§ 2.47 p.m.
BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY rose to call attention to the necessity for a reappraisal of consumer affairs and education consequent upon the withdrawal of grant to the Consumer Council; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in rising to-day to move the Motion which stands in my name I should say, first of all, that this Motion has been on the Order Paper for a considerable time; in fact ever since December 1, 1970, when the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, asked her Unstarred Question on the abolition of the Consumer Council. I should like to say straight away that to-day we much regret the absence of the noble Baroness, who has an official engagement in Scotland. The noble Baroness has sent me a note from which I ask permission to quote one sentence:
I am sure we should not try to revive the Consumer Council: it would have to be a different approach.
When I reach the end of my remarks to-day I hope that Members will realise how glad I am to be able to open with such a sentence from the first Chairman of the Consumer Council.
§ With some trepidation I refused the opportunity of a debate in December last and, on behalf of all consumers, I should like to express appreciation of this further opportunity. I refused because I did not think the time was right. Why then does this seem to be the right moment? Strangely, since December many people and many organisations, consumer and otherwise, have approached me quite separately and quite voluntarily. In addition, four industries have done the same. Each and every person, organisation and 1089 industry has made the point that something must be either established or done to deal with this aspect of to-day, the aspect of consumer affairs. I prefer not to mention names for obvious reasons. I hasten to add that by "consumer affairs" I do not mean consumer protection or a continuation of the "we" and "they" attitude. Neither do I mean Naderism, because it seems to me that this approach is not for us in Britain; and I should like to return to this point later. Many of us taking part to-day have agreed that we will do our best to make this an informative debate. I hope that we shall succeed and that good will come of it. In advance I want to express appreciation to colleagues on all sides of the House. This is entirely non-Party so far as I am concerned. Bearing in mind that not everyone has heard our previous debates, and hoping for the indulgence of those who have, may I run through a few details? I will be very brief.
§ My Lords, going back to the dissolution of the Consumer Council and to the debate we had on this on December 1, 1970, I must repeat some of the points made. It seemed to me that the Consumer Council had been treated very badly in the way this matter was dealt with. I had been, and still remain, critical of the Consumer Council and thought re-appraisal necessary. I believed that part of the trouble had been that government, with a small "g", had always been reluctant to regard consumer affairs as of major importance. The Consumer Council, my Lords, had no "teeth". Its status was not the status envisaged by the Molony Committee. This conception did not work, in my mind, for two reasons: the set-up was wrong, and the Consumer Council went the wrong way about things, although it did many first-class jobs. I will spare the House a development of these points; they are known to all of us interested in this subject. The present Government took the extraordinary viewpoint in November and December of a year ago that because the number of consumer organisations had increased, there was no need for a Consumer Council, as though the number of consumer organisations had anything to do with the matter at all.
§ My Lords, what has been wanted ever since the Molony Committee reported in 1962—and that is 10 years ago—has been 1090 co-ordination in consumer affairs and consumer education. And if I may forestall any comments to the contrary, I do not believe that there has been enough co-ordination or that what we have had has been of the right type. I think we agree that the word "protection" was left behind in the 'fifties. I think it should now be the junior partner of education. The co-ordination I keep talking about I saw as the main job of the Consumer Council, as did Molony at paragraph 872. It was in this, I thought, that the Consumer Council did not succeed. Hopefully, I would ask the House to accept that such co-ordination is the outstanding need.
In a debate in November, 1969, I called for a re-appraisal, for a reconstruction, to see why this co-ordination had not been forthcoming. That meant reconstruction and not abolition. Noble Lords may recall that at the time it was tentatively put about that the Consumers' Association might take part in this job and that a very "dusty" answer came from the Association. Being ever an optimist, I did hope that Mr. Davies himself, as ex-Director of the Confederation of British Industry, would realise, and would persuade his colleagues in the Government to realise, that in these days of giant organisations, of monopolies, of developing retail chains, of complex nomenclature in labelling, of larger and larger units for production, the more necessary, not less, becomes co-ordination and education for the consumer and for reputable industry, too. That is why I and many people like myself cannot accept the belief of the Minister that
the success of the private organisations shows that where a real need exists, private initiative will meet it.
