§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, this is a subject which I approach with great enthusiasm and on which I could speak at great length. Your Lordships will be relieved to know that I propose to retain my enthusiasm, but not to speak at great length. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has, with characteristic ability, given us an introduction to the subject which has set the pattern and provided the background. The Minister has given us four headings which provide guide lines for the debate we are undertaking. This is a matter which affects us all. Peer or commoner, man or woman, or even child, we are all consumers at some stage and we buy something or other. I wonder whether I may quote from an article by an American lady entitled The Backward Art of Spending Money. This lady said:The problem of consumer information is probably worsening over time…The sheer increase in the variety of goods and services 1119 offered the consumer makes the problem complex. The housewife must buy milk and shoes; furniture and meat; magazines and fuel; hats and underwear; bedding and disinfectants; medical services; toys; rugs and candy. Surely no one can be expected to possess expert knowledge of the qualities and prices of such varied wares. The ease with which defects of material and workmanship can be concealed in the finishing of many of these articles forces the purchaser often to judge quality by price, or to depend upon the interested assurances of advertisers or shopkeepers.My Lords, that was written in 1912, 60 years ago. To-day we have multiplied the goods and services offered to shoppers; millions of pounds are spent each year on advertising and the methods of selling become more highly sophisticated. Indeed, we are now in an era in which we may have a package tour or holiday, or the installation of a central heating system by hire purchase. There can be no doubt that the shopper needs education and protection, and I was very happy that the Minister gave us those four interesting headings under which we are debating the matter to-day.
The Crowther Committee on Consumer Credit reported in 1971, twelve months ago. Since then little has happened. In various Parliamentary Answers the Government have said—the Minister has repeated it to-day—that they are considering the Report. It is said that it is a very long and complicated Report and that the Government have consulted the various interests concerned to see what they think of it. But the Report has not been debated in either House, despite the fact that the James Report, which came out much more recently, will be debated in this House next week. Legislation to implement the more important of the Crowther recommendations seems to me to be a very long way off. The only Crowther Committee recommendation of importance which has been implemented is one dealing with the statutory control of credit terms.
At the end of July, 1971, the Government put an end to the restrictions which had applied for many years regarding the minimum amount of deposit and the minimum period of operation of hire purchase agreements or similar credit transactions. That is exactly what Crowther recommended. The effect of this has been that within twelve months the availability of credit has been greatly 1120 extended. Whereas previously one had to go to the bank and beg for a loan or an overdraft, now one is deluged with advertising and with all kinds of invitations to take on loans and other forms of credit commitment.
I am not criticising this in any way, my Lords, but because of it the other recommendations of Crowther are now matters of great urgency. The Government have taken off the terms of control and encouraged the provision of unrestricted credit for the consumer, before reforming the fundamental law and practice of consumer credit, and, in my judgment, that is putting the cart before the horse. We are talking of vast sums of money. I understand that in 1969 consumer debts amounted to £12,000 million of which £4,000 million was new credit. Half of this new credit was money for houses, which was mostly provided by bailding societies. A quarter came from the banks, but the rest was in various forms of hire purchase from mail order houses, finance houses and shops.
What does the Crowther Report say about people who are doing this?:Many consumers have no understanding, or no adequate understanding, of the nature of the commitment into which they are entering or of the cost and other terms or of alternatives that are available to them. They are also ignorant of their legal rights…And the remedy is—and again I am quoting:This deficiency of knowledge can be rectified in some measure partly by legal requirements and partly by consumer education and the provision of effective agencies for the dispensing of information and advice.As with credit, so with all forms of spending: "partly by legal requirements." Our consumer legislation appears to be very fragmented, and it seems to have grown up piecemeal when a scandal or some kind of exploitation has come to light. For instance, I remember through my chairmanship of the B.S.I. Women's Committee that it needed one or two children to be burnt to death before we were able to get the legislation concerning the safety of second-hand oil heaters. Pressure seems to have to come from the citizen to force changes in the law. But how can this happen if the citizen does not have education, or some knowledge of his own rights?
We are now giving our children an extra year in school. What a splendid 1121 opportunity for consumer education! The young are, in my judgment, one of the most grossly exploited groups. They are persuaded to buy pop records churned out by the million; they are persuaded to buy clothing and gadgets of all kinds. They are the prospective mothers and fathers, and the prospective purchasers of houses, furniture and so on. If we are to have people really trained, the Government will possibly have to look to another Department for some kind of consumer education. It is not enough to leave the task to the voluntary agencies: they have not the money to do it.
What about the gadgets that we buy—expensive pieces of equipment, televisions, radios, cars, tape recorders, vacuum cleaners? How many people have one of these articles which is unusable because it cannot be serviced? I would guess that most of your Lordships have, and certainly many people have who write to me. The newly-formed Consumers' Union worked out an interesting figure suggesting that more than one million working days were lost annually to industry by working wives having to wait at home for the serviceman to call. Servicing should be an integral part of the sales package. In the automobile field it is even more serious if the standard of servicing is bad, because here we have actual risk involved. Before the Government repeat the suggestion that there is no need for support in this field because of voluntary agencies, I would point out that the National Servicing Council, a voluntary group which was formed last year in an attempt to help improve servicing standards, has collapsed due to lack of support from industry. So much for voluntary aid!
While on services, perhaps I might mention some of the other so-called services which have sprung up. My own particular example is the window cleaner, whom I regard as the new aristocrat. This is personified by a rather arrogant young man with a dirty piece of rag who washes your windows, if you are lucky, at a colossal price. I personally have been charged £1 for about ten minutes' work. It seemed to me that even some of our financiers are not as well paid as that. The window cleaners appear to operate some kind of a monopoly in districts, so that if you do not like the 1122 one you have there is no possibility of having a change. How can the voluntary consumer group control this type of service? Here there appears to me to be a need for licensing. At any rate, this is the kind of service which is springing up and I mention it as one example.
Another area of service which needs a long cool look is the national service provided by gas and electricity undertakings. I am glad that the noble Baroness mentioned this. Is it really necessary to have competition between these industries which necessitates expensive advertising? The indifferent servicing of appliances we all know about. We have long waits, incorrect bills and, sadly, cases are now coming to light where the service has been cut off because an old man or an old woman cannot meet a bill for which they had not the money in the first place. There is a real need for an independent watchdog to deal with these all too common complaints. I feel that the consultative committees, having been appointed by the Minister, tend somewhat to be judge and jury in their own cause. The Crowther Report makes reference to doorstep selling in very sophisticated areas—such as central heating appliances or double glazing of windows—where shoppers invest a large sum for work which is not always of a high quality, and where they are at real risk of exploitation: sometimes even the firm disappears after carrying out the particular installation.
The Minister made reference to the Trade Descriptions Act, a piece of consumer legislation which I, along with many of your Lordships, regarded with hope and delight. How is it working? The Trade Descriptions Act contains a clause which gives the Government power to make definition of terms and to order information to be supplied with goods and advertisements. So far as I can discover, these powers have not been used. I should like to ask the Minister whether it is correct that a number of associations have asked for definition orders of common trade terms and they have not been granted. For instance, we still do not really know what "shower-proof" means. If anybody can describe to me what a British shower is like, I should be most interested. We still do not really know what "drip-dry" means.
1123 I am happy to say that, thanks to a little stimulation, the women's organisations are at present showing great interest in this part of the Act, and they are supporting the textile manufacturers in their plea for garments to be marked with the country of origin. The little Private Member's Bill to which the Minister referred will not really meet the case. I am not too sure that it is right that the Government should rely too heavily on Private Members' Bills; we have often seen what happens to those. We do not suggest that all imported garments are inferior, but there are certain cheaper articles which shoppers have come to recognise as being imported but because of a superficial similarity with British goods purchasers of these goods could be under a wrong impression. It is not unreasonable to ask that the country of origin should be marked on them. Perhaps the Minister can explain why no marking orders have been introduced. This is surely a simple matter, and it is something which can be done quite speedily.
I move on to another matter in regard to which it seems to me we are going to need consumer education. Soon—although we are not certain how soon—we are to move into metrication. As I understand the position the Metrication Board would not be the particular authority which has the money for consumer education. If they are to be, then they will obviously need a little more. I see metrication as a marvellous opportunity for the shopper to get from metric measure what she certainly has not had from Imperial measure: straightforward packaging so that she can see at a glance the comparative values of two different sized packs of a given commodity. In this, let us at least have packs standardised to the extent that the larger is double the size of the smaller. And let us have no more "giant size", "super size" and "family size". Let us have something that we really can recognise. We want to see not necessarily exact conversions, but for Heaven's sake! let us not try to measure like with unlike, as we are forced to do at the moment, with odd figures; surely they can be rounded up. It is bound to be much easier for children if we are to change weights and measures. We all learn metric measures, though we tend to forget them, just as 1124 we also learn something about rods, poles and perches, but probably do not use them very much. Let us not have a period such as we had with the change to decimal currency. We do not want dual pricing; we do not want dual marking. I cannot imagine the complications of trying to measure whether a packet of l6½ oz. at say 36p is better value than a packet which is marked in metric measure: I am not even going to burden your Lordships' brains with what sort of sum that would be.
While we are on this subject, I was disturbed to read in an article in the Sunday Times last week that the Food Standards Committee on Date Marking are going to suggest that the issue is too complex for legislation. So it is speculated; another leak—of course, we do not know. We only sit in Parliament. At the moment, most cartons, packets and tins do carry codes which are designed for the retailer to understand. In fact many enlightened stores and manufacturers already date-mark their goods. Therefore I make this appeal: if this is correct, perhaps the Minister will let us know whether this is something that will be heeded and that the Government will disregard on this occasion the finding of the Food Standards Committee.
Reference has been made to the Manchester arbitration scheme, which gives people a chance to state their case for claims under £150. This is a splendid scheme, and since both the Minister and the noble Baroness have referred to it I will say no more, except to underline what the Minister told us: that this very successful scheme receives grant aid from Nuffield. I think the relevant questions are: what happens when the grant runs out and what happens if we want to see an extension of this scheme? The money has to be found either from central or local government.
