HL Deb 01 December 1970 vol 313 cc467-508

6.45 p.m.

BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the dismay caused, not only in this country but also in many other countries which have in one form or another followed the British example, by their decision to discontinue the grant to the Consumer Council, announced in Cmnd. 4515, paragraph 10; and whether they have any plans to continue the work of the Council in any other way.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name, but first I want to say one thing to the noble Lord who is going to reply. I want to make it quite clear that, although this Question is put down as a critical one, I am, as he knows, a staunch supporter of this Government in all their other policies, and it is only on this occasion that I am raising this matter and speaking, as I must, in disagreement with what the Government are proposing to do.

The Consumer Council has never been a Party political matter. My noble friend Lord Eccles, when he was at the Board of Trade, appointed the Molony Commission. And it was my noble friend, Lord Erroll of Hale, when he was at the Board of Trade, and Prime Minister Mr. Harold Macmillan who invited me to be the first Chairman of the Consumer Council. We started absolutely from scratch; we had absolutely nothing laid down in the way of organisation; we had to start it all up. Under the last Labour Government I carried on for two years. So in this debate, and in the Question I am asking, I do not intend to make this a Party political question to-day.

The matter is practical and important to us all, since, whether we are manufacturers, retailers, or producers of anything, we are all also consumers. I tried when setting up the Council to get a fair balance of interests; and I tried in making speches all over the country, not to campaign against any section but simply to speak up for the consumer—unless, as in some cases, he had misused or misapplied goods bought; and then I said so. I am not going into detail, but looking back at the Annual Report I see that in my foreword to the very first Report of the Council, for 1963–64, I wrote the following: In launching this new enterprise we had to decide what are the basic principles of consumer satisfaction on which it should be founded. We have acted on the assumption that people have a right to: full information about the goods they buy, a choice of goods and a choice of prices with a choice of shops to buy in, help in discriminating, safety in goods bought, redress for justified complaints, protection from unfair pressures, for instance in marketing and advertising.

One or two things stick out in my mind from those early days of what the Council did and of the actions it took. The abolition of resale price maintenance we found a very controversial subject indeed; but in the interests of the consumer we backed the abolition, and I think we were right. In 1964, we supported the Hire-Purchase Act, and urged the 72-hour pause before a consumer was committed to buy. We supported many safety measures in connection with inflammable material, electrical appliances and so on. We urged the improvement of building standards, through the National Housebuilders' Registration Council. We supported improvement in labelling, with our Teltag Scheme, and we did all we could to try to concentrate on the point of sale so that the buyers could know exactly what they were buying.

We tried also to bring the point of view of the consumer to the forefront of any Government Department drawing up legislation. I was often amazed how little our legislators thought of the end product—the point of sale, so to speak—and of the actual effect their legislation was going to have on the consumer. But I think we did succeed in getting into the heads of many of those people drafting Bills the idea of the consumer's point of view. During the passage of the Trade Descriptions Act through this House in the last Parliament I continually spoke out for the consumer, but still endeavoured to be strictly fair as between manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

I realised what enormous pressures were brought on to the ordinary shopper by advertising, by high pressure salesmanship, and how important it was to educate the consumer to know and discriminate in buying, so as to get the best value for money. I remember going to schools and colleges of further education where excellent courses and demonstrations were going on, both in the 15 to 16 age groups and in the post-school evening institute classes. I was delighted with the interest taken in the work and setting up of the Council by a great variety of organisations, and by their help in all that we were trying to do.

In those first one or two years I spoke to any number of chambers of commerce in many parts of the country, particularly in the great cities; to trade associations; to co-operative societies; to women's organisations of all kinds and descriptions; to citizens advice bureaux; to any number of weights and measures officials, and also at the Weights and Measures Conference; and I remember an enormous conference, organised (I think in Blackpool) by the National Council for Quality and Reliability, when I had lunch with a number of shop stewards from different industries. Wherever I went enormous interest was shown by a very varied number of people and interests.

As we got going we suddenly found that great interest came from abroad—among Commonwealth countries, for instance. I remember that in August, 1963, we had great correspondence, and we saw people from New South Wales who were anxious to know how to set up a similar kind of organisation there. From Canada, in 1965, the Economic Council of Canada wanted to know how they could do something similar to what we were doing, and we had to provide them with general information on many subjects. We also gave information to India, on which they acted. Then there were Ghana, in 1967; Kenya, in 1969; New Zealand in 1964—all these Commonwealth countries wanted to know what we were doing, thought it was a good idea, and were anxious to follow. Then we received inquiries from Europe: from Czechoslovakia in 1969; from Bulgaria in September, 1965; from Israel in 1965. I remember a great conference afterwards in Israel, when we sent delegates over there. Inquiries came also from other European countries, such as France and Germany.

Then I found myself, on one occasion, in the United States, and I was asked down to Washington to the White House (it was the offices of the White House) to explain to departmental officials there what we were doing, and why we were doing it. We were, in fact, being called on to give advice and information very nearly all over the world. I knew that it was only a beginning, but it had a spark of originality and leadership which gave us at that time a lead in these affairs—a lead of which I felt, and still feel, very proud. I wish that the work we did was being carried further forward. We were doing something new and something useful.

I remember vividly the last meeting I addressed at the end of my five years as Chairman of the Council. It was in Newcastle. We took a hall accommodating 300 people. I thought it would be amply big enough but 800 people applied for tickets. We had to move to another hall, and 900 people came. These were very simple people, ordinary housewives who came to hear various speakers and to ask questions. Many of your Lordships know that to get a large political meeting of 900 people, unless you have a tremendous attraction, is a very difficult thing to do—and even if you have such an attraction you do not often get such a large audience. I was amazed and thrilled by the fact that the last meeting I addressed was one of 900 housewives.

The Council published a number of leaflets on subjects of interest to consumers. I have a few of them here—I was looking at them just now—and they have an enormous sale: leaflets like, How to Say "No" to a Doorstep Salesman. Many people find that a very difficult subject. There is a leaflet, Buying a House, which deals with all the things that have to be done, and the difficulties, in order to help young married couples when they want to start buying a house. Then there is a leaflet about what you should do before booking your holiday, so that you are not led up the garden path and find the package holiday you thought you were going to have turns out to be something different from what you expected. We published booklets about shopping, about Christmas, about buying food and drink. In fact, we had a wide range of subjects upon which we published literature, and all of which we discovered was demanded by people because there was nothing of the kind available for them. The booklets went into many editions. One in particular (I forget now which one) I think we translated into Hindustani, because it was wanted so badly in one area and that was the language in which it was required. All these things were enormously valuable, and I do not think that any other organisation was doing it or could do it.

The Consumers' Association, of which I am a member, publishes an admirable and excellent publication, which we all know, called Which? but this is complementary to what we in the Council were doing. The Consumers' Association were, and are, doing something quite different. They are testing articles and making recommendations to people as to what they ought to buy as the best buy. By our terms of reference we could not test articles, and we could not deal with individual complaints. The Consumers' Association could do these things, but we could not.

However, I think we were a good combination, and I was very interested, and gratified, to read a letter from Mrs. Roy Jenkins, who is at present chairman of the Consumers' Association, in The Times of November 9. I should just like to quote from it, because I think it is a handsome tribute to the Consumer Council from the Chairman of the Consumers' Association. She says: Consumers' Association and the Consumer Council have always been complementary, not competitive organisations. Consumers' Association exists to do what the Consumer Council was specifically debarred from doing by its terms of reference; almost all our resources are needed to give our members in our magazines the results of the comparative tests and surveys they pay for. In contrast, the Consumer Council has provided advice and information for the public as a whole through its publications and through the Teltag Scheme of informative labelling it has persuaded and assisted hundreds of schools to include consumer education in their courses; it has played a vitally important part in representing the consumer viewpoint to Government and industry. I am very glad to have that tribute from the Chairman of the Consumers' Association. I am also glad to have read many letters and comments in the Press, since the announcement that the Consumer Council was to be ended, in which great tribute was paid to the valuable work which the Council have done and could go on doing for the community in the future.

