§ 3.2 p.m.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY rose to call attention to basic consumer problems and the part therein of Government; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper I should like, first of all, to express regret at my inability to be in the House when the first Annual Report of the Consumer Council was discussed in November last. To-day, however, we are fortunate in that the Chairman of the Consumer Council, the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, is here and intends to take part in the debate. I would ask both the noble Lady and the House to believe that any 627 critical remarks I may make to-day are not directed at her personally—though I am sure she knows that. Your Lordships will have noticed that the Motion calls attention "to basic consumer problems and the part therein of Government", and that it does not mention the term "consumer protection". That has been left out quite deliberately, and I propose to return to it later.
§ In September last I spoke at a private luncheon of magazine editors on the general progress made in consumer affairs to date. To the first section of that speech I put a title of "the battle of the consumer", for it seemed to me that this was the first stage of the problem. I asked myself whether this stage had been passed. With the last Government I think that the battle for recognition had been won, but I was never convinced that it had been won to any depth in Government circles. I say this with great temerity, because I have been counting up and I think that I see before me, on the Benches opposite, five past Ministers from the Board of Trade. But it was not possible, when I looked at various points, to believe that there had been a desire to get down to fundamentals.
§ I know that it is a fallacy on the part of many of us to believe that we can be purely unbiased critics; and in that I certainly include myself. But I have tried, and again and again, when I have looked back, the same indications have become evident. What indications? From 1951 to 1955 in another place every conceivable barrier which could be erected against real progress in consumer affairs was erected. Early in 1955, there was set up the Consumer Advisory Council of the British Standards Institution. This was a complete façade and "window-dressing" on the part of the then Government. The Council had no power; it accomplished very little, and I think it not untrue to say that in a year or so this opinion became generally acceptable to people interested in these affairs.
Then in July, 1959, in Election year, there was set up the Molony Committee. Your Lordships will remember that the Molony Committee reported three years later, in July, 1962. The Report was published on July 25, 1962, and the next day, July 26, the then Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, accepted its
main recommendations. In the debate in this House on November 12 last, the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for whom I have considerable respect, told your Lordships (col. 461) that
… very little time was lost in appointing a chairman to the Consumer Council …
From July 26, 1962, to March 26, 1963, was a period of eight months. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, was not then a Member of this House, but your Lordships will remember that it was very patient with me on many occasions when I raised this particular point. My great respect for the noble Lord does not enable me to agree with him that eight months is synonymous with "very little time". I believe there was no reform in depth in the establishment of the Consumer Council. It did not have sufficient authority, it did not have the money to use mass media, and the position of Chairman was accorded an honorarium.
§ If we then move on to the Hire-Purchase Bill (forgetting altogether for the moment that it was not included in the Queen's Speech), this was, of course, legislation of bits and pieces. Here there was an opportunity for real reform which was neglected by the last Government. Everybody knows that the Board of Trade had been discussing with the hire-purchase industry for very many years the whole question of reform in depth in this particular field. I worked very closely with the industry in this connection, both in these discussions and when the matter was before this House, although I think that most of the people with whom I worked were not of my opinion politically. The Board of Trade told the industry quite definitely, just before the Bill came before your Lordships, that it was not the intention of the Government to accept any Amendments in depth. So another opportunity was lost —in other words, we had the Bill as it was, or we did not have a Bill at all. It is not unfair to say that if one discusses this matter today with people who are knowledgeable in the hire-purchase industry they would agree that an opportunity to deal properly with this matter was neglected.
The last example I want to take concerns resale price maintenance. How effective is this going to be? The real difficulty is that when cases come to be heard so much will depend on the interpretation. I have always felt that, to the
layman anyway, the effectiveness of any Bill must be uncertain when so much of the decision-making is handed over by the Government to the Judiciary. Since saying this to the magazine editors, I have been fortified to read in the Financial Times of March 5 last:
The weakness of the Act has always been that its effectiveness or otherwise will turn on nice legal interpretations of awkward phrases and disputable economic predictions.
Speaking as a non-legal consumer—and I say this with great diffidence because my noble and learned friend is on the Woolsack—it seemed to me from the very beginning a weakness for the last Government to say that when R.P.M. became illegal all applications lodged for its retention would be effective until the application in question had been decided by the court. Why could we not have had a declaration that R.P.M. became illegal on the day decided, and remained illegal for all goods until the court had ruled otherwise? As the leader in the Financial Times goes on to say:
It has required only one manufacturer of a single item to register for exemption from the ban, for every similar product (whoever it is made by) to be exempt until that case is heard before the court. The shopkeeper can get a list of the goods on which R.P.M. is still allowed but has no means of knowing who actually intends to enforce it.
§ My Lords, looking at those three examples—the establishment of a Consumer Council, the Hire-Purchase Act and resale price maintenance—following on from the records of the 1950s, it seems to me that we have not had reform in depth because Conservative Governments did not wish it. I hope and believe that we shall now have a very different programme. In looking at basic consumer problems to-day, I am including advertising, labelling and the machinery of labelling, the working of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the place of a Consumer Council, all related to the position of Government therein. I hope and expect that other speakers will raise many other items.
Now, my Lords, I come to advertising. The Molony Committee told us in their Report that much disquiet had been expressed to them about modern methods of advertising. I think two facts would be acceptable to most people: one, advertising has two main functions—to inform and to sell; two, honest advertising
and sensible consumer protection both have a part to play in our economy. I suggest that most of us would accept a third comment: that we shall not get a better ruling upon advertising than that of the United States Supreme Court which I quoted in our last debate on the Molony Report in November, 1962.
Advertising as a whole must not create a misleading impression, even though every statement separately considered is literally truthful.
§ The advertising industry recognised this criticism. As your Lordships know, the Code of Advertising Practice was revised, a special joint committee called the Code of Advertising Practice Committee was set up, and, as we all know, a further body was established, called the Advertising Standards Authority. In our debate of two-and-a-half years ago, I said that it was obvious that the advertising industry had recognised the criticism and had done something about it. The question was: had they done enough? At that time many people thought not. They did not believe that the industry itself by voluntary means would cope with the situation. I said then, and now repeat, that I should prefer the industry to do this job itself, but that, obviously, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating.
§ I am sorry to say it, but I do not believe that this Advertising Standards Authority has been a success. I was forced to that conclusion some 18 months ago, both on my own knowledge and from information that came to me from various sources. Since then I have been saying so, and trying to persuade the advertising industry as, I would hope, one of its reasonable critics, to do something about it. I am not proposing to stand here to-day and say why the Authority has, in the eyes of the public, failed. It may have been a failure in communication; it may have been a lack of determination. Perhaps the industry knows the answer.
§ But I have received recently—I expect in common with many of your Lordships—a booklet from the Advertising Association called The Operation of the Voluntary Control System in Advertising, and I was interested particularly in the last section dealing with plans for strengthening voluntary control. The Advertising Association in this section speaks of discussions to take place, during which the Board of Trade will be 631 consulted on increasing the responsibilities of the Advertising Standards Authority. This may be excellent. I take the simplified view, that the Authority should prevent—for want of a better word—dishonest and misleading advertising. We all know that this is a small percentage of advertising, but it must be dealt with; and, of course, it does considerable damage to the reputable majority.
§ From time to time, when I raise some particular aspect of an advertisement, I am told that the Authority is not responsible, but I think it has to be responsible. If the Advertising Association proposes to increase the power of the Authority, so that the Authority can deal with this minority, then I would support the Association. If it would still be unable to deal with this minority, then I personally would see no future for the Authority, and I should be sorry. I repeat that I should like the industry to be successful here, but I think we cannot wait a further two-and-a-half years to find out.
§ I believe that the manner in which the present Government are now looking at the whole field of merchandise marks legislation will transform this position. Certainly, we do not want any more piecemeal legislation, and I should be glad if my noble friend, when he comes to reply, could give us an indication as to when the complicated revision of the present Merchandise Marks Acts may be expected in Parliament. Does he think this will be in the next Session? If so, I should like to leave the matter to be dealt with until then. But, in the meantime, I should also like some further evidence from the Advertising Association, that they recognise the criticism levelled at the work of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Now I come to labelling and the machinery of labelling. There is no need for me to tell this House that informative labelling of merchandise is obviously a basic consumer problem. But I was not happy to note that, during the debate on November 12 last, the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, told the House that the Consumer Council planned to introduce a national informative labelling scheme based on a label of standard design, because I felt, from
what was said, that the Council was underestimating both the pitfalls and the problems here. Safety is in a different category, and I see no reason why this should be a prolonged operation. But I want to return to what Lady Elliot of Harwood had to say, in telling the House that the Consumer Council had secured the collaboration 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."—[OFFICIAL REORT, Vol. 261 (No. 8), Col. 435, November 12. 1964.]
§ My Lords, I speak from bitter experience. This could be an endless operation. For some ten years in another place I endeavoured to get more speedy action by the British Standards Institution on such matters, while realising that the procedure and set-up there prohibited any such thing. The then Government refused to accept this comment which has, of course, been brought out in the Molony Report.
§ My Lords, what does the Consumer Council mean by, "a consensus of consumer opinion"? I have no wish to be offensive, but it is this sort of talk or phraseology which makes the ordinary shoppers nearly despair. They do not feel they will ever get anywhere. This, to them, is the language of people sitting at a desk, and not really "down to earth". At the moment, we have suggested labelling schemes by the Consumer Council, the British Standards Institution, the Retail Trading Standards Association and various committees and trading organisations. What are we going to do with them? What is the housewife going to make of them? How will she know which are the real quality labels? I think she will be confused—utterly. Somewhere, somehow, we have to find one channel for these schemes. Should this be the British Standards Institution?
§ This Government, through one of their junior Ministers in another place, have spoken of taking a fresh look at the work of the British Standards Institution. For some time now I have been wondering whether it would be feasible to have a consumer standards division as part of 633 the British Standards Institution, or linked with it, provided it were given power to act in the event of undue delay. Should this work satisfactorily, I believe the advantages of co-operating with it would be realised, apart altogether from the benefit accruing to shoppers. In other words, would it be useful if labelling schemes from, for example, the Consumer Council, the Retail Trading Standards Association, the Textile Research Associations or trading organisations were channelled voluntarily through this British consumer standards division and the schemes issued by the organisation concerned in co-operation with this division? If sponsors were willing to cooperate in this manner so that any such schemes were issued by the sponsor concerned in conjunction with the British Standards Institution, we should have a company scheme in conjunction with B.S.I. and with a B.S.I. stamp, plus publicity to tell the shopper of this.
§ I think this would be one way to get a degree of continuity and a maintenance of high standards. I also think it would be one way to avoid confusion in the mind of the shopper, who would know what sign to look for. In other words, this "industry plus consumer" label would mean quality. Obviously, people would not co-operate if they did not wish to do so, but I believe we should aim at a scheme having a label approved by the industry concerned and some other body responsible in a general way for the consumer. Should this other body be the British Standards Institution, or something hived off from the British Standards Institution? On the whole, my Lords, I would answer, "No," and I would answer, "No" for two reasons. It seems to me that the British Standards Institution must be very preoccupied with industrial standards in the future, certainly to the exclusion of the amount of time that should be spent on consumer goods. Secondly, quite honestly, I doubt if its way of working, even in a division hived off, could be speeded up sufficiently.
§ Earlier I said, or implied, that I did not think the Consumer Council was the body to do this job. I know, obviously, that this pilot scheme of the Council must have a chance, and that certain labels will be available to manufacturers early this summer. It may well be that 634 I shall be proved wrong, but I feel that considerable expertise is needed for this work, and I just do not consider that such expertise is available at the Consumer Council as at present constituted. Before you can have labelling, you must have standards. So, if it seems to me that the British Standards Institution should not be this body I am talking about, and if it does not seem that the Consumer Council as at present constituted should be, may I introduce a third candidate into the possibility lists? Could we think of a way in which the expertise on consumer standards at, say, the B.S.I. and other organisations, and industry, could be brought together as a group or organisation attached to the Consumer Council, although not to the present one as constituted at the moment?
§ I have no feelings as to whether this group should be known separately for its work, and called the Department of Labelling, or the Institute of Labelling, but I am sure we do not want to establish any additional bodies. What I am talking about, rather inadequately, is an organisation or group contained in what we have at the moment, bringing into cooperation those who really know; those with experience in formulating standards; those with experience in industry and those with experience in consumer needs, having a first-class chairman with authority to act. Above all, my Lords, I suggest that we must not find ourselves with a so-called plan that means little more than having available at the point of sale an additional label stating, "Approved by the Consumer Council". That would be fatal.
§ We have looked at three possibilities for easing confusion in the mind of the shopper and for ensuring continuity. Other speakers may have other ideas, or they may not agree with the suggestion at all. I myself am not committed to any of the three at the moment, but I felt that this aspect should be aired today. I am quite convinced that some way of co-ordinating such schemes voluntarily must be found. Before I leave this section, may I make two general comments—
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, before the noble Lady leaves this aspect, may I interrupt her? Would she be a little more specific about what she said 635 in regard to the chairman? She said that he should have authority to act; yet I understand that these standards are to be voluntary.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I am sorry; I am afraid that I was not clear. I certainly did say that. I was talking about what I thought should happen if anybody takes up the suggestion that there should be a group or organisation of this expertise opinion attached to, possibly, the Consumer Council, although not the Consumer Council as constituted at the moment. What I meant was that the schemes brought to this central croup would be brought voluntarily; but if they were approved and put out, it would then rest with the chairman to put them out as quickly as possible, and he should have the authority so to do.
My Lords, the two general comments that I wish to make before leaving this particular section are these. First of all (though I do not think your Lordships need this assurance from me), industry is not against informative labelling, and I do not know how this idea has got about. It is incorrect. During the past few years I have had experience, in very great detail, of the efforts being made to achieve first-class labelling in this respect—and here I am going to pay tribute to Courtaulds, while declaring my interest. But I personally should not be in favour of compulsion; and I was glad to note that my noble friend Lord Rhodes, on November 12 last, said:… that only where it was not possible for labelling to be achieved by voluntary means should we bring in compulsion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 261 (No. 8), col. 471.]I myself believe that the minority against informative labelling is so small that it can be ignored.
My second general remark is that I believe care-labelling to be the first priority. I do suggest to the House, and certainly to any woman, that how to take care of what you have bought is more important than what it is made of. There is, naturally, a divergence of opinion on this point; but in many cases content labelling can be misleading and I can assure your Lordships that an acetate satin fabric or dress which could be labelled, "100 per cent. acetate" should be labelled, "Dry clean only"; whereas 636 an acetate jersey fabric or dress (which could also be labelled "100 per cent. acetate") should be, labelled "Warm machine wash". It is hardly necessary to point out that it would not do to do the opposite on particular merchandise. Labels on carpets, I think, should indicate the pile weight and density, rather than the fibre content.
I want to suggest that it is extremely unlikely that the general public, including ourselves, by reading the different percentages of fibre or yarns present in a cloth can know how that cloth will behave, or how the textile article ought to be washed or dry cleaned. Today, obviously, is not the time for a detailed discussion on this aspect, which will arise on the new Merchandise Marks legislation but I think the House will be interested to recall that the Molony Committee, in paragraph 141 of their Report, did call forco-operative working with industries whose efforts serve the customer in allied respects, such as the launderers and cleaners, and the detergent and appliance manufacturers—as is being done in Sweden …The Molony Committee went on to say that they had in mind, for examplebetter co-ordination and greater clarity in advice as to the types and quantities of detergents recommended for use, and in the temperature setting of appliances recommended in care instructions.My Lords, such a group had in fact, been established just before the publication of the Molony Report. Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that I am adviser on consumer interests to this Home Laundering Consultative Committee, but in an honorary capacity to the group as a whole and not related to any particular firm. I think that this is the first time in this country that an attempt has been made by fibre producers, domestic appliance manufacturers, detergent manufacturers, other textile manufacturers, processers, makers-up and distributors to co-ordinate care instructions and labelling for general use. I think their success could benefit us all and be a considerable advance, and I believe that it should be supported by any central channelling group such as I have been talking about. Again, this is not the time to discuss administrative details; but I hope the Government, when my noble friend comes to reply, will comment on this channelling aspect and on 637 my three candidates. It seems to me that if we can once obtain agreement in principle, then the details should not be insurmountable.
Now, my Lords, I come to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and to their working in the context of what we are talking about this afternoon. How are they faring as local advisers to which the consumer can turn for guidance and help, as recommended in the Molony Report? My noble friend Lord Rhodes told us on November 12 last that there were 469 local bureaux in existence and some 40 more in process of formation; and, obviously, we should all like to see more.
I want to turn now to something of fundamental importance. In our original debate in your Lordships' House, in November, 1962, I stressed that it was absolutely essential that the problem of technical advice should be dealt with. I made a proposal that, attached to this central Consumer Council, as part of its set-up, there must be facilities for making technical advice available.
To begin with, I suggested that this technical advice should cover four main classes of goods, the four main classes mentioned in the Molony Report as giving rise to the largest number of complaints over the past years: namely, clothing and textiles; footwear; electrical appliances; carpets; so that any local citizens' advice bureau that had merchandise brought to it, and on which it could not get a good technical opinion locally, would refer the matter to the centre. I would tell my noble friend that, as I understand it, the position has not improved at all: none of these suggestions has been adopted. The Citizens' Advice Bureaux still feel that this should be done. They agree the four fields as previously suggested, but they would add also "upholstered furniture" on which they are getting a considerable number of queries and complaints. I am convinced that until this is done the system will not work, irrespective of who deals with the complaints.
As your Lordships may know, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux have now appointed ten regional advisory officers so that the whole country is covered. I would repeat—this time to a different Government; and I would also tell my noble friend that I underline this point—that these five technical consultants should 638 be appointed and that each of the ten regional advisory officers of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux should know of them. In addition, these regional officers should know, through consulting the technical consultants (who may not be resident in London—one thinks of Manchester, for example, for textiles) where the local citizens' advice bureau should write to for a preliminary opinion or a technical examination involving a visit to or by the consultant If this were done, every single citizens' advice bureau would know to whom to write for technical advice.