§ I wrote to the right honourable gentleman in December, 1970. He sent me a detailed and courteous reply from which I have just quoted a sentence. Mr. Davies said that action was contemplated on two of the points I had raised; namely, exemption clauses and the problems affecting litigation over small claims. Concerning the latter, I hope to-day that someone will tell us more of the Manchester experiment of a voluntary arbitration scheme. Here the arbitrator is chosen by the Manchester Law Society's President from a voluntary panel of solicitors. Legal representation is not allowed and both sides must agree to accept the 1091 Findings. Manchester Citizens' Advice Bureau and local solicitors both refer complaints to the scheme. I can assure your Lordships that from the consumers' point of view this scheme is a big improvement on the county court.
§ Now, although connected directly neither with exemption clauses nor with small claims, I think the House will be interested to know that Britain's first neighbourhood law centre to be entirely subsidised by local authority funds is to be established in the City of Westminster, which is very near to our House. My Lords, the recommendation here allows for the appointment of two full-time qualified solicitors who will be helped by an articled clerk and by an employee of the local Citizens' Advice Bureau. Provision is also made for a secretarial staff. The scheme, which follows proposals put forward by the Westminster Council of Social Services, is expected to come into operation this year. The law service will be based in North Paddington at the offices of the local Citizens' Advice Bureau, but the solicitors will travel to other parts of the borough. Not only would these solicitors give immediate legal advice; they would be able to undertake the consequential work; and I should like to thank The Times newspaper of January 7 and 25 for this information. My Lords, it does show that matters are on the move for what we would all describe as small matters legally, but matters far from small for ordinary people of limited means. Also, it seems likely that, by means of an Amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, judges are to be given power to compensate the victims of dishonest traders when they convict the traders of malpractices under criminal law.
The last two sentences of the Minister's letter—and I did of course mention using this to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn—were as follows:
What developments the consumer's interest will generate—new organisations, changes in existing organisations, the evolution of co-ordinative machinery—remains to be seen; naturally one cannot expect everything to happen overnight. But in so far as the future set-up directly reflects the wishes and active support of consumers, it must inevitably be the best and most widely respected representative and guide that they can have.
My Lords, at the end of my remarks I want to suggest a possibility for this
future set-up. In the meantime what consumer organisations have we got? First of all, let us take the Consumers' Association. They and their publications, Which?, Motoring Which?, Handyman Which?, render invaluable service. For many years the Association have had the problem that their readership is largely middle-class. This has seemed insuperable to consumer organisations the world over. But now Which? is breaking through this barrier and in some respects has gone right through it. In collaboration with the Daily Mirror, their research is being made available to the 10 million readers of that paper. A second break-through has come with advice centres, to which I shall be coming later. And a third one Which? has always had has been when particular reports plus excellent publicity have forced a showing on television at an early hour. I am convinced that this is essential for what I am talking about today, and always have been.
My Lords, most people, car owners or not—and I am not a car owner—followed the television showing of the Which? report on garages and the servicing of cars. As a result, public opinion believed that a fundamental shake-up of garage servicing was needed. It would seem that they were right. In the Financial Times of January 6 last, under a heading "80 per cent. of workmanship complaints justified, says AA survey", is the opening sentence:
Four out of five motorists who complained of bad workmanship in jobs done by garages on their cars were right, according to an AA survey published yesterday.
It now looks as though some improvement in service standards may he on the way, and any such result will be due to the Consumers' Association.
Mrs. Jennifer Jenkins, the Chairman of the Consumers' Association, has defined one of their objectives as publicising consumer problems and lobbying to solve them. In the Association's annual report for 1970–71 she said:
We have always been concerned to make representations on behalf of the consumer, to expose inadequacies in protective legislation and to have appropriate links with regulatory services at home and abroad. The abolition of the Consumer Council, deplored in a motion carried at our last annual general meeting, makes this aspect of C.A.'s work doubly important. We are for the time being the only national organisation equipped with the
expertise and facilities to voice the consumer viewpoint and campaign for the consumer interest.
