux—and they are very worthy bodies—I do not think one could call them professional consumer researchers; nor has Lady Elliot of Harwood any ammunition in the terms of reference. Also, my Lords, because the members of the Council sit as consumers and do not represent the interests of any organisation, a supplier and a manufacturer have been included. I have nothing against these two distinguished individuals, but I can easily understand that their interests might clash with their duty. They may be as jealous of consumer rights as anybody, but I am not aware that there are manufacturers on the T.U.C., nor are there any trade unionists on the F.B.I.
456 It may be an old cliché, but you cannot sit on both sides of the table. Selling to consumers is not the same as protecting them.
The main function of the Council is to provide advice and guidance for the consumer, and this information is to be collected by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Though these have a core of paid workers, most of the work is voluntary. Since the war they have dwindled in numbers—there are now, I believe, only about 400 of them. Up till now they were concerned with welfare problems passed on by doctors and social workers. They have no money for publicity, and I doubt whether they are equipped to deal with consumer complaints. It is left to this amateur nework, worthy though it is, to collect and provide the information for the Consumer Council. I do not think that they can turn the Consumer Council into what I think it should be—a great defence organisation, a pressure group for consumers.
My Lords, looking through the first year's achievements of the Council, I feel that its work has been of a far too general nature. Examples such as the squashing of the campaign to sell homogenised milk because it is cheaper to produce, looking into the pitfalls of hire-purchase, the dangers of flammable nightwear, giving a blessing to the abolition of resale price maintenance, sitting on the fence on stamp trading—all these matters have been given wide publicity in Parliament, in the Press and through broadcasting. The case against flammable nightwear could not have been made out with greater knowledge and cogency than by my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry in this House on February 10. Dishonest travel agents were given a jolly good "pasting," but, obviously, the newspapers were far more effective on this score.
Perhaps the most practical measures undertaken by the Council were on school uniforms. This down-to-earth concern of parents and teachers is, I think, a much more appropriate problem for the Council to take up. All the interested organisations were brought together into consultation, and quality and price came under review. It was decided that complaints and comments should be dealt with at local level, by the local parents' and teachers' association. I think that 457 this was a very important decision, and should be a pointer to the way in which all the future activities of the Consumer Council should emerge.
So I come to the paragraph in the Report headed, "Direct Approach". It is very frank, and I quote again from it:The Council's effectiveness on behalf of consumers depends largely on its ability to get manufacturers, advertisers, retailers, or Government Departments to take action along the lines which it suggestsThis is, indeed, a very tall order, and the delivery date seems to me a long way off. I think that in the first year, if the Council had, perhaps, set its sights a little lower, a little closer to the ground, and started on the labelling scheme which it put forward on October 1 of this year, two weeks before the Election, it would have been far more effective. But even on this it is far too cautious. The Council says that the scheme will rest on the voluntary co-operation of suppliers and can advance only very slowly. But surely what the Swedes can do, we can do as well. This would be of immense benefit to consumers.
So I think that the Council, despite its admirable Chairman, is not equipped to act as the Government's advisory council on consumer affair;; nor for the rather vaguely defined educational rôle, though I must say, having heard the noble Lady, that I feel more encouraged about this particular rôle. Also, it cannot do comparative testing which is done well by the Consumers' Association, of which I am an honorary vice-president, though I speak to-day entirely as a consumer.
The other day I bought a small bottle of pills. The price had gone up from 3s. to 3s. 6d., but, to add insult to injury, the small and convenient container had been scrapped and n clumsy little package substituted, with each pill hermetically sealed in plastic paper. I can only think that this was the idea of a man using these for outer space. I am sure that many of your Lordships have had experience of wrestling with one of those beastly plastic wrappings which are unnecessary, expensive for all I know, and calculated only to raise one's blood pressure. This is a small matter, but consumer complaints are often small and easy to remedy. Many consumers feel as I do when these days I go shopping, watching the rising tide of increasing prices, when sometimes—and I emphasise 458 "sometimes"—I feel a minnow in a shark infested sea.
To sum up, my Lords, I would say that the functions of the Consumer Council are at present too imprecise. Complaints can be properly handled only at local level. It is for local authorities to form consumer groups, with representatives on the Consumer Council, so that the Consumer Council can be a sort of central clearing house for complaints, a central organisation for information. The great thing is for these local bodies to have a representative on the Consumer Council itself. So far, as I have said, the Council, with its able Chairman, has been given responsibility but without power. We can all clamour for lower prices, better quality, safer products, greater choice. It does not need a Consumer Council to formulate these ideals. I hope that the Chairman will get together with the new Minister, and that this Government will help, both economically and in other ways. I hope they will give the Council more money and more powers, so that it is transformed from an organisation which until now has been simply a facade, into a building in which something concrete can be achieved.