The second main point that I made in November, 1962, and to which I must return, is the necessity for the Consumer Council to have made available to it a complete, overall picture of the complaints position throughout the country. For obviously the Consumer Council must have this information if it is to make recommendations to the Government. But this has not been done. So far as I can gather, both the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the Consumer Council accept part responsibility for this. What has worried me, as an outsider, has been the unnecessarily "heavy weather" that is being made of all this. The form that I obtained from the Consumer Council and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux is far too detailed for mere information, though it is possibly excellent for a complete picture of the complaint when the whole story has been told. I am not surprised that the 70-odd bureaux which had the form sent to them found it too much.
My Lords, the House has been very patient. Again I know that this is not the time to go into details; but I am quite sure that what should have been done is that every citizens' advice bureau should have had a simple form requiring three pieces of information: the date the complaint was made; the source; the type of merchandise. Each citizens' advice bureau should have been asked to return these forms, weekly or monthly, to the Consumer Council. From the forms the Consumer Council should then have compiled a monthly summary giving three points: the number of complaints; the type of merchandise and the geographical area of the country affected. The Consumer Council have staff to compile a summary of this information and it is for them, and not for the 639 Citizens' Advice Bureaux, to deal with the overall picture thus presented.
In commenting on the work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the cooperation with the Consumer Council I think the House will be interested to know of the experiment conducted in Sheffield. As I understand the position, Sheffield has seen the creation of Britain's first full-time consumer protection advisory officer. From what I can gather, this scheme has been successful both with the retailers and with the shoppers. Some six weeks ago I noted that the Sheffield officer, Mr. Arthur Hayes, who was appointed last November, was dealing with some 70 inquiries a month, but that most of these concerned hire-purchase. There had been very few complaints concerning clothing. As we know, the provisions of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1963, permit local authorities to spend an amount not in excess of a penny rate on services for consumer protection. Mr. Hayes was appointed under these provisions. I should like to know from my noble friend later what the Government think of this experiment. Do they envisage its extension? Why have other local authorities not done the same? Are any of them interested?
I am sure your Lordships will learn with relief that I have now come to the last section, the place of the Consumer Council. As both Houses know, I have always fought for a Consumer Council. I believe that a Consumer Council has arrived to stay. I believe that such a Consumer Council has a considerable part to play in a modern economy. What of this Consumer Council? It has been in existence for approximately two years. Obviously, two years is not a long time. On the other hand, the Government of the day will have to review the whole position in the near future, as I understand that the appointments were made for three years. It is this necessity for review that is one of the reasons for my raising these questions to-day. Naturally, one would like to say only complimentary things, but I think that would be an abuse of the time of the House and would get us nowhere. First of all, may I say that many people have told me that they think that the Consumer Council has done an excellent 640 piece of work in bringing together organisations, where others were not being successful. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, can think of other examples, but those mentioned to me were school uniforms and upholstered furniture.
I think that everyone will realise that the Consumer Council has a considerable part to play in education in the widest sense. I see that this booklet is on the Table, and if any noble Lord has not got this Information for Consumer Education, published by the Education Section of the Council, I would suggest that he should do so, because it fulfils a need which I think has not yet been met. One of the difficult points which I wish the Council would solve—and I throw it over to the noble Lady with no criticism—is this. I wish they could decide what we should call all this. I feel strongly that consumer "protection" is very much the wrong word. I am convinced that it alienates industry and the manufacturers by its very implication.
I come now to the part that I would prefer to omit. I do not believe that this Consumer Council has fulfilled expectations. It may be, originally, because the financial grant was inadequate and the teeth not strong enough, and I am sure that any review must mean looking very hard at the present terms of reference; but this feeling of not fulfilling expectations is not mine alone. It comes from too many sources to be ignored. Although to-day I may be rendering an unpleasant service in bringing it to the surface, I believe it to be a service ultimately to what we all want to see—that is, a strong Consumer Council.
I now come to something more specific. As your Lordships will know, I have stressed from the very beginning that I believe that the work of the Chairman of the Consumer Council should occupy the major part of that person's time. Secondly, I still think it entirely wrong in principle that the Director of the Council should be a member of the Council. I raised this point in your Lordships' House as vehemently as I could, mentioning that I had consulted all the trade organisations known to me, none of whom had a paid director as a member of their Council, but I did not make any progress. Hence, on the 641 administrative side, I suggest that these two aspects be changed from the present position.
Apart from administration, what do I mean by saying that the Consumer Council has not fulfilled expectations? Perhaps the major criticism that reaches me, and in which I concur, is that the Council has pronounced too often on too many subjects without sufficient inquiry into them. Very often these subjects have been raised elsewhere, by Members of Parliament, the Press and other organisations and, quite honestly, I do not think that the Consumer Council has added to its stature by rushing in. This is not to say that support by the Council on consumer matters is not wanted or is unappreciated, but the feeling I am referring to is that the Consumer Council has attached itself to current publicity without adequate preparation, and that members of the Council are often not aware of these pronouncements until they are about to be made.
Rightly or wrongly, out of all this the question is being asked; does the Consumer Council run the organisation or does the organisation run the Consumer Council? And I think that someone should answer this question. On a different aspect, I believe there is a feeling that discovering what are the real consumer needs should be an important part of the work of the Council.
Last week I was pleased to receive a bulletin from the Consumer Council dealing with consumer research and to note from this, among many other things, that surveys have been commissioned on stamp trading, shopping habits and furniture. But the Molony Report, in paragraph 873, had a sentence which reads:We regard consumer research, in the sense of investigating the type and characteristics of goods needed by the consumer, as a consumer luxury and not an essential feature of a system of protection (except in regard to safety aspects).I, and many other people, reject this completely. I would suggest to your Lordships that this whole question of consumer research and marketing should start with the consumers' requirements and not with what is produced. I think that to-day we are faced with the problem that market research has become involved with advertising, and advertising now not only notifies a given supply but stimulates and directs demand. Therefore, I think that 642 it is true to say that, while a large part of our economic activity is obviously devoted to supplying known needs, a considerable and increasing part of it goes to ensure that we consume what industry finds it convenient to produce.
This development leads me to one conclusion that I should like to put to the House. Basic research is urgently needed to supplement the limited objectives of existing consumer organisations, to research into the goods and services not on the market, into the consumer's image of the product, into the basis of his purchasing habits and decisions, into his real needs and, finally, into choice itself. This is a job requiring thought, study and considerable background. I think it is the type of work to be done by a Consumer Council.
I come now to my last and third aspect. I feel that, whatever the reason, the Consumer Council has not fulfilled one of its most important terms of reference—that is:to provide advice and guidance for the consumer, in particular through the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other appropriate organisations …".I believe that the Council is aware of this. But, being aware, has it really got down to this fundamental problem? Ordinary shoppers have no idea of even the existing protective machinery. Citizens' Advice Bureaux are looked upon generally as welfare and legal advisory bodies, and it is a surprise to most people to know that they are concerned with consumer protection. Surely the first duty of the Council should be to co-ordinate and publicise existing facilities. In saying this, I realise that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux are in varying stages of development. Some might welcome publicity and others might not. But I do not really doubt that such publicity is essential if this scheme is to succeed. I want to know whether the Council realises this, and, if not, why not? And if it does accept it, why has it not dealt with this problem?
In conclusion, I have tried to look at some basic problems and to suggest what might be done. I should like to express my gratitude to all who have helped me so willingly over recent months, while realising that they may well be disappointed in what I would say. In that appreciation I should like to include, for obvious reasons, the Citizens' 643 Advice Bureaux and the Consumer Council. This is not a Party political matter, but it is a political one, because the Government must take the decisions involved. Above all, I want to see industry in its widest sense, trade and consumer organisations, retailers and consumers working together on consumer affairs rather than discussing consumer protection. In the past progress has been slow. I hope that my noble friend in his reply will indicate that times have changed. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, it is always with the greatest interest that I listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, on this subject. There is no one with greater expertise in this matter, and no one who has made a greater study of it. I am grateful to her for putting down this Motion on the Order Paper yet again, because it shows the great importance which your Lordships feel in consumer affairs, and also the increasing interest taken in them. I speak to-day as the Chairman of the Consumer Council, and I welcome very much the growing interest in your Lordships' House, in another place and throughout the country. Wherever one goes, one finds a growing interest in this subject.
During the course of the noble Lady's speech she has made one or two criticisms that I value, and as to certain points I hope I shall be able to reassure her. Far from bearing her any I am grateful to the noble Lady for mentioning them, because they are important. No organisation, certainly in its initial stages, is perfect, and I would not claim for one moment that what we have done and are doing is not open to some criticism. However, I will, in the course of my speech, answer some of the noble Lady's queries and criticisms, and put to your Lordships some of the problems with which the Council is battling every day.
The noble Lady mentioned that she thought the last Government were not quite as enthusiastic and genuine in their support of this subject as she would have liked, and she made some reflections on what had happened at the end of the last Parliament. I should like to say straight away that when I came into this picture, 644 which was two years ago—there have been about eighteen months of actual work, because it took time to get the Council appointed and the organisation and office staff built up—I found the last Government, the last President of the Board of Trade and the Ministers at the Board of Trade extremely interested in the setting-up of the Council, in trying to find the best way to do it and in giving all the support and help they could.
Then came the General Election. I remained the Chairman of the Council. I was summoned to talk to the new Ministers, and I found them very helpful and enthusiastic and anxious to do all they could to help. So all I can say, in relation to the last few words of the noble Lady's speech, is that this is not a Party political matter. It may be that those of us working in the field would like more help from Governments of any kind, but as regards one set of Ministers and another set of Ministers I can say that we have had the greatest co-operation and help, and I do not anticipate that we shall have any difficulty. That being said, I have said to this set of Ministers, as I said to the last set: "I am an independent person, and this is an independent Council, and we look upon ourselves as free to make criticisms at any time on any subject." That is agreed between us. I do not think the noble Lady was right when she said that the last Government was any less interested in this subject than the present one. I would stand by my views on that.
At the end of her speech the noble Lady made some suggestion about the place of the Consumer Council in a modern society, and queried the various appointments which had been made. I think it is a little early to judge on this matter. However, I speak with due humility, as I am one of those involved in the criticism. I would add only this: that the Council itself meets regularly every month; no statement is made or policy decision taken unless the Council has agreed upon it; any statement put forward by the Council is put forward with the full knowledge of every member of the Council present on that occasion—and I can assure your Lordships that attendances have been extremely good—and at no point is any action taken, or Press release or document of any kind put out on behalf of 645 the Council, which the Council has not approved. I think it is important to say that, because it seemed to me that the noble Lady was under some slight misapprehension about the way in which the business of the Council is conducted. I can assure your Lordships that there has never been any statement made or any subject discussed which has not been through the Council.
I should like to take some of the points which I wish to make and which I think will answer some of what the noble Lady has said. I will start with this question of the terms of reference under which the Council operate and in which we arc partners throughout the country in consumer affairs with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. That was one of the recommendations of the Molony Committee. We, as a Council, cannot deal with individual complaints, but the Citizens' Advice Bureaux can. I thought the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, that some technical expertise should be available to them in these matters was a very good one. There is, of course, technical expertise available in different parts of the country. In Manchester, for instance, there is the great testing house for textiles. But it costs money to get tests done. There is technical expertise available, although perhaps it is not accessible in quite the way in which some members working in the Citizens' Advice Bureaux would like.
It has to be remembered, too, that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, a magnificent organisation, are concerned largely with personal things like rents, pensions, houses, matrimonial problems and so on. It is not usual for them to have a great many of what I would call straight consumer complaints brought to them. In certain areas we have tried to co-operate with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in collecting information which would be of value on the type of consumer complaint to which the noble Lady referred. It may be that the form we agreed with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux is a more complicated one than need be. On the other hand, one is always anxious to get as much actual information as possible; and I am sure the noble Lady agrees that accuracy is not always easy to get with people who are coming to make complaints. I think there are many organisa- 646 tions dealing with complaints who, when they investigate them (I think the noble Lady would bear this out), find quite often that it is not so much the fault of the merchandise as the fault of the person who has used it for some purpose for which it was not intended. There are faults on both sides.
We have tried to get from the Citizens' Advice Bureaux a sequence over some months of consumer complaints. The noble Lady is quite right in saying that we have not anything like as good a service in this respect as we should have. We are trying hard to improve this; to find ways in which we can help the Citizens' Advice Bureaux to provide us with the material, and to put them in touch with expertise and technical assistance that can help them to solve their problems. There is one other problem in connection with bureaux, and with ourselves, which is a difficult one. As say, they are not anxious to concentrate on any one aspect of bureaux work. I quite understand that. That is part of their whole set-up, and I do not criticise it at all. But there is only a very small proportion of bureaux work which really, one might say, concerns us. They are also a neutral body in the sense that they do not want to be involved in a pressure group to protect consumers—and I perfectly understand that. I have been long associated with the National Council of Social Service in social work generally, and I know that one does not want to be involved in something which might devolve into a kind of pressure group. However, from our point of view, this leaves us with no very close contact with individual citizens' complaints and difficulties.
We have received a great deal of information from other sources. We have had information as your Lordships no doubt know, from letters which Members of Parliament receive and pass on to us. We receive a great deal of correspondence direct, and we also get a lot of help from the readership services of newspapers. Many of those newspapers are well known to the noble Lady, since she said that she has met groups of editors of women's magazines and such newspapers. They are a great help to us. But we feel that we are not in as close touch with individual citizens as we should 4ike to be. We feel that we 647 should be very much assisted if we could have a few, possibly half a dozen, regional officers working in areas like Manchester and the West, Newcastle and the North-East, Bristol and the South-West and, in Scotland, Glasgow and the West of Scotland.
If, for instance, you take Bristol, which is a big area, there is not one single citizens' advice bureau there. I was there on Monday. There is an excellent council of social service, but there is no citizens' advice bureau at all. So, of course, it is difficult for anyone to collate and get the information we should like to have from that area. There is a very active consumer group which does a valuable job, and we are in touch with them. We should like to have, as it were, people who are in very close touch with those areas and who would be able to follow up contacts for us. They would be in touch with local authorities, weights and measures authorities, the local Press, television, consumer groups wherever they are—and they are springing up quite actively in many parts—with the citizens' advice bureau themselves, with manufacturers and retailers. We feel that if we had that type of person working in the regions as part of our organisation, it would also help with our education programme, and help to organise consumer education, in schools, technical colleges, evening institutes and voluntary organisations.
I am sure that many of your Lordships (especially those who have spent part of their lives in another place) will agree with me that it is difficult to get enthusiastic support in some of the great regions—"regions" is the word, but I do not like to use it; it is really the great areas of individual characteristics such as Yorkshire, Lancashire the West Country, Scotland and Wales. It is no use sending people down to London to make a speech, with all the good will in the world—and I do it myself continually—and then not to have someone on the spot whom you can identify and with whom you can establish a true relationship with local people. I believe that if we could have such a group of people it would be a great help. I have discussed this with the local citizens' advice bureaux, and they would be most glad 648 to have that kind of help. Those people would be in touch with the important people in the localities.
I know that this is a question of finance, because the Treasury—and this applies not only to this Government, but to the last Government as well—are always unwilling to spend more money on anything than it possibly need. I know that sympathetic consideration has been accorded to proposals of mine which have not been accepted because of the financial cost. I would only hope that perhaps when the financial situation is less stringent the interests of the consumer may be more generously financed. So much for the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. They are a great help, but they could, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has said, be a greater help if they covered the ground further, if there were more of them, and if we could have a better consumer service within them.
I should like, if I may, to pass on to other subjects. I should like to support the Government in their attempts to keep prices down, and I hope that the new Board which is being set up will be interested in having the views of consumers as well as those of manufacturers and retailers. I still maintain that there need be no war between these interests, because at the end of the day the interest of the manufacturer is to find a buyer, and the interest of the buyer is to find the kind of merchandise he wants. This process of buying and selling is as old as the hills. The only thing with which we are concerned is that this operation should be quite fair on both sides, and that we should expose the methods and the temptations which are unfair, and then defend the interests of the consumer. I should like to enlist the support of the B.B.C. and the I.T.V., through their regional channels, to give price reviews on essential commodities so that people may have some idea of what the trends of prices are. This is done in the early morning for agricultural prices (as any of your Lordships who listen before 7 o'clock will know), and at certain times for Stock Exchange prices. It would be a valuable help to consumers if such a service were available from time to time on regional broadcasting networks.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, mentioned the Merchandise 649 Marks Act and the Sale of Goods Act. We have on various occasions spoken of the need for a revision of the Merchandise Marks Act and the Sale of Goods Act—which dates from 1893—and I have spoken on them in a number of cities, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol. I welcomed, too, the speech of the Minister of the Board of Trade, Mr. Darling, to the Drapers' Chamber of Trade at their luncheon last week, in which he supported the Council's request that oral mis-description should be an offence under Merchandise Marks legislation, and that the legislation should cover services as well as goods. I know that to prove oral mis-description may not in practice be easy, but to protect the consumer from exaggerated claims by suppliers would be a great service to the consumer. I would again urge the Government, as I think the noble Lady has, to introduce new legislation of this kind as rapidly as they may.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has spoken about advertising, and I do not want to add much to what she has said. I agreed with everything she said. I think, though, that efforts are being made at this moment to tighten up the control by the Advertising Standards Authority; and for that we are grateful. But I think she is right that it needs something more than that. We have suggested that there should be some more effective control of advertising than that which exists to-day. I hope that her words and my words will persuade the Government that this is something which should be done urgently.
I remember vividly taking part, as I think the noble Lady did, in the passing of the Hire-Purchase Act, although I would not criticise it to the same extent that she has done, because I know that this new Act has been a godsend to a great many people on this rather difficult subject of hire-purchase. But there are two points I should like to put to the Government on the working of the Hire-Purchase Act which have come to us from various sources. The Hire-Purchase Act is providing protection to people under pressure from doorstep salesmen and hire-purchase firms, but there is evidence that the £30 limit for credit sales is too high, and some firms are trading goods such as educational 650 books on credit terms marginally below this figure so that they are not subject to the Act. There are also some firms who are avoiding the Act by using two documents, one relating to an outright sale and the other a promissory note signed by the buyer in favour of an independent lender. This method escapes the definition of a credit sale in the Act because the instalments are not paid by the buyer. These are points which I hope the Board of Trade will look into.