Last week the National Council of Women passed a resolution at their Annual General Meeting. The National Council represents 3 million women, and the resolution reads as follows: The National Council of Women in Conference Assembled urges the Government to reconsider its decision to abolish the Consumer Council, thus leaving consumers without a powerful and influential spokesman when decisions are taken by industry and Government departments. The National Council of Women considers that it is essential that provision is made for consumers to be informed, educated and expertly represented if they are to benefit from free competition in an increasingly complicated technological society. I listened yesterday to part of the debate on metrication, and I thought to myself, "My goodness me! What problems metrication is going to give to the ordinary consumer when it comes. Who is going to disentangle those questions?" We also have the currency being changed in February and, while I strongly support the change, I know that it is going to be very difficult for many people. That is the kind of problem which the Consumer Council could have helped a lot of people with, and nobody will be there in a similar capacity.

The Minister who is to reply is a great expert on these matters. He and I worked closely together when I was Chairman of the Consumer Council and he was chairman of an advertising agency. He knows as well as anybody the work that we were doing and he has great experience, so I know that I am speaking to a sympathetic person. I want to ask whether the Government will reconsider their decision. The greatest people, and indeed Governments, have changed their minds and often for the better. If that is not possible—and I sincerely hope that it is—I want to ask what plans the Government have to carry on the work begun seven years ago and built up with so much good will on all sides, irrespective of Party political affiliations or anything else. Is the Department of Trade and Industry going to have a section to care for this work?

I agree very much with the Prime Minister's forward look. I am all for taking a new look at many things and I am anxious to encourage and support the Government in every way. We are leading the world in the development of consumer interest, and in the attitude which Government Departments are taking in shaping legislation. The cost is infinitesimal. I am told that it is one penny per person per year; in other words, £240,000, which is absolutely nothing. If we can stop people wasting their money on poor purchases and save them from exploitation, as well as raise the standard of goods and services in the country, then no one, not even the taxpayer, will grudge that small sum.

I ask the Minister, in all sincerity, to see whether he can persuade his colleagues to change their minds. If he cannot persuade them to do so, I ask him to see that the work we have done, and are prepared to continue to do, will go on under some other auspices; but, I hope, under auspices as effective as those of the Council in the years in which it has been in existence.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, of course the noble Lord who is to reply to-night has an alibi for the action of the Government, in that he was not a Member of the Government when the decision about the Consumer Council was taken. Equally, he will not have an alibi for the reply which he is making to us. I personally hope that he will not need one, but we shall all have to wait and see about that.

I should like, first of all, to make two points. First, it seems to me that the Consumer Council has been treated very badly in the way this matter has been dealt with. There was a leak or a well-founded deduction by James Margach in the Sunday Times, which was subsequently picked up by other papers. I think I am correct in saying that neither my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge nor Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd could obtain confirmation or denial from the Government following that publicity. We can all imagine the effect, for some ten days or so, which such publicity had on the staff of the Consumer Council. I know personally that this effect weighed very greatly on my noble friend Lord Donaldson and on Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd. It really was a matter of very great concern.

Secondly, I wish that the Minister could have opened this debate, and probably the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, does, too. In common with her, I want to know what is going to take the place of the Consumer Council, and then we could have a discussion in some depth. In passing, I would say that I think we must have an organisation having a direct link with government, and certainly one not in receipt of money from trade or industry.

The House knows, and consumer organisations know, that I have been critical of the Consumer Council. I thought reappraisal necessary; indeed, I thought it essential if the Consumer Council were to continue, and I said so in our debate in November of last year. We have now reached the stage when I think certain things must be said. These may well be unpopular, but I remember someone once saying to me, "Well, after all, we do not come to the House of Lords to be popular." Anyway, Members have always been very kind in this House in remembering that consumer affairs have been my major preoccupation in Parliament for some twenty years.

I think that part of the trouble has been that government—with a small "g"—has always been reluctant to regard consumer affairs as of major importance. I know that a Conservative Government set up the Molony Committee, and then the Consumer Council following the Report of that Committee. I know that a Labour Government passed the Trade Descriptions Act. I know that Law Commissions have reported on guarantees. Why then, and with what justification, do I say that government is reluctant to regard consumer affairs as an area of major importance? All through the 'fifties we had a long drawn struggle in the Commons. By the mid-'fifties we had made some progress against the opposition of both Front Benches. Out of that progress came the Molony Committee. In 1962 the Molony Committee reported, and the first debate on their Report was in this House in November of that year. In 1963 the Government set up the Consumer Council. I remember battles over this here in this Chamber—mostly objections by myself, I will agree. They were objections, my Lords, to which I got no answer at all: objections, I would hasten to add, not against the setting up of the Consumer Council but as to how it was being done.

What was I objecting to? My Lords, the Consumer Council had no teeth. The status of the Chairman, whom it took a long time to find, was nothing like the status envisaged by the Molony Committee. I have always hesitated to say that here, because it might seem discourteous to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. Nobody in this House would wish to be that—and I am sure she knows it. And so we have gone on for eight years. The general plan has not worked. I think it has not worked for two reasons: first, the set-up was wrong; secondly, the Consumer Council went the wrong way about things. Concerning the set-up, I hesitate to think how many times your Lordships must have wearied of this constant theme. But never once, from either Government, whether having given notice or not, have I had any attempt at an answer to the basic points put forward—and, my Lords, I believe that one has a right to an answer. My points may have been right, they may have been wrong. I am sure they were a nuisance: but they were an attempt to be constructive. I think that anyone who tries to be constructive merits an answer. And, nuisance though I may have been in both Houses over twenty years, I have tried to be a constructive nuisance.

My Lords, I think the suggestions merited or should have had something more important than an answer. I believe they should have had consideration. Nobody at the very top was prepared to sit down and really consider how this was going. Why? There were two reasons, I think. First of all, it was a nuisance. Here you had a Consumer Council: why look for problems? Secondly, among many priorities it did not rank sufficiently high. As to the way the Consumer Council went about things, the House knows of my views particularly from our debate of 12 months ago. We all feel the difficulty of criticising an organisation in Parliament simply because we are in a privileged position, and not one person here would wish to take advantage of that. I tried last November to voice my doubts and to suggest what might be done. A few minutes ago I said that nobody at the very top had been sufficiently interested to sit down and consider why this area of consumer affairs had not worked out successfully. Perhaps I might make the somewhat cryptic statement that someone at last was; but the outcome of the General Election put paid to that.

So what do we have now? My Lords, we have a decision which seems to spring from a doctrinaire view of Government's proper role—and this from a Party which has always condemned doctrinaire decisions. We have a statement, repeated in the Government publication Trade and Industry of November 4, to the effect that since 1963, when the Consumer Council was set up, other consumer organisations have grown in number and in strength, and the consumer's interest has been more widely recognised and protected. The Consumer Council has played a useful part in this development. However, in the different situation which now exists, the Government have concluded that an adequate advancement and presentation of the consumer's interests no longer requires the maintenance of the Consumer Council at public expense". Obviously, someone is out of touch with consumer affairs; that is, with consumer affairs as understood by those of us, on all sides of the House, who have worked on these matters for many years. The number of consumer organisations has nothing to do with the matter at all. What has been wanted ever since the Molony Committee reported in 1962 has I been co-ordination in consumer affairs and consumer education. The word "protection" was left behind in the 'fifties. This co-ordination I saw as the main job of the Consumer Council, as did Molony at paragraph 872; and in this, I think, the Consumer Council has failed. But such co-ordination is the outstanding need. In our November debate of a year ago I called for a reappraisal, a reconstruction, to see why this co-ordination had not been forthcoming. That means reconstruction, and not abolition. I believe it has been put about tentatively that the Consumers' Association might take on the job. Anybody who understood anything at all about this field would realise that that was not even a starter—and a very dusty answer has come from the Consumers' Association.