§ 5.0 p.m.
My Lords, I had not intended to address your Lordships, but in view of what has been said this afternoon I should rather like to follow the noble Baroness opposite to explain that I do not really join with her in her faint damns of praise of the Consumer Council; and, if I may, to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, on the very fine work that obviously has been done by this Council under her leadership. I am not going to detain your Lordships more than one minute, but there were two quite small points which I noticed in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, on which I should like to comment, in no political or Party way at all, of course, but merely as a personal opinion.
The noble Baroness mentioned safety belts in motor cars, and I think expressed the opinion that these should be made compulsory. My Lords, I am not sure I would go so far as that. I do not think that compulsion in such matters is a desirable thing. Indeed, there are circumstances where, in this particular matter, it might not be a good thing. I 459 mention this because I heard the other day—I cannot vouch for the truth of this story—about a man in his small car who was going through one of the under-the-Thames tunnels which has a number of curves in it and where, at each curve, there is a notice warning drivers of large vehicles to give way to drivers of smaller vehicles because there is not room for both of them to negotiate the turn. On coming to a turn after he had passed the depth of the tunnel and was starting the upgrade, he heard a great noise and saw an enormous vehicle bearing down on him, obviously out of control, scraping along the side, with flames and sparks coming up as the driver was trying to stop himself by rubbing along the wall. The driver of the car pulled in as hard as he could to the left, saw that nothing could be done and so shifted quickly across to the passenger seat. My Lords, if he had had a safety belt on he would have been killed, because the whole of the off-side of his car was ripped off. That is not a thing which will often happen, but it shows that there is not an overwhelming case always for safety belts.
The other point which I should like to mention, and which is a very important one to me, is the matter of the Shops Act. I do not know how many of your Lordships present this evening will remember an occasion when that Bill was before your Lordships' House and when I stood, like Casabianca, trying to get extended hours allowed, but was absolutely mowed down by both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, in a total minority of one. The arguments put up were not clear to me, but it seemed obvious that it was the interest of big business—the big business of the big shops on the Conservative side, and, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, the big business of the "Co-op" on the other. They put up every argument to stop this extension of shop hours at nights and week-ends, basing their argument on a point which I could not get them to see did not arise—that is, that it would be or might be a hardship to the shop assistants; that we could not work them like animals. My Lords, the very first consideration of a matter of this sort, of course, is that the shop assistants should be totally safe- 460 guarded. They should not work more than proper hours or late hours, or be compelled to work them.
However, I shall not pursue the matter because the noble Baroness has made it clear, and the printed Report also makes it very clear, that there is a great demand for longer hours and Saturday hours so long as they are properly controlled—and that, if I may say so, should also apply to banks. Your Lordships must, I am sure, have had the same experience as myself in a city, town or village, of finding three or four banks close together with hardly a customer in them on a Saturday morning, with the unfortunate bank clerks doing practically nothing. I should have thought it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the big banks, and even some of the smaller banks, might come to some sort of co-operative arrangement whereby, on a Saturday morning, Martins took over Barclays, Lloyds took over the District, and they took turns and worked it out in a sensible way.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate, and I should like to start off by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, on a splendid performance, if I may say so, at the Box, on his first appearance there. I thought he had all the virtues of a speaker at the Box: he was brief, he was clear and he was courteous. I should like to congratulate him very warmly on behalf of the whole House, on his performance.
There has been a remarkable unanimity in the course of the debate except for one speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, who I see is now leaving her place, and, if I may, I shall he making some reference to what she said in the course of my remarks. One thing I should like to say straight away is that the noble Lady is certainly no minnow, and I am quite certain that she can look after herself very well in the shops. But that is not so with everybody, and that is one of the reasons why we had the Consumer Council appointed. Although this debate certainly affects us all as consumers, as the right reverend Prelate has said, I myself have a particular personal interest in this subject, because I had two years as Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Trade. For almost the whole of those two years the Molony Committee 461 was deliberating, and throughout that time we were "waiting for Molony". However, towards the end of my period of office there the Report came out, and very little time was lost in appointing a chairman to the Consumer Council and in taking the steps necessary to get it set up.