A little time ago I asked a Question of the Government about the need to protect people who are deaf from those manufacturers of hearing aids who sell direct and not through a doctor or medical recommendation. We have had reports of cases where an unfortunate person has been persuaded to buy a hearing aid without seeing a doctor first and getting advice as to what aid would be best. We also have information from those who are supplied with a hearing aid through the National Health Service that a certain type of aid—not from Medresco, good as that one is—should be provided. In his reply the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that he was looking into this matter and that the Government hope very much that they will be able to do something. I would urge the Ministry of Health to take this matter up, because it is one which is quite often coming to our notice.
Then there is the question which we have discussed here before but which is becoming urgent again since time is getting on and the summer is approaching: that of the registration of travel agents. One Private Member's Bill has failed in another place. I think there is another one likely to come forward, but I believe that without some help in regard to Parliamentary time it may not get very far. The increase in holidays abroad, as we all know, is enormous, as is the increase of people coming to this country, and we should like to see a much higher standard in the service given to travellers. To that end we believe that better staff training, more efficient business management and proper financial backing for travel agents are essential. We do not want to see a recurrence of the Fiesta failure. Those are some of the things on which I hope the Minister will give us some information when he replies.
651 There are one or two other matters which I should like to mention. One is the start of our consumer education programme, and I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for drawing the attention of your Lordships to this, the first of our publications to assist with education. We have held our first one-day conference with a group of educationists representing administrators, universities, technical colleges, schools and other interested parties, and we have issued our first education booklet, which I have here and which is having a wide distribution. I hope to follow this up with education conferences throughout the country in places where we know there is a great interest, and I hope also to get support for this programme from broadcasting interests as well as the printed word.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, spoke at some length on the question of informative labelling. This is a matter which she is quite right in saying is an important one, and it is also one which we are most anxious to discuss. First of all, as I understood from the noble Baroness, she is not in favour of any of the three existing bodies who could have a labelling scheme, but of some different body made up of different experts. I am always a little doubtful about where all the different experts are coming from. We are in touch with the British Standards Institution who have a considerable number of experts within their network, and we are getting great help from them.
We have started this scheme; and noble Lords may well say: "Why have you started it?" We have started it because the Council thought it was an urgent matter to get ahead with a proper labelling scheme. If noble Lords will allow me, I will outline to the House how it is progressing, and I hope they will agree that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and that it is better to have a scheme which is working rather than start negotiations for a fresh scheme.
The work which is being done on our labelling scheme is progressing quite favourably. We have the co-operation of the British Standards Institution and a pilot scheme has been decided on covering nineteen items, ranging from 652 electric goods of all kinds to certain upholstery and furnishing items and other objects in daily use. The object of the scheme is to provide the consumer with the information which he requires at the time he makes his choice, at the point of sale, and the contents of the label will be kept to the minimum. I think those two things are very important. The label will give information about characteristics and the performance of the goods.
Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, that it will not be a seal of approval. It will not be the kind of thing of which she is thinking; that people will say that because it has "Consumer Council" on the label it must be all right. This is going to be a serious attempt at helping the consumer to make a thoroughly wise choice when he buys. The label will give information about the characteristics and performance of the goods, and this will be after the goods have been tested by methods by the British Standards Institution, the manufacturer of the article that is under discussion and the Council. It could contain instructions, as the noble Baroness has outlined, about how to treat the goods, such as in cleaning or washing, where they might influence purchaser in their choice, but on the whole we think that this kind of information should be sewn into the article for permanency, whereas our informative label is useful at the point of sale.
This scheme is a voluntary scheme, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has indicated, and we must therefore get the good will of manufacturers. But as the label will be of use only if it is of use to both buyer and seller, I do not think it should be out of the bounds of possibility to operate the scheme voluntarily. It is as well to say—and I repeat it because the noble Baroness indicated this—what our label is not. It is not a seal of approval or a rating sign of first class, second class or third class. It will give to the buyer information on what service he may expect from his goods. There are labelling schemes in operation in Sweden and I think that schemes may shortly be started in the Netherlands and one or two other European countries. We have studied the Swedish scheme. So we have some guidance from experience in other parts of the world. It is a pilot 653 scheme we are dealing with, but it is one we are pursuing actively, and we have at the moment the support and help of those manufacturers whom we have approached. As to those manufacturers whom we have not approached I cannot tell what will happen.
If I may turn to another subject which is of great interest at the present time and one on which we have had a great many complaints, it is that of house building. A question on housing and on the building of new houses was put forward in recent weeks. This is not confined only to London, where a spotlight has shown up great distress and horrible conditions, but information has come to us from many other parts of the country. We are all anxious to encourage house building, whether by local authorities or private persons, and as we know of the millions of homes which have been built and the millions still to be built in future, this is a very important matter indeed.
My Lords, how often have we heard of complaints from people moving into new houses—and I stress new houses—of badly built houses, leaks, cracks, bad plumbing, and so on? We should like to press that there should be not only guarantees but contracts for new houses which will give the purchaser some security against poor construction and tie the contractor to meeting specific standards, for instance, those that are laid down by the National House Builders' Registration Council. By this means anyone buying a house, whether a public institution or private person, could insist on a fair contract which would put liability fairly and squarely upon the builder if the standards agreed between the two parties concerned are not upheld. This could be extended, with great help to the consumer in his status as a contractual party, to suppliers of such amenities as gas, electricity, telephones, or to services supplied by private manufacturers or the products they sell.
There are many trades and services with which consumers have dealings but which, because of the size of the organisations, offer their goods and services on a "take it or leave it" basis. Where such standard contracts are inevitable the terms should be fair to the consumer. Some measure of control is necessary to ensure this is so. It is no good having 654 a contract printed and issued as a standard form in which the buyer's rights are circumscribed and there is no room for negotiation. We want to see the buyer given the chance to negotiate the contract, not just receive a ready-made one.
There are always, as we know, many more things to be done. I was glad to see to-day that the Electricity Board are to fix prices for electricity resold for domestic purposes in all types of accommodation. In the short time we have been in existence, we have gathered some evidence of the many abuses current in reselling electricity, and we put forward recommendations, as did others, and I should like to congratulate the Minister of Power on the action he has taken in this matter. It will be very valuable.
My Lords, those are the main points that I wanted to make in this debate. I realise that there are many more things that we can do, and will do, as time goes on. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, said she thought that from time to time we took action too quickly, or made statements too soon. I have been asked by other people, "Why are you so slow? Why do you not take more action more rapidly?" You cannot please everybody all the time, but I have looked upon our Council, and myself in particular, as people who, when asked to give a judgment on any particular subject, will take it to the Council. Then we can discuss it and give our judgment, after consideration; and I think that is the right way to do it.
Of course we must engage in longterm work. We must, as Lady Burton of Coventry suggested, do research, in so far as we are able to do that; and in fact we are doing quite a bit of research on various subjects as these subjects come up. That is, of course, a much longer-term matter. But we must, I think, also be people who can, when something arises of great interest to the consumer, be prepared to study it, take it up quickly and make some comment or action in this matter. Otherwise we shall disappoint a great many people. We may have disappointed many people—I expect we have. One cannot be perfect in life and one does one's best, though no doubt it is probably not so good as it ought to be.
655 All I can say is that the growing interest throughout the country, the demands that we have for information, for people to go and speak about the work of the Council, and about all the matters with which we have been dealing, show that, inadequate as we may well be, we are in great demand; and that is something which I personally value, because it at least shows, I think, that we must be doing a job. I shall listen with the greatest interest to all the further speeches that are to be made, and particularly to any suggestions put forward. I can assure your Lordships that any good suggestions that come from this debate we will most certainly consider; and the points which the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has made we shall also consider very carefully indeed.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, I think we shall all agree that we have had two very useful, lucid and informative speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. As a matter of fact, there was so much agreement between the two speakers, speaking from opposite sides of the Chamber, that I almost thought there had been collusion through the usual channels; but I was reminded by my noble friend on my right that I am one of the usual channels, so that cannot possibly be true.
We have had an account of the many vicissitudes resulting from the present consumer legislation, and I was certainly greatly interested to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, that we had present five ex-Presidents of the Board of Trade.
§ LORD HOBSON
It seemed to me that there were almost as many as at the Ministry of Defence. However, it is not my intention this afternoon to reply in detail to the speeches of the two noble Baronesses. That is the pleasant duty of my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. I propose to deal with the matter which the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, raised in the latter part of her speech, and with which she dealt at considerable 656 length some months ago in opening a very similar debate. I refer to the factors of safety in electrical appliances. That seems to us a very important subject indeed, and it is one in which the Consumer Council is itself interested.
My speech will be brief. The main point that I wish to stress is that, with the great advent of the thousands of new electrical home appliances, and the vast increase of consumption of electricity within the home, there are a tremendous number of dangers arising therefrom. I do not wish to worry your Lordships with many statistics, but it is interesting to note that ten years ago the average annual consumption of electricity in the home was 1,366 units, and to-day it is 3,189 units: it has risen two and a quarter times. In other words, consumption of electricity in the home has kept pace with the increase of consumption in industry. Consequent upon this there are many difficulties, many dangers, and it is essential that the apparatus which is provided should be safe' and secure, and I propose to deal for a few moments with this aspect.
Against this background of the great increase in the use of electrical domestic appliances, it is interesting to find that the annual number of fatal accidents in the home has remained fairly constant. There have been 70 accidents a year in the home caused largely by electrical appliances, or by their flexible leads; but of this total it has been found, on investigation (and where these fatal accidents do occur there are, of course, the coroners' inquests, and we are able to arrive at the cause of death), that fewer than six have been due to faulty appliances. That shows the tremendous amount of progress that has been accomplished in the field of domestic appliances. It is also, I think, a tribute to the foresight of the legislators, so far as consumer legislation is concerned, and to the activities of the Consumer Council.
But this is still a very serious matter. There is still a tremendous amount of propaganda to be done. The liberties that people take with electrical appliances are unbelievable. They have on the one plug, with the adaptor that can be readily available, any amount of apparatus. You may find the television, 657 the hairdryer, extra lamps, fires, all on one plug. This is sheer and utter madness. So I throw out the suggestion that a little propaganda would not come amiss, even as to looking at the quality of the leads sold.
Your Lordships will immediately ask anybody speaking for the Government, "What should be done?" And, of course, it is of no use for anyone to state the position if he is not prepared to say what should be done. In this matter of electricity in the home, I can say that in the case of electrical installations there has been a voluntary acceptance of the non-statutory wiring regulations issued by the Institute of Electrical Engineers. That is a step forward, so far as contractors in new property are concerned, and in cases in which people have their houses re-wired. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, mentioned this matter towards the end of her speech, in regard to the work of the Electricity Boards. But now, when transfer of property takes place, the Electricity Boards do inspect properties in many parts of the country. This is highly desirable, because unquestionably a number of these accidents arise from sheer neglect and overloading. Whilst on this point, I would mention that to-day 90 per cent. of the electrical contracting work in this country complies with the Institute of Electrical Engineers' wiring regulations. I think that is very good indeed, when we consider the length of time that these schemes have been in operation, and I am sure it will not be long before we arrive at the most suitable and gratifying figure of 100 per cent.
In regard to electrical appliances, the majority of manufacturers fully accept their responsibility to produce safe appliances. There has also been a tremendous amount of voluntary compliance with British Standards, and there has been continued action to improve these specifications by close scrutiny of any new hazards which come to light. In commenting on the safety of electrical appliances generally the interim Report presented by the Molony Committee on Consumer Protection in April, 1960, noted with approval the high standard of responsibility of the electrical industry as regards safety standards, and commended the projected voluntary approval schemes of the British Electrical 658 Approvals Board for Domestic Appliances. This Board was set up in 1960. It attests the domestic electrical appliances, and applies the appropriate kite mark, so that any housewife or purchaser of electrical consumer durables knows full well that they comply with the required factors of safety. This kite-marking on electrical apparatus covers practically the whole range of electrical appliances sold in the home, and the majority of reputable manufacturers are participating in the scheme.
It has been interesting to note that this scheme of a British Standard is available for foreign importers. As we know, a certain number of foreign electrical goods are imported into this country. Let us be quite frank, and say that many of them have not measured up to our standards. A perusal of some of the imported electric apparatus of a few years ago would immediately indicate to anybody with the slightest technical knowledge how unsafe they were. But whilst we continue to import electrical apparatus of this kind, it is desirable that it should comply with our standards of safety. In my own view, this is quite a simple matter. I have spent my life in the industry, not in the low-voltage section but in power stations, and therefore I have a general interest in electrical apparatus; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying—it is not patriotic pride that makes me say it, either—that I am absolutely convinced that, for this apparatus, British is the best.
On the question of publicity and education in this field, apart from action taken by industry and commerce a good deal is done by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Fire Protection Association and, of course, the Consumer Council and the Consumers' Association, to warn the public against the dangers offered by electrical installations and appliances in the home, and in encouraging them to look for assurances of electrical safety when making purchases. Similar publicity is undertaken by central Government Departments, such as the Ministry of Health and the Home Office, and by local authorities, either directly or through the activities of local home safety committees.
There is little doubt that to-day, as the result of training received in school or 659 elsewhere, many more members of the public understand the behaviour of electricity and the need for common sense and care in dealing with appliances and installations. I think this is highly desirable, because, as I said earlier on, there is this difficulty of the liberties that people take with electricity. Electricity cannot be seen except when there is a fire that is switched on, or from a light. You cannot smell it; it is usually invisible, and consequently there is no real preliminary warning. People grab hold of these appliances, or grab hold of the switches and connections. The result is most serious and often fatal accidents occur.
I turn now to what is really the main point of my intervention this afternoon —the question of statutory regulations. I am rather surprised that neither speaker raised this matter, because indications were given some while ago that the Secretary of State for Home Affairs in the previous Administration, as of course in this Administration, was considering the laying down of Statutory Instruments with regard to regulations concerning safety. I am instructed to state that under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, the Secretary of State has power to make regulations in respect of any class of goods, if he considers this expedient, to prevent or reduce the risk of death or personal injury.
Regulations are at present in preparation designed to ensure the safety of electrical toys and to control the colours to be used in three-core flexes attached to electrical appliances for domestic use. This is most important. Many of these electrical toys now work on low voltage transformers, and some of those that I have seen are not too safe. Positive action is being taken. It is not a question of "Wait and see". It is not a question of this being put in somebody's file and waiting until to-morrow. The question of three-core flexes, which I consider to be a most serious cause of accidents, concerns the marking of the positive, the negative and the neutral. The fact that we have different standards of colour makes for wrong connections. If you wrongly connect up the 3-point fire you blow the fuse, if you are lucky, but if you are unlucky you may get a fatal shock. We are standardising these. In this field of standards this country is a pioneer— 660 never let us forget that. I think that is a great step forward. Now I come to another question concerning dangerous electrical appliances.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether these regulations will cover imports as well as goods manufactured in this country?
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, I am informed that that is the intention. May I deal with another electrical appliance to which reference has been made earlier —namely, electric blankets. They are. I almost regret to say, coming into everyday use. The position to-day is that under the British Electrical Approvals Board schemes applications that have already been approved and are under consideration account for 90 per cent. of the total production of these appliances in this country. The present British standard does not apply to extra low voltage all-night underblankets, but it is understood that the British Standards Institution is about to prepare a suitable standard for this type of blanket. Your Lordships will have noticed that there is a degree of difference between the over blanket and the low voltage blanket. Most people when they go to bed, if they are using this form of comfort, pull out the plug. But the low voltage ones are probably operating all night, and one needs to be sure that they are safe. Therefore, the British Standards Institution are looking at this matter with a view to laying down standards. I think that that something that must be done, and any influence that I possess I will certainly use towards that end.
Now what of the future? We agree that there is no room for complacency, and it is comforting to find that compared to the extent to which electricity is used serious accidents are but few. It therefore seems best that the voluntary activities already described should be encouraged and maintained. Although I am assured by the Home Secretary that he would not hesitate to recommend that regulations should be made in particular cases where the risks to consumers make this necessary. The safety of electricity consumer goods generally is a matter which is kept continuously under review by the Home Office.
To conclude, I would refer to the question of fires in the home, because this is 661 a relevant matter related to domestic electrical apparatus. I am informed that the up-to-date position is as follows. Fires whose source of ignition was an electrical appliance or installation have increased continuously since 1956. There were 8,804 in 1956, as compared with 17.470 in 1963. It is only fair to say that these figures cover all types of premises. and industrial premises come within them. Nevertheless, one can assume that there has been a great increase in household fires caused in this way. Fires caused by electrical blankets and bed-warmers have increased sevenfold, 232 in 1956 as compared with 1,694 in 1963. Of 656 deaths in dwellings in 1963, 122 occurred in fires involving electrical appliances and installations. In 87 cases space heaters were the cause, and in 17 cases electric blankets and bed-warmers. All these figures relate to the United Kingdom. The fact that a fire starts with an electrical appliance, however, does not necessarily mean that the appliance is unsafe. It is far more likely that misuse, accident, carelessness or lack of maintenance are the causes, for reasons I have indicated.
I was going to make a small speech. It is not my intention to reply to the many points which were raised by the two noble Ladies. They will, I am sure, be adequately dealt with by my noble friend Lord Rhodes, but we felt that, in the interests of the debate and for the sake of information, it was desirable that a statement on this question should be made to your Lordships, even if it was in the form of a short speech. Therefore, I trust that the content of what I have said will be found helpful and useful to your Lordships.
§ 4.44 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
My Lords, I was present throughout the most interesting debate in this House last November when the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, called attention to the first Report of the Consumer Council. I have recently been re-reading the Report of that debate. Many tributes were then paid, deservedly, to the admirable way in which the Council had set about the fulfilment of its responsibilities. I am sure I was not the only one in your Lordships' House who listened with rapt attention to the account which we heard of the Council's activities during its first 662 year of action. If I were a housewife I should certainly be an infinitely wiser housewife as a result of having listened to that debate.