My Lords, are the Government going to put anything in place of the Consumer Council? One idea the Government are rumoured to be considering is the setting up of some machinery for protecting the consumer within a proposed "Commission for Competition". The House knows my views on the word protecting". So far as consumer affairs are concerned, the title alone fills me with apprehension—apprehension because the Government have not even begun to understand the problem of consumer affairs. In the area we are discussing to-night the problems are not competition, they are not protection: they are education of the consumer based upon Government legislation dealing with, for example, contracting out and guarantees, unregistered seals of approval, recommended pricing and legal problems of small claims.

So what would I suggest? First of all, I could not support the idea of a fund for the continuation of the Consumer Council as at present. I would suggest, as the item of the Council runs down, a reappraisal of the whole field of consumer affairs such as outlined in column 1268 of our debate on November 26 last year. I would suggest that the Government take no irrevocable step as to the future until this has been done.

Finally, on October 31 last, I read a leader in the Guardian which stated in the penultimate sentence: For many bad reasons the Department of Trade and Industry, now controlled by an ex-Director of the C.B.I., will no doubt have welcomed the chance to kill the Council off". My Lords, that may be true, it may not. I hope it is not. For my part, I hope that Mr. Davies himself, however preoccupied he may be, and indeed as ex-Director of the C.B.I., will realise full well, and will persuade his colleagues in the Government to realise, that in these days of giant organisations, of monopolies, of developing retail chains, of complex nomenclatures in labelling, of production being concentrated more and more in larger and larger units, the more necessary, not less, becomes co-ordination of information and education for the consumer—and, my Lords, for reputable industry, too.

We have dedicated, capable and experienced men and women in the Consumer Council. We have an organisation like the Retail Trading Standards Association, to which I have constantly paid tribute both here and in another place. This Association has recommended the setting up of a Committee for Consumer Affairs. I would beg the right honourable gentleman himself, with his background of business and industry, to read our debate to-night before giving his agreement to the doctrinaire abolition of a service (not necessarily the Consumer Council as of now) that the country can ill-afford to lose.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, for having asked this Question tonight because I think it is one which a great many people are asking. I believe, with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, but for slightly different reasons, that the whole key to the matter is that the Government do not understand the seriousness of what they are doing. I do not think that this applies in any way to the noble Lord who is going to answer the debate tonight, for we know that he has long had an interest in and concern for many of these matters.

But a scenario is sometimes put forward by noble Lords in this House during any debate we may have on consumer legislation which probably holds some kind of sway not only in Government but in Ministries as well. It is to the effect that manufacturers and traders are all decent, honest people doing their best, and that they would never in any way "do down" the consumer if they could possibly help it. In addition, the force of free competition is such that if they did sell shoddy or dangerous goods or anything like that, they would soon go out of business; and so they do not do so. The other side of this scenario applies to the consumer. According to this side of the scenario, the consumer is an intelligent, wise and careful person, who goes about from shop to shop carefully judging quality and prices. He or she is very aware of the possible dangers to the family of purchasing shoddy goods; one who can be relied upon to hold his or her own against any manufacturer or trader who produces such goods; and he will immediately put such people out of business.

It cannot be stated too often that this is a totally false scenario. To start with, among producers and traders there are as many rogues as there are in any other collection of human beings—including, if I may say so, your Lordships in this House. There is no collection of people in the world which consists entirely of honest men of goodwill, and everyone knows this. But the question of whether they are rogues is not the most important point. The most important point is the pressure on manufacturers, for example, to conform in matters of price rather than in matters of safety. If the expense involved in fitting an extra safety device to a car is likely to bring the end price above that of competitors' cars there is a great temptation for a manufacturer not to fit the extra device; particularly if the consumer has shown by previous reactions that he would buy the cheaper car of a competitor.

The consumer, on the other hand, is not as he is painted. More and more consumers are becoming educated in purchasing—and we must be glad of it. We must be thankful to the Consumer Council and the Consumers' Association that this is so. But the consumers are not all as the scenario depicts them. At most those wise consumers represent a fairly small proportion of the population of this country. To take a more extreme case, there are still many people in this country who are poor and badly educated. Many people find it difficult to understand the small print on agreements; they find it difficult to judge the quality of goods other than those they are handling all the time. Yet these are the very people, the poor and ill-educated people, who it is most important should exercise this kind of judgment, and to whom it most matters whether they choose things of good quality or not.

This is why there is a continuing need for education and information and, I would say, for more and more legislation. Here I would differ—but perhaps not entirely—from the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, for she was saying what the Consumer Council ought to do, while I think that what is most important is what they have done. They have been a pressure group. They have been a pressure group in Ministries and in the drafting of legislation; and we know from our own experience what an effective pressure group they have been, for example, in this House. When the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, or the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, speak on consumer matters we listen, not only because we would always listen to them (and that the Consumer Council can get such people is a sign of its quality) not only because of themselves, but also because they speak for an organisation which has been set up by the Government to look after consumers and which can call on the accumulated wisdom of all groups of the community. Other bodies will not do this as well.

Whatever may happen to be the body doing this—and I hope it will continue to be the Consumer Council—it must have some direct link with the Government. This is extremely important. None of the other bodies now existing can do this, as they themselves say. The thought that the need no longer exists is laughable. I do not think it has been defended yet, and I hope it will not be defended tonight. My Lords, the Consumer Council is the Conservative Party's own "baby". It is the Consumer Council, as we were reminded in another place last night, which gave a great deal of support to Mr. Heath in the greatest victory of his career, which was to get the Resale Prices Bill through a hostile Cabinet, a hostile Party and a hostile House of Commons. It is a great pity that the Conservative Party should have turned to kill their own baby. I think it is entirely because they do not realise that the whole field of consumer protection is of the utmost possible importance in a world where the power of industry and the power of Government and of every other kind of body gets greater and greater.

There was a time when it was absolutely right that the Legislature of this country should say that the power of the employers as bargainers against the employee was too great, and that trade unions must be built up so that there could be collective bargaining on the part of employees. It may be that that process has gone too far; but it was absolutely necessary at the time. Now is the time when the collective bargaining power of the consumers must be looked after. I do not think that in this field it will ever happen through bodies like the trade unions; I think it is the Government's duty to protect these people. I regard it as of tremendous importance. I should like to close by appealing to the Government in the words which Queen Elizabeth addressed to her judges: Have a care over your people. They are your people. Every man spoileth them without mercy. They cannot revenge their quarrel nor help themselves. See unto them. See unto them; for they are your charge.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, I was present at the birth of the Consumer Council—at least, I was at the Board of Trade. I cannot claim to be the midwife, but my noble friend Lord Erroll of Hale was the father and I suppose the Board of Trade was the mother. At that time a new child was urgently required. My noble friend Lady Elliot started off by being the nanny and then became governess—and very successful she was. But nobody suggested that the child was going to live forever. As the child grew up I think it was realised more and more that it had no teeth. It was never given teeth. At the time it was set up the parent—the Board of Trade—had a lot of teeth missing, too. When it came to protecting consumers there were very wide "gaps" and they could not do much about it. The Consumer Council did a very good job—there is no question about that—in pushing Governments into new legislation, and in educating the public. Without them, I think much of the legislation would have been more difficult to get through. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the proper people to control things on behalf of the consumer are the Government, and most of the controlling can be done by legislation.

I said that when the Consumer Council was set up teeth were missing at the Board of Trade. But when we are considering this matter it is important to remember what has happened since that time. In 1963 there was the Weights and Measures Act which dealt with a lot of consumer problems. In 1964 there was the Hire Purchase Act. Prior to that the Consumer Council had a lot to say about hire purchase. In 1968 there was passed what I suppose was the most important of all the Acts to protect the consumer, the Trade Descriptions Act. All those are enforced by Government or local authorities. Since then, as has already been mentioned, further protection for the consumer was afforded when resale price maintenance was abolished. So the situation to-day is quite different from what it was when the Consumer Council was set up.

My Lords, I do not wish to give offence in any way, but I think the Consumer Council have almost worked themselves out of a job. I have had a good deal to do with them, mostly at second hand, and very effective I have found them, particularly in the early years. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, said, one must not be afraid of being unpopular in your Lordships' House, and it has seemed to me that latterly they have had little to do. As I say, I do not wish to be offensive in any way, but there has been a little scraping around, looking for trouble, without in many cases having the funds for adequate research or, indeed, the right to carry it out.