§ The National Federation of Consumer Groups is fading away. This seems a pity, as some were extremely effective, securing good coverage, locally and nationally, in the Press, on television and on radio. The Federation is not fading away because of Government action but because its sponsor, the Consumers' Association, is no longer able to continue its annual grant of £10,000 a year and free office accommodation. The grant has had to be reduced to £2,000.
§ In the consumer area what other organisations are well established? The Citizens' Advice Bureaux, with so much to offer on consumer affairs arising from the Molony Report, were gravely weakened in this aspect by their association with the Consumer Council and by the unfortunate happenings which we discussed in this House on July 15 last. It does appear, though, as if the Citizens' Advice Bureaux are being used more and more on the legal side. Then we have the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution, which this month celebrates its 21st anniversary. I think this Committee has had, always, one special problem because of being attached to so specialist an organisation as the B.S.I. It is the problem which laymen usually meet when arguing a case on manufactured goods with technical experts. "Ah!" say the experts, "what you suggest is not possible technically. You don't understand the problems involved". Well, my Lords, on every occasion we do not, but on some we certainly do. And I should like to pay tribute to the Women's Advisory Committee for what they have accomplished. We have also the Institute of Weights and Measures Administration, so much admired by us all for a long time. They have had a heavy load of additional work thrust upon them by the Trades Descriptions Act. As many Members will know, there has been considerable development here and I will leave this aspect of our discussion to other speakers. Doubtless my noble friend Lady Phillips will tell us something of the Housewives' Trust, and maybe other speakers will tell us of other organisations.1094
§ Then, my Lords, we have the trade organisations. The best known to me in this field is the Retail Trading Standards Association. I believe that probably it has done the best and most unbiased job of all for the consumer over a long period. And I would remind the House that doing this in 1950 and 1951 was not a popular occupation. However, I have spoken many times of the R.T.S.A., so I will merely say that my voluntary and appreciative co-operation goes back some 21 years.
Among the trade organisations I want to mention the Association of Mail Order Publishers. This Association, of which I am President and of whose Authority I am Chairman, covers the mail order field in so far as gramophone records, books and magazines are concerned. The House will remember that we debated this on April 1 last year when the Unsolicited Goods and Services Bill was before us. Subsequently, on August 12, the day the Act came into force, Mr. Philip Goodhart, the sponsor of the Bill, was asked on television whether he could outline the particular types of firms he was out to nail for the deliberate sending of unsolicited goods—still referred to by the interviewer as "inertia selling". I have here the actual script. Mr. Goodhart's reply was—and I quote:
Largely the suppliers … books, magazines, gramophone records, that's where most of the complaints come from.
My Lords, I hope the House knows me well enough to accept that if any of the firms in my Association were deliberately sending unsolicited goods the matter would be dealt with. I wrote to Mr. Goodhart on September 13, saying that he had made a serious accusation on television and asking for the substance and details of the complaints referred to so that these might be dealt with. On September 24 Mr. Goodhart replied, hoping that I had had a jolly holiday and saying—and I quote:
the references I made were to the incidents revealed during the debate on the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act.
He meant, of course, "Bill", not "Act".
The House will not be surprised that I regarded this reply as unsatisfactory and inadequate, and I wrote, on September 30, to say so. I told Mr. Goodhart that since receiving his letter I had studied
again the debates in both Houses and that in neither had I found any substantiated case of the deliberate sending of unsolicited goods in our field. Perhaps I may quote the last two paragraphs of my letter:
If you, or through you, any of your colleagues who supported the Bill in either House will let me have, as I asked in my letter of September 13 last, the substance and details of the complaints, we will follow them up from this end and let you know the result.