I have no original or even significant contribution to make to the debate this afternoon. I rise primarily to express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for her fascinating speech, and my gratitude and admiration for the wisdom, efficiency and courage with which the Consumer Council is seeking to fulfil its functions, despite the limitations, to which Lady Burton of Coventry referred, imposed on its work by inadequate authority and insufficient financial resources. The Council is meeting a very real need in the life of the community.
Perhaps, to introduce a lighter touch into a long and serious debate, I might illustrate this need by a brief reference to a scene I witnessed a few weeks ago in West Africa. I was passing through what might be termed a large country town. In the centre of the town my attention was attracted to a large coloured diagram of the interior of the human body, a diagram such as might be seen in many of the medical schools in this country. A man in front of this diagram was beginning a lecture on the human body. He may have had some minimal knowledge of the human anatomy and perhaps a measure of inherited knowledge of herbal remedies. He certainly was not a professionally trained doctor. His main purpose was to convince his large audience that he was an expert in the needs of the human body and could provide remedies for every human ailment. I shudder to think of the results of his persuasive salesmanship in terms of human health, or rather ill health, pain and misery. This scene, a familiar scene in African towns and villages, may have no precise parallel in this country, but in this country, as in every country in the world, there are unscrupulous salesmen —how thankful we are that they represent only a small minority—who trade on the ignorance and the naïveté of the general public.
The function of the Consumer Council is to protect (if I may for once use that word) from manufacturers who make shoddy or dangerous goods, from retailers who give bad service, from salesmen who use tricky or deceptive methods, and from advertisers who deliberately mislead. It 663 seems to me that advertisements fall roughly into two categories, although I am well aware that the dividing line between the two is not easy to discern. On the one hand, there are advertisements that pander to man's vanity or trade upon the infirmities of human nature and the naïveté of the general public. I think, for example, of the large advertisement which I saw not infrequently displayed in West Africa: "Players for V.I.Ps." If people who desire status are foolish enough to think that a particular brand of cigarettes is more likely than another brand to make them into Very Important Persons, one can hardly blame the advertising firm for its ingenuity.
In contrast to advertisements which trade merely on people's ignorance or naïveté, there are the advertisements which deliberately mislead and deceive the general public by giving false or inadequate information about the goods concerned. The Consumer Council are already rendering, and can continue to render, an invaluable service to the public by seeking to ensure that the Advertising Association's code of advertising practice is scrupulously observed. The Council can also render a great service by continuing, with the assistance of the British Standards Institution and with the good will of manufacturers—and I underline "with the good will of manufacturers", which is so important—to implement its plan to introduce a national informative labelling scheme based on a label of standard design. I should hope that it would be a scheme which could be understood by ordinary housewives. Such labelling scheme would give guidance to the customer and enable a wise choice to be made.
There is another question which is worth while raising, and I am not the first to raise it. It is the question whether the Citizens' Advice Bureaux have, in experience, proved to be the best means of contact with the general public. This organisation has the advantage of being a highly respected national institution, known to be completely impartial and lamely staffed by voluntary helpers. I can well understand that many housewives would feel it easier to approach a body such as this, entirely independent of the local authority, than a more 664 official body. On the other hand, is it not possible that a housewife might be able to deal more effectively with an unscrupulous salesman if she were able, before making a decision, to say that she wished to consult a department of the local authority—a department which might be called the consumer protection department or, in deference to a suggestion made by Lady Burton of Coventry, the consumer aid department? "I will ask the council" might have more potency than, "I will ask the citizens' advice bureau". Although the growth of citizens' advice bureaux throughout the country is to be warmly welcomed, yet it still remains true that there is nothing like an adequate number of citizens' advice bureaux to provide the help required, on a countrywide basis, by our housewives.
The noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, replying to the debate last November, on behalf of the Board of Trade, suggested that if the local authorities were to be asked to undertake this particular responsibility now undertaken by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the need might be met, not exactly by the setting up of a Department, but perhaps by an extension of the Weights and Measures authority. I am impressed by what I have heard of the Sheffield experiment, which is surely an experiment which merits further consideration by local authorities. I am not greatly concerned as to how the need might be met, but I think there may be a case for local authorities to be associated more closely with the Consumer Council in the assistance of the consumer. The housewife is frequently not aware of the protection and redress available under existing legislation.
The recent booklet issued by the Consumer Council will be of great value. The real problem, I think, as in all such cases, is to bring such a booklet to the attention of the housewives of our country on a nationwide basis. If a housewife knew that she could walk into her local authority offices and there seek advice and help, she might be in a stronger position to deal with traders or salesmen. I myself am not clear as to whether a local authority or a citizens' advice bureau is likely to render the most effective service in the field of consumer aid. I merely raise the question, 665 and suggest that it is one which merits further consideration.
In conclusion, my Lords, I would reiterate that my only motive in rising this afternoon to address your Lordships is to give the warmest encouragement to the Consumer Council to carry on the splendid work which it has already initiated, and to express the hope that Her Majesty's Government will give to this Council, in generous measure, all the help it requires and will require if it is to fulfil its functions effectively. In an age when the individual is so easily submerged in the mass, and when the rights of the individual are so readily either forgotten or ignored, the protection afforded to the individual by the Consumer Council is a valuable contribution to that social justice which must always be a major concern of the Christian Church.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ LORD SAINSBURY
My Lords, debates on problems affecting the consumer will always have a special significance for me personally, as I made my maiden speech on this subject in the debate in November, 1962, following the publication of the Molony Report. In my speech then, which was received by your Lordships with your customary kindness and indulgence, I was critical of certain undesirable trading practices, such as dishonest packaging, misleading advertising, resale price maintenance and the excessive use of gift promotions. I think your Lordships will agree, perhaps with one or two exceptions, that since 1962 important steps have been taken to protect the interests of the consumer.
Following the recommendations of the Molony Report, as your Lordships know, the Consumer Council was set up in March, 1963. Some of us felt at the time that the Council lacked "teeth", but I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the valuable work done during the last two years under the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. We have also seen the enactment in July, 1963, of the new Weights and Measures Act. This Bill became law fifteen years after the appointment of the Hodgson Committee—a lapse of time described by the Molony Committee as a "monumental delay". I think I am correct in saying 666 that all the clauses, except one affecting intoxicating liquor, come into operation by the end of July next. But weights and measures legislation is not of much use unless there are enough inspectors to see that the requirements of the Act are being carried out by retailers and others. It has been reported that inspections by Middlesex county officials dropped by 20 per cent. during 1963-64, because of a shortage of staff. There were only twelve inspectors to serve a population of 2¼ million people.
In my opinion, my Lords, the most important recent event affecting both the consumer and the domestic economy was the passing of the Resale Prices Act last July. It certainly was an occasion of great satisfaction to those who had for many years been fighting resale price maintenance. The Act, as your Lordships know, will come into operation on April 30. First, I should like to express complete agreement with the Consumer Council. They have, with regret, drawn attention to the 121 classes of goods included in the first list of applications to the registrar for exemption. To use the words of their Press release:Such a massive attempt by British industry to avoid the abolition of resale price maintenance is unwelcome evidence of unwillingness to face up to the rigours of genuinely competitive trading.May I suggest that it is extremely shortsighted, to say nothing of bad public relations, for so many firms to apply for exemption when they must know that the basis of their claim is so unlikely to be acceptable to the Court? They certainly do not have public opinion on their side. The man in the street knows little about the intricacies of various pricing policies. What he sees is some manufacturers trying to stop retailers from offering him goods at lower prices.
In this connection I should like to refer to the first leader in The Times of Friday, March 5, which was entitled "Prices Crumble"—and I quote:At present everyone has to pay the price needed to cover all the frills of service and convenience that can be provided. In future those who want these extras will still be able to have them, and will pay an appropriate price. Those who do not want them will not pay so much. This is logical. And the way in which shoppers have thronged to buy at cut prices in recent days has disproved those who used to claim that people in Britain positively like the simplicity and security of fixed prices.667 The action of the giant Distillers Company, who at the end of last month decided to withdraw its application for exemption, is most welcome. It set an example to other great industrial firms, and I hope that many will follow it. Also I think two other giants should be applauded: I.C.I., who have freed paint, and Dunlops, who have freed a wide range of sports equipment from resale price maintenance.
Two other less important measures, but still, in my opinion, very worth while, were those relating to trading stamps and hire-purchase. The Trading Stamps Act protected the consumer against certain possible abuses of this promotional method; the other, the new Hire-Purchase Act, gave a number of important new rights to hirers. In my view, these were the major events in the field of consumer protection during the last two years of the previous Administration. The present Government, as was stated in the gracious Speech, are pledged to further protection of the consumer. However, every new Administration is confronted with the problem of priorities. For a long time preparations have been going on for far-reaching revision of the Merchandise Marks Acts, of which there are many—and it is a major and time-consuming task. It is hoped that the new Bill, when published, will fulfil the Molony recommendation and cover false and misleading advertisements as well as other false and misleading trade descriptions.
In my opinion, one of the weaknesses of the present Acts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, has already said, is that they do not cover services. As living standards rise, more of the household budget is spent on eating out, holidays and recreation generally. The recent abuses of a health club and certain failures of travel agencies have brought home the limitations of our existing legislation. But, my Lords, I have already referred to the shortage of weights and measures inspectors. However comprehensive and satisfactory the new Merchandise Marks Act may be when it sees the light of day, it will be effective from the public's point of view only if there are the means available to enforce it.
Another serious weakness of existing legislation, which has already been 668 referred to in this debate, is that oral misdescription of goods is not covered. On this matter the Consumer Council is in conflict with the Molony Report, as the Molony Committee rejected the idea of extending the law in this respect. It did not doubt that oral misdescription was widespread, but thought that these cases were open to factual dispute, and the outcome of many prosecutions would depend on whether the customer or the shopkeeper was believed. Nevertheless, the Consumer Council wants to make oral misdescription an offence. In my view, the pros and cons are very evenly balanced and the decision is a very difficult one. I note, however, that Mr. George Darling, Minister of State, Board of Trade, speaking at a trade luncheon (to which the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, referred in her speech), indicated that the Government had accepted the view of the Consumer Council.
Finally, I should like to touch once again on the issue of special promotions. The number of these seems to be constantly on the increase. A recent survey estimated that the number of so-called incentive merchandising offers doubled last year. Recently, by buying a certain brand of flour the housewife could get easy chairs, coffee tables, rugs and cushions. Transistor radios have been offered with baked beans, and James Bond cards and an 007 badge with Gold-finger chewing gum. One disturbing aspect of these promotions is that they often specify the supposed value of the gift, premium offer or competition prize—"Cutlery set yours for 23s. 6d., current value 42s., your saving 18s. 6d.". One often wonders how genuine the supposed savings are, because one has no means of knowing. I believe, my Lords, that the whole field of this type of promotion needs further investigation. Although much has been accomplished in the field of consumer protection and education, there is still much remaining to be done, because the ingenuity of man is not always devoted to good causes.
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ BARONESS BROOKE OF YSTRADFELLTE
My Lords, in common, I sense, with other noble Lords who listened to the opening speech this afternoon, I feel very grateful to the noble 669 Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for having created the opportunity for a wide-ranging debate upon basic consumer problems. Knowing the expertise with which the opening speeches by the two noble Ladies would be characterised, my approach to these problems is from a slightly different angle, which will emerge in a moment.
In a memorable speech the other day the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, referred to that period of life which can be called the "Presidential era". I am never likely to be promoted to such eminence, but I have just reached the outer rim of the vice-presidential periphery—and that is why I am venturing to make a short intervention into this most interesting debate. Since its formation in 1963, I have had the honour of being one of the four vice-presidents of the Hampstead Consumer Group—one of 90 such groups in the country, with a total membership of 12,000 members. As two of the other vice-presidents are wives of Party leaders—one being the wife of the Prime Minister, and another the wife of the Leader of the Liberal Party—and as my husband is leader of none, I feel on this occasion emboldened to raise my voice, uninhibited by the fear that anything I say will embarrass him in his position.
My Lords, this debate to-day is on basic consumer problems and the part therein of Government. Some of your Lordships may remember the decision, on appeal to your Lordships' House, in the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson. It arose in 1932. Mrs. Donoghue was drinking ginger beer, and as she was emptying the contents of the opaque bottle into her glass the decomposed remains of a snail fell out. As a result of drinking this liquid refreshment, the poor lady became rather ill. She subsequently sued the ginger beer manufacturer, a man called Stevenson, and lost her case. Nothing daunted, she appealed, and eventually the case came to your Lordships' House, where your Lordships found for the plaintiff by a majority of three to two. This is what they said:A manufacturer"—Stevenson—of products"—670 ginger beer: the parentheses are mine—intended to reach the public in the form"—bottle—in which he issued them, owes a duty to the ultimate consumer"—Mrs. Donoghue—to take reasonable care"—to keep out the snail—in the preparation of such products".That decision was one of far-reaching implications, even if nobody is really sure to this day whether or not there was a deceased snail in that ginger beer bottle. It firmly established a new category of duties, that of manufacturer to eventual user, which has since developed far beyond the limits of that celebrated case. Secondly, the decision of your Lordships in favour of Mrs. Donoghue put beyond any doubt the consumer's right in actions alleging negligence to sue the man at the far end of the chain—a vital measure of consumer protection in our age of mass production and complex marketing, with its army of intermediaries standing between maker and user.
But there is another branch of the law in which an innocent consumer still lacks the remedies which not only common sense but even a high-powered committee of lawyers says he ought to have. I refer to the 1962 Report of the Law Reform Committee, which recommended changes in the law relating to innocent misrepresentations concerned with the sale of goods. That Committee's Report was very critical of the restrictions of the right to have a contract set aside for misrepresentation and of the absence of any right to claim damages for misrepresentation. At present, if a seller says something untrue about his goods and induces the purchaser to buy them, the purchaser has no remedy at all for the loss he may suffer unless he can prove that the untruth constituted a term of the contract or he can prove fraud—and both these things are very difficult to prove. This leads to a lot of time and money being wasted in the courts.
In April, 1964, the Prime Minister addressed the Society of Labour Lawyers, and when speaking about law reform said:It is extraordinarily uncertain and sporadic. It is not that we have lacked high-powered 671 inquiries marked by devoted and dedicated work leading to forward-looking reports of great authority. Some branch of the law comes into question. A Committee of eminent jurists and others is appointed. They take evidence from those qualified to give it. They produce a unanimous or near-unanimous Report. Then the curtain falls. Unless a Private Member has been fortunate in the ballot and is prepared to sponsor a Bill, the Report lies in some unregarded pigeon-hole while the dust of years settles on it.Later in the same speech the Prime Minister spoke of the danger of a prolonged hiatus in the first weeks of a new Parliament while the Government's main measures were still being drafted; and he said that:this hiatus would provide a Heaven-sent opportunity to the law reformers who were preparing to take advantage of it.My Lords, what has happened to these good intentions? What has been done to take advantage of this opportunity? Where is a Government Bill to implement that important Report of the Law Reform Committee? On March 1, the Minister without Portfolio was asked in another place: "How many draft Bills based on recommendations of the Law Reform Committee are awaiting introduction?". He replied: "None". Could we not have some action now by this Government which claims to be a reforming Government?
I have been looking at a very interesting book, called Law Reform Now, which discussed these valuable recommendations for the better protection of consumers of which I have been speaking. It said:We welcome these recommendations and support their immediate implementation by Act of Parliament.That book was published in 1963, under the editorship of the gentleman who is now the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. So I hope he will not mind my inquiring whether the Government intend to introduce a Bill on this subject this Session. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, will agree that a Bill to do this would be far more popular with the British public than a Bill to nationalise steel—and it would do more good.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ LORD STRABOLGI
My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for initiating this debate on a subject of vital importance 672 to everybody and one which has ranged far and wide. I propose, if I may, in a few words to describe rather more fully one particular aspect of this subject which has been touched on by one or two speakers, the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, and the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Winchester. This is the question of women's magazines.
The right reverend Prelate, in his very interesting speech, mentioned that he did not feel that there was really a clear-cut channel between members of the public and the official or quasi-official bodies such as the Consumer Council and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I would submit to your Lordships that a channel which is being very effectively used—and I hope it will continue to be used—is that of the magazines, and particularly the women's magazines. I have worked for many years in the magazine industry and it has been my privilege for a long time to have been associated with one of the largest magazines in the country. I think it should be recognised that they have done a tremendous amount in investigating standards of manufacturing, in guiding their readers (who include almost every woman in this country), in helping them in consumer choice, in taking up their grievances if they have complaints, and so on.
There are people who say they are very limited. These people are usually males, who criticise the women's magazines for being too escapist. I feel that those critics cannot know them very well; for they are not escapist at all. They have fiction, of course, by first-class authors; but they are mainly bought because of their practical nature; they are practical handbooks. Women look to them for guidance—I will go further and say that many of them look on their magazine as a friend to which they can turn. Post-war prosperity has brought, very rightly, an enormously increased purchasing power; but there is a need for guidance, there is a need for practical advice. These magazines cover all subjects of interest to women: knitting, beauty products, fashion, cookery, all products and appliances for use in the home as well as advice on decoration and on travel, and so on.
673 Magazines like Woman and Woman's Own, which are popular national weeklies, have a larger circulation than many national newspapers. There are others such as Good Housekeeping, which has a particular slant on cookery and household management, and Homes and Gardens, which is more concerned with furnishing and decoration. These magazines are staffed by experts. The people who work in them are, many of them, married, with children in their homes; they are up against the ordinary home problems of housewives everywhere, and they bring this practical knowledge to bear with their expertise in the service they give to their readers.
In addition, they maintain a constant liaison with the manufacturers. In fact, it is the women's magazines that the manufacturers often approach when they have a new product. The staffs of these magazines test the products and, if they feel they are up to standard and of interest to their readers, they visit the factory. They may test the appliances either in their own homes or, in some cases, in the up-to-date kitchens maintained by certain magazines. They then give editorial coverage to these products and, of course, they are very price and budget conscious.