May I conclude by quoting two matters which are mentioned in the Crowther Report:There are a number of sources of advice to which the consumer can turn"—and we have had these outlined to-day. Also:We think it is very important that this activity should as far as possible be co-ordinated by co-operation among the advisory groups…That is what the Crowther Report said. Now there are indeed good advisory 1125 voluntary groups, such as the Consumers' Association, the British Standards Institution, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. There are also the newer fledglings, in which I have had some hand: the House-wife's Trust, which is concerned mainly with food, and the Consumers' Union. It surely would not be too much to ask the Government to provide a link, or some co-ordinating channel, to listen to the consumer's voice, especially if legislation is going to follow only when pressure is exerted from outside. I noticed in the gracious Speech the reference that… legislation will be brought before you to promote active competition and fair trading.Fair trading involves two parties—the seller and the buyer—and true value for money can only be achieved if the buyer is as educated as the seller.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, we always get good, down-to-earth, commonsense stuff from the noble Baroness; and she has not disappointed us this afternoon. I am glad that she finished by quoting from the Crowther Report, because that was where I was proposing to begin. When I was trying to marshal my thoughts for this debate, it occurred to me that possibly a social historian of the future, writing a social history of the times in which we live, might refer to this as the Age of the Special Commissioner. It was not so many years ago that we drew upon the experience of Scandinavia and New Zealand, and we set up our own Ombudsman. I think we have been very pleased with him, because if we had not been I do not suppose we should have had the announcement last week that we are shortly to have a Health Service Commissioner. I wish him well, too.
When one looks at the Crowther Report one finds that the Committee recommended in Part Seven a Credit Commissioner, whose duties would include acting as Ombudsman in the field of consumer credit, educating the public in the uses of consumer credit and the dangers of its use in excess. The administering of a licensing system, which the Committee recommend, is set out in some detail. I was glad to hear that the Crowther Report is now receiving active consideration. I hope that this recommendation 1126 about setting up a Credit Commissioner will be acceded to, because I firmly believe that this Special Commissioner movement deserves to succeed and has a useful function to perform.
Now a word about solicitors' conveyancing fees about which I believe there is a great deal of public disquiet. It is felt that solicitors' conveyancing fees are too high and I understand that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has put forward a proposal, which has the merit of the utmost simplicity, to the effect that the present scale of solicitors' conveyancing fees, which in practice arc regarded as minimum fees, shall in future be regarded as maximum fees; and that any solicitor who cares to undertake conveyancing work for lower fees than the standard maximum shall be free to do so. I understand that this proposal has caused some flutterings in certain quarters, but we have been through this sort of thing before. The present Prime Minister introduced in a former Parliament, a Bill, which seemed obviously sensible, to allow sweet shops to charge less for a bar of chocolate if they chose to do so. This also caused certain flutterings in some quarters, but Parliament weathered that storm, and I hope that we shall all weather this one, too. If, at the end of all this, consumers find that solicitors are competing keenly with each other over the matter of conveyancing charges, then I am sure that the consumers will not be sorry.
My Lords, when the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, invited me to join in her game of badminton this afternoon she suggested that I might care to say a word or two about the small claims courts, which are recommended in that excellent Consumer Council study entitled, Justice Out of Reach. I was very glad to be able to do this, but I confess to being somewhat taken aback when I read an article in the Solicitors' Journal of February 25, 1972. The article begins:So now we know; there is to be no small claims court, in spite of the supposed success of this institution in the United States of America.The county court was always intended to be a small claims court. The Minister referred to this in his speech, and indeed the bible of the county courts, the annual 1127 County Court Practice book still publishes every year the Victorian conception of what the county court was supposed to be when it was set up:The county courts … are adapted to the needs of the great masses of the population by the maximum of … simplicity of procedure suitors being able in fact to obtain relief and to defend themselves without legal assistance.Then the Consumer Council, having referred to the fact that the current County Court Practice contains over 300 pages of annotated rules, 204 pages of forms and over 2,000 pages of other matter, comes to this conclusion at the end of the paragraph I have quoted:Not surprisingly, to this nineteenth century sentiment has now been added, parenthetically in twentieth century officialese '(legal representation is always desirable if obtainable)'.From an earlier chapter entitled, "What are the courts used for?" the Consumer Council quote as follows:… big firms who use the county courts for debt collecting either have special departments of their own …and so on. Earlier in the same paragraph they say:… more than 70 per cent. of our trader cases were for under £20; approaching half … were for under £10; and one-fifth were for less than £5 … no solicitor would advise a consumer to bring a claim for anything like as small a sum as these, since, even if he won, the costs recoverable from the other party would not cover the expense of the work involved.In the case of big firms, the Council say that,debt summonses are processed in hundreds and thousands by mass-production methods.My Lords, if that is the state the county courts are in to-day why is the Solicitors' Journal so certain that the small claims courts are not on the way? The answer, as has already been given by the Minister, is that on this very day, St. David's Day, March 1, 1972, there comes into operation the new county court procedures which are devised with the purpose of putting the county court back in the position it was intended to have: a place to which people with small claims could resort. The most interesting and useful proposal in these new County Court Rules is that every case is to have a pre-trial hearing before the court registrar. It is not made clear whether this hearing is to take place in 1128 open court or in chambers. I hope that it will take place in chambers, and that the registrar will sit at a table with the parties in the case. For I believe that with that atmosphere a wise registrar will be able to dispose of more than half of the small claims cases which come before him to the satisfaction of both parties and without the necessity for a full-scale trial in open court at all.
I should like to refer to a matter which was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, the marking of freshness on packed perishable food. The other day I was in one of the branches of a huge food supermarket whose name is a household word. I came across a salesgirl with a pile of chocolate Swiss rolls. She was peering at the hieroglyphics printed on the cellophane wrappings. Some of the Swiss rolls were carefully packed at the back of the shelf and others were very carefully being put in the front. She saw that I was watching her and looked up inquiringly. I said, "It seems to me that the secret is that if you want a fresh one you pick from the back of the shelf." She said, "Yes, that's right, but don't tell anybody." I suppose had she known of this afternoon's debate she might have said. "Whatever you do, don't tell their Lordships." This is a matter which needs attention: whether or not it ought to be obligatory to mark the freshness of packaged food.
I know that this matter has been before the Food Standards Committee for some time. I know that a year ago the Consumers' Association addressed a memorandum on this subject to the Food Standards Committee, and I hope that after these long deliberations the Food Standards Committee will come forward with some useful findings. In the meantime, my feeling, for what it is worth, is that I would not wish to legislate that freshness must be marked on a packet of food, because the practice has already begun. It is gathering momentum; it is obviously a wise business practice. There will be increasing demand for it, and it will come into being. What ought to be taken in hand is the matter of marking in code. At the present time, the retailer is informed in code of the freshness of the food that he has in stock, but at the same time the customer is deliberately denied this 1129 information. I should have thought that in the field of food hygiene this simply was not good enough. The customer has to pay and he will either enjoy the food or, possibly find it a little stale; or, at worst, may be poisoned by it. Yet he is deliberately denied the information which is given to the retailer as to the freshness of the food. I hope that whatever the Food Standards Committee decide to recommend, they will decide to recommend that freshness labelling in code, so denying the information to the purchaser, should be prohibited.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ LORD JACQUES
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend in having moved this Motion and for giving us this opportunity of discussing consumer affairs. I also congratulate her on her analysis of the problems, although as I go along your Lordships will see that I differ from her as to some of the remedies. In our sophisticated society it is often overlooked that the whole objective of the economic process is to satisfy man's needs and desires as a consumer. There is an increasing awareness that there is a substantial amount of waste at the point where household money incomes are converted into goods and services. There is also a growing realisation that by consumer education and advice it is possible to influence the market and so enable the economic process to attain its objective with substantially less waste than it has at the present time.
The whole population are consumers. It should be and it should be seen to be a function of Government to promote the interests of consumers. In the past, too often Government policies have been of the negative kind rather than the positive kind. They have generally been concerned with the prevention of dishonesty and with the prevention of the sale of goods which would be injurious to public health. We need more positive policies. In our society it is commonplace for the promotion of the sale of goods to be based almost entirely on exaggeration—and sometimes gross exaggeration. This goes on unchecked because it is difficult to devise negative policies which are foolproof. I suggest that we need positive policies; we need a policy of far greater facilities for education and advice 1130 to consumers; we need codes of practice in our various industries. This is a positive way in which we should approach the question. Furthermore, I would say from practical experience that the particular aspect in which the consumer requires most advice is in the case of durable goods. The consumer buys durable goods less frequently, and often this involves a considerable outlay of money. Here is the field in which the consumer needs advice very badly.
On this matter of positive policies, we are behind some of our friends. For example, the Canadian Government, as far back as 1967, decided that there was substantial waste at the point at which the consumer converted the money income into goods and services. It decided that it should follow policies that would increase the probability that the consumer would get her real needs and desires satisfied. It set up a Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. It attached so much importance to that Ministry that it appointed a Minister of Cabinet rank. This Ministry deals with monopolies, restrictive practices, trading standards, education and advice to consumers, the enforcement of protection and research; and the Minister is advised by a Consumer Council. That, I think, is the place for a Consumer Council. There it would be much more effective than acting away from Government and being too independent.
In our own country the responsibility for consumer affairs is dispersed among many Ministries: the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture. All have a hand in it. It is true of course that in the Department of Trade and Industry we have a consumer affairs section, which has done useful work in co-ordination; but it is insufficient and it is in the wrong place. We need a Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which is divorced from the Department of Trade and Industry. Within the Department of Trade and Industry it becomes overshadowed by what are thought to be the needs of industry. In the same way as environmental matters should be separated, so should consumer matters be separated from the Department of Trade and Industry. The Minister should be 1131 concerned with monopolies and with restrictive practices and should be able to refer such matters to the Monopolies Commission. He should also be concerned with trading standards. It should be the work of his Ministry to formulate codes of conduct for each of our industries. He should, because of his initiative and because of the expert advice that he can offer, encourage every industry to have its code of conduct, which would facilitate fair competition and fair treatment of the consumer. He should also have some control of prices.
As an aside, I would say that I have long since come to the view that in many of our industries competition is so extremely imperfect that much stricter control than we have ever had is necessary. I doubt whether the negative controls would work. I believe that in many of our industries in the long run there is only one way to control prices, and that is by having a public sector which will be in competition with the private sector. I believe it was a bad mistake to have discontinued the Carlisle experiment in the control of the breweries and the public houses. It was accepted to be a scheme which was well managed. The consumers who were being served by it, regardless of their politics, pleaded that it should continue. That scheme should not have been abandoned; it should have been widened so that it could have had a greater influence on the market than it already had. So much for the aside.
In addition, I would say that the Minister should be responsible for the education of and advice to consumers, for the enforcement of legislation through the local authorities and, above all, for research. It is absolutely essential to have research, the results of which would be made available both to industry and to consumers generally. If the Ministry has to be part of an all-embracing Ministry, then, as I say, it should be with the Department of the Environment rather than with the Department of Trade and Industry.