Now I think that this Report is an example of public relations at their best. It is exceptionally well presented and printed; it is clear and it is succinct; it states its terms of reference and it shows how the Council is carrying them out. It has a final section on "looking ahead", and it has an excellent foreword by the noble Baroness herself, the chairman. Of course, the only snag is that it costs two shillings, but that, no doubt, cannot be helped. I hope the noble Baroness has got a very wide distribution of this Report, because I am sure this is one of the ways in which the activities of the Consumer Council can become widely known. Certainly I am sure it will have gone to all the Citizens' Advice Bureaux throughout the country and to those other bodies with which she co-operates. Certainly our congratulations are due to the chairman and members of the Council, and not least to its very able director, who I think is also a member of the Council, and to her staff. The noble Lord, Lord Peddie, said that the Report showed activity far beyond the range that its most optimistic supporters expected. My Lords, not those who knew my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood and Miss Ackroyd.
My Lords, since the time it was created by the Government the Council has shown that it was quite independent of it, and the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, attached great importance to this. I certainly agree. I hope it will continue to be, although perhaps I might be allowed to say that, having so fully established its independent position, it can perhaps afford to consult with the Government from time to time before expressing an opinion to see if the Government have information which might be helpful to it in arriving at its conclusions. I hope it does so already freely, but, in any case, I hope that it will do so in the future. I can understand why, perhaps, it did not do so in the early stages.
My Lords, the Molony Report envisaged that the Council should become the "authoritative and considered voice 462 of the consumer" (which perhaps goes rather further than being just a watchdog, although the watchdog rôle is certainly important). But it felt that the Council could not achieve that status by mere appointment, and that—and I quoterespect for the Council's views must be earned, not conferred".Now I refer particularly to the Molony Report because I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, is perhaps not fully aware that the terms of reference were based almost identically on the recommendations in the Molony Report, even to the extent, I think I am right in saying (the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong), that the amount of grant that they are receiving in this year is the amount of grant that was recommended by the Report. I see that the recommendation in paragraph 884 says:Our estimate of the cost of staff, premises and other overheads leads to the conclusion that by the end of the first two years of its existence the Council would require an annual grant of £125,000".I understand that, because it was able to get into its stride so quickly, it received that grant before the end of the first two years of its existence. I am sure that has been helpful to everyone. The Report laid great stress on these major rôles: to inform themselves and to inform others; to collect information about consumer problems and to consider what, if any, action was required and to promote that action; and to stimulate and co-ordinate the efforts of others—that is, in research, for example, and in other directions—and, in particular, to promote and co-ordinate efforts to guide the consumer in the business of sound buying. That seems to me to be a conception on the part of the Molony Committee quite at variance with the conception of the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell.
The Council says that it is criticised for spreading its net so wide. I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, in her admirable speech, said that the Council has spread its net wide; and I believe it is right to do so. I believe that it is bound to consider any substantial matter affecting the consumer. It may be that there is some danger in trying to do too much itself instead of co-ordinating the work of others; but, however that may be, it seems to me that the Council has made an excellent start 463 in the work of co-ordination and stimulation.
As it says in its Report, its work is a co-operative endeavour. For example, it services a Joint Council on Consumer Complaints; it works with the British Standards Institution and other bodies such as the Retail Standards Association and the National Council for Quality and Reliability and Standards affecting the Consumer. It has formed some close links with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux which provide the indispensable link with the consumers in all parts of the country. This also is in accordance with the recommendations of the Molony Committee and it is through the Citizens' Advice Bureaux that the Council passes advice to consumers on their problems, and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux could be described, perhaps in this respect, as the eyes and ears of the Council.
I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, say that the Government's objective is to obtain a nationwide coverage of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. If I may, I should like to ask the noble Lord who is going to wind up to give us a little more information on this; I should like to know what actual progress has been made and what difficulties are being encountered. The Molony Report referred to the difficulties of financing because a certain amount of expenditure by the local authorities would be required to get these Citizens' Advice Bureaux started and to keep them going where they do not already exist. It would be interesting to know the scope of the finance that is required and whether the Government contemplate any further steps in this matter. I understand that a grant of something like £27,000 was given to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux last year through the Council of Social Service, and we should like to know whether, in the light of experience, this grant has proved adequate; and, if not, what further steps are required.
The Council has many other sources of information: the local consumer groups, the Consumers' Association, and the Press. It is debarred from taking up complaints on behalf of consumers, although it services a Joint Committee on Consumer Complaints. It can thus 464 be well informed on what is going wrong and causing trouble. I am glad to see that the Council is steadily establishing good relations, not only with the bodies concerned with consumer protection but also with producing, distributing, testing and advertising interests and, indeed, with the Press.