I think it is interesting to note the number of readers who write for information on products—not only for information on prices or on the best things to buy in a particular field, but also with their complaints. For example, the Home Department of the magazine with which I am associated, Woman's Own, deals with 14,000 letters a month from readers about problems or queries concerning the home. As well as that, it maintains another service, which has 1,000 letters a week, and gives information on specific problems in regard to beauty, fashion, cookery and so on.
In addition, the magazine takes up readers' complaints. Cases which I know have been handled by the magazine are those where there have been defaulters on mail orders and where goods have not been up to standard. For instance, I know of one case where a carpet was worn out after two months, and the magazine took this matter up with the manufacturer. Another case was of a pair of ladies' boots that cost 7 guineas and whose upper parted from the sole in 674 two days. Another one was where a sewing machine that had a guarantee was found to be faulty and the dealer refused to replace it. All these were taken up. If help cannot be given, then readers are referred to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and in some cases they are sent a specially written leaflet on how to apply for legal aid.
A magazine like Good Housekeeping, for many years now, something like forty years, has maintained a Good Housekeeping Institute, which gives a seal of approval to products which they have tested. This has been going on for far longer than the Consumer Council. This magazine also takes up complaints and sees that replacements are made by manufacturers or, if this is not possible, that there is a refund.
Therefore, I submit that the part played by these magazines is most valuable, not only in giving guidance, but in helping housewives in every possible way with all their problems. I think the fact that since the war almost everybody, with a few exceptions, is better dressed, much healthier, spends his money to better advantage, knows which foods to eat and which are more nourishing than others, lives in a well-appointed and well-decorated home and budgets more sensibly, is in part due to the magazine industry of this country. I think that these magazines and the part they have played entitle them to be called an essential adjunct of the present Welfare State.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
My Lords, I should like to join in the thanks which have been expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for having initiated this debate. I would also pay a tribute to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood for the magnificent work that she and her colleagues on the Consumer Council have done. I speak in the capacity of Chairman of the All-Party Committee on Home Safety. I am sure that we shall regard this debate with the greatest interest.
I should like to refer first to an important aspect of home safety—that is, the banning of flammable nightdresses. Here I feel that tribute should be paid to the Consumer Council, for their work in securing the ban, which came into force on October 1 last year, and to the 675 then Home Secretary for having the courage to enforce it. I hope that now we shall progress to banning the material for making up nightdresses, as well as the garments themselves. I fully appreciate the difficulties which the trade might face, but I think that it has been put in no doubt as to the views of the Consumer Council and of Parliament about the desirability of legislation of this kind coming into force in the not too distant future.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him on this point? I shall be glad to hear his views: I share entirely the sentiments he has expressed. But I think that what he is suggesting is not feasible. Does the noble Lord not realise that what he is suggesting—that the piece material sold in the shops should be non-flammable—is quite impossible, because obviously we cannot prevent people from using any type of material they wish for making nightwear? I should like to hear what the noble Lord has to say on this aspect.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention, because this is just the difficulty with which any Government is faced. It is something which the Consumer Council could look at, in conjunction with the industry. I am thinking in terms of nightwear, and particularly children's nightwear, and not of general clothes. As I have said, I fully appreciate the difficulties facing the trade, but no doubt with consultation between the manufacturers, the chemical manufacturers and all concerned, it might be possible in the long run to do something to counteract the accidents which are still taking place.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I am sorry to rise again (I will not do it any more, because the House was much kinder to me), but this is an important point. What the noble Lord is suggesting is not in the world of reality. Obviously I am taking the extreme case. But if he is suggesting that every type of material which is sold in the shops as piece goods and which could conceivably be made up by any woman into children's nightwear should be banned or made non-flammable—this is not a matter of the trade not being 676 willing—I think that it is plainly impossible.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
My Lords, the noble Baroness has had some experience of the textile industry and I have not, but I think that this is something on which the views of the Government would be interesting. I fully appreciate the difficulties. Obviously, it is something on which no Government can commit itself until intensive research has taken place. What is encouraging is that the law has been tough on those who have contravened the October regulations, and I hone that this will continue.
I have not given notice of this question, but I wonder whether the noble Lord who is to reply could tell me how many accidents have been due to nightdresses being burned since last October as compared with, say, the previous year. The comparable figures would be interesting, and perhaps he, or his noble friend Lord Stonham, could let me know in due course.
§ LORD RHODES
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has given me notice, or has he given the Home Office notice? I believe I have not had any indication that he would ask this question.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
I said that I had not given notice of it, but perhaps the noble Lord would consult his noble friend and let me know in due course.
I should like to say a word or two about labelling. Paragraph 655 of the Molony Report talks about the "Scope of compulsory power". I agree with the noble Baroness in thinking that compulsory labelling will not work. But that does not mean that things could not be tightened up. In referring to "labelling", I take a general meaning here, particularly with regard to oil heaters. Recently I visited the Aladdin factory at Greenford to watch demonstrations of their latest oil heaters against wind. They were tested in a powerful wind tunnel; they were knocked over; they were picked up violently, as a child might try to pick them up, and most of them when picked up went out automatically. From the short tour which I had of this factory, which I believe is one of the largest oil heater factories in this country. I feel that the manufacturers are 677 taking a lot of trouble over the manufacture of these goods.
I was rather surprised to hear that the number of accidents caused by oil heaters is approximately 1 per cent. of the total accident figure; and yet they probably get the most publicity, because, of course, when an oil heater explodes, particularly in a tenement house, the results can be tragic indeed. What is disturbing is that all too many secondhand oil heaters are still finding their way into people's homes. Some of them come from abroad. I wonder whether the noble Lord could look into this problem of imported and second-hand heaters, because the 1960 Act seems to be being contravened. I am quite sure that accidents could be decreased if there were some more rigid form of control here.
Then there is the question of the labelling of drugs, to which the Molony Committee paid some attention. Here, I think that bottles could be made in specific colours. The old dark blue bottle does not seem to be used so much now. One merely relies on a label, which can be torn off and which anybody who is short sighted finds difficulty in reading. With a commodity such as heaters, printed instructions are no real use at all. All these commodities such as oil heaters and electric heaters should have the instructions embossed on them. Here, again, I know that there are manufacturing problems: the shape and size of the heater makes this difficult. But, as any housewife will know, when a commodity is sent with printed instructions the odds are that the instructions are torn up, burnt or otherwise lost.
There is then the question of plastic bags. These are being used too much now in the delivery of goods. They have their uses, but they also cause a large number of fatal accidents. I hope that the Government will look into this problem. There is one other commodity to which I should like to refer, which is mentioned in paragraph 163 of the Molony Report, and that is children's shoes. I think there has been some improvement in the manufacture of children's shoes over the past few years, but, in my view, the price is alarmingly high and the quality is not good enough. 678 Here, again, I think some investigation could reasonably take place.
This has been a valuable debate at a time when accidents are still in the forefront. I believe that consumer problems and accidents of this kind go very much hand in hand. I once again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for initiating this debate, and also RoSPA for the help which they have given me, and the other noble Lords taking part in this debate.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, if I were sitting on the Benches of the right reverend Prelates, I think I should be tempted, as no doubt they arc tempted from time to time, to begin with a text. I think I could find quite a suitable text in the Old Testament Book of Hosea, the twelfth chapter and the seventh verse, wherein it is written:He is a merchant, the balances of deceit are in his hands.I only mention that to show that even in those days, thousands of years ago, there was a problem of consumer protection, and it is not merely something that has been conjured un since the Second World War by Socialist agitators and my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry. I feel, all the same, that the scribes were rather hard on the merchants of those days: for even in those days, even in the Middle East, there must surely have been one or two merchants with some slight standard of honesty.
I am not an expert shopper. Once upon a time I used to be sent out from home on various foraging missions, and I used to bring back the wrong kind of bacon, or pay too much for something, or fail to tell Stork from butter, with the result that different domestic arrangements were made. They seemed to be satisfactory, particularly to me. But during the last few days I have been doing some exploring, and what I have seen has certainly pleased me in many respects. That is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that we are in the midst of a great revolution in our shopping habits. There are chain stores which have renovated and re-equipped all their branches. There are concerns, with which no doubt my noble friend Lord Sainsbury and 679 the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Broughton, would be associated, which have discovered how to combine high quality with fair prices; and there are huge developments which have taken place, and are continuing to take place, in regard to the growth of supermarkets. One beauty about all these developments is that the housewife now has an opportunity to choose, now has an opportunity to see what she is buying, instead of having to take what is pushed on her.
When I turn from the realm of food to that of general merchandise, I find myself to some slight extent in harmony with my noble friend Lord Sainsbury when he praised the work of the Consumer Council. I think the Consumer Council have done some good, in the representations which they have made to various Government Departments and which, in some cases, have led to action; in the negotiations which they have undertaken with trade associations, in order to secure acceptable standards, and, furthermore, in the realm of consumer education. At the same time, I do not think that the Consumer Council has done enough. I do not think it has enough power to do enough. In my opinion, its power should be considerably strengthened; and the Council itself should be considerably strengthened. If I have time, I hope to say a word or two later on about this point.
I should like to digress for a moment to refer to something which was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte. I rather gathered from her that she is discontented with the Government. She feels that they ought to be undertaking works of law reform. May I let her into a secret? In a few days' time they will be undertaking the reform of one of the most important consumer laws in this country, the Rent Act. I hope that we shall have her support when, in due course, that Bill comes before this House. I should like to say a word, too, about my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, who referred to the important part played by women's magazines in the realm of consumer protection. I was particularly interested in that reference, because I came from the same publishing stable as my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. I do not quite agree with him when he says 680 that males criticise women's magazines. I have been an assiduous reader of them for many years, particularly the page that comes at the end.
§ LORD STRABOLGI
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, especially as he is being so kind about what I said. What I thought I said was that there were a minimum of males who read them.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
Then I must put myself forward as the maximum.
I think the reason why my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry asked me to support her in this debate was that some years ago, when I was assistant editor of one of the national morning newspapers, I ran what we called a campaign against shoddy goods, and set up what we called a "fair shopping" bureau. We put in charge of it a woman journalist with a highly developed social conscience (there are still such people among women journalists), and we had an analytical chemist and a staff of general assistants. We asked our readers to let us know whenever they felt that they had not had a fair deal. The complaints rolled in in their hundreds. There was one old lady who had bought a pair of curtains. These were beautifully designed, with large red roses, as big as a man's fist, at 9-inch intervals. But the first time she washed them the roses literally disappeared into thin air, and all she was left with was a piece of white rag with 20 big holes in it, each hole 3 ins. across. I am glad to say that we managed to get her money back for her.
Then there was the £40 bed settee which crumpled and became unusable in a week. There was a £4 frock which lasted two days: it split because the seams had been skimped. There was a £70 lounge suite of which the arms collapsed, the beading came off, and the moquette began to fray within a matter of weeks. There was the little girl's shoes that were unwearable after a week. There was a £17 pram on which the apron split after three days, and the chrome disappeared after three weeks. There was a £20 "pure llama" overcoat, which our analyst found had been made out of wool and cotton. There were boys' shoes where the soles came away from the uppers on the second day. There was the 681 case of the poor Middlesex schoolboy who wore his new maroon jumper: it rained; the dye went through his shirt on to his skin, and that was the end of that.
I went round to my old office the other night and started looking through the files of complaints. There were hundreds of them: carpets, curtains, kettles, furniture, frocks and every kind of thing that the ordinary consumer buys. I am glad to see that the Sun newspaper has now launched a similar campaign. I would not have got in this commercial for the Sun but for the fact that somebody else mentioned The Times, so I felt in honour bound to mention the Sun. They have launched a similar campaign against shoddy goods and services. But it is the same old, sad, sad story.
A few days ago they mentioned the case of a bed settee, sold to a woman in the North, which would not open. It was taken back by the trader, and she was given another. That would not open, either. There was the case of a woman who had ordered some made-up curtains. They had to go back four times, and it was not until the fifth attempt that the curtains were made to the proper measurement. There were armchairs on which the legs became loose after a week or two. There was a 104-guinea suite which had cushions that were odd and would not fit. There was the heel of a lady's shoe that came off in half an hour. There was a fireside basket that, lasted only five months before it split. There was a pair of tights which one lady wore, and which developed a hole after a few hours. I am glad to assure your Lordships that it was in the knee. Then there was a raincoat where, after one appearance in a shower, the sleeves shrank by 6 inches.
May I now give your Lordships three experiences of my own? For purposes of accuracy, I must refer to a list which a mechanically-minded person kept for me. One was of a British car: it was supposed to be a good car, and it was bought from a reputable firm of dealers, one of the biggest in the country. But after two days I found the union loose on the hydraulic brakes, and the liquid was oozing away. That might have been a calamity. The window catch came to pieces the first time it was used—a pin 682 was missing. The carburettor had to be replaced in a few weeks. It was faulty, and was admitted by the dealer to have been faulty. The rear ashtray was missing—a mere trifle. The accelerator pedal roared like a pneumatic drill. This seems to have been a standard defect on this car, because the manufacturers have since devised remedial treatment. That treatment consists of a little piece of rubber and asbestos strapping which the dealer duly put in place; and that cured a fault which ought to have been remedied long before the car left the factory.
There were other faults. The accelerator return spring was not fitted to the pedal. There was a fracture of the paint on the front wing light seam. The starter motor failed at intervals; sometimes at fairly frequent intervals of a few hours; sometimes after a few days, and sometimes after a few weeks. But it could always be relied upon to fail. We found that that was due to a failure of brush contact in the commutator. There was excessive engine vibration, which was partially cured by a complete engine rebore and cylinder honing. New over-size piston rings had to be fitted—and that was before I had had the car three months.
A few years ago I decided to have a new engine in one of my other cars. I ordered this new engine. I paid for it, and when it came it did not seem to work satisfactorily. I sent a note to the makers. They sent a man round to see it. He said, "This is not a new engine. This is an old one that has been rebuilt." Then a few months ago I had an electric kettle. The element went wrong. I took it to the shop, and they sent it to the manufacturers. The manufacturers fitted another element, but apparently it was an odd one not suitable for that particular type of kettle. The result was that it blew up. The wire of the element came into contact with the body of the kettle. When I took it back the shopkeeper told me that I was lucky I had not been electrocuted. I seem to have had a lot of trouble, My Lords—I am a simple, unsophisticated soul. But these things ought not to happen.
Now and then there are cases where people who are buying houses have been robbed of their money. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, has 683 already referred to them. I think the building industry is one of the worst in this country. People buy houses and find that walls crack after a few months; ceilings split, doors warp and roofing tiles twist. I will not say anything at all about hotel ceilings that fall down, or about churches that collapse a few days before they are due to open. The Consumers' Association says that about 90 per cent. of the houses built in this country have some defects. I am not prepared to go as far as that, but it is a matter of general knowledge that the finish and construction of many of the houses now being sold are not what they should be. Even the building trade itself is getting worried. The national ex-president of the Housebuilders' Registration Council, a very respectable body, told the Housebuilders' Federation a few days ago that they have got to pay more attention to the consumer and less to the money angle. That is a very welcome thought, but it comes many millions of pounds too late. I should like to see a three-year guarantee made obligatory in the case of every new house that is built.
My Lords, labelling has been referred to this afternoon but there is one aspect of this matter, perhaps a minor aspect, that has not been mentioned. The Weights and Measures Act, 1963, is a good Act, but it has left a few defects. One of them is that only certain goods need be sold by specific weight. For example, butter must be sold by the pound or fraction of a pound; coal must be sold by the ton, or fraction of a ton. But in the case of many other goods, of which there is quite a long list, they may still be sold by the weight shown on the label. The seller is not required to sell in any specific weight. He can sell in any weight he likes, so long as the weight is shown on the label. By constantly decreasing the weight on the label, without necessarily decreasing the size of the tin or packet, a very insidious increase in price can be brought about without the consumer's suspecting it. I feel that in these cases amendment of the Weights and Measures Act is required, and it should be obligatory on the trader to state the price per pound at which the commodity is being sold. I know that the trader cannot always be reprinting the label on the tin, or other container, but a stick-on label would suffice.
684 There are some very unorthodox weights in present use, as you will see if you walk around and inspect the shelves of a grocer's shop. The other day I saw some biscuits nicely done up in packets which were not ½-1b. packets, but 7¾ oz. packets. Another packet of biscuits did not contain ¼ lb. but 3¾ oz. Then there were English sausages which were not ½-1b. packets, but 7½ oz. packets; spaghetti, with not 1 lb. in the tin, but 15¾ oz.; and stewed steak, also with not 1 lb. but 15½ oz. in the tin. I wonder how many housewives are deceived by things like this. Yet in all those cases the law had been complied with, because the exact weight had been printed on the container. In a country where we have grown up to being accustomed to buying in pounds, or half or quarter pounds, I think that it is not quite right to carry on in the way I have suggested.
With so many speakers on the list I want to leave some aspects of these matters to other noble Lords, such things as the "giant" and "jumbo" packets of detergent which are only part full but where such a packet deceives the housewife's eye; meat pies which do not have stamped on them the latest date at which it is safe to eat the pie; and oil heaters, to which the noble Lord referred a few moments ago. There are many oil heaters still on the market which were made before the compulsory regulations came in a year or two ago. They are often sold in second-hand shops and street markets. They are a menace, and some steps should be taken to bring them within the compass of the Act, which is already doing excellent work for newly manufactured heaters. There are stockings which ladder in one day, and cosmetics (if such things may be mentioned in your Lordships' House) where two-thirds of the volume is taken up by the jar and only one-third by the cream inside. I do not use these things myself, but from explorations I have conducted in boudoirs that seems to be the standard size container that is used.