I think that at this stage in our history we must consider the money question. The Consumer Council never had enough money, but they were set up primarily as an advisory body and, if you like, a propaganda watchdog. I am sorry to say it, but I have a feeling that nowadays, because they have done a large part of their job, their work is less effective than it was in the early stages. In 1963–64 they got £60,000 from the Government. In 1964–65 they got £115,000. In 1970–71 they got £240,000—due largely, I think, to inflation. I do not believe they are doing much more to-day, if as much, as they were doing in the early years. My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood asks, what is £240,000? My Lords one of the things from which this country is suffering is from people saying, "What is £240,000?" People say, "What is a million? Or five million? It is chicken feed." That is one of the troubles. My own view is that the Consumer Council, as such, has served its purpose, in view of the fact that there has been much more legislation and there is going to be more. That legislation is enforced either by local authorities or by the central Government.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry: I think the question of what we ought to do should be looked at again. I believe that at this stage of consumer protection the unofficial bodies should be almost entirely educational and should not be looking for things that are going wrong. They should try to teach the public what it should look for. That requires quite a different set-up, and I hope that the Government are considering something of that kind. I am sorry to say it, and I know that I am alone to-night in saying it, but I think the time has come for the Consumer Council, in its present set-up, to come to an end. I think that Her Majesty's Government are right.

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my friend Lady Elliot of Harwood for persisting with this Question, despite the many laments already expressed when the White Paper, New Policies for Public Spending, was debated. I am not going to follow the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, in his argument because I happen to disagree with him entirely.

First, I must declare an interest as I was, several years ago, a member of the Consumer Council for about eighteen months. Under the excellent and uncompromising directorship of Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd I have been known to complain about the occasional rough treatment of the then Labour Government. I wonder whether it is this independent attitude of their offspring that the Conservative Government fear, or its serious and formidable reputation. No one can deny that reputation—not even the noble Lord, Lord Derwent. There is no area of Government or business involvement in everyday life where the consumer may lose out in a large or a small way which escapes the Council's probing concern. It is only lack of money that limits its activities. I would challenge the contention that any privately run organisation could have done as well with as little money as the Government grant.

The consumer movement is a surprisingly young movement. It is little more than ten years ago since Michael Young, a man who is a veritable power house of ideas, started the Consumers' Association and its publication, Which? From this many local consumer groups have flowered, but these are usually supported by the middle classes who can afford to pay for good advice, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley has said. This leaves about 75 per cent. of the public, the less well-off and more defenceless consumers, with no champion except the Consumer Council which works and speaks for them.

Though no one can underrate the sterling work of the Consumers' Association in testing and comparing goods and services, it is no substitute for the Consumer Council. They are both necessary. Here I must disagree with my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry, who laid so much stress on co-ordination. I do not believe that co-ordination is the fundamental thing about consumer protection. All sorts of measures have to start in various branches of everyday life. The essential job of the Consumer Council is one of information, education, and of advising the public, as has been said. It has even succeeded in securing consumer education as a subject in schools examinations, and I consider this a real triumph.

The Council examines every kind and every aspect of selling practice, good and bad. This ranges from the more obvious warnings about dangerous and impure goods to such tricks as inertia selling, which could more accurately be described as forced buying, and the hazards confronting the unsophisticated—as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, mentioned—in the incomprehensible legal jargon of insurance policies and mortgages. And all along the line, my Lords, there is the misleading advertising which is so universal to-day. I read recently that in the United States one of the most advertised products, a particular mouthwash, has been tested and proved to be all "eye-wash".

The Council has been able to exert influence and bring pressure to bear on firms, trade associations and Government Departments. Its views are sought and respected. What is so important about this is that all its efforts are directed solely to obtaining a better deal for consumers. It is just the kind of organisation, given a bit more money, that could make surveys on rising prices by exposing the anomalies in the prices of groceries in different shops. The Council, in a recent survey of grocery prices in Scotland, found that they were much lower in the city of Aberdeen than in a typical Highland village.

The Council endeavours to protect people both from competition and from monopoly. Who can deny that the less well off get worse value for accommodation, for the goods they buy, and for credit? The need to protect them is greater in 1970 than it was in 1963, when the Conservative Government set up the Council. With the creeping inflation that affects all affluent societies, the consumer needs more safeguards against exaggerated salesmanship, low-quality goods and hazardous products. I see that the Minister in another place, replying for the Government, could defend the dissolution of the Consumer Council only by that time-worn cliché that competition was the best protection for the consumer. Those Election slogans, my Lords—how the melody lingers on! I am staggered that so intelligent a man as Mr. Maurice Macmillan cannot acknowledge that competition works best when the public is well informed and discriminating, which has been the goal of the Consumer Council's efforts since 1963.

I find it difficult to understand the reasons for such an unwise act. The Government's economic reasons are derisory. I suspect that the Government frowned on the choice of Des Wilson, that stormy petrel, as the Council's new Director, but. I can assure them that a look at the United States, at a troubleshooter called Ralph Nader, would give them something to think about. This man, Ralph Nader, has brought about a new climate of responsibility among politicians and businessmen towards consumers. I cannot help saluting a man who fought the powerful General Motors and forced them to take one of their cars right off the market because he proved that it was unsafe at any speed. Nothing can stop his crusading for the public, and he has been responsible for the passage of many Federal laws dealing with health and safety.

In our increasingly complex and impersonal society, individual complaints tend to be ignored by big business and industry, and the Government need the help of more, not fewer, watchdogs. I hope that the Government will think again and bring back the Consumer Council. We all know that a Conservative Government on assuming office, have to go through the illusionist act of cutting public expenditure. The Consumer Council is very cheap at the price, and to do away with it, when it has much more work to do, is just doctrinaire. But whether the Government reprieve the Council or not, I prophesy that it will rise again and will have to be reconstituted, for the simple reason that in many years to come it will be harder to get value for money.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, for at last bringing the Government into the ring. She is much the most distinguished Chairman that the Consumer Council has ever had, and it has taken her forcefulness and tact to get a squeak out of the Government at all. We tried a fortnight ago in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, and I raised the question of the Consumer Council. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, did not reply, though he wrote to me to say that he was sorry he omitted to do so and would reserve his ammunition for to-night. My noble friend Lord Shepherd raised the question and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, failed to reply to him. My noble friend Lord Shackleton, in despair, raised the matter in quite an elaborate way in his final speech, but the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, not slow to reply to criticism, made no reply. So I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for having at last brought us to the position where we are able to ask for an explanation, and we look forward to getting it.

I do not envy the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, his position to-day. He has always been a good friend to us. I do not believe that he would have come to this conclusion on his own. I shall certainly not put ideas into his head. I shall try not to annoy him more than our respective postures makes it inevitable. I hope that he will give me credit for that. We have always got on well in the past and perhaps later on may be able to do so again.

To-day I am glad to say that the debate has not been politically oriented. The Consumer Council has always been fearlessly independent and absolutely uninfluenced by the views of the Government in power. The noble Baroness caused grave offence to her own Government during her period of chairmanship, and I got into serious scrapes with my leaders during the time of the Labour Government. Any organisation representing consumers will always be a nuisance to administrators. One of the reasons why I am satisfied that we have done our job well is that we are giving embarrassment to a number of Government Departments, and personally I have no regrets about that. So, though the execution has been decided upon by a particular political Party and is a legitimate object of attack by the Opposition, I want to consider this matter to-day without Party bias and without making Party points. I may not entirely succeed, but I shall try.