The Minister should make the appointments where consumer representation is necessary. For example, he should make the appointments to the consultative boards in the socialised industries. But I think the time has come when we should go much further. The time has 1132 come when there should be some supervision in the private sector. The time has come when we should adopt the German plan of having a supervisory board in each of our major corporations which are in the private sector. But, I would say, with one qualification: that the supervisory board, in addition to having representation of shareholders and workers, should also have representation of consumers. I can say from practical experience that any of those three groups can undermine policy. Management must obtain the tacit approval of those three groups; without it its policy can be frustrated. I would therefore plead that in the long run we should have these supervisory boards and that the consumer should be represented; and the appointment of the consumer representative would be a matter for this Ministry.
I now turn to local authorities. Consumer affairs are just as fragmented at the local level as at the national level. The term "weights and measures department" is outdated. In almost every local authority that has a weights and measures department the department does far more outside weights and measures than it does in weights and measures. Even so, the work of consumer affairs is done usually by several departments of the local authority: the health department, in addition to other departments, usually has some concern within consumer affairs. What we need, I think, is what is recommended by the Institute of Weights and Measures. We need in every major local authority a trading standards department which is concerned not merely with the negative approach, not merely with the enforcement of consumer protection, but also with the positive approach. Because I want to see the positive approach, I should like to see the trading standards officer of the local authority advised by a local group appointed by the local council. Then I think we should have the more positive approach.
Finally, I would deal with the subject of education. We send our children to school to receive a general education. We hope that it will make them active and enlightened citizens. We know in advance that they are going to be the purchasing consumers of the future. But we do very little to prepare them for that role. It is possible to give consumer education within the framework of the 1133 subjects already taught. It does not take much imagination to see that it is possible to give a consumer slant in the teaching of mathematics, in the teaching of geography, in the teaching of the sciences; it is obvious. In November last the Council of Europe put forward a plan for the teaching of consumer education within the present curricula of the schools. It dealt in particular with the way in which consumer education could be incorporated into subjects already taught. It dealt with the kind of textbooks required; it dealt with the training of teachers and with some new teaching methods. It put forward the plan with the approval of the delegates of all the associated Governments, and it has decided that in three years' time it will ask the Governments what steps they have taken to carry out the plan. I invite the Minister, in reply to this debate, to say what is the Government's view of this plan and what action they propose to take to carry it out.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, may I start with an apology which I have never had to make in your Lordships' House until to-day? I am afraid I cannot stay until the end of the debate. I have always made it a rule to speak, stop and listen; if I could not stop and listen, not to speak. But this is an unusual circumstance to-day because the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, asked me to speak in the debate. She knew I had to leave early. I am sufficiently old-fashioned and pre- "Women's Lib." always to try to do what a lady asks, and that is why I am speaking in the debate to-day. My Lords, I am not going to follow the battle between the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, although I was interested in Lord Jacques's speech and it gave one a good deal to think about. I do not go with him the whole way; perhaps the noble Baroness did not lay quite enough stress on the importance of what the Government do. But I am frankly not going to follow the line taken by the noble Baroness. I am going to talk about consumer protection. I have two points I want to raise; I want to put those points to the Government because they will have to be dealt with by the Government. There is not 1134 much time and there may not be another opportunity on another day.
The first matter I want to talk about, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, is metrication. When we turned over to decimal coinage there was a feeling, which I do not think has yet been done away with, that although various organisations were consulted the ordinary person was not consulted. It is difficult to consult them, I agree, but a feeling was left at the end of the day that the experts had made up their minds and that that was the way it was going to be. Because of that there was a good deal of muddle, and although the experts flatly deny it, every woman, and most men, knows perfectly well that the final decision taken did in fact mean an increase in prices. There is absolutely no doubt about it. Although the experts say that it is not so, and can prove with a wealth of figures that it is not so, I do not think anyone believes them.
When we turn to full metrication I think it is going to be even more difficult for the ordinary person—the people who may not be very intelligent but who have to live their lives. I think it will be a little more involved, and surely we can learn something from the way in which decimal coinage was handled. I will read just a sentence from the White Paper which gives me considerable concern. It says:There will be no M-day for metrication, but people will become much more aware of it and more familiar with it as foodstuffs and household goods, measured in metric sizes and quantities, come into our shops from our own manufacturers as well as from the Continent and from other metric countries.I do not know what that sounds like to your Lordships, but to me it sounds as though it is going to be done and then people are going to be left in a haze to find out for themselves. I hope I am wrong. This is not good enough; people must be taught about it with rather more care than was displayed over decimal coinage, and for various reasons which I shall give your Lordships. I think that paragraph in the White Paper looks like lack of guidance to the public, and if it is left in that form for the public to find out how things are on their own, we are going to have, alongside each other, metric quantities and Imperial quantities. Already, without full metrication, there are difficulties for the ordinary shopper.
1135 Let me take first of all paint. In the White Paper the Government say:Some of these commodities, of which paint is the best known, are now sold in a series of round metric sizes in place of the old Imperial size. The successor to the pint can is the 500 millilitre can which is about 12 per cent. smaller, and a can of one litre has replaced that of the quart.That sounds all right, my Lords. As is happening everywhere, the manufacturers have gone into the metric system on their own, and on the whole that is how one now buys paint. I wonder whether the Government really know what is happening to the individual? Most of the paint manufacturers—it may well be all of them—now that they have gone metric, have ceased to make the small half-pint can. Many people want a half-pint can, such as people who are "doing it themselves" and who want a small quantity of a certain colour. Because we are going metric, are they going to be forced to buy twice the amount they want to buy? That is in effect what it means. I do not know whether my noble friends on the Front Bench have any views on that point, but at the moment it is not a matter that the Government can actually control; all they can control is that the size is what it says it is. Whether my noble friends can use their influence on the manufacturers when this sort of case comes forward, I do not know. A similar case which has come to my notice concerns knitting wool. This is the sort of thing that will happen on the changeover. Until now knitting wool has been sold in one-ounce balls. Now the manufacturers are changing over to 25-gramme balls, which are smaller, but there has been no reduction in price. Who is going to look after that? What control have the Government got on it?
Going on further, the White Paper discusses the packaging sizes of certain retail foodstuffs, and certain of these pre-packed foodstuffs have to be packed in standard quantities. Under the present law these standard quantities have to be stated in Imperial measures. We are told that new legislation is promised by the Government which will permit a range of round metric standard quantities. Legislation will allow these quantities to be standard in metric measures. The White Paper goes on to say:In due course the Imperial sizes may therefore fall into disuse as their manufacturers gradually turn over".1136 This is the point I am leading up to, my Lords. Nearly all these foodstuffs which worry the housewife, both pre-packed and other things, are perishable, so they should not be kept too long. That makes what I intend to propose somewhat easier. In my view it is essential that a date should be fixed, very early, to make Imperial measures illegal, and the interim period during which goods in both measures can he sold should be as short as possible. There should be none of this business, such as I have read out from the White Paper, of getting used to the two kinds. There should be a very short period during which the changeover is made, and after that period Imperial measures should be illegal. Then the housewife will know what she is buying.
Even to-day, without metric measurements, it is difficult enough sometimes for a shopper. Let us take jam, for instance. That is sold in pound pots and in 12-ounce pots. They are on neighbouring shelves and it is extremely difficult to tell which is which. It can be done, but it is difficult with only one sort of measurement, namely the Imperial measure. Supposing in the future there is a rather long period during which you can go in and buy either a half-a-pound packet of butter or a 250-gramme packet of butter—different weights, alongside each other. If they are both allowed to be sold together, will the ordinary person really know what he or she is buying? They will be different weights, but they may be the same price—one does not know. So I hope the changeover period will be kept as short as possible.
The other matter that I wish to speak about follows a little on what the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, has said. It is a question of the law and its administration. As regards the law, undoubtedly there is a need for all trading laws, and particularly the Shops Acts, to be modernised. Your Lordships know what I feel about the Sunday trading part of the Shops Acts: it is inefficient, incomprehensible and should be altered straightaway, being quite unenforceable. Neither the retailer nor the customer knows what he can do. The matter has become more urgent in the last year—I am speaking purely of Sunday trading—because traders have found ways round the law which they think are within the law. It is difficult for the courts to know from 1137 the Acts whether those actions are within the law or not.
I expect your Lordships know that the latest thing is that you go on Sunday to buy furniture or a Rolls Royce. It is illegal to sell it, so they do not sell it. They sell you a bag of carrots and you pay £5,000. You take the receipt in the next day and for the bit of paper they hand you over the £5,000 Rolls Royce. A case of that description has already come before the courts and the magistrates have found it to be within the law. An appeal is being heard and I do not think a decision has been given. But if a silly case of that kind can occur, which is obviously morally wrong, and if the law is as stupid as that, the sooner it is changed the better. Throughout the trading legislation there is a great need, particularly where shops are concerned, for bringing it up to date. In so far as Sunday is concerned, for some unknown reason the word "Sunday" terrifies every Government, but sooner or later one Government will have to have the guts to deal with it.
May I now say a few words about administration. Enforcement of nearly all trading laws is the duty of the local authority, and with that I entirely agree. But the most awful muddle and confusion goes on. There are 200 local authorities dealing with weights and measures and trade descriptions legislation. There are many hundreds more to deal with food and drugs and other protected legislation. All this leads not only to confusion but also to quite unnecessary expense. For instance, sometimes there are three different officers from the same local authority in the same area carrying out different enforcement regulations under different Acts. Sometimes those officers in a particular area are from different local authorities, because the areas overlap for different kinds of enforcement. Principally it is the food manufacturers who complain because they say that an officer from one authority comes in to check quantities to see whether they are correct; quite a different officer comes in, sometimes from another authority, to check the quality under some other Act, and so it goes on.
I would ask my noble friend whether he can say anything, when he replies, as to the Government's intention about this 1138 overlapping. Now is the opportunity to get it in order. With the new Local Government Act there will be bigger areas. At the same time as boundaries are redrawn and various other duties are redrawn under different authorities, the enforcement should be unified, if possible under one team in each local authority and not under separate sections of a local authority so that you have three officers doing one man's job. I should be grateful if my noble friend would deal with that matter when he replies. Although, as I have said, I shall not be here, I will take careful note of what he says when I read it to-morrow and I shall come back at him privately if I do not like the answer.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ LORD PEDDIE
My Lords, may I take this opportunity of thanking my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for introducing this debate and giving the House an opportunity of discussing the important subject of consumer affairs. She said that she was no believer in militant consumerism, but I know from past experience that certainly she is a bonny fighter in the consumer interest. However, she has managed to demonstrate the possibility of avoiding militant action but being a fighter at the same time. Personally, I do not favour the Billy Graham approach to consumer affairs. However, may I, in the first place, before I make my comments, like the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, offer an apology? I have had the misfortune of missing at least half an hour or so of this debate because I was called away to join in a radio dicussion on a matter that is not unrelated to consumer affairs; that is, the possible increase in telephone charges. I mention that to give an indication that at least one area of consumer activity is alive.