No offer could be fairer than that. If it is not taken up then I and the Authority, not to mention the members of the Association, will assume that the complaints are without foundation.
No reply has been received.
§ My Lords, I have said this to-day because I felt it to be necessary. I regret that it has had to be a personal involvement, but it had to be on the Record for two reasons. First, the cause of the consumer is damaged when unfounded and irresponsible statements are made on his behalf, particularly by someone in public life; in addition, industry is alienated—understandably so. Secondly, any organisation to whom this has been done has a right to public clearance when such statements are not substantiated. I am sure it is unnecessary to tell the House that I did inform Mr. Goodhart that I should be raising this matter to-day.
§ Local authorities have come more into the picture through the Weights and Measures Administration. Some have set up consumer advisory services. I remember, as long ago as 1965, telling the House about Sheffield and their creation of Britain's first full-time consumer protection advisory officer. We have moved on since then, and I hope that at the end of our debate we shall know more about the current position. Particularly, I hope that we shall hear how some local authorities are providing the money while the Consumers' Association provides the expertise for the setting up of advice centres.
§ The consumer or consultative committees of the nationalised industries have not been effective. I expect the House will know that a first-class publication on this subject was made by the Consumer Council in 1968 and was entitled, Consumer Consultative Machinery in the Nationalised Industries. I was Chairman of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council 1096 for some years so I have practical experience. The main problems were publicity and "teeth"—lack of both. We did our best, but how much power or influence did we have? We should like to think that when we really dug in our heels and became thoroughly awkward we mitigated some injustice or unfairness to the consumer. I think perhaps we did, but of course so few people knew of us. And we tried desperately hard to overcome this drawback: we had not enough money. I believe that members of the public should have a greater opportunity to voice any complaint against, or to make recommendations to, nationalised industries. The Post Office Act of 1969 brought into being in January, 1970, a consumer council which has been effective. I refer, of course, to the Post Office Users' National Council, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Peddie, the Chairman, will tell us something more when he speaks to-day.
§ My Lords, I said at the beginning that I did not think "Naderism" was for us. Ralph Nader made his name in a legal battle with General Motors. Without decrying in any way what he has achieved, I do not believe that methods successful in America would necessarily be successful in Britain. Therefore I am not convinced that militant consumerism is our answer. I would prefer the approach of helping people to understand, if that be the right word. I should like them to know what to look for rather than be told what is wrong.
§ I may not be in favour of militant consumerism, but I am serving notice on the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that I am in favour of a radical, persistent and relentless pursuit of government (with a small "g") on this whole social aspect. I think that consumer interests must be organised and collectively represented. The word "interests" does not mean complaints, but it does of course include them. I suggest that industry would welcome what was described in the Minister's letter as "the evolution of coordinative machinery". That is what I am after, too.
§ In our debate on November 26, 1969. when it was very evident that things had gone wrong, I asked for a re-appraisal and reconstruction, and I still think that we could have rescued the whole affair 1097 if we had got the Minister and the right people round the table to discuss why we were not succeeding. Then came 1970, a new Government, and abolition instead of re-appraisal. To-day, I have seen my task as one of trying to outline the background. Also, I have hoped in some way to set the picture. Quite deliberately I am not being too specific about the future, and for a definite reason. Out of to-day's debate I hope there will emerge a general consensus of opinion that we have here a gap. I should like all sides of the House to discuss what best can be done to fill it, and to fill it soon. I have ventured to say where I think we went wrong in the past and what I personally believe to be essential. What I am quite sure of, and what I think most people in the consumer world agree with me about, is the damage that can come from a proliferation of pressure groups. I have felt this, and what has interested me over the last two months has been this very strong feeling, in industry and trade association, in consumer organisation and individual alike. Proliferation here will mean neither constructive discussion nor constructive action.