I need not sing the Council's praises. They have been well voiced to-day, as they were yesterday in another place. I have a pile of cuttings praising the work that we have done and I think it would be wrong for me to elaborate on them. Curiously, there have been only two comments from Government sources of an evaluative kind. The Board of Trade in its statement described the work of the Consumer Council as "useful", and the Prime Minister said in another place last week: Some of the Council's work has been good work—I have never denied that. I am glad to hear that, but it is not exactly an enthusiastic testimonial and contrasts curiously with views from outside country. For example, the Director of the Consumers' Institute of New Zealand says: I hope this thoroughly bad decision can be reversed. This will be a very great loss to the world consumer movement. The President of the Consumers' Union of New York says: We were terribly distressed to learn of the liquidation of the Consumer Council after it had become a model to other nations of what might be accomplished in consumer protection as a result of careful and well-directed research. A letter from the United States Commission on International Trade and Investment Policy at Washington says: I read with dismay about the abolition of the Consumer Council. How could it happen! Here I think we are finally beginning to move in the other direction, however haltingly. The French representative on the Consumer Contact Committee in the E.E.C. has expressed his disappointment that the teeth of our consumer defences have been drawn.

We have had a large number of letters from the weights and measures inspectors in various places, and one in particular reads: The successes that you have scored over these last seven years or so have been of considerable importance in the field of consumer protection. I feel that without your support the position will deteriorate rather than improve and will worsen the safeguards to the shopping public. Finally, I should like to quote again the comment of Sir Joseph Molony, who, after all, started the whole thing at the request of the then Government: I express firmly the opinion that in its seven years of life the Council has done all that its designers hoped that it would do and done it well. So much for the two tepid comments of Government and the view of other people both outside and inside the consumer field. There is a contrast here of a striking kind.

I want to turn now to some of the things that we are doing, although I do not propose to go into great detail. Our work in education is something that no one will take on. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, and the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, referred to this. The noble Lord said that the work should be done in quite a different way. I do not suppose he knows in what way it is being done now. I wonder whether he has looked into this question. I think it would be helpful if he did. A great deal is being done. It is inconspicuous work, and it is not going to be done by anybody else. One can well visualise officials from the Board of Trade running round the schools and the teachers training colleges suggesting that they put things into their curricula. But that is the kind of thing that we have been doing, and doing for seven years.

May I quote one letter in confirmation of what I am saying—I am not simply making it up. This is from a principal of a college of education, who says: I write as a principal who, inspired by the Consumer Council, created a senior post for a lecturer with special responsibility throughout the college for consumer education. The main artery of this is now removed, the lecturer now feels bereft, she thinks of the films, leaflets and charts, and apart from the material side, as she says, the injections of vitality by the Consumer Council were necessary in this complex society. So much for education.

Now may I refer to one or two practical matters. Most of what we do has been referred to at some time or other in the debate. I should like to refer particularly to three enterprises which the Council has started. First, and perhaps the most important, was the Teltag, the informative label scheme which has been referred to by several speakers. This was a recommendation of the Molony Committee. We took it up. We spent quite a lot of money on it, and an enormous amount of effort. At last it is beginning to make real headway. I am not going into the details, because your Lordships will not know the names of the different firms. But there is a breakthrough in the Teltag which is just beginning to go well. It seems absolutely crazy to risk all the work and money that has been put into it just when it is breaking through.

Then there was an investigation in which we are all deeply interested, and which I think is extremely important; that is, our inquiry into the question of justice for small traders. This led to a conference of people concerned with the legal system, with those who handle consumer complaints and give advice. The Council's study Justice Out of Reach, incorporated some specific proposals for reform of the legal system. We put these proposals to the Lord Chancellor's Department, and we have been hoping that in due course something would come of them. Something does not always come of things of this kind, and I think the chance of anything happening without steady and relentless pressure from a body like our own is slender indeed. But I believe that this is an extremely important point. Nobody in England can risk going to court for £100—it is not worth it and you have to lose the £100 rather than go to court. Our solutions for this may not be quite the right ones, but they are important. We brought them together, but they have gone, if I may say so, for a "Burton".

Thirdly, our effective and imaginative service of advice to consumers, which we have been developing over the years, will disappear. This year we have proposed, in conjunction with the Institute of Race Relations, to conduct a pilot scheme in issuing to shoppers leaflets in various languages in selected areas where there are large immigrant populations. We know how successful similar publications in English have been among other sections of the consuming public who can read them. This might have been quite a constructive action in relation to the general attempt to integrate immigrants into local life. It is quite certain that nobody will do it now; it is as dead as a doornail.

Apart from these efforts cut off in their prime, we must not forget the day-to-day influence, perhaps the most important thing of all, of a Council like ours in relation to Government obligations to look after consumer interests. The Government have statutory obligations to look after consumers' interests and they do not carry them out too well. The Trade Descriptions Act, the Food and Drugs Act, the Post Office Act—there are a number of Acts which lay down specific obligations on the Government to consult the public, the public interest and consumers' interest. In all those cases and a good many others Government Departments have come to realise that if they want a properly researched and representative view the Consumer Council has had the resources and the desire, and above all the duty, to put the consumers' point of view. We can and do support with expert technical skill those too often lone representatives, statutorily appointed to look after consumer interests; and we provide expert opinion on behalf of the consumer on many other committees where we sit round a table with manufacturers and traders making sure that the consumer view is heard. All this will stop.

It is no good pretending that there are plenty of people willing to take the work on. Without a professionally staffed, full-time organisation, in most consumer cases nothing happens at all, and nothing will. It is a naive economist indeed who supposes that competition is kept on the boil simply by isolated consumers exercising their choice in the market. I hope that the Minister will not skate round the very serious gaps which this policy is going to make in the whole consumer movement and the steady pressure in different directions in the consumers' interests.

The Department of Trade and Industry says, as a reason for our demise, that other consumer organisations have grown in number and in strength. No doubt the noble Lord will give us a list of those consumer organisations and of their number and strength, to show exactly how they are going to do the work that we are to stop doing. But I should like temporarily to anticipate him. In the first place, there is the Consumers' Association, our good friends. They have made it perfectly clear that they will not touch it. That has been said again and again. There are one or two things in relation to representation that they are prepared to do, but they are not prepared to do the rest. Their finances indicate that they are fully committed in their testing and reporting on goods and services.

In addition, there is the Federation of Consumer Groups, of which I am proud to say I am advisory chairman, and their constituent groups around the country. There is the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution, and the Housewives' Trust, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, was the inspiration. All of these labour in their particular bits of the vineyard, all of them on financial shoestrings. They all deplore the loss of the Consumer Council, as they have looked on us as a national source of strength. I am sure they would not thank the noble Lord if he conferred on them the task of advising and working and speaking for consumers as a whole, men as well as women, for the purpose of services as well as goods.

Yet the right honourable gentleman Mr. Maurice Macmillan yesterday actually quoted these diverse and specialist bodies as an adequate replacement. I hope that the noble Lord will think of something slightly more plausible. The wretched evasion which was given by the Board of Trade as a justification for this action, that enough protection is now being given to the consumer by other bodies, has convinced me that the services for the individual are deteriorating every day as personal service gives way to computers and mechanisation. One has only to look at one's bank statement and compare it with one ten years ago to see how startling is the change. And anyone who, as I have, has bought a new washing machine and had to wait ten days before anyone could be persuaded even to make it work, will greet such a statement with a hollow laugh. One could have understood a Government with the rather confused approach to life which is put out as a new philosophy not actually setting up a Council like ours. But to suppress it in present conditions is inexplicable.

Now, my Lords, I should like to say one or two things about comments which have been made in the debate. I found the faint praise of my noble friend Lady Burton almost as embarrassing as Lord Derwent's modest condemnation. Both appreciated that there was a need for the Consumer Council. My noble friend Lady Burton thinks that there still is. I cannot argue this point at length now, but I should like to have a quarter of an hour with the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, to bring out Sir Joseph Molony's point that if there was a need then, my goodness!, there is a need now. The idea that everything is now perfectly all right is quite honestly not tenable for one moment. As to over-co-ordination, in the debate that we had in this House I agreed with the noble Baroness that there was a good deal to go for, and we have been going for it; but that will not happen in the future. With regard to over-education, I have said some of the things we are doing but more will have to be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in dismissing the laissez-faire solution, was clearly saying what is absolutely true today. Whether the Government's reason is a laissez-faire one or not we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn. I do not believe that even the Government take the view that everything is all right if you leave it alone; but we shall hear about that in due course. Lord Beaumont pointed out the necessity for what the economists describe now as a "countervailing power". The Consumer Council must be a pressure group to help individuals fight large organisations. I have nothing to say about the comments of my noble friend Lady Gaitskell, except that I agree with them.