I should also indicate that I must, in engaging in this debate, declare an interest, in the sense that I am Chairman of the Post Office Users' National Council and Chairman also of the Agrément Board, bodies which are greatly interested in consumer affairs. But I must say that I claim no professional involvement in consumer protection as such. My activities in both industry and commerce, over the past years have, however, demonstrated to me with great force that there can be an identity of 1139 long-term interest between the interests of the producer and those of the consumer. Unfortunately, there are on different occasions too many producers on the one hand, or consumers on the other, who do not recognise that identity of interest.
There is no doubt at all that there has been a tremendous change in recent years. Not long ago, "Let the buyer beware" was indeed a warning that all should heed, and exploitation of the buyer was the standard practice. But to-day I think one would agree that many successful businesses have demonstrated that success can be based upon recognition of consumer needs and rights. Many of us know quite a number of firms of that kind. It has not always been so. I remember the days when that was not the case. I pay tribute to the Co-operative movement; they offered considerable protection to the consumer when it was needed, long before Government intervened. The movement itself introduced standards of quality and commercial practice which are accepted as commonplace to-day and supported by law. Legislation to-day offers considerable protection against blatant exploitation.
But the consumer, I would emphasise, is not the innocent, stupid individual that some protectors feel him to be. At the same time, it is wrong to believe that the consumer needs no help and guidance; he needs a tremendous amount of help, and particularly guidance. The emphasis, in my opinion, should not be on protection as such, whatever that means; it should be on increasing the availability of information relative to products. That is vital. The increasing complexity of modern business, the flood of new products, the development of sophisticated advertising, makes it imperative for consumers to be fully informed. There is no doubt that spending power gives authority—at least on all occasions apart from circumstances of shortage. But consumers need information that is full and complete, that enables them to be armed and capable of making adequate judgments. I believe that the Government have the major responsibility in this particular area. Private consumer organisations simply cannot shoulder the whole burden. I am told that 600,000 copies of Which? 1140 were published. Its publishers are the principal independent consumer organisation, and it made a loss of £250,000 last year.
I believe it is important that the Government should in some way be involved in another matter; that is, that consumer interests are not confined to the individual purchase. There are elements in any, and indeed in every, transaction that go beyond the immediate, and if allowed to continue, or are tolerated, they can prejudice the whole community. Perhaps non-returnable bottles and indestructible containers could be in such a category, yet the individual who is making the purchase is not necessarily conscious of the significance and effect of the type of purchase that he makes.
I would confine myself in the time at my disposal to one particular aspect of consumer affairs to which reference has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, and by my noble friend Lady Burton, and that is the subject of users' councils, of which I can claim to have some special knowledge. My noble friend was critical of consultative councils as such, and I am sure that the House will not expect me to make comment on that subject. I merely point out that in the days following post-war nationalisation, consultative or user councils were set up in those industries. They had varying powers and different forms of organisation, but it is essential to remember that they operated in an uncharted sea and many functioned solely as a channel for complaints. In my opinion, that indicates the fundamental difference between the way in which we operate the Post Office Users' National Council and some other consultative councils. Naturally we deal with complaints, but we believe that we have a far more positive role to play than merely echoing the complaints of individuals, who naturally and inevitably do not want to pay a higher price for anything at any time. You do not need a national council to tell the Post Office that people do not want an increase in charges.
When the P.O.U.N.C. was set up just over two years ago under the Act which brought the Post Office Corporation into being, there were also created country councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that, following the establishment of the P.O.U.N.C. 1141 —which in my opinion is a method of operation that could be developed in many other areas, as I shall try to demonstrate as I proceed—there was introduced a concept in user councils that gave the organisation a positive character and special powers of operation. Under that Act all major changes in service or charges proposed by the Post Office must be referred to the Post Office Users National Council. The Act itself recognised the need to assert the rights of users, and in accepting this responsibility the Council, and myself as chairman, had the delicate job of pursuing a course between, on the one hand, the full expression of users' rights and needs and, on the other, a recognition of management's responsibility to manage.
In less than two years three major reports have been dealt with by the P.O.U.N.C.: one on telecommunications charges and two on postal tariffs—one of which included a fundamental reappraisal of the standard and quality of the postal service. I believe that in tackling those three inquiries the Post Office Users' National Council demonstrated a high standard of responsibility. I may say that those three reports, and the recommendations in their entirety, were accepted by both the Government and the Post Office. The degree of responsibility was met not in merely saying, "No, we don't wish to pay any more money" but, on the telecommunications side, there was recognised the need for raising the target return on capital from 8½ per cent. to 10 per cent., with all its implications. It further conducted a detailed inquiry into Post Office proposals for restructuring the service, and we believe we came up with tangible proposals that reflect the true needs of the user. I believe that if the proposals that were put forward to the Post Office by the P.O.U.N.C. had not been accepted, or indeed if there had been no Post Office Users' National Council in existence, it would in the long term have been detrimental to the interests of the Post Office itself. Therefore, one can say that the operation of a well-armed user council can be in the long-term interests of the industry that is its concern. It is not a negative function; it is positive one. Indeed, we have encouraged greater and closer liaison between large scale users and the Post Office and we have stimulated a greater interest in marketing. As many noble Lords will 1142 know, we have monitored the letter post. Incidentally, our record of its performance differed from the Post Office claims.
We have 32 members on that Council. This startled me when I was called upon to be the chairman. However, I recognised after a period of time that those 32 persons brought a considerable body of expertise but, and I think this is a most significant comment, they could not work alone. I found it necessary to recommend that we should have the power to commission independent consultants where an intensive and special inquiry was made. I think that was the first time it had ever been done by any user council.
I would also state—and I should put this on record—that these developments would not have been possible had it not been for a Minister and a Ministry willing to allow the Council to arm itself in a manner that enabled the work to be conducted effectively and efficiently. This is extremely important. It is one thing setting up a body and giving them a job to do, but it is another thing giving them the equipment by which, and through which, they can truly accept their responsibilities. I must say that the Ministry has certainly done that. I remember at the very beginning, when the P.O.U.N.C. came into being, there was a good deal of criticism in the Press and on the television. The usual criticism was, "Where are the 'teeth' of the Council?" The possession of "teeth" was interpreted as the right to enforce decisions. I do not want possession of that type of "teeth", because that would mean running the Post Office; and that is not our job but the job of management. However, we need the power to hark, and to bark effectively. That bark has to be expressed when we recognise and identify dangers to user interests, and I think we on the Council have demonstrated over the past two years the fact that we are able to express forcibly and loudly the true interests of the users. I think that in this case both the Post Office and the Government have taken heed.
May I turn to my last point in this regard? It is a subject which I believe has not been dealt with to-day, but I know that it has been discussed on more than one occasion in this House; that is, the question of public accountability of nationalised industries. This is a 1143 pressing and difficult problem. It must rest ultimately with Government, but not entirely and exclusively. I believe that the P.O.U.N.C. are creating an instrument which comes nearer to effective machinery for public accountability of State industries than anything created so far. There are great possibilities in that regard. It is ludicrous to believe that the State should vest complete control of a great sector of our economy in the hands of but a few men, accountable only to notional financial targets and subject to occasional scrutiny by Parliamentary Committees. That is not enough. The very future of our economy can be influenced by current decisions.
At the present moment, the Post Office has been called upon to make decisions which could probably affect the state of the economy in the years which lie ahead. Those decisions should be exposed to the challenge of informed and enlightened user opinion. I think that is extremely important. It is not an easy task, because it must be done in a manner that will not impede or restrict progressive management. The experience of the P.O.U.N.C.—and I must apologise for emphasising this to such a degree—over the last two years has demonstrated that an active responsible Users' Council can be a dynamic urge towards greater development of the industries with which we are concerned, and certainly not a restriction upon the operation of management. In that area, there are certain lessons to be learned. I do not suggest that I have covered the whole range of consumer affairs, but I recognise the importance and significance of the public sector, and I believe that at the present moment there are means by which there can be created an effective organisation of the right sort that not only will reflect user opinion and demonstrate user needs, but will be a dynamic urge to industry itself.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT HANWORTH
My Lords, I want to speak briefly and to concentrate on the reasons why there is a gap now that the Consumer Council is no more. First of all, I should declare an interest since I am technical adviser to the Consumers' Association. But anything that I say this evening will be entirely my own views on the subject and will not be influenced to any extent by 1144 their opinions, though in most instances the two will probably coincide. I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for initiating this debate and to say that I agree with almost everything she said. In particular, I agree that the Consumer Council may have failed in its function of co-ordination. Very few consumers are co-ordinated. That is why they are so often at a disadvantage, and that is one of the reasons why they need help. It is quite idle to suppose that consumers can do by themselves what the Consumer Council failed to do. I also agree that we do not want a Nader solution here.
Personally, I am against extreme pressure groups if one can find other reasonable ways of bringing about change. There are too many people to-day shouting about too many issues, and the noise is deafening. However, I realise that it is sometimes impossible to get anything done without a pressure group, and in those circumstances one has to form one. But, as a general principle, I dislike pressure groups for dealing with a whole range of subjects. When it comes to Government legislation (and the Crowther Committee have been cited this evening) whichever Government is in power it has many competing priorities for legislation, and unless somebody makes a noise consumer legislation does not come to the top of the queue.
Though there are probably no noble Lords here to-night who hold the views that I am going to mention, I am sure that certainly outside the House there are those who do. They feel, but do not like to say, that there is a lot of unnecessary fuss about consumer problems. They would say, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recently said in effect, in answer to a question of mine, that we are all consumers and there is no need to have any specific representation on the county courts' procedure inquiry. That is a rather special instance, but I quote it as the sort of remark that is rather frequently made in other fields.
In the old days, the maxim of caveat emptor still had a great deal of force, because consumers then had yardsticks which could be applied to most products. For example, they knew that wool would shrink if washed in hot water. To-day, we are faced with an ever-increasing range of more and more complicated products. 1145 There is simply not time to try them out and find out for ourselves which is the best buy for our own needs, because by the time we have done that there will be new products on the market, and those we have tried out may have disappeared.