I had hoped to say a word or two about advertising, but other noble Lords have done so and I will not repeat what they have said. I believe that in some respects the standard of advertising has been raised during recent years. There are newspapers which compensate their readers if they have suffered a bad 685 deal at the hands of one of the newspaper's advertisers. But there is still much more that needs to be done in the realm of advertising. It is good that the professional associations are giving some consideration to this matter, but I think they have to be jerked up and made to tackle this matter more seriously and with greater promptitude. I am rather sick of the slick "sloganising" that goes on on television. That secret formula which gives "man-appeal"; the "exclusive W.M/"; the fairies that "force grey out and force white in"; the cats and dogs which, by some marvellous instinct, choose the right container with the particular kind of meat that is being advertised; and all that Eastern promise—which, incidentally, I have never yet seen fulfilled.
My Lords, there is another question which is closely related to retail trading and housewives' purchasing, the question of packaging. In my view, we are spending too much on packaging. Money is being taken out of the housewives' pockets which could well remain there. We have things which are wrapped in cellophane, rewrapped in silverpaper and then re-rewrapped in multi-coloured outer covers. All these are expensive processes and are taking money which could be devoted to the product, or, in some cases, would enable a few pence to be knocked off the article. Of course, we do not want drab shelves in our shops and a little colour is good for all of us; but I do think that this question of packaging has been taken too far. Permit me here to enter a caveat against the use of the word "packaging". It is a grammatical monstrosity, though it seems to me a term which people understand.
I should like to say a word or two about fuel, which has come under my notice, of course, as a former chairman of a county council. With regard to coke, the Weights and Measures Act says that the weight must be stated. So far, so good. But the Weights and Measures Act does not say how much water there may be in the coke at the time it is weighed; and water can easily get into coke in many ways, even accidentally. With regard to coal I think the recent Weights and Measures Act took a step backwards. Once upon a time an inspector could stop a lorry in the street and order that its sacks of 686 coal be weighed. Furthermore, it used to be obligatory for a coal man to carry a pair of scales on his lorry. Both these provisions have been omitted from the latest Weights and Measures Act.
With regard to coal generally, thousands of people are being swindled. In my County of Essex in a recent year, of 11,000 sacks weighed, 1,000 were short weight. That is about 9 per cent. With regard to bulk coal it was 18 per cent. under weight. I am not going to suggest that it is always the wicked coal dealer who is responsible for this. There are wicked coal drivers, and porters who are also responsible for some of these shortages. It is a matter that calls out for attention, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said, we are at the moment running with a short staff of weights and measures inspectors.
Other noble Lords and I have tried to show that there is far too much sharp practice in the world to-day. A great deal more needs to be done, and the point is whether the Consumer Council is the body competent to do it. I want to praise the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood; I think she has devoted herself assiduously to the work of this post, and I would add that I have always had a very high opinion of her public-spirited services in many spheres. But the Consumer Council is forbidden to carry out comparative tests, which could be a very valuable guide to the housewife; it is forbidden to investigate individual complaints and it is forbidden to take any prosecution or law enforcement action. When the Council in its annual report refers to itself as a powerful national body, I am rather wondering whether that does not somewhat exaggerate the situation.
I should like the Council to be given more power. I should like to ask how it goes about its business. We have been told that it meets every month. For what period during every month does it meet, and how long are the meetings? Are the ordinary members encouraged to initiate projects of their own? Do they do so? Or is it a question of all these projects being initiated at official level and the ordinary members being invited to put up their hands when the Chairman says, "All those in favour?" These, I know, are clumsy and awkward questions to ask, but I want to get a picture 687 of how the Council operates. I want it to continue. I want it to be strengthened. I want it to have more authority.
And I am certainly not at all happy about the way individual consumers' complaints are taken up by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, was tantamount to admitting that all is not well with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. She said that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux had not had many consumers' complaints brought to them; they were not as good a service of this kind as could be wished—that is after two years' operation—and that only a small proportion of their work was associated with the Consumer Council. That is so; it is a mere small sideline for the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. The Consumer Council, she said, was not getting much advice from the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. She added that she would like to enlist the B.B.C. and I.T.V. regional organisations so that they could broadcast price reviews. The Council has been in operation two years. I ask why that has not been done. She said the Council was waiting for guidance from Sweden and the Netherlands. Why not give the lead ourselves for a change?
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, with regard to Sweden, what I referred to was the fact that there was a labelling scheme which we had gone to look at. I did not say we were waiting for anything. I said that they had a scheme and before we launched our scheme we went to see it. With reference to the times of the Council meetings, may I say that once a month it meets all day, provided business so necessitates; it is practically always all day. And I can promise your Lordships that the Council members have complete freedom to put forward any suggestions they like, and are encouraged by me all the time to get new ideas. There is no question of official level. I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, who is one of my most active members, is unable to be here, due to a meeting in Manchester. He could corroborate what I say, and it is perfectly true.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, I shall not need any corroboration of anything the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, says. I am glad to hear all 688 that, but I still feel that the Consumer Council wants a big stick in its hand, or, in these National Health days, more teeth. It has started on useful lines, but there is so very much more that wants to be done, and I think it must be armed with authority.
I said I am not happy about the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. The right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Winchester was also unhappy to some extent, though he weighed things up in the balance pretty evenly. They are voluntary bodies; they are amateurs; they are part-time. There are hundreds of towns which have no citizens' advice bureau at all. It looks as though even on the most optimistic estimate it will be ten years before the country is well covered with them. My own experience during last week was this. I wanted to get into touch with the citizens' advice bureau appropriate to the place where I live. So I went to the post office, like a good citizen, looked at the notice board which gives the addresses of public organisations, took careful note of the address and telephone number of the bureau which was revelant to my district, and found it was over six miles away—two suburbs away.
That would have involved a bus fare of about 3s., so I decided to telephone. I telephoned twice and got no reply, and then I telephoned a third time, and a very nice lady answered me and most courteously informed me that that was not the citizens' advice bureau and that she had not the slightest idea who they were or what was their telephone number. I feel there should be a much stronger body handling these individual complaints than the Citizens' Advice Bureaux; although do let me interpolate that they do wonderful work in many other spheres, and I have great admiration for them.
I think this work should be done by somebody with power and accessible at all times. I have been pipped on the post by one or two others, including the right reverend Prelate, but I would say that all this work of enforcement and consumer advice should be put in the hands of the local authorities. I think there is room for an important measure of local government reform, and that that reform should fall into two parts. The first is this; local authorities now have 689 no mandatory power to enforce the Merchandise Marks Act, and it is the Merchandise Marks Act under which many of these offences, swindles or whatever you care to call them, would fall and would be most likely to be taken to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I refer to such offences as describing rayon as silk, wool as llama and shrinking garments as non-shrink, misdescribing articles not really up to the job for which they were intended, not having proper marks of origin on foreign goods and cases of misleading advertisements. The local authorities are under no mandatory power at all, and the first part of this reform, I suggest, should be that it should be mandatory upon local authorities, or at least upon weights and measures authorities, to enforce the Merchandise Marks Act.
The second part of this reform is—and this has already been touched on—that we should unify all the consumer protection laws under one consumer protection department of the local council. This, again, would not be the small urban district council, but probably a larger body. That particular department would have responsibility for enforcing the Merchandise Marks Act and the laws regarding weights and measures, food and drugs and fertilisers. The Molony Report itself saw some sense in such a consolidation of services. At present you can have a weights and measures inspector in a shop, checking the scales and the printed weights on the packets; you can have a food and drugs inspector in the shop, inspecting the label for its ingredients, and an inspector interested in merchandise marks checking the country of origin.
I do not want to secure the establishment of a new kind of officer called a "label inspector", but I feel that these services could all be unified under a local authority. If that were done, the job would be done more efficiently, more economically, and we could get a far more comprehensive standard of consumer protection. Naturally, the senior officer of weights and measures would, in most cases, be the right man to be in charge of this unified department. I know that some councils have already transferred some of these consumer services to the weights and measures inspector. There is the advantage that this officer reports to one committee. You 690 would streamline and make simple the whole of the committee procedure. I know that some councils do not operate all the Acts—some do—and, therefore, necessarily there would have to be some rearrangement of council duties. That is not only a layman's point of view. The public control officer of the Middlesex County Council advocated it a few months ago. I know that there is a shortage of weights and measures officers. I think that pay has to be increased to remedy that matter, and there has got to be more systematic training available than is the case at present. I hope that attention will be given to both these matters.
It was with interest that I heard the case of Sheffield mentioned. Sheffield has set up a consumer protection department and has a consumer protection officer. I wrote to him a few days ago for some details of his work. I shall not weary the House to-day with his reply, but I shall pass it on to my noble friend who is here as the spokesman of the Department. We do not want to produce a nation of naggers, but I feel that housewives should be encouraged to do more complaining. They are a bit shy about going to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, or else they cannot find out where it is. They would feel far more comfortable if they went to a public official who they knew was their servant, and to whom they could speak on those terms. We want many improvements. I think that to obtain those improvements we must look to responsible public bodies like the local authorities and your Lordships' House. I hope that we shall not look in vain.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ LORD REDESDALE
My Lords, my speech was going to be brief, but in view of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Hobson—a most excellent speech—it is going to be even briefer. However, before proceeding to make my speech, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, on her excellent speech which covered so much ground. At the end of my speech I should like to cover one aspect of this, concerning the code of advertising practice.
With regard to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, I was in fact going to make a plea for all appliances to be 691 compulsorily tested by the British Electrical Approvals Board, which at the moment test only appliances which are put before them voluntarily. As the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, said, 90 per cent. of British appliances pass these tests. They are put up voluntarily. In fact, the manufacturers consult with B.E.A.B. before they go on the market, and there is nothing to worry about there. But there are products which are brought in from other countries, some from the Continent and some from Japan, some of which are potentially quite dangerous. I would therefore ask that B.E.A.B. testing be made compulsory. I know that it is difficult to ask for further legislation, especially at this time; and I was glad to hear the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, that he at least is in favour of making some classes of appliances subject to compulsory testing. I should like to see all appliances tested. I should like to see all mechanical appliances tested by some body. At the moment there is no body, as well set up as is B.E.A.B. for testing electrical appliances, for the testing of all appliances. But the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act covers a great many appliances which are used by staff, and protects them much more adequately than the consumer is protected in regard to appliances used in his own home.
The mandatory testing of appliances is compulsory in all the Scandinavian countries and in Switzerland; I believe that it is going to be compulsory in Germany and in Austria. In America, in certain States, there is a compulsory testing of appliances which is organised by underwriters, and that is the general case in Canada. Therefore, I think there is a strong case for this country to have compulsory testing of appliances. In 1966 a body, which has a rather long title—I believe it is called the International Commission on Rules for the Approval of Electrical Equipment—of which our own B.E.A.B. is a member is going to bring in general, or rather international, standards for Europe. I believe that in this they are going to bring in a colour coding standard. I am greatly in favour of our own code of red, black and green, but I think it would be rather a pity if we should be odd man out when this new code comes in. Therefore, at some stage 692 I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, for some assurance to be given that we would comply with the decision of this Commission when a colour coding is brought out, although I would share with him the hope that they will adopt our colour code system.
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, I think I can put the noble Lord's mind at rest. Obviously I cannot give him that undertaking because negotiations have to take place. With regard to the British method of coding, I shall do everything possible. I hope that our code will win. I believe that Britain should win, as I believe that Yorkshire should win.
§ LORD REDESDALE
My Lords, I am glad to hear that. The noble Baroness, and also the noble Lord, Lord Leather-land, raised the subject of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I have spoken to several voluntary workers in this organisation. At the moment a number of them are rather frustrated in that they feel that their organisation lacks teeth. Therefore, I was glad to hear the comments made in your Lordships' House to-day, and that steps will be taken in the future to give them teeth so that they can really do a worthwhile job.
Finally, with regard to advertising, the Code of Advertising Practice Committee, which has been mentioned, gets blamed quite severely for allowing some advertisements to appear. I think your Lordships would agree that the vast majority of advertisments that appear in fact comply with the Committee's standards. There are unfortunate instances when an advertisement which is misleading slips through, but reputable manufacturers and advertising agencies try to observe the Committee's standard. It is a pity that they are not a little more severe. I feel that the noble Baroness's comments are justified, and that if the C.A.P. Committee were a little rougher on occasions there would be almost general agreement and few of these undesirable advertisements would slip through. I am sorry to have taken so much of your Lordships' time, but I would make this last comment: that I feel the C.A.P. Committee should to a certain extent be defended.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, at this late hour I should have preferred not to speak at all, but feel that I must 693 make a declaration of my interests. I have for fourteen years been a member of the British Standards Institution Women's Advisory Committee—the first consumer committee in the field, one which has done sterling work in this particular sphere and which often appears to be unsung and unheralded. I am also closely concerned with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and it seems to me to fall to my lot to correct some of the rather strange impressions which noble Lords have about this body, at both national and local level. It is particularly noticeable to me that attendance on the Benches is very thin when we are discussing consumer affairs. As I came in the House this afternoon one of the gentlemen on the door said, "Oh, this is ladies' day". This certainly is ladies' day, and I cannot help thinking that if we were discussing Defence or the arts of war the Benches on both sides would be crowded.
Consumer affairs are relevant to the whole community, but by sheer necessity they are particularly relevant to women because most of the spending is done by them. And this spending is very substantial indeed. In 1963 £17,748 million were spent in the consumer field. That includes purchase of motor cars, but food alone accounted for £4,900 million. This is a great deal of money, and therefore it is something which for many reasons many people will be concerned about.
Why, in fact, does the housewife need protection? I can suggest at the outset that she needs both education and protection. She is confronted by a whole host of new materials, most of them having completely unknown properties, as she discovers to her cost. As housewives we are subjected to new techniques of selling. There has been extraordinarily rapid changes in the patterns of retail trade, particularly in the last ten years. The housewife now has self-service, where she must decide for herself exactly what she is going to buy, without any assistance from the homely sort of shop assistant whom I as a young wife knew. She has, in my humble judgment, to be a technical expert in order to decide what is best for her needs.
The supermarkets in particular are arranged by experts to make you buy more. This is their function. The house- 694 wife is given a large wire basket, so that one purchase looks very lonely and she finds it necessary to buy nine more. She is given special offers strategically placed at the end of the area so that she has to traverse the whole shop to get at them. Children's sweets are placed at such a level that the children themselves will undoubtedly select them, leaving mother in the position that she has to pay for them. Pre-packed goods of all sizes and weights—weights unknown to her, as one other noble Lord has mentioned—are arrayed before her. There are packets of 6½ ounces, 7¼ ounces, 9½ ounces, all marked with fascinating labels which tell us they are "New!" (which I gather is the electric word in the merchandise world), "Giant size", "Large size"; and certainly the outer wrappings are usually considerably larger than the contents. She will be offered tasteless chickens, coloured jams, tenderised meats and frozen goods of all kinds. She will be subjected to direct sales, articles sent without request or offered by persuasive door-to-door salesmen. She will have to cope with hire-purchase, hiring-rental schemes, discount houses and services of all kinds—from the hairdresser, who knows very little about her trade and uses dyes indiscriminately, to the travel agent, who disappears just before she wants to go for her holiday.
Through all this she will be subjected to the clamour of advertising exhortation to buy pet foods, beers, wines, cigarettes, fattening foods, slimming foods, foods to wake you up, foods to make you sleep, soaps which take years off your age, deodorants which cure your love affairs—in fact everything to make your life an ideal state. The shopper will be told that she is a "Good Mum" if her washing is white, or bright, or shining, or if her cakes are made from certain fats. When salesmanship takes other forms it becomes even more terrifying. Our homes are beseiged by "Snowmen", "Rain-bowmen", "Powermen", "White Tide men".
When we come to the field of special offers, we can, by sending off labels, get almost everything from a suite of furniture to garments. But, as one of my young members tells me, in regard to 24 premium offers she would still like to see for herself before she buys and would like the price reduced. This is the voice 695 of the average housewife. All this nonsense costs money—money that comes from our pockets; we are under no delusion about that. Six hundred million pounds a year are spent in advertising. And, to my mind, worst of all, the skill, energy and talents of young men and women are devoted to this activity at a time when we need social workers, teachers, doctors and professionals of all kinds. I believe that the modern shopper is paradoxically faced by a confusion of choice, on the one hand, and a limitation of real selection, on the other.
The Molony Committee were well aware of this, and their Report puts the matter in more precise language than I can when it says:While shopping has become more complicated, opportunities for many have become more restricted. The business of making and selling is highly organised, often in large units, and calls to its aid at every step complex and highly expert skills.The housewife has to contend with this and she, in her turn, receives precious little education to assist her to combat these people who are devoting money and energy to make her buy.
The Citizens' Advice Bureaux, contrary to the rather strange utterances I have heard here to-day, each year receive 84,000 inquiries connected with consumer and trading problems. We must remember that these bureaux, which are expected to do this vast job, were given, at the birth of the Consumer Council, a very small sum of money—a little over £20,000, as I remember, though I am subject to correction. But they are busy creating new bureaux every day. I would remind noble Lords that to train a worker for a citizens' advice bureau is something which must of necessity take some time. I am terrified to think that the local authority might take over this work. In my small experience, the local authority can make any service more expensive than even central Government—and that is saying something. I believe that if the Citizens' Advice Bureaux were given more money they could indeed carry out this work even better than they are doing it at the moment. I am sorry if one noble Lord was unlucky enough to strike an area in which there did not happen to be one. I am sure my noble and learned 696 friend the Lord Chancellor will agree with me that hard cases make bad law.
In the field of protection generally I am at one with my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry in saying that labelling is a priority: clear, simple labelling, which will give purchasers the opportunity to judge quality and fitness for purpose. How is this going to be done? I appreciate that it is always bad to introduce legislation which will make new development difficult, but I feel that voluntary labelling—I speak as one who has struggled with this problem for many years—can bring in only the reputable manufacturer, who has nothing to lose, whereas generally the complaints come about the firms which do not even belong to their local trade association or chambers of commerce. We get the kind of wholesaler who buys up manufacturers' rejects or seconds; we get the sharp practice of the one-day carpet sales. These are the people who are unlikely to be influenced by any voluntary marking schemes.