Among its activities is one which I think likely to be fruitful in the long run, and of growing importance, and I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, referred to this. That is its efforts to interest and inform teachers so that they in turn can educate the young in the elements of good shopping. In my view, to educate the young to be quality-conscious and to be discriminating buyers should help them not only in their shopping but in their education, because it relates to everyday experience what they are learning in arithmetic and the other subjects to which the noble Lady referred. And it should help the economy as a whole, for it should tend to raise the quality of British products, because more discriminating buying will mean that manufacturers will have to provide better quality products. In this, the Council has a close ally in the Council of Industrial Design with which it seems to be working very well.
One curiosity is that we have set up a Consumer Council without having defined what we mean by "a consumer". Perhaps that does not matter very much; for ordinary purposes we know what a consumer is; we all are consumers. But it seems to matter when we come to legislate for the protection of the consumer or, at any rate, so apparently the Molony Committee thought. The Committee emphasise the need to produce a definition which will distinguish consumer trade from commercial business and it suggested a definition. I am sure the noble Lord has already found that this is a particularly difficult problem, and I wonder whether he is briefed to say anything about it tonight.
The Committee stated the objective of protection of consumers as purchasers in terms which went rather wider than the consumer: "that persons shall not induce sales or attempt to do so, whether deliberately or not, by making false or misleading statements of a 465 factual character". To achieve that objective the Committee made many suggestions for legislation; and the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, dealt with some of these. I was surprised at his prefacing his remarks by saying that we are entering into an era of law reform. It is difficult to remember a time when we have not been in an era of law reform. But even in the consumer field we have had such notable Acts in the last decade or so as the Food and Drugs Act, and the Weights and Measures Act. Perhaps it is not right to mention the Hire-Purchase Act in quite the same breath as those monumental Acts, but it shows that progress has been made as also with the Consumer Protection Act, a Private Member's Bill which was fully supported by the Government.
The noble Lord said that these recommendations are non-controversial. I am not sure of that, but in any case they are very highly technical and I will not blame the noble Lord if he is unable to give answers to these points tonight. But I think the main interest will concentrate on the prohibition of contracting out of the standard conditions and warranties in civil law; that is, the conditions as regards merchantable quality, fitness for purpose arid correspondence with description. Secondly, one recommendation was that all forms of advertisement should be made subject to the Merchandise Marks law in so far as the application of a trade description to the goods advertised is concerned. I was interested to hear from the noble Lady that she has been contemplating the possibility of making the code of advertising practice statutory in some way or another. Just as (I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, who said it) the Consumer Council should be given a run, as I am sure it should, so I feel the Advertising Standards Authority also should be given a run. I see that the Consumer Council has been co-operating with the Advertising Standards Authority. I hope that this co-operation has been useful and fruitful; and that it will become more and more so.
Thirdly, there was a recommendation about legislation on seals of approval. The recommendation was that the seal of approval should be used only if registered as a certified trade mark and if 466 goods had been tested independently. And, fourthly, it was recommended that the Board of Trade should be empowered to make regulations in regard to particular goods, forbidding retailers to trade in them unless information in writing is given, by label attached to the goods or otherwise, as to, for example, the size, the care required in their use and their composition.
The Report says that the Consumer Council has been preparing a statement of its views. I did not gather whether that statement had yet been forwarded to the Board of Trade, but no doubt the noble Lord will be able to tell us. I would not press the noble Lord too far on this point, but we should like to know what are the prospects of early legislation. We know that these are early days for him yet, but, as he is aware, we were hopeful that it would have been possible to bring in legislation this year, had we been on his side of the House, and we still hope that the Government will be able to do so.
I am glad that the Consumer Council is giving informative labelling intensive study, with a view to a national labelling scheme. That is something which I am sure deserves support from all of us. Here again, if the objective cannot be achieved by voluntary means, then the regulation-making powers, to which the Molony Committee referred, will no doubt have to be considered. The noble Lady mentioned a host of other activities—travel agents, shop hours, advertising, safety standards and labelling—and the successes in the matter of blazers: that is, school uniforms, and children's nightdresses, both of which might be described as "blazers".
I should like to make a comment on travel agents. For my own part, I am inclined to feel that we have to distinguish fairly sharply between travel agents, in the proper sense of the word agents, and tour operators. Again, I do not know whether the noble Lord has had time to study this matter, but we are entering into the period of Private Members' Bills and I should be surprised if there were not a Private Member's Bill on this subject this year, so that I think that the noble Lord will have to reach some conclusions pretty soon about what the Government's attitude is going to be.