It is also very debatable whether the voice of the consumer has the effect on manufacturers that one would hope. The power of advertising is such that, as somebody cynically remarked:A firm can stay in business indefinitely by exchanging one bad product for another, provided they can advertise effectively.Big firms now tend to diversify, and the natural law that manufacturers go out of business as soon as they do not produce a useful product no longer applies to the extent it used to do. In other words, the market no longer provides protection and no longer ensures to a sufficient extent that consumers get what they want. Many people would say, "Yes, but the big firms make market surveys and they therefore get to know what the consumers want and design their products accordingly." Usually, however, they take no account of what the consumer would like and would be prepared to pay for it if he knew that it could be produced. It is really no argument to say that the consumer is interested only in the colour and price of, for example, a carpet, when that is about the only information he can obtain. So one feels that these market surveys do not necessarily get the consumer's viewpoint back to the manufacturer.
I always like to quote the example of rainwear, where for years the manufacturers succeeded in "conning" consumers into believing that the last thing a raincoat did was to keep out the rain, and that it could not be made to do so. But of course one later discovered that there were products on the market which could and did keep out the rain extremely effectively, and also did not get crushed in the way that the old Burberry of my youth did. Such products would have come on the market far more quickly if there had been a consumer feedback, but consumers were unaware that those products could be provided at a reasonable price.
Then, of course, the retailer to-day is a very weak link in the chain; I often 1146 think that he is considerably weaker than the manufacturer. No longer can the average salesman provide expert advice to the customer, and many retailers are not concerned in selecting the best products. They are motivated in what they stock by quite different considerations. So retailers are not the help they used to be in seeing that consumers get what they really want or ought to want.
My Lords, the consumer without help is in a much poorer position than many other organisations or bodies. Manufacturers have their trade associations, and bureaucracy has its silent inertia. Apart from Ireland, this country will be unique in the Common Market in spending nothing to provide a consumer organisation, department or institute to meet this need; and this need will become more pressing when we enter the Common Market, because it will strengthen the producers' position in relation to the consumer. There is virtually no machinery in the Commission for consumer consultation.
I do not want at this moment to make specific recommendations as to what I think might be done, but I suggest that the Government could well examine the successful solution adopted by the Canadian Government of setting up a Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. One of the major needs, if one is going to be effective in the consumer field, is to have an organisation which can carry out research and thereby provide a formal consumer viewpoint on matters which arise. Although we all do our best in a consumer organisation to say what we think is in the consumers' interest and what they will think, it is only as a result of research that it is possible to get to the bottom of the problems and be sure that what is said carries weight. Otherwise, as so often happens, one gives the point of view of the consumer—and one is probably right—but the opposition turn round and ask, "On what do you base it?", and one has to admit very often that one has absolutely no research at all to back it up.
Another very important field which has been mentioned here is consumer education. The Consumer Council made a very brave start in this field. In fact they succeeded in getting consumer topics included in examinations, and consequently in curricula, of some schools. 1147 Even so, a great deal remains to be done, and it would he a tragedy if this were allowed to slide back. Again, many people, including the present Government, say or genuinely believe that the Consumers' Association can provide what is needed to fill the gap left after the abolition of the Consumer Council. They will do their best to champion the consumer cause, but the Consumers' Association is primarily concerned with the publication of Which?, its supplements and other literature. Income is derived solely from these sources; and even if it had a surplus, instead of the present deficit, there is a limit to the extent to which it would be right to use subscribers' money for extraneous purposes. Research into consumer views is one of the essentials, and the scale on which it is required is quite beyond the means of the Consumers' Association.
What I have said, my Lords, has been directed to try to show that there is a genuine gap that needs filling; and I have tried to answer one or two of those points made by people who do not think it exists. I have tried to point out that there really is a need for consumer protection in spite of the arguments which are frequently put forward as to why, in this present day, it is unnecessary.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, I am very happy to follow the noble Viscount. I agreed with everything he said, except that perhaps in this respect I am not so frightened of militancy as he is. This debate is both timely and important, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for introducing it with her usual clarity, forcefulness and charm. But I must disagree with her here in what she said. I do not altogether go along with her. So far in this debate I find that I have been in sympathy with, among others, the speeches of my noble friends Lady Phillips and Lord Jacques and with the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, on the other side.
It was while thinking about the sad eclipse of the Consumer Council, caused by the withdrawal of the Government grant, and looking through some consumer cuttings, that I came across the tenth anniversary edition of the Consumers' Association publication, Which?. 1148 It was dated 1967, when Mr. Heath was Leader of the Opposition, and in it was Mr. Heath's message of congratulation on a decade's work of the Association. Mr. Heath said, among other things, that we were now seeing the beginning of a consumer revolution, and that a generation was emerging whichrobustly insisted on higher standards for goods and services.My Lords, this was stirring stuff, but a funny thing seems to have happened on the way to Downing Street, for in November, 1970, when the Prime Minister was challenged about the dissolution of the Consumer Council, he ventured the opinion that trade journals could do part of the Consumer Council's job and that competition was the consumer's best safeguard.
My Lords, I cannot believe that the Prime Minister was unaware of the expansion in consumer education embarked upon and achieved by the Consumer Council; or that he could have completely forgotten the support given to him by the Consumer Council when he was President of the Board of Trade and was fighting for the abolition of resale price maintenance—an issue very dear to his heart. It was not as if the Consumer Council was an expensive luxury: it involved a grant of only £240,000 a year. And it is not worth risking a lowering of the standards of consumer protection for the sake of such a tiny economy. As for the idea that consumers can be left to organise themselves, I believe this to be blindly irresponsible. That is one of the sharpest things I am going to say: otherwise, I am going to be quite mild.
My Lords, I do not think it is always realised how vulnerable we consumers are. We are all amateurs as buyers of goods and services, and up against the most professional salesmanship. There is urgent need for more and more, and non-stop, information about the dangers and hazards that go hand in hand (or, shall I say, hand in glove?) with technical progress. No one can say that we have too many watchdog consumer groups. Every member country in the Common Market, as has already been mentioned, has consumer groups which receive Government subsidies, often 100 per cent. When we entered we should be the only country in which consumer 1149 organisations did not—and I repeat, did not—receive Government subsidies or help.
Because of what the Americans call the complexities of the market place, there is a greater need to-day than ever before for consumer advisory facilities. Other speakers have pointed to the different areas where this need exists. For instance, we have to expose the exaggerated and sometimes misleading claims of advertisers. Ordinary people need legal explanation to decipher the microscopic type in guarantees. For most people, consumer credit, as has been pointed out by my noble friend Lady Phillips, remains an unsolved mystery; and I do not think that even to-day many people can easily figure out the true cost of borrowing. As regards labelling, we are a most backward country, and we know less and less about more and more. We are often denied details of ingredients of food and drink. No woman to-day, my Lords, can tell what her winter coat is made of unless there is a label expressly stating that it is all wool. Manufacturers have a maddening habit of leaving the customer to guess the composition of textiles.
One of the recent disquieting issues, as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale told us, has been the secret food codes; and I see from the Sunday Times that they will probably remain a secret between producers and foodshops. The Sunday Times investigating team discovered several antique items of food, such as a four-year's-old vintage tin of soup and a three-year-old packet of dried fruit.
The Consumer Council completed a major study of insurance, and the experience of several recent bankruptcies point to the wisdom of their choice of investigations. They include charity appeals to the public, car repairs and many other fields in which the consumer constantly gets a raw deal in shoddy goods and unsatisfactory services; and all these have been examined. I do not suggest that everything the Consumer Council did was perfect. I think that they spread their interests perhaps too widely for such a small Council, but I think that what they did was impressive. I wish to underline this, not so much to pat them on the back, but because here was an organisation which held out great promise for building up a continuing and 1150 far-reaching consumer protection complex, complementing and strengthening other consumer bodies like the Consumers' Association, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and others.
I find in this debate that noble Lords are frightened of the words "consumer protection". I do not know why. The Government ought not to be economising on consumer interests; in fact, they ought to be encouraging the spread of consumer advisory service centres by local authorities. This would be of special help to the poorer people in our society. The Government can economise on consumer interests only by lowering the standards of consumer protection. There is no art or merit in that. I appeal to the Government to reconsider their attitude in all this and to bring back the Consumer Council. I do not mean by that to bring it back in just the form in which it existed before. The Consumer Council was cheap at the price. I believe that it is not too late for it to become, perhaps in conjunction with the Government, the foundation of a widespread consumer protection movement radiating throughout this country, as in Canada—though I am ashamed to say that I do not know exactly what the Canadian Government have done about this problem.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ LORD O'NEILL OF THE MAINE
My Lords, I should first like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, because I fear that I shall not be here for his reply. But as a quid pro quo I may say that my remarks will be extremely short because at this time in a debate most of the points have already been made. I have already expressed regret, both in this House and outside it, at the abolition of the Consumer Council and of the Prices and Incomes Board. I do not regret for one moment that I have laid stress on both these points. The Consumer Council, as the noble Baroness has just reminded us, cost us under a quarter of a million pounds a year, a comparatively small sum when one considers what has had to be provided to rescue Rolls-Royce, Harland and Woolff, U.C.S. and everything else—a mere drop in the bucket. I personally think that it was a very sad occasion when this Conservative-instituted body was abolished. I do not myself believe 1151 that the country has benefited from it. If the Council needed a new pair of dentures—and I think it was Lord Peddie who said it would have been better that it had a bark than a bite—the Council should have been restructured and not, in my view, abolished.
I always find the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, most sympathetic when he speaks in this House. I sometimes think he is the "Minister of All Portfolios" because he is put up by the Government to speak on so many different matters. I must say that I very much appreciated the tone of his speech this afternoon. May I make this appeal in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, who introduced the debate, and suggest to him that consumer protection is the very essence of Conservatism? Certainly I should have thought so. In my view, to abandon the consumer to market forces is not really good Conservatism. So I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, of the possible establishment of an institute of consumer affairs.