§ My Lords, what is wanted? I am not in favour of a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Personally I do not want this put into government. We want education of consumers, which means of us all; we want effective and willing cooperation from all consumer interests; we want it from industry and individuals alike; we want no more of the "we" and "they" approach; we want help and encouragement from the media—Press, television and radio. I think we need something much wider, of much greater stature than ever before. We need it at home and we shall need it in Europe. Why could we not have an Institute of Consumer Affairs established by Royal Charter? In general, such an Institute could collect accurate and detailed information about various types of consumer; it could undertake the necessary specific research projects; it could be the central link we lack today. Other speakers may have other general suggestions. All I seek is that we agree a general principle and then look at the detail. That is what I ask the Government to do. This problem of consumer affairs does need a 1098 different set-up. This is the theme of my Motion to-day. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORT-FOLIO (LORD DRUMALBYN)
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will feel very greatly indebted indeed to the noble Baroness for her very informative and constructive speech. The debates that we have in this House on consumer affairs have become almost a kind of badminton game between the noble Baroness, Lady Burton and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, each taking turn about to raise the issue, so that we have practically an annual review, and this I am sure is extremely helpful in view of the enormous importance of consumer affairs. I do not think we can be in any doubt about that. I would only say to the noble Baroness at this stage that I am quite certain she would not wish me to give a snap "yes" to her suggestion, but it is one that will be most carefully considered.
The noble Baroness has said that there is a gap—one which really arises, I suppose, from the demise of the Consumer Council. Demises have a way of leaving gaps, and no doubt your Lordships will wish to consider to-day whether there is a gap or gaps, and if so precisely where they are and what their dimensions are, and how and by whom they should be filled. There is one thing that can hardly be denied. If there are gaps, they are not nearly so wide as they were when the Consumer Council was first appointed in 1963, as recommended by the Molony Committee. That this is so is in part due to the Consumer Council's own work—not least in getting consumer education on the move; in part to the work of other organisations which have grown stronger and more effective; in part to legislation, brought forward by both Governments, and by private Members with Government assistance, and to orders made under legislation, the outstanding Acts being the Weights and Measures Act 1963, the Hire Purchase Act 1964 and the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the last implementing a large part of the Molony Report. The result is that there is now more and better protective legislation, and it is much better enforced. The present situation is also due in part to a growing appreciation— 1099 and I think this is in tune with what the noble Baroness has said—that more can be accomplished by co-operation than by conflict. In general, there is greater awareness of the needs of the consumer and greater willingness to consider how to meet them.
My second point is perhaps a little more controversial, but not much. If it were to be decided that there are gaps to be filled, I doubt whether anyone would to-day suggest (and the noble Baroness did not) that they should be tilled by a body exactly similar to the old Consumer Council. I am not talking about personalities, I am talking about terms of reference and constitution. Given the present well developed state of protective law and the proven ability of private consumer organisations to say what consumers want and what consumers think, it is not now appropriate, in our view, for the State to say to consumers, "Here are the names of the people the Government have decided should represent you here are their terms of reference; and here is the money we are prepared to make available for them to spend within the terms of reference we have laid down." But I am bound to be asked: "Who is to do the thinking and research about consumers' needs and problems? Who on the consumer's behalf is to co-ordinate the results of that thinking into some coherent, national approach to trade and industry and to the Government?" The noble Baroness's idea of an Institute of Consumer Affairs is, of course, a broad one, and the details of it would plainly have to be worked out, so that she would not expect me to enter into a critique of it now.
I do not propose to give a definite answer to these questions at the outset of this debate, or indeed at all to-day, but may I suggest some of the possible lines of approach? One answer to the first question—that is, who is to do the thinking and researching—might be the Government with the aid of Parliament. Another might be that the question is misconceived—that it is wrong in principle to concede a kind of monopoly of thinking and researching on the consumers' behalf, I know this is not what the noble Baroness suggested, because she was obviously suggesting that all the organisations should be contributing to the work of her institute. We have a 1100 number of statutory monopolies, each of which has to have its own watchdog to see that the interests of the public are not ignored. The noble Baroness made reference to the Post Office Users' National Council. I do not want to make invidious comparisons, but I would certainly say that this is one of the most effective of these bodies. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, is to speak in this debate, and I would congratulate him on the success of his Council.