467 No system of standards is worth very much, I think the noble Lord will agree, without some quality control, and possibly adequate testing. Many manufacturers have their own quality controls. Others find it convenient to have quality control done outside. It might well be thought a good thing to have some form of certificate or badge showing that goods are subject to quality control. Like so many other things in this sphere, such devices are best worked out by, or on behalf of, the industries themselves. I am a firm believer in self-control as being the best form of control, but that does not mean that the advice and help of the Consumer Council or the British Standards Institution should not be sought and welcomed.
Representatives of the Consumer Council already sit on many bodies. I do not know how far their staff can be stretched, but I am sure it is a good thing that a representative of the Consumer Council should sit on these industrial bodies so as to be able to represent to the manufacturers themselves, at the point of decision-making, the consumer's point of view.
There are obvious pitfalls in the way of any organisation such as the Consumer Council. As I said, I do not think that one of the pitfalls is spreading the net too widely, because I feel that by its nature the Council has to deal with consumer matters of substantial importance as they come along, and has to be vigilant for new ways of deceiving and prompt to expose them.
It is important that the Council does not comment before consideration, that it should not go off "at half-cock", and I am sure that it does not allow itself to be beguiled or teased by the Press into committing itself too quickly. If its voice is to be really authoritative, as I am sure it should be, it must speak only after careful consideration. Of course, it will make mistakes—all organisations do. But it needs all the time to be persuasive and persistent with Government organisations, with manufacturers and distributors, and with all other organisations in the consumer field. It has, I think, to be pro-consumer rather than anti-anything else. I think it was the noble Baroness who said that there is no clash of interests, and I am sure that this is true.
468 My Lords, I believe that the Consumer Council has made an admirable start in obtaining the confidence and trust of the organisations with which it has to deal, and I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will be able to continue the support for the Consumer Council which I like to feel that we in the previous Government gave. Of course, no Government can ever be expected always to agree with the Consumer Council; nor should the Consumer Council expect it.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, BOARD OF TRADE (LORD RHODES)
My Lords, I think that it has been a fascinating debate and we are indebted to the noble Lady for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject. I find my own transition from making, I hope, stuff of quality to talking about it agreeable, too. One of my earliest recollections is of shimmering summer evenings, with my father talking over the garden fence to his neighbour who worked with him in the mill. It was always about how they could improve the quality of the cloth they worked on. Those were the days when articles had to last, when clothing was handed down, as it was in my family, from elder son to younger and when housewives worked miracles with the sewing machine. The reputation for good stuff which was made then still persists. I remember that two years ago, when I talked to the Anglo-Japanese Club in Osaka, I had quite a thrill, when the Japanese elite of the Zaibatsu came up to me, rubbing their lapels and saying, "This is from Yorkshire, too".
In those days, housewives had fewer fabrics to choose from—wool, cotton and silk. When I first set up my own business, after coming out of hospital in 1921, I remember going to see an old manufacturer, who was bewailing the situation. "Look at this", he said, I am full up to the top with stock I can't sell." Being a young man and enthusiastic, I asked, "What is it?" "Come in here", he said, "and look at all this red flannel. They do not want it now, but the women will come back to it again." Well, they never did. They went on to other things. Now we have nylon, rayon, Orlon, Terylene and a whole host of acryllic and other synthetics, which are being added to every day 469 Again, in those days, there was very little pre-packaging of goods, except perhaps on retailers' premises, and very little mail order or hire-purchase business. The increase of these things has been phenomenal. Everything that will pre-pack is pre-packed; hire-purchase business goes up and up; mail order business houses boom; self-service stores and supermarkets are opening up everywhere. Now many housewives go out to work and many of them have plenty of money coming in. They are bombarded with exhortations on television and in the Press to discard and buy. I believe the Americans have a term for it, planned obsolescence. But there are also an enormous number of people in this country who are still very much on the border line and whose incomes are not enough to allow them to discard and buy again: young working families; families with a large number of children; families who still have difficulty in making ends meet. But it is not just for them that the noble Lady has been working; it is for everybody.
We all want a fair deal in this. Your Lordships will be aware that when we were in Opposition we were enthusiastic about consumer protection. We still are enthusiastic, and the advantage now is that we shall be able to do something positive about it. We attach great importance to the independence of this Council from the Government and to its right to be outspoken.
I do not want to cover the ground again, but mention has been made of the manufacturer and the seller. We are not against the manufacturer and the seller, but we are against abuses by them. It must be one of the important functions of Government that the consumer is provided with ready and relatively simple remedies against such abuses. But—and this is where education comes in—it will be for the consumer to avail himself of these remedies.