May I add one final word to that and suggest, if the Government can bring themselves to go back on their previous decision and to introduce some new association, some new council, some new institute for looking after the affairs of the consumer, that the appointment of its head should not be on political grounds? We had first the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, and then the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge—whose hospitality I enjoyed at Regent's Park one day, in the most reasonable circumstances—
§ LORD O'NEILL OF THE MAINE
My Lords, I am not complaining about it; I am drawing a comparison between the hospitality produced by the noble Lord and some more lavish hospitality produced by other corporations. It was done on a shoe string, as I have always said. My Lords, if the Government decide to change their mind on this point, I hope that the first head of such an institute will not be appointed on political 1152 grounds and that they will even give consideration to appointing the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, in whom I think we should have an excellent head.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ LORD DONALDSON OF KINGS-BRIDGE
My Lords, I am not going to say much to-night. I feel rather like a recently-bereaved widow complaining, "If only my husband were here, how different it would be!" If only the Consumer Council were still in existence it would indeed be different and far less depressing. But I am determined not to sing a dirge to-night. The foul deed has been done and contemplation of it will help no one. I will try to stick to some constructive appraisal of what lies in front of us. My noble friend Lady Burton opened up the subject with her usual clarity and eloquence. I thought that the velvet wore a little thin on her glove in one of her remarks at the beginning about the late Consumer Council; but I have learned to expect that and bear no passionate I also noted that the ingenuity with which she managed to defend the trade association, the chair of which she decorates, against something of which normally it is not accused was extremely neat. The accusation about unsolicited goods is an accusation which is not seriously made in this country because nobody does it. What worries us all is inertia selling. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness would defend herself just as well were I to make an accusation—which I hasten to say I am not—that inertia selling is a common practice here.
Speaking of her more constructive suggestions, I should like to think a good deal about the Institute of Consumer Affairs. I am not at all sure that this is the kind of thing that is wanted, but I should like to think about it. At our last discussion when the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, asked an Un-starred Question, I suggested, with what I hope was a dignified bitterness, that the removal of the Consumer Council would leave gaps which would not be filled, and that this would be a bad thing for ordinary people, even though it might be a relief to careless businessmen and a small economy to a pettifogging Government. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, whom I am glad to see has returned to the scene of crime and once 1153 again is to reply to us, thought that I was too gloomy. He said:… 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1/12/70; col. 507.]Later the noble Lord said:…it is better left to consumers to create their own organisations and decide what organisation to support…".—[Col. 508.]I think the noble Lord was hoping for a little too much. One gallant individual, Mr. Gordon Baker, has launched the Consumers' Union, but I think that, as yet, his support is pretty tenuous, though we all hope that it will grow. As we have heard from all sides, the Consumers' Association is energetic, as we knew it would be, but it is not pretending to cover the gap. Most of the things it is doing are things that it was doing before the gap was made, and it has, for one reason or another, much less money to spend now than it had when the abolition took place.
The idea that the ordinary man in the street would rise up to defend himself was always a pure fantasy, in my opinion. The Government, in their yearning to achieve a detached and abrasive style, seem to get further and further out of touch with the real problems of the man in the street. Last year the noble Lord suggested, and it was suggested again to day, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, that competition was the best defence for the consumer. I am all for competition, my Lords, and I think that you will never get a satisfactory situation without it. But it must be remembered that to the businessman competition may mean no more than aggressive salesmanship and intensive advertising, worth a fortune if you can capture the market but not of any great interest to the man who has to try to use his freedom of choice to defend himself.
The advertising and aggressive salesmanship tactics simply confuse the issue, and indeed they are meant to. Let me give one or two instances of the kind of difficulties that the ordinary people have. These come from the piece of research which C.A. have been doing for the Daily Mirror which has already been referred to. In a recent test only 26 out of 200 housewives could pick out the cheapest shampoo, because the law allows manufacturers to express the volume of 1154 the content in cubic centimetres or millimetres, and the arithmetic is too much for the housewife, as the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, would have expected. In one High Street they found that the same model of washing machine cost £78 to £104 by hire-purchase. The interest rate varied from 14½ per cent., to 32 per cent. yet three-quarters of the shoppers surveyed did not know that hire-purchase interest charges varied at all. This, of course, is going to be taken care of if the recommendations of the Crowther Committee are accepted.
One says that people can get over this problem by shopping around; but if you do shop around without a certain amount of background information, it is not of much use. One man upon whom the C.A. reported invited nine insurance companies and a broker to quote for the insurance that he wanted. He got ten different suggestions and was no further forward at all, because he did not know how to choose between them. What happened is that this sort of person is not capable of choosing between conflicting advice and takes the first advice given, which is given either by the salesman at the door or through the post. To expect people at this level of understanding to stand on their own feet is to ask too much. They may not be "lame ducks" but they are certainly "sitting ducks" for unscrupulous salesmen and businessmen.
I am concerned about whether there is any sign on the horizon of organised help for people of this kind. I said that I should try to be constructive. I think that there are two things which are helpful, and both have been referred to this afternoon. The first and most important is a Consumers' Association drive to encourage the establishment of local consumer advice centres. I have always taken the view, my Lords, that the proper development of consumer advice was through the local authorities, and it looks as if some success is being achieved in this way. On the whole, it is the less well off who are most heavily penalised by the unequal distribution between manufacturers and the purchaser, or between salesmen and the purchaser. To many people, shopping is no more than a gamble in which the retailers and manufacturers have all the high cards, and the virtues of healthy competition 1155 have a very hollow sound. The consumer advice centres are designed to solve these problems and there is no doubt that they are effective. The one in Kentish Town referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has helped over 40,000 people in two years. The second one to which he referred, at Harlow, has had over a thousand inquiries in the first two weeks.
As a result of this, four or five other local authorities are considering doing something of this kind, and I think it worth stressing that this is the right way that it should be done. Local authorities know the people and the locality, and the Consumer Association has the expert knowledge and can do the testing and selection and provide the information which is wanted. My Lords, if you once got consumer advice centres fairly widespread in this way, I think that you would have nearly all the answers. These advice centres could perfectly well act as arbitrators in small disputes, and my own feeling is that this is the development that is going to help the small man. What worries me is whether it will happen. It is made quite clear to us that the Government are not going to interfere in this sort of way at all. The noble Lord said that the advice centres were a combination of local authorities' consumer associations and the Government, and I should like to know how the Government come in. I was not aware that they came in at all. Perhaps the noble Lord can tell us.
I believe that this is much the most important development open to us. It has been started by private enterprise. There will come a time when at least warm approval and encouragement will be required from the Government to persuade local authorities to carry on. Already they have the power, under the Trade Descriptions Act, to spend money.
The other hopeful thing also referred to is the Manchester arbitration scheme. I could give your Lordships all the figures, but I will not do so because it would be rather boring. What has happened in the first six months there is that out of about 250 applications only about 56 "stuck", as it were, for various reasons. Others were from people in the wrong area, or on subjects which could not be dealt with, or one thing and 1156 another. At the moment of writing there were 56 which came up for actual arbitration, and 17 of these were dealt with to the satisfaction of the customer. In 12 cases the second party refused to play and 27 cases are pending. If that is the kind of proportion we can expect, it seems to me that this arbitration scheme is full of hope. If you can get as many as 17 out of 56 working, and 27 pending, you arc getting somewhere. Those are the two hopeful signs.
I do not think that anything is being done to replace the educational work which the Consumer Council did. This has been referred to before. It was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, but he said nothing to make me think that any action was being taken. He, as it were, smiled on it and blessed it; but I feel uncertain that that is enough. This is probably one of the most important things to be done, and I should like to hear whether anything is being done in this direction. I remain grateful to the noble Baroness. Lady Burton of Coventry, for initiating this discussion. We need to talk about this sort of thing from time to time. So far as possible I have avoided recrimination and have referred to two or three of the things which are hopeful and in which I trust the Government will show some interest.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ LORD TWEEDSMUIR
My Lords, I rise to make the shortest speech in the debate so far. I wish to add my thanks to those of other noble Lords, to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for initiating this intensely interesting debate, which has ranged so widely. I agree with almost everything that she says, and with one point more than any other, in that she does not want a Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and I correspondingly disagree with the two noble Lords who advocated this. We have had a splendid debate to-day, because the speech that followed that of the noble Baroness, from my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, was immensely informative; and from then on not only have we covered the whole wide spectrum but we have gone into a good deal of depth.
It is said that philosophers regard it as their job to state the problem, not to find the answer. I think that we have 1157 stated the problem pretty fully to-day. We have had a chance to clear our minds on the subject. We have had a good many definitions on what a consumer is. He is, quite simply, a man who buys goods and uses services, and he is the man who takes care of the output of mass production on both sides of the Atlantic. But we have almost forgotten that there was a day when he used to be called the customer. He was then credited with almost fabulous power: he was always right. He has lost a lot of that power recently; but, as somebody has said, he still has power over the retailer. If he goes to buy a line of packaged goods, and is within walking distance of where he can get those goods in four different shops, if the retailer is not nice to him he can go to the next one. As I say, he has power over the retailer. But he has precious little power over the manufacturer, over whom he once had a good deal of power. I am not sure that he does not have more power in the sphere of services. I was a director of B.O.A.C. for a number of years, and we competed with the long-haul airlines of the world, flying exactly the same aeroplanes, that went at exactly the same speeds, to exactly the same destinations. You got the traffic if you had better services: it was as simple as that. And I am not sure that he has not some degree of supremacy there.
I think there has been a tendency to-day to write down the value of competition. I do not want to write it up too far, but it is, in its way, the consumers' greatest ally. If a merchant steps off the strait and narrow path he sets barking the most vociferous pack of watchdogs in the world, who are his own commercial competitors. What you must have is a body that hears the watchdogs barking, takes note of it and then takes some action. The consumers' greatest enemy is monopoly, which, however administered and with whatever good will, has two inherent faults which you can never eradicate: it will eventually take an arbitrary attitude towards the consumer, and eventually market a second-rate product. Caveat emptor may not be quite the same thing it once was. When the Molony Committee said that the first defence of the consumer was an alert and questioning attitude, I found myself in strong agreement.
1158 Some people see the consumer not as everyman, but as a kind of identikit figure—the rational shopper with a bag—and he becomes a slightly exaggerated picture. Some people feel that the only steps that need to be taken are those to safeguard the very poor. This is an admirable idea, but it means a limited rescue operation instead of tackling a tremendous job in its full magnitude. It is not a static position, because the consumer is a moving target. Changes come, and change demands change. The whole judgment of advertising and of marketing calls for finer and finer shades of distinction. It is perfectly possible for a consumer to be misled where there is no intention of misleading; it is quite possible for a consumer to be intentionally misled without actually ever overstepping the bounds of truth; it is equally possible for a consumer to become hopelessly confused without any advice from anybody, or indeed with a great deal of it.
In the more slow-moving, simpler and sturdier days, before the last war, I think I saw one of the most heroic pieces of "conning" that could ever happen. It was in Western Canada at a horse fair, and that man who was a great part of the old Western scene, the pedlar of patent medicine, appeared. He had a large bag from which he took bottles. I joined the crowd round him, and he was claiming for his medicine that it cured every single disease that you were ever likely to get, and in addition was an excellent harness polish. He found some takers.