The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in another place said that his Council and the so-called "country councils" (Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish) seemed "to embody most of the lessons learned from nearly 25 years' experience". In addition, there are nearly 200 non-statutory voluntary Post Office advisory committees, generally constituted by chambers of commerce, chambers of trade or local authorities. Here is an interesting pattern of consumer protection which, in some respects, already has its counterparts in sections of the private sector—the noble Baroness's Mail Order Publishers' Association is one of them; and there is the Advertising Standards Authority covering the whole field of advertising, except in the political sphere.
Once the new upper tier local authorities get into their stride they may wish to sponsor consumer advisory bodies. This, of course, would be a matter for them, and it would also be for them and for any bodies they might wish to sponsor to decide how far to co-ordinate their activities both among themselves and with other consumer organisations. It is, of course, a matter for consumer organisations themselves, whether locally based or organised on a national footing, to think out what they want to do to advance their supporters' interests, and how to co-ordinate their thinking if they consider it necessary to do so. There should be no monopoly on this. The Chairman of the Consumers' Association has said:researching consumer problems and lobbying to serve them will continue to be important objectives of the Association.This is right, and it is clear from the Association's latest annual report that they are tackling these objectives with a real will; indeed, they have set up what they term a Consumer Campaign Committee 1101 "to give pace and co-ordination to this effort". Of course, I do not mean to imply that the Government should leave all the thinking to consumer organisations. We are thinking about consumer needs and problems; we are thinking about them all the time, and when necessary we take action.
I hope it will be acceptable to your Lordships if, at this stage in the debate, I indicate the lines of thought and of action. These problems and needs fall into four main categories, and I suggest that it is within these categories that we cast our suggestions. In some of them Government have a major responsibility; in others, the major responsibility lies elsewhere. But the Government have to be conversant with all four and to give proper consideration to them all. They are, I would suggest, first of all, the protection of the consumer from injury, deception and other malpractice; secondly, consumer information and education; thirdly, local consumer advisory services; and fourthly, the provision of adequate rights in civil law for the consumer, and facilities for their enforcement where necessary.
Taking the first—the protection of the consumer from injury, deception, and other harm—I think it is now generally accepted that where a need for statutory protection emerges, it is primarily the Government's responsibility to make statutory provision for it, so that rights and duties may be clearly defined. In addition, legislation has been introduced by private Members with Government assistance. Indeed, there is before another place at present a Private Members' measure which the Government are encouraging. Its purpose is to ensure that, now that as a result of the provisions of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 the old origin marking orders have lapsed, consumers will not be misled as to the origin of imported goods which bear English-sounding names.
In considering whether further protective legislation is needed, we have to hear in mind not only the great range of existing laws but also such considerations as how far it is practicable to deal in legislation with particular abuses, and how far self-discipline is effective in various spheres of trade and commerce. Generally speaking the great majority of British traders and manufacturers maintain a 1102 high standard of behaviour. But I assure the House that where it emerges that new measures are needed to protect the consumer, we shall not hesitate to introduce them. I am not saying that further reforms must necessarily come in large packages labelled "Consumer Protection". The provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill—now in Committee in another place—to which the noble Baroness referred, are a case in point. They include new and simplified provisions regarding the powers of criminal courts to order offenders to pay compensation; and the Government have undertaken to bring forward an Amendment at a later stage to ensure that such an order may be made in respect of loss or damage caused by an offence—including, for example, loss or damage suffered by a person who had bought goods on the strength of a false trade description for which the offender has been convicted.
So much for "main legislation"; but there is also an important body of secondary legislation in the consumer field. There is a mass of regulations in the field of foodstuffs; and even more will come into force on January 1, 1973. Their purpose is to protect the consumer's health and to give him a better idea of what he is buying. Other important powers relating to safety are available to the Government in the Consumer Protection Act 1961 and the Medicines Act 1968. During the course of 1971 three orders were made under this legislation, one relating to the safety of electric blankets and the others to surgical materials and the control of substances used in the manufacture of medicines. Further safety orders are under active consideration relating to toys, perambulators and push chairs.