Some noble Lores mentioned the question of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I should like to see the Citizens' Advice Bureaux grow faster than they are doing. Those of us who were Members of Parliament for many years and were in close touch with our constituents appreciate acutely the need for liaison between the people who can inform and the people who can receive. Numerous cases came to me on all kinds 470 of problems, which are covered in this very admirable Report; every month somebody came. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, I should like to see, instead of the 429 already in existence and the some 40 more in the process of formation, a working up towards the number of the urban districts there are throughout the country. I would support the right reverend Prelate's reference to the form of Citizens' Advice Bureaux which can be undertaken by councils and local authorities in the setting up of, not exactly a department, but perhaps an extension of the weights and measures authority. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the town of Sheffield where exactly this has been done. I think it is a good development, and I am perfectly certain that my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Board of Trade, who is responsible for this, representing as he does one of the Sheffield Divisions, will be glad to know that I have mentioned it today.
I want to say a word or two now about the Council's terms of reference. I think the terms of reference were right. I believe that the inclusion of the individual approach to the Consumer Council would have been absolutely hopeless if it had been allowed. I feel that the Molony Committee were correct in saying that they should be aloof from it.
I believe it was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Gaitskell that the finance was not enough. What I would say to her is this. The Council has been going for only twelve months. It was envisaged that by the end of the year £125,000 might be required. I think it is indicative of the speed it has been going at that already £125,000 is required, and is being provided. I think that as the work proceeds and its value is more and more recognised ways and means (as is usual) will be found for finance to keep up with the work in hand.
Another point is the Merchandise Marks Act, referred to by my noble friend Lord Peddie. The Molony Committee on Consumer Protection made certain very far-reaching proposals in relation to merchandise marks law. The Board of Trade are at present in consultation with industry and other interested bodies on proposals to give effect to these recommendations. We hope it will be 471 soon. The Consumer Council are among those who have been consulted, and I am glad to say that they seem to be broadly in agreement with the proposals prepared by officials. I should not, of course, wish to prejudice the Government's position in relation to legislative proposals which we shall in due course be putting before your Lordships, but I think I can safely say that at present it seems unlikely that we shall be departing very far from the recommendations of the Molony Committee. Nor can I say when we shall be able to introduce this legislation, except that it will be as soon as Parliamentary time permits.
Now a word on the labelling scheme, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords. We at the Board of Trade have been interested to see the proposal by the Consumer Council to introduce a national voluntary labelling scheme. We are following these developments very closely and we understand the difficulties. We understand, too, that it cannot just be done in five minutes. We believe that the powers should be used sparingly, and that only where it was not possible for labelling to be achieved by voluntary means should we bring in compulsion. That is what we believe. So far as the labelling of drugs is concerned, I understand that the Consumer Council is among the bodies which are being consulted by the Ministry of Health in the context of a review of medicines legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Peddie, mentioned guarantees and contracting out. I think this could best be dealt with in the context of an amendment of the Sale of Goods Act, as recommended by the Molony Committee. That Committee, however, recommended that amendment of merchandise marks legislation should precede amendment of sale of goods law, and we are following that recommendation. We shall be discussing with industrial and other interests the Molony Committee's proposal to prohibit, through amendment of the Sale of Goods Act, contracting out of civil liabilities by the means of guarantees.
Now a word on doorstep salesmen. A few months ago a lady came to see me saying she had bought a sewing machine. She had seen an advertise- 472 ment for a cheap sewing machine. A man came, but he had not come about the cheap sewing machine at all. He had come to sell her a new one. By Jove!, he did. She managed to sign on the dotted line for an electric sewing machine which would have kept a whole school going. The husband came home at night, and very cross he was. He came to see me. We are aware of this difficulty, and we are aware of the benefit of the ability to think it over. We want plenty of publicity about this. We want plenty of publicity in the Press so that the public can be put on its guard against it—against the kind of tactics these people use, and the rackets that are going on. We ask everybody to publicise it when they see an abuse.
Now with regard to travel agents. Some time ago some constituents of mine who had paid their money for their holidays were standing on the kerb at St. Pancras Station, waiting for a mini-bus to take them to the Lakes in Italy. A young man came along and said that the mini-bus had not come back from France yet, so they had to go to Victoria. So after a lot of messing about they got the tickets and away they went across the water. After going round the back streets of Calais, they eventually found a mini-bus with a student asleep on the back seat. They had great difficulty in waking him up, because he had made the journey from the Channel ports to Como and back again, to arrive on time, as he hoped, for these people. They set off. As they went along they found that no accommodation had been booked for them. So one of my constituents, who spoke good French, acted as the courier, and eventually got them in at various places. But unfortunately this mini-bus was in such a mess that it broke down going over the Alps. It is bad enough for anybody to go over the Alps and break down, but for twelve passengers in a mini-bus, with the confusion and the worry behind them of having to find their own way across France, it was worse. Is it not about time that this question was looked into, and something done about it? The Consumer Council have done a useful service by calling attention to abuses.