We have had bodies to protect the consumer from the beginning of the century. But when we go into Europe not only shall we have the goods of the Continent pouring into Britain, but we are also going to meet the Continental outlook on trade, which is rather different from ours. In this country, in the main, trade associations are much more powerful than chambers of commerce. On the Continent it is very much the other way round. They do not have, and do not understand, our voluntary system, which sustains so much of the activity in this country. They do not understand our powers of self-regulation. I do not think that any of them could conceive of a House of Parliament, like your Lordships' House, entirely regulating by its 1159 own conduct, without anybody to look after it. We find people coining from Europe who are more and more interested in our voluntary system and in our power of regulation. Whatever final body we have to deal with consumer affairs, those two qualities must have a considerable part in it.
I do not say that I entirely agree, because I want time to think it over, but, on the face of it, I was immensely taken by Lady Burton's suggestion of an institute with a Royal Charter. There is one thing that we want to do before we start doing anything: we want to get it quite clear that industry and the consumer recognise each other as respectable principles. It is very much the opposite in the United States, where the two are absolutely at daggers drawn, and this creates an unhealthy atmosphere. Before I sit down, I should like to enter one small plea: that all those many bodies dedicated to helping the consumer should realise that the time they spend bickering with each other is time absolutely wasted and from which not one groat of benefit will ever reach the consumer.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ LORD RAGLAN
My Lords, I do not think I dissent from anything that the noble Lord, Lord Tweedsmuir, has said. But why is it, I wonder, that anyone wishing to protect consumers, whether by legislation or by any other means, should be liable to be accused of "mollycoddling" the public? The public, one is told, should look after themselves and shop around, the theory being that if you are being, or have been, "had", you should shop somewhere else. In a different world that theory might work. But a long series of consumer protection measures demonstrates that Governments of all colours have recognised the consumers' need for protection against sharp practice and exploitation of one kind and another.
This Government is the first in many years to be extremely hesitant to come to the help of the customer. This impression remains, in spite of the helpful tone of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, this afternoon, because the Government's destruction of the Consumer Council is not an action which inspires any confidence in them in this regard. This, to my mind, is the more 1160 strange because, as my noble friend Lady Gaitskell mentioned, the present Prime Minister was so ardent and so successful in the cause of abolishing resale price maintenance. That Act was a consumer protection measure which, although it was not as successful as some people hoped it would be in some respects, at least encouraged some truer competition than before. And the fact that retail price maintenance needed to be abolished is acknowledgment enough that if the profit motive and competition are to be encouraged as being for the public benefit, then they have to be harnessed and channelled in such a way that the public will obtain the most benefit and suffer the least inconvenience or exploitation. Therefore, if the Government wish to create an atmosphere in which private enterprise is to be encouraged and competition obtained, they have a duty to see that that competition is carried on to rules which are as clear as possible and comprehensible to everyone. It must be true competition and it must be fair to the customer. The Legislature must set the rules of the game and the Government must be the umpire who sees fair play; because they are really the only people who can, and they alone have the power.
This is not the usual sort of game, with one person striving against another—a case of "May the best product win!", with the public giving that product the accolade of their custom. That is how many people, I am sure, would like to see the system working, and if everyone were honourable it might work—but even then I am not sure that it would; there are so many variables. What we have is the situation where, although firms are competing with each other, they are continually tempted also to compete against the customer. There have been frequent cases where firms have combined or tacitly agreed to cheat customers. One example of this meanness was the so-called "guarantee" mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, this afternoon. Any innocent person reading these guarantees with their Gothic script and impressive legal terminology might be lured into believing that here was something which would help him, whereas in reality the purpose of such guarantees has been to protect the firms against claims of faulty workmanship. It was a trick and I was 1161 very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, say that the Government are going to put a stop to the deception.
The latest form of trickery, in my view, is in packaging. Packaging things cleverly is not a new form of attracting the customer but in the last twenty years or so very much more attention has been paid to it, especially with the coming of the supermarkets and the encouragement of impulse-buying. I am not against this because I think it makes shopping, and life generally, more cheerful and more interesting; but when the packaging is used not just to attract the customer but to deliberately confuse him by removing one of the chief means by which he can compare one product with another, it is time for the Government, in their role of umpire, to move in. To give one example, I have recently seen large cans of beer on sale which contain six pints and 16 fluid oz. This is a fraction of our Imperial measure and it is 3.8 of a litre, plus a few places of decimals. In other words, it conforms to no standard whatever of any regular kind. Beer is usually sold by the pint, and this large can provides no mental yardstick by which the customer can gauge how much per pint the beer costs. There is no means of making a comparison with other beers, except by a slide rule or a very long calculation on the back of a shopping list. What is the purpose of packaging in this fashion? I can see only one purpose, which is to make the shopper's comparison difficult and in fact virtually impossible. This is not competition with a rival firm but it is what I would call competing against the customer—and by unfair means.
The same remarks apply to hundreds of other products which are sold in odd sizes in order to make comparison difficult. We badly need standard weights and volumes for a multitude of articles on sale, so that like can really be compared with like and customers are not confused or bamboozled by the apparently endless ingenuity of package designers. This does not come under the heading of self-discipline which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, nor can it be controlled by self-discipline. It can only come under his category of deception and malpractice. No honest firm has anything to fear. In 1162 fact the better firms nearly always welcome a tightening of the law. Nor am I frightened by the thought of increasing the number of regulations, because most of these regulations are seen as commonsense and they work themselves without any extensive supervision.
Who is to be consulted as to what these standard sizes should be? I think this is an area in which the Government miss a body such as the late lamented Consumer Council, with whom they are able to consult. Perhaps an institute of consumer affairs, such as was suggested by my noble friend, would be the kind of thing we need. I do not know about an institute of consumer affairs, but perhaps—and I have not thought this out—the Government should themselves carry out the work. There needs to be some official or semi-official body whose job is to watch these things, not just like a dog but like a hawk, to take their recommendations to the Government in their role of umpire and rule-keeper and to change the laws to meet ever—changing circumstances. This is not mollycoddling "or" nannying"—and, incidentally, it is nearly always the people who do not do any shopping who use these pejorative descriptions. It is not "molly-coddling" but it is seeing fair play. We have to enforce this protection because the seller is the professional and the active party, while the consumer is the amateur and the passive party. The seller is always trying to attract more customers, and unless we have consumer protection legislation, as we have in nearly every walk of life, the individual will not be protected against exploitation. As the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, pointed out, education can never be enough: the customer cannot keep up. I hope that the Government will come to see that unless they back, and back considerably, some body such as the old Consumer Council—reconstructed perhaps as the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, suggested—they are allowing the balance of advantage to go to the seller; and that simply is not just.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ LORD AUCKLAND
My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, and to my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn in that, due to a longstanding engagement which is very closely connected with the subject of this debate, 1163 I was unable to be in my place when they spoke and my name was inevitably added to the list rather late. The only interest that I can declare is an indirect one. I am President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and my interest has a certain bearing on the subject through the medium of safety.
I was rather horrified the other day on going into a small shop to see oil heaters and electric stoves of a very secondhand nature being sold with their elements very much exposed and in some cases broken. This is in contravention of the Oil Heaters Act, which was the subject of such active discussion in your Lordships' House and which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, played such an active part in promoting. Whether or not the existence of a Consumer Council would have meant a watchdog seeing that the law was kept in this instance I do not know; but I do hope that my noble friend's Department will keep a vigilant eye on this practice of selling appliances of this nature. They contravene the law and they certainly contravene safety regulations.
When the issue of the disbandment of the Consumer Council was discussed in your Lordships' House I was broadly in favour of the disbandment, with some reluctance. I did not think that it had quite achieved the very desirable objects which it had in mind, possibly through inadequate Government finance, and possibly because it had too much with which to contend. It seems that nothing has been put in its place for the past 18 months to two years, and that makes many people from all Parties and all walks of life wonder whether the decision to disband this organisation quite so soon was a wise one. We are all extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry for initiating this debate. Those who know her realise only too well the great part that she has played in consumer protection legislation over the years—consumer protection in many forms, not only in foodstuffs, but travel and all kinds of things.
One wonders what ought to be put in the place of the Consumer Council. A number of suggestions have been made in various quarters. Perhaps if industry and manufacturers in general were to indulge more in research and have a 1164 special department dealing with research, very thorough research, consumer research and market research, much could be done. Also one of the main problems is not so much at the vantage of purchase, but at the vantage of after-sales. Those who follow "Action Line"—and I had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman in charge of that organisation last year—find it a rather disturbing factor that in so many cases it needs a telephone call to "Action Line" before something is done. In just how many instances this has happened I do not know, but if one reads the letters to Mr. Miller, who is in charge of this laudable organisation, one must assume that it is all too many.
Many reputable companies have a complaints service, and there are many retailers who are quick to acknowledee this. All too frequently one purchases an expensive product which after a short time goes wrong and it is ages before it can be put right. Some of these are goods made on the home market, some are imported goods. The housewife, or the buyer, is deprived of the article for often far too long, having paid a vast sum of money for it.
This brings me to the matter of date marking. Last Sunday's Sunday Times, in a very active "Insight" column, had a most interesting article on the date stamping on food packages. One of the items mentioned was soul). One shop stocked a brand of soup which was allegedly eight years' old. Apparently this soup was still edible. The problem here is when the soups are canned: what length of time elapses between the picking of the peas or tomatoes and the canning of the soups? This is one other consideration which must be borne in mind.
Obviously date stamping has its problems, and with the growth of supermarkets—a matter which has been mentioned frequently in this debate—one has more pre-packaged goods, and prepackaged goods deteriorate rather quickly in some circumstances. Therefore, what can be done? Some of the codes used in date marking are baffling. In the article to which I have referred mention was made of a certain type of yoghourt marked "29B", which meant the 29th February. One wonders how many retailers understand what this means let alone the customer. If we are going to 1165 have date stamping, for heaven's sake let it be clear! I am not in a sufficiently expert position to know the problems or otherwise which date stamping entails. Nobody wants to put extra burdens on a retailer, particularly a small shop, but at the same time the consumer these days pays a good deal of money for food. Bearing in mind the fact that not everybody has a refrigerator, let alone a deep freeze, in the relatively mild weather that we are having food can go off fairly quickly.