The drafting of all these detailed rules and regulations for the consumer's benefit, and the discussions with the various affected parties which are held before they are put before Parliament, involve a lot of detail and a great deal of work on the part of central Government. For local government of course they represent an ever-increasing, ever more complex array of criminal law which has to be enforced each day and every day. The work which is carried out by weights and measures and food and drugs authorities in enforcing all this legislation, main and 1103 secondary, is most valuable—indeed, absolutely essential if the laws we have passed are to provide the protection we intend. The local authorities deserve our gratitude for the way in which they have tackled all this work, and the reallocation of functions proposed in the current reform of local government should make for closer co-ordination, economies of scale and the use of more and better equipment, and so should enable them to do even better. There is one other topic under this head which I have left to the last, because to some extent it overlaps my fourth heading concerning civil rights. It is consumer credit, the subject on which the late Lord Crowther (whom we so greatly miss in this House) and his Committee have so ably reported. This is a field in which there is clearly need for reform, and the Government are working hard on the Committee's recommendations. There are a lot of them and they involve a great deal of detailed study.
I turn now to the provision of consumer information and education. There is an overlap here with protection against injury and deception, inasmuch as some of our protective legislation consists of requirements that goods must be supplied accompanied by specific information—such as the complex requirements of our food standards and labelling regulations. It is a question of judgment how far such requirements should go and how much should be left to suppliers of goods and services, subject always to their duty not to mislead. Where the risk of deception is high, or it is likely that the consumer will not be able to make a sensible choice otherwise, the Government obviously have a responsibility to see that he is given the information necessary for his protection.
There is also consumer information in a wider sense: information about the nature and enforcement of the protective law; about the nature of the consumer's civil rights; about where to go for advice; about the points to look for when buying, say, a washing machine; and about the comparative merits of various brands. Clearly, this is an area in which responsibility must be shared between the Government and the consumer's own organisations, with the main responsibility tending to rest upon the consumer's own organisation. I doubt 1104 whether the Consumers' Association would exactly welcome a Government-sponsored rival to their four comparative test magazines; nor do I think that industry would be very happy either! A certain amount has been done by Governments in the past to explain new consumer legislation in pamphlets and to include general common sense information in them. If there is other information which is essential to consumers, and for one reason or another, consumers or trade-sponsored organisations prove to be unable to publish either in suitable form or at all, it may be that the Government should fill the gaps. I shall look forward to hearing what your Lordships think about this.
The Motion before us refers specifically to consumer education—educating children and adults to be sensible consumers. I must point out that what is taught in schools and further educational establishments is recognised in this country to be essentially matters of local responsibility. In fact, there is a considerable amount of work being done not only by the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institute, but also by the Educational Committee of the National Savings Committee, by way of advising teachers and youth leaders how to go about consumer training. The Consumer Council did a very good job in getting local education authorities and teacher training colleges interested in consumer education, which seems to me an essential part of general education and training for living—in which home and school both participate.
Thirdly, there is the provision of local consumer advisory services. Here there is also a partnership, involving local government, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and, to some extent, central Government, too. The advice is given to individual consumers; for example, when they have bought what they consider to be defective goods or services, or when they suffer some other real or imagined injustice at the hands of trade and industry. Whether it is real or imagined, it has to be treated seriously. Considering how often our society is lambasted for one sin or another, is it not rather remarkable that there are in this country over 500 local citizens' advice bureaux staffed by people who voluntarily give their spare time free to advising others, and who undergo courses of training to 1105 enable them to do it better? I am told that during 1970–71 the Citizens' Advice Bureaux dealt with well over 100,000 inquiries about individual consumer problems alone. And in a large majority of these cases, by their mediation the Bureaux succeeded in bringing a dispute to an amicable settlement.