So may I pass on to my last remark, which is simply that I do not want to sit down without saying something about the staff. It is not only that our staff was dedicated to the work which we are now told was not worth doing; they were also exceptionally able and built into a most effective body with a hard cutting edge. On the whole, this is the most wanton aspect of the whole affair. An integrated instrument is hard to build, and in this case it has been forged most successfully. The airy way in which the whole thing has been scrapped should make individuals wary before they accept employment in Government-sponsored activities. If a Party sets up a body which has obvious ideological implications, anybody who undertakes to work for it does so with his eyes open, in the knowledge that a change of Party may change the policy. But the Consumer Council had no ideological implications. It was set up by a Conservative Government and it has been destroyed by a Conservative Government. My Lords, I look forward without much joy to hearing the noble Lord's explanation.

8.3 p.m.


My Lords, I hesitate to take any of your Lordships' time on subjects which do not concern my own former professional background. But I felt that this was a subject on which even at this late hour, the voice of an amateur but continuing consumer of modest means might have something useful to say. I will not say anything which is in any sense advocating the point of view of any Party or institution, my only institutional connection being membership of the Consumers' Association, for whose work I am most grateful. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, for having given us this chance to discuss this sensitive subject. I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of those who have worked for the Consumer Council, and particularly the work which has been carried out in recent times by Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd.

May I start by making one concession to the point of view of the Government? It is not a vice to want to reduce Government expenditure: all Governments have moments when they have to do this. I also agree that when you try to do this, it is very difficult. There is a version of Parkinson's Law which transforms all work into necessary work, and then you are not cutting off a piece of dead wood, but you have to choose which among the necessities you will dispense with. Having said that, I confess that I am puzzled over this particular choice. I must take up the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, on the point that the Consumer Council has done what it can and can now how out, and that we can live moderately happily ever after. This is based on the static conception of society that disregards wholly the fact that by January 1 there will be one or two new problems for the Consumer Council, and in a few years' time there will be a great multiplicity of them.

There is also another point which I found puzzling. This is a development of the argument put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell. I see considerable force in the Government's view that some of the life in our community should be made a little tougher and more self-reliant, provided that this is taken in company with the other part of the policy of the Government, that those who are behind in the race, or are in a weak position economically and socially, should get something of a hand. Surely the Consumer Council is not an obstacle to this: it is a necessary prop for this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, said, it is precisely the weak consumer who needs help; and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, made the same point very tellingly.

May I jump to the conclusion that we need something, and the purpose of this debate is perhaps to advise the Minister who will reply what, as something of a consensus, those who have spoken on this side of the argument would like to see. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, and other speakers have shown us clearly enough why the Consumers' Association cannot take on the work of the Consumer Council. They do not have the resources and probably they would not get the extra resources if they asked for them from the sources from which they get their present assets. So there has to be something different.

It could be and has been argued that this work could now be undertaken by the Board of Trade itself. Here perhaps my own experience can be helpful. No Government Department particularly welcomes a strong "ginger group" getting at it all the time, especially if the "ginger group" happens to be subsidised by Government money. On the other hand, many officials, in their own private thoughts, when they feel that an objective is good, may find it quite helpful to have a "ginger group" helping to make sure that things get done which most people know ought to be done, but which, as many speakers have said, come low in the list of priorities and may not get done through the ordinary process of Departmental submission. If there is to be a body at all it has to be not only, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, said, an information body: it has to be a pressure group as well. Its resources, it appears, will not come from elsewhere than Government. There is something in the nature of an advanced and sophisticated democracy if a Government can bring itself to allocate the small sum of money—which this is—required to keep a "ginger group" directed against itself going. This seems to me to be democracy of a sophisticated kind of which we ought to be proud.

May I conclude by saying that I know that the noble Lord who will reply to this debate will do it with all his known charm and competence. But I hope he will give the consumer a slightly happier feeling than the consumer would have had at the beginning of this debate. Also as a final point, that he will be able to do so in such a way that the expert services of some, at least, of the Consumer Council may be retained before they are all dissipated.

8.10 p.m.


My Lords, I 'also should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this Question. I thought she dealt with it very gently, and were I the member of the Government to reply to her I do not think I should feel she had treated me at all harshly. I do not intend to labour the points which have been made so eloquently by various noble Lords during the debate. It seems to me that embodied in this Question are in fact four questions. I shall, as is usual when various Members of this House put questions, probably answer them myself; but I will leave certainly one for the noble Lord who is to reply. The questions are: What have the Government done? How have they done it? Why did they do it? And, fourth, was it a sensible and justified action? I have just one more which they can have a little later.

I remember the setting up of the Consumer Council—and we have heard a lot this evening about the birth of this particular body. I was working a long time before that in the field of consumer education and protection through the British Standards Institution. We had a body known as the Consumer Advisory Council, which was disbanded at the time of the setting up of the Consumer Council—a very statesmanlike action to which I think little commendation has ever been given. I am bound to say, with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, that I had not a very high opinion of the Consumer Council at that time. I felt—and still feel—that its terms of reference were too narrow and that the exclusions, what it could not do, were in many ways much more important than what it could do. But I should like to pay tribute to what it has done over the years, within the limitations imposed upon it. The Consumer Council has given a splendid account of its stewardship.

If we are going to look at what the Government have done, we should look at the Conservative Manifesto. I notice that we are all being very non-political to-night, but I do not think, standing at this Box. I can claim to be anything other than Party political. In the Manifesto we notice the statement that: The Conservative Party will closely examine ways of safeguarding more effectively and equitably the rights and freedoms of the individual citizen. Splendid! I applaud it. A little further on we see that they boast that: In 1963 the Conservative Government set up the Consumer Council, which has since proved to be a powerful and influential spokesman for the interests of the consumers. It proved to be such a powerful and influential spokesman that its reward was that its grant was withdrawn as soon as the Conservatives came into Government—because they did not wait very long to take action.

How was it done? My noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge has not gone into this. Quite commendably, he has not told your Lordships, but I feel you should know. As my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry indicated, first there was a leak in one of the Sunday papers in early November which seemed to suggest that the Consumer Council would not get its grant.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness forgive me for interrupting? I have not interrupted this debate at all so far. She will appreciate that it is always very easy to assert there has been a leak merely because something later happens. It may have been just an intelligent guess.


My Lords, I will give that point to the noble Lord: an intelligent guess appeared in a certain Sunday newspaper. But intelligent guesses have been known, rather like denials, to be proved to be a forerunner of what is to come. When I read a denial of an engagement I know that the engagement is almost certainly going to be announced in the next two or three months, after it has been said, "We are merely good friends." Similarly, any intelligent guess seems, curiously, to be the forerunner of an actual event.

I understand that my noble friend Lord Donaldson, as Chairman, received a summons to the Minister one morning, when it was said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would announce in one sentence, without giving any reasons, the withdrawal of the grant that afternoon. Finally, I understand that a Press statement from the Board of Trade was given out on the day of the act and reached the Council two days later. I know that the present Government are claiming to be a disengaged Government. I am wondering whether they will go down in history as a discourteous Government, because this does not seem to me the way one should do something of this kind. So far as Mr. Des Wilson is concerned, I have been trying to think during this debate whether he was more or less fortunate than a chairman of another corporation. Mr. Wilson, at any rate, was sacked even before he had taken over his post. So at least he had the opportunity of taking his talents elsewhere, as apparently he is going to do.

Now let us look at the reasons the Government gave—we have been given these several times tonight. First, it was said that there had been an adequate advance in presentation of consumer interests; and, second, that other consumer organisations have grown in strength and number. We have heard who these are: the Consumers' Association, the consumer groups, the Retail Trading Standards Association, the Citizen's Advice Bureaux, my own little organisation, the Housewives' Trust. I cannot speak for the others, but I can speak as one who tried to start a consumer information service.