My experience on B.S.I. committees and through citizens' advice bureaux shows that the articles which urgently need attention are textiles, footwear, carpets and furniture, as well as a great deal of the large capital equipment. There is a clear need for definition of certain terms. What does "showerproof" mean, particularly in this climate? What does "waterproof" mean? What does "non-iron" mean? What does "stain-resistant" mean? The term "guarantee", in particular, is used very loosely, and quite often one sees garments which have the magic word "guaranteed" on them. One is tempted to ask, "For what, and by whom?" Apparently, the word means something quite different to the seller and the buyer. I have here an interesting example of a guarantee which highlights this particular matter. This says:This Warranty does not apply to damage arising from accident, misuse or fair wear and tear, or if any change has been made to the appliance or any new device added. Under no circumstances whatever are we responsible for injury or damage, direct or consequential, arising from the operation, failure or breakdown of any machine supplied by us, and any warranty at common law is hereby expressly excluded.My Lords, if you can tell me what that guarantees you against, I shall be very interested to know.
697 I hope that these matters will be seriously considered, now that the Merchandise Marks Act is being revised. I believe sincerely that there is a real need for independent testing machinery, as far too many examples come to my personal attention in which goods have been shuttled about from retailer to manufacturer, and the only argument advanced is that the customer has mishandled the article or has not followed the correct instructions. But the customer is left with something which he or she cannot use. On the question of enforcement of the revised merchandise marks legislation, I would remind the Government that the Molony Report particularly drew attention to the need to cover "bypassing". Where the goods go through a number of hands—the retailer, the manufacturer—it is vital that the prosecution for infringement should be made against the real guilty party, the one morally responsible, and not against the retailer who in many cases is only technically guilty as he happens to have been the last unfortunate person to handle the goods.
If the Consumer Council could establish the sort of committees which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already have, I believe that the results of research and information could be fed into the citizens' advice bureaux, by whom the bulk of inquiries and complaints will still be dealt. This need not mean the expenditure of too much more Government money, for both bodies are already geared to receive and to feed back into each other. The Molony Report, speaking of food (and there has not been much mention of this to-day) said:…we found in the Food and Drugs Act … provision and powers of a most comprehensive nature.The Minister has the benefit of assistance from the Food Hygiene Advisory Council and the Food Standards Committee. This latter Committee produced a Report—one of many—in 1964 on food labelling, from which I quote the guiding principles of their deliberations which I have used very frequently. They said:If consumer and trade interests conflict then the interests of the consumers must take precedence.What I should like to ask is: how many of these recommendations have been looked into or carried out? Do we 698 yet have the addition of preservatives, colours, artificial sweeteners, bleachers, improvers and flavourings all specifically declared? Is the presence of bleachers and improvers in pre-packed flour specially declared? Is the addition of tenderisers to pre-packed, and non-pre-packed, meat declared? Has the word "instant" ceased to be used as an adjective? Does all transparent wrapping material carry the same information as other food wrapping? These are only a few of the matters dealt with in the 72 recommendations. I will not terrify the Minister by going into any more, but I should like to know if some of them are being implemented. If not, I should like an assurance that they will be given consideration in the very near future.
Canned goods present further complications which seem to be concerned with labelling. There is the "drain weight" as opposed to the "net weight", of, say, canned fruits. I have done a little research myself in this matter. It is possible to buy a can of fruit which is marked "16 oz." and complies with the law, but when you have drained off the juice, or what one might call the water, you are left with 10 ounces of fruit. It is possible to buy a can of fruit marked "15½ oz.", but when you have drained off the juice you have 9½ ounces of fruit. I think it is not unreasonable to ask that when labelling is being considered these points should be looked into. My Lords, I will conclude by quoting Molony again:No system of protection can relieve the customer of the duty to look after himself. The consumer's first safeguard must always be an alert and questioning attitude.But our duty as a Government is to provide both legislation and the opportunity for consumer education, so that ordinary people can get value for money.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, I am sorry that I was not in my place earlier, when I should have been. I was at a Committee meeting in this building. May I take not more than four minutes of your Lordships' time, just to draw attention to some of the scientific jargon which is being used nowadays in the advertising of some consumer products? May I refer to "WM/", which the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, mentioned briefly a little 699 earlier? If you buy a packet of OMo, which is a detergent powder, immediately under the word "OMo", you find the words "With exclusive WM/" in large, scarlet capital letters—very eye-catching. If you read everything on the front, on the back, on both sides, on top and on the bottom of the packet, the most that you can find about what WM.7 is, is that it is "an exclusive new fabric brightener". So here we have a product being advertised by the prominent use of a scientific term, and the manufacturer knows perfectly well that the housewife does not have the faintest notion of what the expression means.
I am very glad to say that, although this happens in the ordinary shopping world, it apparently does not happen on Independent Television, because the Independent Television Authority, in their Code of Advertising Standards and Practice, say quite clearly under the heading" Scientific Terms and Statistics":Scientific terms and the like must be used with a proper sense of responsibility to the ordinary viewer.The ordinary viewer, I suppose, is also the ordinary consumer; and what goes for the world of commercial television ought, surely, to go for the great big world outside. Therefore I hope that something can be done about this. It is not much use the Consumer Council and Parliament striving to enable housewives to understand the nature of products which are offered to them, so that they may independently exercise their choice between one rival product and another, if manufacturers are allowed deliberately to confuse housewives with, to them, quite meaningless scientific jargon. My Lords, I feel sure that the Consumer Council is anxious to help in this campaign, and I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government also are anxious to help.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I should like first to echo the gratitude that has already been expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, not only for introducing this subject, but also for ranging so widely over the whole of it and for giving us such an excellent speech. Secondly, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, for telling us the atti- 700 tude of the Consumer Council, and, of course, we need hardly say again, for the service that she has been giving as Chairman of the Consumer Council. We also greatly appreciated her speech. Then, just before the end—as has been said, it is rather a ladies' day—we had a first-class speech, if I may say so, from the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips. She touched on so many points in such a short time that I do not envy the noble Lord who has to reply. I do not suppose he will deal with them all, but, at any rate, he will take careful note of them.
My Lords, I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, was perhaps a little hard on the last Government in her opening remarks when referring to what they had done in the field of consumer protection. After all, in 1955 we had the Food and Drugs Act. Then in 1963 we had the monumental Weights and Measures Act, which took a very long time to prepare. In 1964, there was the Hire-Purchase Act, and the same year we had the Resale Prices Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has referred. I was also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, for his contribution. We are glad to know of the statutory regulations that are in preparation under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, to control the design of electrical toys and the colouring of leads, and also that the question of a British standard for over-blankets is under study.
The next stage, plainly, is the new Merchandise Marks Bill, for which we are all waiting—and may I say that I feed the whole House will appreciate that the Consumer Council has been acting under a certain amount of handicap by reason of the fact that the Merchandise Marks Bill has not yet come along. I am quite certain that the Government will not delay it a moment longer than is necessary. I rather share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte, that we would rather have this than some other legislation which is contemplated by the Government. I think the Merchandise Marks Bill, when it comes along, is bound to do a considerable amount to cure some of the troubles that have been mentioned in the course of to-day's debate. First of all, presumably, there will be a new definition of "trade description", and there 701 will be a new definition regarding the application of a trade description—and that of course will help very considerably in dealing with misleading advertising. There will be a new method of establishing a statutory definition of a trade description or of textile terms, and presumably of amending such a definition.
Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, has said, the proposal of the Molony Committee was that the local authority should be given the duty of enforcement, along with its weights and measures and its food and drugs responsibilities, with the Board of Trade having an overriding interest in the way the law is applied. The Molony Committee wanted more labelling to be compulsory. I do not know what attitude will be taken by the Government in regard to that recommendation; but the Committee also thought that, where labelling is needed, there should be voluntary labelling on a national scale. I am sure the House was very glad to hear of the start made by the Consumer Council in this matter, with the co-operation of the British Standards Institute, with the pilot scheme covering (I think the noble Baroness said) 19 items.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, said that before labelling is required there must be prescribed standards. I am not sure that that is true quite to the extent that I think she had in mind. I am not certain how far the labelling that we are to have is in respect of standards relating to quality. That, of course, is the most difficult item of labelling to determine. I personally believe that you can decide this kind of matter only by trial and error. I do not honestly believe that you can go out and ask consumers what kind of labelling they would like. I think you must determine what you think the consumer needs, and then, as time goes on, improve on that as the opportunity arises.
My Lords, there has been some reference to the advertising authority and some discussion of misleading advertising in general. As I said, I think the Merchandise Marks Act will at any rate help in this respect. I rather deprecated the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, censuring, as it were, the country for spending so much money on advertising, and saying that possibly this might be 702 better used elsewhere. After all, if she were directing a company or, for that matter, a co-operative society—which ceased advertising, she would soon know the difference; and I wonder how, without advertising, she would get a new product introduced at all. I think one must have a sense of proportion in this matter, and it is not possible to lay down what should be the appropriate amount to be spent by the country on advertising. This will very largely be determined by economic factors.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, doubted whether the industry could do the work of controlling itself, but she said that she would prefer it to be done by the industry (I understood her to say this) if it were possible. And the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said that she thinks that some more effective control is wanted. I believe both noble Ladies agreed that in this respect the Advertising Authority has been making progress. It has also been proceeding by way of trial and error. I think that it is making progress, as the changes that it is introducing in its procedure show—changes to which the noble Lady herself referred.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I am sorry, I was slow on the uptake. I was thinking over what the noble Lord had said. I should just like to say that I said that I should prefer the industry to deal with the matter itself, and that I always had said so, but I was doubtful about the Standards Authority.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, on the question of the quality of goods, the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, gave us a most frightening catalogue of things which have gone wrong, and made some very useful suggestions at the same time. In some instances I felt inclined to ask, "What did the buyers pay for these goods?", because, by and large, in this life you get what you pay for. Admittedly you would not need any protection if you always got what you paid for, but the fact remains that often people fall into error by trying to buy things at too cheap a price.
703 There will always be complaints, and the question, of course, is how they should be handled. A good deal of reference has been made to the full-time consumer protection officer at Sheffield. Personally, I rather agree with the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Winchester, that complaints probably would be best handled by the local authority when they are complaints of the faultiness of a product or of goods, on which possibly a prosecution might rest. After all, if you are going to commit to the local authority the responsibility for prosecuting, then there is something to be said for encouraging the individual, once he or she has failed to get satisfaction from the supplier, to take the goods along to the local authority so that they can appraise them and see whether or not, in the circumstances, a prosecution lies.
Obviously—I think several noble Lords have referred to this—there would have to be technical facilities, and the question is where technical expertise should be provided. The noble Lady, Baroness Burton of Coventry, referred to five experts who would be required (I believe she said five) dealing with clothing and textiles, footwear, electrical appliances, carpets and upholstered furniture, and she suggested that they should be placed in ten regions.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I did not. I suggested that there should be the five technical consultants carrying out their work in the five main fields. The reference to the ten regions concerned the appointment by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux of ten regional advisory officers. It has nothing to do with technical consultants.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I see. There would be technical consultants centralised. I was going to ask the Government, on this point, whether they envisaged accepting the recommendation of the Molony Committee that the local authority should be the prosecuting authority, and, if so, what kind of organisation should there be in support of the local authority. In considering the kind of organisation that we should set up and envisage for the future, I think that a great deal depends on the answer to that question. In that case I can see that there is not as much difference as 704 I thought between the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, who suggested that there should be something like half a dozen regional officers, although she went on to say that, in view of the present financial stringency, she was not pressing for them right away.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I am sorry to be a nuisance; but the noble Lord has it completely wrong. The five technical consultants which I have suggested should be set up have nothing to do with the six regional officers that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, wishes the Consumer Council to appoint. There is no connection between them.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
In that case, I take it that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, does not envisage any kind of local representation of the Consumer Council.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I misunderstood the noble lady on that point. This debate is about "basic consumer problems and the part therein of Government". May I now say a word directly on the Motion? What do we expect of the Government? First, we expect the introduction of legislation and the implementation of legislation where it falls on the Government. Secondly, we expect financial assistance to the Consumer Council—and we hope for other kinds of assistance, as well. It is one thing to say that the local authority should arrange tests and, where necessary, prosecute, as the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, said; it is a different thing to say that they should do the whole job of advising the consumer. I am not certain that in that respect I would go as far as the noble Lord did; but I think we are agreed that there is a great job of consumer education to be done. That seems to me to be one of the first responsibilities of the Consumer Council and one which I know they are accepting. All the same, I was a little sorry that the noble Lady did not find time to-day to say a little more about the progress of the Consumer Council in that regard. I must not criticise, because she had so much to talk about; but this is a subject which interests me.
705 The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, referred to the alert and questioning attitude of the buyer. But the buyer must also be well-informed. The Consumer Council reports having had talks to teachers' conferences and to students and lecturers in training colleges and a pilot consumer conference for pupils in the last term at school. I do not know whether your Lordships would agree with me, but my own war-time experience was that specialist instruction was soon forgotten unless there was some kind of follow-up. The problem is how to maintain the interest of teachers and the schools in sound buying. This is something in which I should have thought every pupil (and not only those engaged in domestic science studies) should be instructed. It seems to me that there is a case for the liaison officer (or whatever the noble Lady called him) to have education duties; and if the liaison officer in the region cannot undertake those duties then I think there should probably be an education officer as well.
Then there is the question of guidance on the way complaints and inquiries should be met. The pattern established on the recommendation of the Molony Committee is that the Consumer Council should provide advice and guidance for the consumer through the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other organisations, or by its own publications. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, reported that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux are not anxious to concentrate on any one aspect of their work. She said that they do not want to be involved in a pressure group to protect the consumer. I hope that the noble lady did not mean that the Consumer Council itself is a pressure group; because I hope it takes a more balanced view of its responsibilities than we are accustomed to associating with the term "pressure group".
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, forgive me for interrupting at this point. I do not look upon the Consumer Council as a pressure group; but if you are trying to get through some piece of protective legislation you are, in fact, going to make somebody's life uncomfortable until you get it. That is one of the methods of doing so. I well remember, when the noble Lord was a Minister, pressing him very hard on 706 points in connection with the Hire-Purchase Bill. I was in those circumstances, I suppose, acting as a "pressure group", or as a "head of steam", for the protection of consumers in connection with hire-purchase. It is in that sort of way that I look upon the work of helping the consumer through the Consumer Council. I do not want to be misinterpreted in what I say. I am there to fight for the consumer, and from time to time I am bound to put a lot of pressure on somebody to do something which I believe to be in the consumers' interests.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I am sure that we entirely accept that; and we are most amenable to the noble Lady's pressure in these matters. But I think it would be a mistake if we let it be thought that the Consumer Council is nothing but a pressure group.
I was talking about the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and I was about to refer to what they said in their Report. They said:In the meantime facilities for dealing with complaints have not improved. In the evidence given to the Molony Committee attention was drawn to the lack of sources of information and advice and of independent sources of technical appraisal; and the situation described then has changed very little since.I think this highlights the difficulty we are in. We have to decide how the ordinary kind of complaint and inquiry from the consumer, not involving prosecution or anything like that, should be dealt with. It would seem that so far this question has not been fully solved; partly because citizens' advice bureaux are not universal, are not established everywhere, and partly, I suspect, because the technique of supplying them with the information they require, in order to fulfil their consumer protection functions, has not yet been fully worked out. I have no doubt that the Consumer Council would reply that the difficulty is that they are not kept sufficiently closely in touch with the consumer to provide such information.
Their bulletin, Consumer Contact No. 9 lists a number of research projects they would like carried out. May I say that it seems to me that they have to be rather careful here, because research projects generally are very expensive to 707 carry out. If they want research projects carried out, they must be paid for out of the Consumer Council grant, or the Council must make out a case for the Government for work to be carried out by the social survey section of C.O.I. or something like that.
This has been an extremely useful debate in highlighting a lot of the main problems. One of the difficulties we are in is that everybody is a little too anxious to show too quick results. The whole business of consumer protection is largely educational work, and, as with any educational work, it must be a long-term task. I think that a very good start has been made. I am not certain that it will be possible to determine whether we are entirely on the right lines until we have had the Merchandise Marks legislation. All the same, there is no doubt that the more often these matters are ventilated, the more we shall be able to deal with particular problems as they arise. Once again, I think we are indebted to the noble Baroness for having initiated this debate.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ LORD RHODES
My Lords, may I at once say that I think the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has been talking some very good sense. I think his contribution has been first-class and I thank him for it. May I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for bringing up this subject? Although it is not all that long ago since we had a debate on the same subject, nevertheless it has been worth while. The points that the noble Baroness brought in front of us this afternoon have been interesting, and as I go along I shall try to shape my speech so that I can answer some, at any rate, of her questions.
If anybody from overseas has been looking in on our proceedings this afternoon and thinks that we have been indulging in our national pastime of self-criticism, he would be right. But if he goes away from this House thinking that all we make is rubbish, he would be very wrong. There is no question about it that those we are talking about are a minority. We want to get this subject in perspective, because if we do not, we can be running ourselves into the ground in chasing these problems. I would agree 708 with criticism which means productivity up and sales up and better quality, but I would not agree with niggling denigration of our products so that we are damaged as a result. If it is intelligent criticism, yes—and we have had a lot of intelligent criticism this afternoon. I hope I can answer some of it.
I was interested to see the terms of the noble Lady's Motion. She specifically mentions basic consumer problems and the Government's part therein. She made no mention of consumer protection. I think that noble Lords and Ladies in this House should applaud her for her perspicacity in this respect. We hear a good deal about the necessity to protect the consumer, and I do not deny for a moment that consumers need some protection—and some consumers need more protection than others, because, as I have observed through a long life, there are different qualities of appreciation of everything. Noble Lords and Ladies have brought instances to our attention, I was going to say by the hundred, and I shall try to deal with a few of them.