Of course, there are always pros and cons about these things. There are substantial arguments for and against the 473 regulation of this trade. On the one hand, all of us would wish holidaymakers to be able to look forward with confidence to enjoying the holidays that they have booked and paid for, and—like any other responsible traders—the responsible firms in the travel trade set store by maintaining the trade's reputation. On the other hand, it would be too much to hope that any practicable system of control, leaving room for legitimate competition and for enterprising new entrants to the trade, could always identify unstable firms so that those firms, and only those firms, were excluded. What we are doing at the moment is this. We are studying the problems. That is not just an idle statement—I mean it. The President is studying this mater, and he will take careful note of the views expressed in the Council's Report and during this debate. The Government will announce their conclusions as soon as possible. I understand that to-day there is a Question down by the honourable Member for Montgomery.
Now a word on school uniforms. The British Standards Institution told us that standards have been prepared and are likely to be published soon for a whole range of blazer cloths in a basic quality; and that the work has started on standards for gaberdines, and a code of practice for making up blazers and raincoats. We hope that manufacturers will adopt the British Standards in manufacturing cloth for this purpose, and that school authorities will, where appropriate, order by reference to these standards. I can appreciate the noble Lady's difficulties when she remained at a Conference, where we were together at any rate for the first evening, because the wool trade is rather reluctant to commit itself to agreements of this type—on labelling, on qualities and se on. But I can assure noble Lords that progress is being made, and without any doubt whatever those parents who have apprehension about the replacement of blazers for those rough lads who rub out their elbows so quickly, and mothers who are faced with another bill, are going to have some good news in the not very distant future.
With regard to flammable clothing, who has not had his heart torn with the sad stories that we have seen, and still see, every year? It is fantastic that in this day and age there should be so 474 many fatalities in the home caused by the flammability of fabrics. My right honourable and learned friend is considering the possibility of extending the scope of the present regulations to other types of garments and, perhaps, materials sold by the yard. I understand the noble Lady's anxiety about this matter. The cloth which is printed in designs which are very appealing to the children should, in my opinion, be brought in, too, because, otherwise, how can one discriminate? There is nothing to prevent anyone from going into a shop, buying a length of cloth and making it up. The danger is there just the same. Even warning labelling, as suggested by the Consumer Council, will be of little value in the absence of adequate supplies of flame-resistant garments. However, regulations are not the only answer. They undoubtedly help to encourage public safety consciousness, but care in the use of heating appliances and guards on open fires remain of the greatest importance. I will not pursue this subject because my noble friend Lord Hobson dealt fully with it when he spoke earlier on.
However, I should like to have a word on toys. Regulations are being prepared to implement the Molony Committee recommendations to ban celluloid toys and to impose safety standards for electrically-operated toys. Their preparation has been delayed by the complexity of the British Standard for transformers for use with toys and its variations from the international standard.
My noble friend has answered one or two of the other points, and I am sorry if I have not been able to reply to the multitude of questions; it is not the case that we are not interested but simply that there is no time. But because it is a thing near my heart and I should like to mention it for my own satisfaction, and because it is on page two of that little report that the Consumer Council issues every month—this particular one is dated October 29—I should like to finish on the subject of house buying.
My Lords, there is nothing which hits harder at a person or persons than when they have bought a house which is not right, when there is something dreadfully wrong with it in the way of construction. I had in my old constituency 178 aggrieved purchasers of houses who entered into purchase of their houses in good faith.
475 They were ordinary working folks who saved up for the biggest purchase they had made in their lives and were likely to make. The houses were all right, but because of the use of poor quality filling which had been dug from the pits in the locality, full of sulphide which swells when it is exposed to damp, the walls of their sitting rooms bulged. What redress did they obtain? What redress is there when the builder goes bankrupt? What can you do? What happens to the old lady who has made her plans on her pension so that she can just paddle through, yet is then faced with a bill for £450?—as they all were. Surely these are things that need the conscience of the country to make us act quickly now; and I am perfectly certain that if we are patient in these early months of the formation of the Consumer Council and if we persist and proceed on the very admirable lines which have been laid out for us we shall make great progress in the coming years.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I should like to thank very much all those noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, for their very kind reception of our first Annual Report and of the speech which I made outlining our plans for the future. I am very much encouraged. I said at the outset of my speech that this was not a Party political issue of any kind, and I think all that has been said to-day bears that out. I was delighted to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, just now that he was very keen about the independence of the Council. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, was also very keen about its independence, so I can assure them both that the Council is likely to remain quite independent. We are also not going to be deterred in the views which we may take up on behalf of consumers as to whether or not they fit in with the views of all interests concerned. It is impossible to please everybody. We are there to speak for the consumer and we will do so with both courage and conviction.