There are not many other countries whose consumers have the benefit of a local advisory service operating on this scale, and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux deserve high praise. But of course in some parts of the country they arc still rather thin on the ground, and in others they are working in pretty cramped accommodation. I suggest that much more could be done by local community organisations and local government to get more bureaux set up, and to provide the less fortunate with the facilities which are already available to the best. I hope that this will be done. For our part, we have continued to support the consumer work of the Bureaux' National Council by grant in aid. In various parts of the country, of course, local authorities have themselves chosen to provide a consumer advisory service for their ratepayers—a service which is staffed by paid local government officials. The noble Baroness mentioned the case of Sheffield, and I think we have both studied that example very closely. These services are also of great value to the consumer, and it is really up to local authorities to decide which medium they favour to provide consumer advice. The point is that the advice should be available.
I cannot leave consumer advisory services without mentioning recent developments in what I might call "prepurchase" advice of the kind provided for some years by the Consumers Association at their Which? Advice Centre in Kentish Town—advice, that is, to a consumer thinking of investing in a relatively costly item of expenditure. Such advice has to take into account the particular needs and circumstances of the consumer, so that he gets the product with the characteristics that suit him best. It is very much a local service. I have heard that an experimental scheme is already in operation at Harlow and that other local authorities are thinking of providing this kind of advice. I certainly wish them well.
I come to the last point, the provision of adequate rights in civil law and of 1106 facilities for enforcement. Like protection from injury and deception, this is an area in which Government responsibility is paramount. We have already announced that we intend to introduce legislation to invalidate clauses in contracts which exclude the consumer's basic rights under the Sale of Goods Act 1893, such as the right to be supplied with goods which are fit for purpose and of merchantable quality. I hope that the Bill will very shortly be ready for publication. It will not affect the exclusion of liability for negligence in the sale of goods, or the exclusion of the seller's liability under a contract for the supply services at Common Law. I recognise that there is anxiety about the consumer's position in certain kinds of transactions involving services also, which arc not of course covered by the Trade Descriptions Act. The two Law Commissions are studying these important matters. Indeed, they have already published provisional proposals and have asked for public comment on them by the end of this month. We also recognise that it is no use improving consumers' rights in law if, in the event of a dispute, the consumer is deterred from taking the other party to court by the cost and complexity of our legal procedures. An interesting experiment in arbitration being conducted in Manchester was mentioned by the noble Baroness. The local Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the City Council and the local Law Society are all involved in this, supported by funds from the Nuffield Foundation. The scheme is as yet in its formative stage; but the Government are watching the experiment with considerable interest.
I need hardly remind your Lordships that one or both of the parties to a dispute may refuse to submit to arbitration. If so, the only effective course open is to go to law, and, in the case of a consumer complaint, to a county court. Your Lordships will know that the county courts were established essentially as small claims courts; and on this very day there come into operation the County Court (New Procedure) Rules 1971. These Rules make a number of important changes to simplify and expedite the handling of small claims, including of course small claims by consumers. Broadly, these changes are concerned with making it easier for a consumer to use the court without incurring the cost of 1107 employing a solicitor, dealing with cases without a formal hearing, and limiting the extent to which in the case of a small claim the loser will be liable to pay the winner's costs. Another measure which has been introduced in another place is the Legal Advice and Assistance Bill, which will make it easier for people of limited means who are involved in a dispute to get free legal advice. It will be of particular benefit to the consumers who have claims to pursue.
I thought the best thing I could do at this stage in the debate was to outline these four fields of consumer affairs and say what is being done in them. I hope your Lordships will agree that quite a lot is being done in them. As I have said, the Government are constantly thinking about how to improve things for consumers in accordance with consumers' own wishes; so, too, are the Institute of Weights and Measures and other organisations. I am sure that this debate will be most helpful, and I shall listen to it very carefully. If your Lordships give me leave, I shall try to answer some of the questions and arguments before the noble Baroness speaks again. In conclusion, I thank the noble Baroness once again for introducing the subject, and for doing so with such a very good speech.