If you rely on the money you get from your members—and this applies to the Consumers' Association, too—you will be servicing the people who can afford it and not necessarily the people who need it—in fact, they are very rarely the same kind of people. If you receive money from industry, this money will always be regarded with some suspicion—sometimes unjustifiably, but nevertheless there will be the accusation that this is given for a reason. So I do not think any Government should suggest that the consumer associations already in existence, although they have grown in strength and number, can adequately fill the role of consumer education which was being carried out by the Consumer Council.

Let us now look at the other question. It is said there is an adequate advance in presentation of consumer interests. I am sure that the noble Lord who is going to reply will tell us that we have various Acts of Parliament; and he will be right. But I should like at this point to quote from The Times of November 7: Competition between producers can be an effective instrument to efficiency only if consumers know the value of what they are buying. Yet how many of us do? And this is very relevant: Many people who would never buy a house without a surveyor's report will nevertheless purchase goods of equal complexity with nobody's advice except the salesman's. The consumer in every field at the moment needs an organised kind of education. We know that the situation is not going to change, but that the demand is going to become increasingly severe. We are offered all the time more and more by manufacturers and retailers, service industries, nationalised industries, all kinds of sophisticated equipment and services. It is moving more and more into the field of sophistication. Through my letter-box this morning came, as will have been the experience of many of your Lordships, invitations to have central heating installed, invitations to have double glazing for the windows in my home, invitations to take package holidays. The offers are absolutely unlimited and are increasing all the time. And only this week I have had two classic cases. One was of a young man who had central heating installed, at a very substantial cost; and he has had no heat for two years. He has struggled on against one of tile giants to which several of your Lordships have referred this evening. These are sophisticated services demanding more knowledge on the part of the consumer.

I have said before many times that the battle of the shopper is like the sex war, and that in that both sides should be armed. On the one side we have the whole barrage of the manufacturer, with his advertising, all his sophisticated knowledge of scientific researches; and on the other side we have the buyer, who is confronted by packages of all shapes and sizes, by convenience foods, by all kinds of promotion methods, all kinds of premium offers, and supermarkets which become larger and more impersonal while the small shops tend to disappear. These are the circumstances in which we are told the consumer no longer needs to have help and advice. I cannot think of a greater contradiction.

Finally, I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, what is going to happen to the existing records of the Consumer Council. Is all the research and the work which at the moment is in various important stages just to be left high and dry? Are we to have the opportunity of knowing what are the Government's plans, or are we again to have one just rather barren sentence which neither explains nor attempts to justify?

8.20 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an excellent debate on the Question tabled by my noble friend, postponed unfortunately from one time to another, and those who are not present this evening are very much the losers. It has been an absolutely first-class debate. I must say that the Question seems to have been somewhat prolonged, but this is the procedure that we seem to have, and in the course of the speeches the original two questions have become an absolute torrent of questions. I do not know whether I shall be able to explain the inexplicable to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. All I can do is to put forward the point of view of the Government on this matter and explain, so far as I can, the reasons for their thinking.

Probably the first point I ought to make is that in the nature of the case it has been difficult to explain in advance what the Government were going to do. As my noble friend had put down a Question I thought the proper thing to do—and I quite take the criticisms made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, on this point—was to await this occasion. Because, obviously, in the debate we had recently it would have been difficult to give anything more than a very summary answer: it could easily have been completely misinterpreted, and in any case it would have sounded, as one speaker said to-night, as if Governments do not treat the consumer interests as important. That is certainly not true.

Let me first say what the Government's decision does not mean. It does not mean that we think there are no longer any consumer problems, or no longer any need for the consumer's interests to be firmly advanced. Of course such problems remain, although I need hardly repeat the view of this Government, that real and effective competition can do more than anything else to mitigate them. Also, since the Molony Committee has been referred to, may I remind your Lordships that at page 295 of their Report the Molony Committee said this: …we have no hesitation in saying that, overall, competition is the consumer's best friend. Nor does it mean, my Lords, that we have repented of the decision, which the Conservative Government took over seven years ago, to establish the Council, or that we are unaware of the many hard battles which the Council has fought, or of its less obtrusive hard work behind the scenes to put the consumer cause on the map. What it does mean is that we have asked ourselves, as any Government should, whether the solutions which were appropriate to the early 'sixties are quite the right ones in what are undoubtedly the quite different circumstances of the 'seventies. And we have concluded that they are not.

A number of noble Lords have referred to the situation that existed before, and my noble friend Lord Dement, in particular, has pointed out that at the time of the Molony Committee's Report, which was a very valuable Report, purely consumer organisations were struggling newcomers. Someone has said that the consumer movement in this country is hardly more than ten years old. These were struggling newcomers and the protective umbrella of legislation, as the Molony Committee pointed out, was inadequate in so many respects. My noble friend gave the example of the gaps in the teeth. The fact is that there were hardly any dentures at all. At that time, clearly, an authoritative consumer voice had to be provided by the Government; otherwise the Council would not have come into existence. But look what has happened since then.

My noble friend mentioned all the various Acts of Parliament that have been passed, and there cannot be the slightest doubt that they have quite changed the situation. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell—in a charming speech, if I may say so—spoke of the ways in which advertising could mislead. But in fact we now have on the Statute Book the Trade Descriptions Act, which greatly strengthens the law protecting the consumer, as well as other purchasers, against false or misleading statements, whether in advertising or elsewhere, and places a positive duty of enforcement, which had not existed before, on the weights and measures authorities.

So we have to-day over 200 authorities watching this situation in the interests of the consumer and of the purchaser in general. Also, the year previously, we had the Misrepresentation Act, which improved the buyer's means of protecting himself against loss due to misrepresentation on the part of the seller. Does the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, wish to intervene?


My Lords, I really think the noble Lord is overstressing this business of the changes between 1963, when the Consumer Council was set up, and the situation in June, 1970, when the Conservative Party, in its own Manifesto, called attention to the fact that the Consumer Council had proved to be a powerful and influential spokesman in the interests of the consumer. There was no qualification of that at all. Does the noble Lord really say that since June, 1970, there has been a significant change?


My Lords, if I may say so, I think the noble Lord has his facts wrong. If I remember rightly, there was no such reference in the Manifesto. What I think he is talking about is the Campaign Guide. That is a factual statement; and of course we do agree entirely. The Consumer Council has exercised a very useful voice and has done a great many good things. But it is entirely wrong to say that these Acts of the Party opposite, on which they placed such great stress—they went round the country saying what magnificent Acts they were—have not changed the situation. Under the Conservative Government before that we had the Weights and Measures Act and the Resale Prices Act, both of which were of great advantage to the consumer and undoubtedly lessened the need for the outside voice.

All the same, my Lords, I would not for one moment dispute that the relationship I have had with the Consumer Council has been extremely happy. I have appreciated what the Council was doing, and I am certain that everybody here does so as well. But it is not only legislation: during this period various Orders and Regulations have been made—for example, under the Consumer Protection Act 1961, which deals with safety matters. In the field of food there are the new labelling regulations due to come into force mainly at the beginning of 1973. There have been developments, as was inevitable, in the voluntary machinery for advancing or asserting the consumers' interest. These are very impressive developments. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said that no doubt I would refer to them, and I must not disappoint him.

Consider for a moment the Consumers' Association. I understand that their income from subscribers to Which? and other publications has risen from £600,000 to £1.6 million in the last five years. The number of subscribers has more than doubled. These additional funds, willingly provided by individual consumers for something they recognised to be of value, have enabled the Association to direct its interest more and more beyond the limited field of comparative testing to matters of more general consumer concern. It has broadened the range of its publications; it has opened an experimental shoppers' advice centre; it has co-operated in establishing an Institute for Consumer Ergonomics; it has undertaken consumer educational work; and it has played a growing part in consumer representation—all this flowing, without external support, from a private initiative which correctly interpreted and fulfilled a real consumer need. None of this was foreseen by Molony.