I should for one moment like to answer one or two of the points which were made, but first I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, in the very admirable remarks he made about 476 our staff at the Consumer Council. I am glad he did so, because I felt that it was not perhaps my province to do so in the first instance. But I should like to agree with him that we are most fortunate in the Director and the staff which she has got together and which is most admirable.
I should like to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, that so far we have had no difficulties arising from the mixture of the Council. In fact as the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, will bear me out, the mixture has been on occasions very helpful. There have been no difficulties about whether people's interests were or were not involved. We have a body of people who regard problems as they come to us as problems of the consumer, and not as problems in which they themselves have any personal interest. This is very valuable and important. I was very glad to have the support of the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Southwark, and to hear that he feels strongly about protection of the consumer, and I was pleased to hear also the remarks he made about hire purchase. I think the Act which has been passed is going to help a great deal in the problems which arise in those ways.
I should like to say, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that I am glad he supports us in connection with the Shops Act and extended hours. I stress again the fact that this should be entirely a decision of the shopkeeper himself, and I hope this may happen in the course of the next year. I realise, of course, that there are two points of view about the question of safety belts. You cannot be right all the time. But I think, on balance, we feel that the evidence is in favour of safety belts rather than that they should be simply optional. Of course, we all of us know of cases where safety belts might have been dangerous. I also know of cases where safety belts have saved people's lives.
I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that we intend to have consultations with the Government in the same way as we had consultations with himself when he was in the Government, and we are sure—in fact we have been given an assurance—that we shall be consulted by the present Government, as we were by the past Government, on 477 points on which they want our views. I would thank him and other noble Lords for the remarks they made about the make-up of our Annual Report. I take no credit; it was due to the staff. But I think it is a very good document, nicely produced. It is not expensive in my opinion; it is jolly good value for two shillings. We have distributed some 3,500 copies and all the time it is being asked for by various people. I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, say she feels we should not be stinted of money. I am pleased to say that the budget we put forward this year was accepted by the previous Government. I dc not expect it will be repudiated by the present Government. Therefore, for the time being we have the money we asked for.
I should like to deal with one or two points that the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, mentioned. I am glad he feels strongly about travel agents. I am sure something ought to be done about this, and fairly quickly. His account of the doorstep salesman is only one of many we have heard from all over the country. I am gild he picked up the point about increasing the range of legislation dealing with flammable materials and the question of the safety of toys, and I ant also delighted that he is himself personally interested in this question of house buying procedures, the contract and so on, to do with house buying. It is a matter we want to pursue.
On the question of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, I hope that they will be able—in fact, f think they will be able—to expand more rapidly. We are at the moment making an inquiry, through one of our staff who is going round the country, to find out how effective the C.A.B. service, the Consumer Group service and the various local authority services are, and we are going to consider all that in the future. There is one point I should like to make—and I speak now as a local authority person, because I have been twenty years on a local authority. Any organisation that is in the local 478 authority, whether it deals with weights and measures or the adulteration of milk, anything, in fact, run by a local authority, whether county council or town council, has always a sort of imprimatur of an official body. It is difficult for the ordinary citizen to take a small complaint to the local authority, because he always, rightly or wrongly, has a feeling that the local authority is "they" and it is "we", and "they are not with us".
I know that happens and I am inclined to think—although I do not want to be committed on this at once—that it would be better to keep a service such as the C.A.B. or our Consumer Groups or anything that the Consumer Council wants to set up as not inside the local authority. They could well be backed by the local authority, but I do not think they should be inside the local authority, for the reason that the ordinary little citizen, the ordinary man or woman in the street who has some small complaint, would not feel nearly so inclined to go to a big office in the local authority building as to talk to some friendly person in a rather smaller set-up in a voluntary organisation. I realise there are two sides to this question, but I think, on balance, I would rather let the consumer feel we were on his side of the fence rather than on the side of the local authority, with all the law that it has to administer.
I am indeed grateful to noble Lords for allowing me to answer and also for listening so kindly to what I am afraid was a tremendously long speech, but it was my one opportunity to get on the record what our plans are and what we want to do. I am most grateful for the help of noble Lords. I think they have been too kind; they have indeed praised us beyond our merits. We are determined to do our best in this field. We shall always be glad to have any comments and criticisms, and we hope that as time goes on we may become more and more useful. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.