It seems to me, and I dare say to other noble Lords and Ladies, that what the consumer has is not so much a need of protection as a lot of problems that he wants help with. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, we want to protect the consumer against abuses and exploitation. But, after all, serious though they may be, fortunately abuses and exploitation affect only a very small percentage of the population, and often in only highly specialised fields. Should not our real aim be—and I think this is implicit in the noble Lady's Motion—to give the consumer satisfaction from the start? After all, when we go into a shop and buy something, we want to be able to wear it or to use it without its shrinking in the first wash or falling to pieces after it has been used a few times. It is very little consolation, in those circumstances, to know that you have a legal right against the manufacturer or seller, or that, if he is prosecuted successfully, he can be punished and probably will not commit the same offence again. The truth is that he has already done it to you.
You may say that it is difficult for the ordinary person to know how to set about getting his rights. A lot has been said about getting to know citizens' rights this afternoon. Here I would say a word 709 about the service the Citizens' Advice Bureaux can, and do, give in most parts of the country. We have heard about its advantages and its failings. The bureau is a place where anybody who is in trouble or perplexed can turn for sensible, sympathetic and impartial advice on a host of matters including those connected with buying, as the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said. That is why the Government of the day decided, in 1962—in my view rightly—to give some money to the central organisation to help them to set up bureaux in places where none existed and to extend their work for consumers. This money has been well spent. There have been no complaints. There are now 441 bureaux, as against 409 when the Molony Committee reported. This is a small advance comparatively since November, but still, it is an advance, and in some 35 more places discussions are going on about the formation of a bureau.
In some places, the local authorities themselves run centres for giving information and advice to consumers. May I say, in reply to my noble friend Lord Leatherland, who asked me about the Sheffield experiment, that we believe there is room for not only the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, but also for the efforts of local authorities on the Sheffield lines. There is scope for both, because they are complementary. This, then, is where the individual can look for advice, though even these wise bureaux cannot always solve particular problems. Where it is clear, from reports from bureaux all over the country, that a problem is a general one, which, in the words of the Molony Committee Report, would be "justifying its active interest" as distinct from "points merely of consumer preference or convenience", it is for the Consumer Council to step in and consider what action is necessary and practicable in order to put things right. It may be that reports are not coming back fast enough for the Consumer Council, but, on the other hand, there are people who say that the Consumer Council is not going fast enough for them.
In my opinion, what is needed is a little more co-operation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, that it is important that there should be close, continuous and 710 harmonious relationships between the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the Consumer Council. Neither can function properly without the other in the present set-up. The machinery is in motion, and we cannot alter the machinery every six months. No pains should be spared to improve the working arrangements.
Some noble Lords and noble Ladies have criticised the Consumer Council. I am sure that the Council can very well look after themselves, and, in the sense that they are a body quite independent of the Government, they will not wish me to defend them on their day-to-day activities. But the points which have been made about the constitution of the Council are our concern, and this is where we come in. I cannot agree with my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry that the Chairman should be full-time.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I said that the chairmanship should occupy the major part of the time of the person concerned, not full-time.
§ LORD RHODES
May I say, even with that qualification, that I cannot go any further towards agreeing with the noble Lady. With a full-time Director of high standing, the Chairman does not need to supervise the day-to-day work of the Council, and the call on his or her time should be much less than full-time. The question whether the Director should be a member of the Council does not seem to me to be of great importance at this stage. We are quite ready to look at all these questions when the time comes. That is as far as I can go.
By giving money to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the Consumer Council the Government are indirectly doing a good deal to help consumers. What more can we do? As I said a few moments ago, we want to protect the shopper against abuses and exploitation. We already do this, to some extent, in our Merchandise Marks legislation. But, as your Lordships know, this legislation is somewhat out of date. We have not had any major alteration of the Merchandise Marks Act for eighty years. When people talk about speed and ask why things are not done, they never pause to think that in all probability there has been no demand for eighty years for them, as there is to-day.
711 My noble friend Lady Phillips, whose speech I thought was absolutely first-class, talked about the changing pattern, not only in our habits, but in the materials and things that we use. Incidentally, may I say to my noble friend Lord Leather-land, on the question as to whether or not authority should be placed in the hands of local authorities, that I thought my noble friend Lady Phillips gave him the complete answer. I may say that we are at the moment working on a draft Bill to replace this old legislation and bring it up to date. I cannot tell your Lordships when we shall be in a position to put this Bill before the House. I personally hope that it will be during the next Session; but it will certainly be as soon as we possibly can. I think that when we bring the Bill forward your Lordships will recognise that we have given the old legislation a new look.
Of course, the basic concept will still be the same. The purpose of new legislation will still be to ensure that, so far as possible, trade descriptions are neither false nor misleading. But we shall he greatly extending the definition of trade description to bring it more into line with current manufacturing techniques and trading practices. We are also going to make absolutely certain that the legislation covers trade descriptions when they are used in advertisements, and not merely when they are related to goods. We shall be doing something about advertisement of services, too. And we shall be placing a duty on local authorities—this, again, is in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn—to enforce the legislation. In all these ways we shall be providing a much stronger piece of legislation than we have ever had before to protect the consumer against deception by description, whether it is deliberate or inadvertent. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, when he says that the absence of a new and up-to-date Merchandise Marks Act has been a great disadvantage to the Consumer Council. That was a very wise observation.
Now I come to the really new element—and this is where we link up with the question of consumer satisfaction. The Molony Committee recommended, and we have accepted, that the Board of Trade should take powers to require the compulsory labelling of particular classes of 712 goods with prescribed information where this is essential in the consumer's interest and there is no possibility of getting the goods adequately labelled by voluntary agreement. We think it right that we should have these powers, and in due course we shall be asking your Lordships to grant them to us. That, I am sure your Lordships will agree, is a step forward.
We hope, nevertheless, that we shall not have to use these powers very often. We think—and I am sure your Lordships Will agree on this point—that information which has to be given compulsorily is often given grudgingly and to the minimum amount necessary. We therefore hope that manufacturers and traders will recognise the part they have to play in consumer satisfaction by voluntarily giving the shopper the information he needs, not only to shop wisely but also to get the best out of his purchases once he has got them home. We should much rather see this done voluntarily, and in the right sort of atmosphere, than under duress because manufacturers are not themselves willing to help consumers.
My noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry made an interesting suggestion on this point, and I am grateful to her for having made it. But may I say to my noble friend that, while we are thinking about it, I think we must definitely give the Consumer Council's scheme a chance before reaching any compromise. I think my noble friend will agree about that.
§ LORD RHODES
I am glad to have that confirmed. I think it is as well that, once something has been launched, it should be given a fair chance; and then, if it does not do the job, it should be cleared out and something else put in its place. But until then I think we have to give it a fair crack of the whip.
I should like now to refer to the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry about the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, about the five special categories. I have noted this suggestion, and will think about it. But I would say right away that the cost of technical investigations tends to be substantial, and it is questionable whether 713 public funds could be expected to bear this expense for individual customers.
That brings me to the Consumer Council's proposal for a national voluntary label scheme. As I said the last time I spoke on this subject, we are following these developments very closely. That sounds rather trite, but it is true. We hope that the Consumer Council will be able to achieve something substantial in this field. But it is bound to take time, particularly in the early stages. I hope that manufacturers are not going to sit back and wait. I hope that they will meet the Consumer Council halfway on this matter and thus make everybody's job easier. There is nothing to stop them acting, on their own, in the meantime, to give the consumer useful information, even though they may fully intend to cooperate with the Council later to produce an agreed label. There is no reason why they should not start now, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, will agree.
That brings me to another point. So far, I have been talking about informative labelling. But the consumer also wants to know something about the quality of the goods he is buying. This is where standards can play a very important role. May I apologise to the House for going on so fast, but I have such a lot to say that I hope your Lordships will forgive me. We are all aware of the British Standards Institution's role in pioneering the production of standards for consumer goods. But I do not think that it is by any means possible, or even necessary, to have standards for all consumer goods. The Consumers' Association have taught us a great deal about "best buys", and the Retail Trading Standards Association are playing their very important part in ensuring that goods offered to the public by retailers are of worthwhile quality. I have in mind the blazer cloth about which I know something. I thought the Association's digging in their toes about the quality of the blazer cloth did more good than all the talk in the Press or elsewhere. I think the Association were first-class, and I compliment them on their action.
I was interested in the analysis in the R.T.S.A. bulletin of February-March this year, of complaints received at the Association's testing laboratory. Any- 714 body who has knowledge of this knows full well that the R.T.S.A. is the organisation which is serving the retail traders in this country—many of them very large concerns—and manufacturers and merchants, so that they can have the complaints that are levied against their products examined and tested. All the time the Association are fighting for better quality, whether it is "agin" the manufacturer or "agin" anybody else. They "have a go" to try to improve the quality.
The results between October 1, 1964, and January 31, 1965, are, however, very illuminating. Out of scores of thousands of transactions in which these retail traders, manufacturers, and so on, engaged in that period, only 309 complaints were received. It is interesting to realise that the Association decided, with their critical judgment and the facilities they have for examination, that only 78 complaints were found to have a valid basis. That finding is very salutary. I think there is a great deal that manufacturers and distributors themselves can do to maintain the quality of goods in the shops and, incidentally, the prestige of British goods as a whole. That is what I am bothered about—British goods: what a fine phrase! And we make some fine stuff. I am sure my noble friend Lord Sainsbury would agree with me on this, as I am perfectly certain would the late Lord Marks of Broughton, were he still with us.
We are all aware of the improvement in standards which can flow from the far-sightedness of the big distributors in demanding goods to their own specification of quality. This is important. I will give you some of my own experience. I used to make ladies dress materials, fine woollens of first-class quality—and I say so myself. But, unfortunately, I could not sell it to Marks and Spencer because there had been so much shoddy stuff offered to them in woven fabric that they went on to double jersey; for in the manufacture of double jersey there is a built-in guarantee on account of the sort of material that you have to use. That is where Lord Marks of Broughton started from. It applies to many more articles, but that is something I know from rather bitter experience.
Automation, too, will play its part, and is playing its part. Everybody knows 715 this. There has been much talk this afternoon about fabrics and textiles and other goods. The trend is towards automation. The measured length of fibre—shall I say, man-made fibre?—is making it easier to adopt automation. When you start to try to adopt any automation at all in this field it means that you must not have second-rate materials in the fabric. You must have the best materials you can get, and this, in itself, is the built-in guarantee on the quality of the materials that are used. It is necessary in this age, and at the speed at which we are going, to have our consumer councils and the multiplicity of advisory committees and all the rest of it, all to combat many of the trends in the present age. Nevertheless, let us not forget that automation itself is bringing in some tremendous advantages in terms of first-class products. It is all part of the picture of consumer satisfaction that I have been trying to draw. The consumer benefits, and it is good for trade too.
I started talking about what the Government are planning to do to help the consumer, and I have promised your Lordships new merchandise marks legislation as soon as it is practicable. It is going to be comprehensive, and I think it is going to close most of the gaps which exist at present. But I should not like your Lordships to be left with the idea that this is to be a panacea for all consumer ills. It would not be possible to cope with all of these in one piece of legislation. Neither would it be possible for any Minister to reply at this Box to every single point that has been raised this afternoon—it is a total impossibility. Indeed, a great deal is already done for the consumer in other Statutes—hire-purchase legislation, the Food and Drugs Act, the Consumer Protection Act, and so on. And a lot of consumer troubles cannot be dealt with by legislation at all.
The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, asked me about the latest moves on hire-purchase, about the £30 limit, and about the door-to-door salesman. It would take me too long this evening to go into that, but I could do it if the House would bear with me. I think it would be far better to address a personal letter to the noble Lady and 716 save the time of the House. Would she accept that?
§ LORD RHODES
I thank the noble Lady. A lot of consumer troubles cannot be dealt with by any legislation at all. If there are any abuses outside the trade descriptions field—and this is a serious statement—we shall have to look at them as they come up, and decide how best they can be tackled. What I have tried to do is to give your Lordships a fair picture of how far the Government can go in playing their part in looking after the consumer. But I have also tried to draw attention to the fields in which Government action is not possible, or is plainly undesirable, and to show what scope there is for others to do their bit to produce a satisfied shopping public.
Advertising has been mentioned. I do not propose to speak for very much longer, but I must cover just this little bit of ground. Some noble Lords have suggested that the Government should introduce a control over advertising. I have already indicated that we are taking steps to bring advertising, both of goods and of services, fully within the scope of merchandise marks legislation. This will go a long way towards correcting abuses in this field. So far as control of the industry as a whole is concerned, we think that the industry's own voluntary scheme must be given a chance to prove itself. After all, in its present form—the Advertising Standards Authority—it has been in operation for only about two and a half years. I have found in my long life that it takes about two years for any idea to sink in at all; and two and a half years is virtually no time at all. I think we ought to give it a chance. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, agrees with me on this.
§ LORD RHODES
Thank you. With regard to hire-purchase, the hire-purchase law has only recently been amended by the Hire-Purchase Act, 1964, which came into operation on January 1, 1965. This is not the same 717 point I referred to before. The Act was introduced by the previous Government and substantially implements the recommendations of the Molony Committee. Although we may think that there are some further matters to be dealt with in the credit field, I think that noble Lords would agree with me that the right course now is to wait awhile to see how the new Act operates in practice before considering further legislation.
My Lords, we had the points on safety. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who mentioned them, and my noble friend Lord Hobson covered that part quite clearly. On house buying, may I say that investigation on this subject is going on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, knows, it may be next year before we can actually bring into operation regulations which will cover it, but they will be brought in. I had a good deal to say on house buying and gave a harrowing description during the last debate of conditions in my former constituency, which I am not going to repeat. On hearing aids, may I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, that there is no difference in the situation between now and the time when she put a Question and was answered from this side of the House on March 3.
The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, brought a very well-known packet into the House. I am sure noble Lords were avidly watching what sort of washing soap he used. What is it—"WM7."? I must say that I agree with the noble Lord. He made a strong plea for the removal from detergent packets and the like of scientific jargon, which he says manufacturers know quite well the housewife cannot understand. This does not seem to me to be a matter which can be regulated by law—at least, I am advised that way—but is best left to the advertising industry to deal with under their voluntary system. In this scientific age, what is meaningless to some may be useful information to those who, in increasing numbers, have benefited from a scientific education. But I do not think that one would need a scientific education to understand that that was nonsense.
718 I understand, however, that the British Code of Advertising Practice includes the following:In advertising addressed to the general public, scientific terms, statistics and quotations from technical literature should be used only with a proper sense of responsibility to the ordinary person.I think that is first-class advice and a good principle. It goes on to say:Irrelevant and scientific jargon should not be used to make claims appear to have a scientific basis they do not possess.If the noble Lord knows of instances which seem to breach this principle, the Advertising Standards Authority, I am perfectly certain, will be willing to look into them.
There are one or two more points that I took up during the debate and I will make certain that these will be very carefully examined in the Board of Trade after this debate. Wherever possible they will be considered, along with the other matters. I think that enlisting the aid of regional B.B.C. is a good idea; as is the collection of information by the C.A.B.s. The Consumer Council's attitude towards the Citizens' Advice Bureaux has registered. I think we understand their point of view and hope that we can help. I was interested in Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte's snail in the ginger-beer bottle, the Donoghue case. I thought it was very interesting. If she insists about the guaranteed contract I will, if I may, write to her about it. I noted Lord Strabolgi's point.
With regard to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, I would say that the Oil Heater Regulations, 1962, made under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, prescribe safety standards, construction and design of performance for domestic fuel oil heaters manufactured after January 1, 1962. These regulations are based on British Standards 3300, 1960. I understand that a revised edition has been issued. With regard to Lord Auckland's question about the use of cloth nightdresses, I think this came under the 1963 regulations, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry was right about the materials. However, I will write to the noble Lord on the implications and the number of accidents that have happened since it came in last October. I am aware of this but just have not the figure with me.
§ LORD RHODES
I thank the noble Lord. With regard to plastic bags also, I will give the noble Lord the information for which he asked.
The noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, raised the question of weights on packets and false descriptions. Powers here are in the hands of the local authorities. May I say to the noble Lord, in answer to his point about individual testing to be done by the Consumer Council, that the Molony Committee excluded comparative testing. It was excluded on the grounds—and I think very sensibly—that it was undesirable that a Government-sponsored body should engage in testing products for the purpose of guiding the public on how to spend their money. It is manifest to us that it is not the proper function of such a body to discriminate, however delicately, between the products of different manufacturers. I think this view is right. It would be clearly individious for public money to be spent in assessing the competitive claims of rival manufacturers. I think that answers that particular point.
May I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is at present studying the recommendations of the Food Standards Committee on the labelling of food and I think the noble Baroness will find that there is a satisfactory outcome. I understand that he hopes to start consultations on new regulations in the course of this year.
My Lords, I come to the end of what I have to say—I have been speaking quite long enough. I hope that at some time else, when we have another debate on this subject, there may be perhaps a little longer interval than six months between the debates. May I say that the debate has been interesting and informative, and that it has had some practical results. I have admired the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has pursued this matter over the years; she has never left it. A lot of her propaganda has got 720 to the right places, and she perhaps does not realise how much she has done towards improving standards in this country. It might help her to accept some of the answers that I have made this afternoon if she knows that we think she has made quite a lot of difference.
To everybody, wherever they are in this country, I think the message should go out that we want to improve our standards so that we can use the credit and—shall I say?—have the benefit of being able to sell what we make, not only to purchasers here but to buyers in other parts of the world. I am perfectly certain that we benefit from the modern trend in no uncertain manner. I think back to my mother with six children, with never more than 26s. a week coming into the house, having to knit stockings for four lads and two girls until they started work for themselves, and then I think of the modern convenience of the present new type of sock which is reinforced with new fibres and new techniques, taking the work of repair out of it—why, if she had lived to-day she would not have known she was born!
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, I have a very pleasant task, and that is to thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. I have sat here since 2.30 o'clock and listened to every word of it, and I think there is not the slightest doubt that everyone who has spoken to-day has had only one object in view, and that is to improve the general field of the consumer. I will even include my noble friend in that tribute, in view of his last remarks. I should like to thank particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, for the way she took my critical remarks. I would only compliment her by saying that I knew she would take them like that. I think we in this House, on all sides, appreciate very much that sort of attitude on any matter in which criticism is made. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.