Along with the growth of the Consumers' Association there has been the growth of the local consumer groups—now numbering about 80 with some 12,000 members—and these are linked together in the National Federation of Consumer Groups. I am not saying that the Consumers' Association is able here and now to take over everything that the Consumer Council did. They themselves have said that their resources do not permit them to replace the Consumer Council in all its work.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I must quote from a letter recently written by the Chairman of the Association to the Minister, the honourable gentleman, Mr. Ridley. In her second paragraph she says: We trust that Government spokesmen will in future avoid saying or implying that the Consumers' Association can do the work of the Consumer Council. This is not so. We hope to take over a little of the representational work, but in the absence of alternative provision the Consumer Council's educational and informational work will lapse.


My Lords, the Consumers' Association have said that they cannot take over all the functions of the Council, but they have also stated that they are prepared to take over some of them. What the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, does not realise is that where there are needs there is a tendency for those needs to be met.


My Lords—


Really, it is most unusual in an Unstarred Question to have an abundance of interruptions. I did not interrupt any noble Lord or Lady who spoke, and I think we shall get into a terrible tangle if we make this a sort of colloquy across the Floor of the House. But I give way with pleasure to the noble Baroness.


My Lords, I would remind the noble Lord—I hope his memory is not so short—that nobody was better than he was at putting a whole series of questions demanding answers, certainly on an Unstarred Question. I was going to ask him whether he agrees that the Consumers' Association will give information to those who pay for it.


Yes, my Lords, they will give information to those who pay for it, but, of course, they rightly claim that they are also giving information to a very great many other people. They claim that their readership is several times their circulation—I forget how many times, but I think two and a half. And what they print is available for report and comment in the Press. What they put over with their enormous circulation in fact receives very much more publicity, naturally, than the Consumer Council was able to get. One must accept that. The Housewives' Trust, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, has taken so great an interest, is another example of advances that have been made; and there is the whole constellation of women's organisations. Then there are the citizens' advice bureaux, some 500 of them, ready to help individual consumers who find themselves in difficulties. The Molony Committee envisaged the closest links between the Consumer Council and the citizens' advice bureaux, but while there has been some co-operation it has not, I think, been as close, and shows no signs of being as close, as Molony hoped.

There are other bodies, not financed either by the Government or by the consumer, but some with independent representation, which have shown themselves solicitous for the consumers' interest—the Advertising Standards Authority, with which I had some connection, and the Retail Trading Standards Authority, to which the noble Baroness referred. There is also the recently formed Mail Order Publishers' Association, of which Lady Burton is President. And lastly there are the Press, radio and television. There are not only journalists specialising in consumer affairs, but also well known columns in the popular Press which set out to right consumer wrongs. Both make a continuing and regular study of the consumer interest each in their own way. These bodies, or nearly all of them, have shown their ability to work together to an increasing extent. They are all animated by a common concern to see that the consumer gets a fair deal.

My Lords, this is surely an impressive catalogue of achievement and development; on the one hand, the achievement of a near-comprehensive system of protective law—and with the Sale of Goods Act we shall bring that nearer still; this is the last part of the Molony recommendations to be implemented—with adequate arrangements for its effective enforcement. May I say in passing that we ought to be cautious about looking only at the laws of other countries. We ought at the same time to make certain that their laws are as well enforced as ours. On the other side, there is a flourishing variety of voluntary bodies founded upon private initiative, with growing resources. Individual consumers are showing that they are willing to pay for the kind of service they really need; and different bodies are showing that they can correctly diagnose and fulfil that need. Instead of recognising and being proud of this, we are apt in this country to delude ourselves with the semblance of things in other countries; but I think that those who have explored the situation elsewhere must agree that in this field we are the equal of many and the envy of most. What distinguishes us from other countries is that by and large we do better than the law requires, at least in this field.

I am not saying that we have achieved perfection in this country and for that reason can dispense with the Consumer Council. What I am saying is that a Conservative Government established a Consumer Council in 1963 when the consumer movement was in its infancy; and now the situation is entirely different. Consumerism was weak; now it is strong. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, did a splendid job in awakening consumers to the protection of their own interests. That is what she was doing; she was not just publicising the Consumer Council. She would be the first to admit this. By speaking all over the country she encouraged the formation of local consumer groups and stimulated consumer education in schools, colleges and in the home. Her work has been ably continued by her successor, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson and has been backed by a most able and active director, Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd, and a devoted and vigorous staff. I know how devoted it is. The Consumer Council has made a notable contribution to the change that has taken place. In 1962 the private organisations in the consumer field were struggling infants; now they are lusty adults. By their vigorous growth they have demonstrated that consumers have the initiative, the will to provide and the confidence to support with their purses services to meet their needs.

It is a complete illusion to think that every improvement in the consumer field has been due exclusively and entirely to the Consumer Council—I am sure that the Consumer Council would not claim that, but some of the comments we have seen in the Press seem to indicate that this is so—let alone that not one of those improvements would have taken place without it. Of course it has played a very large part, and played it very well. True, some of the needs of the consumers are not likely, perhaps, in the immediate future—because you cannot switch over at once—to be looked after. But as long as some part of those needs was met by the Consumer Council, sponsored and suported by the Government, it was unrealistic to expect private initiative to deal with the entire sector of the activity the Council covered. We had to ask ourselves whether it was really appropriate for the Government to decide forever what kind of central organisation, with what functions and resources, consumers should have.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and others, have suggested that while there should be some consumer representation, it should be of a different kind and doing different things. But that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the Consumer Council as it is, and there has been a marked cleavage of opinion. On the one hand there are those who do not want to give up the Consumer Council as it now is, and on the other hand those who want to have an entirely different sort of body doing different things. Thirdly, my noble friend Lord Derwent took the view that the Government take: that the Consumer Council has done an excellent job, that it has done a job of pump-priming, if you like to put it that way, and now it is possible for consumers to decide what things they wish to have done on their behalf and, by their efforts, to provide the machinery and resources to do them. That they can do so with great success, as I say, has been demonstrated by the progress voluntary organisations have already made.

I do not know whether or not the removal of the Consumer Council from the scene will lead others to provide the machinery to do every single thing that it has been doing or seeking to do, but this I do know: that the very successes achieved by the Consumer Council have made it that much less necessary to have a Consumer Council. Its appointment and its performance can justly be regarded as successful pump-priming operations—perhaps in other countries as well as our own. The Consumer Council has played a considerable part in making trade associations and business in general—perhaps even the Government—more sensitive to the needs of the consumer. It has helped to teach consumers that the best way to set about securing their interests is not only by working with each other but by co-operating with trade and industry. It has shown some of the ways in which consumers can be informed about their legal rights and their legal duties.

But it is not necessary to have a Consumer Council in order to find out what consumers are thinking. Indeed, there is some danger in keeping such bodies going too long. The Press and the public could become too dependent on the view of a Government-nominated, Government-financed body as expressed in regular handouts and Press releases. It would be quite wrong if, instead of representing the consumer viewpoint, a Government-nominated body reached the position of telling—and I am not suggesting that the Consumer Council has reached this position, but I am pointing out the danger— not only the Government but also consumers what they ought to think. In the view of the Government it is better left to consumers to create their own organisations and decide what organisation to support, and to see that through them their voices are heard. I cannot believe that consumers will fail to respond to that challenge.

Finally, I put it to your Lordships that a voice is authoritative not because it is the voice of a body nominated by a Government, but because it truly represents the interest which it claims to serve, and because it commands the respect of the public and the Government alike. While the Consumer Council has conscientiously tried to represent the views of the consumer, and has done so with considerable success, gaining a large measure of public confidence, we believe that in the long run it is far better for consumers to provide the authoritative voice than for the Government to provide it for them.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he intends to reply to the charge of discourtesy which my noble friend Lady Phillips made as to the manner in which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, was told that the Council was to end?


My Lords, I regret very much that the charge has been made. Certainly there was no intention of any discourtesy. If the noble Lord feels that there was a discourtesy in this matter, then on behalf of Her Majesty's Government I would apologise to him for this. The noble Lord knows how difficult these things are to do, and of course I am sure there was every intention of avoiding a leak. This is why I took up what the noble Baroness said. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having raised this point, and I can only repeat that I am certain there was no intention of discourtesy. But if it is felt that there was discourtesy, then the Government are very sorry for it.