This brings me to one or two other points. One is the matter of labelling. All too often products have instruction labels which are, to say the least, extremely vague. Not all of us are handymen; not all of us understand how to assemble something which is referred to in two or three words. We cannot afford to produce an encyclopedia on labelling, but if a product is labelled with an instruction it should be made clear. There arc also occasions these days, bearing in mind that we have in this country quite a number of immigrants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere, when it is frequently necessary to have instructions printed in more than one language. Surely it is not beyond the wit of manufacturers to carry this out on certain occasions.
There is one other matter which I do not think has been mentioned in this debate. Doorstep selling has been mentioned, and there is also the matter of the selling of insurance. This is one of the more nefarious schemes which have been set up in recent years. I spent nearly twenty years in Lloyds where insurance is regarded as Al. There are certain institutions which guarantee proper insurance such as the Corporation of Insurance Brokers. If people are going to take out an insurance policy it pays them to deal with a firm that is a member of the Corporation of Insurance Brokers, just as it is wise to buy a household product which has the British Standards Institution seal. This does not always guarantee a 100 per cent. product, but it means that the customer has some comeback. One hopes that the Government will try to persuade people that this is something which is desirable.
Consumer protection is one of the most difficult things for any Government to legislate upon because one has to draw the distinction between it and interference 1166 with the liberty of the subject. Some will complain because there is too much legislation; that they are being told that they have to do this and that. There is the matter of the protection of the public, or certainly of certain members of the public, from deliberate exploitation. One thing is quite certain, my Lords. Whether or not the disbandment of the Consumer Council is a mistake—and I cannot entirely make up my mind whether it is —something is needed, whether through the local authority or through chambers of commerce or industry itself, to make sure that the general public receive more protection than they do now. If this debate does something to that end, my Lords, it will have been extremely worth while.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, when we come to the end of a debate such as this it is always extremly difficult to do anything in the way of summing up. The sphere of consumer relations and consumer affairs is so wide, and one is asked such an enormous range of questions, that anyone, even someone with the greatest possible encyclopædic knowledge, would be very hard put to it to answer them all. I should be unwise to attempt to do that, although I shall, if I may, deal with one or two of the questions that have been raised. I quite understand that the noble Lord, Lord Peddle, cannot be with us. I thought he made one of the most notable and interesting speeches in the debate, and certainly this is a subject that we will look into very carefully indeed.
I would comment on only one thing the noble Lord said. Perhaps I should say first that almost anything he is associated with is dynamic because he himself is almost a "dynamic urge" (which are the words he used) on the action that the Post Office Users' National Council can take and in the contributions they are making in exposing, as he said, decisions of nationalised industries and to enlighten and inform public opinion. He also said (and I was very interested in his comment, because we hear so much about bodies in this sphere lacking "teeth"), and said very clearly, that what his body needed was not "teeth" but a "bark". There is a great deal in this and I speak a little feelingly about it, having once 1167 presided over a body which I was told had no "teeth", and over which my noble friend Lord Tweedsmuir now presides—I refer of course to the Advertising Standards Authority. In fact, we had, I think, a good deal more "teeth" than the Post Office Users' National Council has, but I do not think that this was really the test of the job we were doing.
The general advice that we have received this afternoon would be hard to sum up. It was inevitable in this debate that we should hear a great many regrets expressed at the absence of the Consumer Council, as well as some indications of where the presence of the Consumer Council might have been useful. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, suggested that at least it would be a body to consult on the appropriate sizes of container that we might recommend to manufacturers of beer for selling their product. It would at this stage be a question only of recommendation because, while the contents have to be marked, there are at the present moment no powers to require intoxicating liquors that are in closed containers to be sold in a particular quantity.
I recognise of course that there was bound to be a gap left when the Consumer Council departed. As I said at the time, I thought the tendency would be for this gap to be filled up, as nature abhors a vacuum; and it clearly is being filled up. One must recognise, however, that the present time is a period of very special change. We have, for example the Local Government Bill before us now; we have metrication going on now. A lot of special change is going on. I myself believe that when these changes have come into being we shall see a good deal of development in the consumer advisory services. For example, I do not think one could expect local authorities which are about to go out of existence to make radical changes of this kind. But, as I indicated in my opening speech, we may well see a considerable development at the local level when the new local authorities come into being.
There were some noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, who thought there should be something in the 1168 nature of a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Lord Jacques instanced the Canadian precedent of the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. From what he said, I gathered that he thought we should have very much the same kind of arrangements in this country. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, also thought we should have a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. One should never dismiss cut of hand any suggestion, especially when it is in practice in another country. I would only say that our organisation of Government at the present time is based on distinct responsibilities as between Departments, and to set up a Ministry of Consumer Affairs would mean cutting across the responsibilities of all the Departments. It would be almost like a tribune of the people, so to speak, within the Government. This obviously has advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to make any downright and emphatic pronouncements on any of the suggestions that have been put forward to-night. All I can say is that the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, made an excellent speech and that what he said will be taken most carefully into consideration.
I suggested in my opening speech that we should deal with these matters under four headings. As to the protection of the consumer from injury, deception and other malpractice, there will always of course be a certain amount of misdemeanour, and the question is whether our legislative provisions and the other provisions are adequate to prevent it. I myself have always felt that one cannot rely on legislative provisions alone; one must inspire the producers with the idea that they have standards up to which they must live. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, said that there should be codes of practice. I thought perhaps he went a little far in saying that the Government should themselves impose these codes of practice. It seems to me that codes of practice of this nature come much better, and are much more readily accepted, if they are developed by the particular trades—as, for example, the Mail Order Publishers' Association has developed its code. Does the noble Lord wish to intervene?
§ LORD JACQUES
My Lords, is there not a halfway house whereby the Government do not impose a code but, on the other hand, do not leave it 1169 entirely to the trade and, indeed, encourage by their initiative and expert advice?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
There is indeed, my Lords, and this could possibly be the answer. I am only saying that I think this should come, as I believe consumer affairs also should come, very largely up from the grass roots. It may be that there could be some arrangement whereby the Government would approve the codes. But if that is done then one is putting the force of law behind the codes, and that is not necessarily the right thing to do. My own experience, both in business and in the Advertising Standards Authority, is that there is a good deal to be said for getting people to accept responsibility for their own codes and then to live up to them. I am not saying that that is the only thing: one must have the law behind it. Some people do not like the word "protective", but various pieces of protective legislation have been developed, together with the regulations, some of which arc being considered and many of which have already been introduced.
A good deal has been said about date stamping. Here perhaps I might say to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, that if every purchaser always bought the product which came last into the shop that would be the most sure and certain way of ensuring that a great deal in the shop was out of date. This is contrary to the whole principle of stock control.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, not if the shopkeeper knows his job and sees to it that his stock is properly rotated.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, this was not the point the noble Lord put before the House when he was speaking about whether to take goods from the front or from the back. At the moment I am only answering that point. On the point of date marking, there is a great deal to be said on both sides; but, given proper stock control, nobody wants to have on his shelves products which are not fit for consumption; and, what is more, he is liable to run counter to the law if he does. May I leave that matter there and say one word about metrication, which is a very different subject and about which I was asked by my noble friend Lord Derwent?
1170 My Lords, the Metrication Board has set up a steering committee for distribution and consumer interests and they will be advising on all aspects of the change to metrication which have an effect on the consumer. They will be advising all concerned, including the Government. I think one can possibly exaggerate the dangers of consumers being misled by the change. All these things seem much more terrifying in contemplation than they prove to be in the end. We shall no doubt have a period when those goads that have to be sold in standard quantities arc authorised to be sold in metric weight as well. At that stage we shall have on the shelves packages of tea in metric measure and packages of tea in Imperial measure. The Government have said that they are going to pay particular attention to make certain that during that period consumers do not suffer as a result of the change. The exact phrase is,It will be the preoccupation of all concerned to see that consumers do not suffer as a result of the change".My Lords, I should like to say a word or two about education, which is another subject mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques. I am glad that he raised this matter. It is not, of course, a matter for the Department with which I am most closely associated, but I shall certainly take steps to see that what he said is passed on to the Department of Education and Science, and I shall ask them to write to him on the subject.
My Lords, if there is anything that I have not dealt with perhaps I may write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, asked about the County Court Rules so far as the registrar is concerned. The answer is, yes, he will hear the pretrial cases in chambers.
I do not think that I need add any more to what I have said. This has been an extremely interesting debate. It is always a good thing that Parliament should constantly be pushing the Government on matters of consumer affairs. Indeed I think in this place we tend a little to under-estimate the extent to which the Government are pushed on consumer affairs, as indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, herself knows so well, because she did so much of it. After all, the House of Commons is a representative assembly, each Member of which is a consumer. They are in a very good position indeed to bring to the attention of 1171 the Government things that are going wrong in their own constituencies. I think noble Lords underestimate them.
Having said that, I think we have been extremely fortunate to have had such a good debate here to-day. I do not think anybody expects me to deliver any final pronouncement on any of the matters that have been raised, so my final pronouncement to-day will be once again to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, for having initiated such an excellent debate, and to thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses for having taken part in it.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that although I did not expect him to pronounce, I hoped that he could answer my question on marking orders.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I can certainly answer that question. I presume the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, is referring to the marking of origin?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
That is so, my Lords. No marking orders have been made so far, but as I indicated during the debate, there is at the present time legislation in the other place on marking, and I will find my note and tell the noble Baroness what the position is.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, that is one particular point, but what I really wanted to know was why these had all been left since I understand that at least two applications for marking orders have been made.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
Yes, my Lords, there have been applications for marking orders. The noble Baroness is speaking about the Trade Descriptions Act. The point about marking orders is that they can only be made in the interests of the purchasers of the goods. Many of the applications that have been made appear to be made not so much in the interests of the purchasers of the goods but of the producers. Under the legislation now coming forward, this will not be the sole criterion. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on this subject and give her the full details.
§ VISCOUNT HANWORTH
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I again raise the question of the Crowther Report and ask whether he has any more reassuring news to give us as to when we might hear something more of the Government's views?
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
My Lords, I do not think I can say more than I said in my speech that is to say, that this was a Report which raised a great many issues indeed. It needs very careful consideration and a great deal of consultation. This consultation is taking place and I hope that it will not be long before something transpires from it. But the noble Viscount will be aware that the Government never commit themselves to a particular date for legislation. However, in the end, of course, legislation will certainly be required.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate, and I think not a single speech has been without value and without a major contribution to what we have been discussing I think we all feel that. I want now just to say a word to my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. I never know what arrows are going to be directed at me from the rear, but they always come with such expertise and they are always so beautifully delivered that I thoroughly enjoy them, however rude they may be. Having said that, I am going to take my noble friend to task.
He said, and I was very glad to hear it, that the sending of unsolicited goods did not take place in this country. I left this House on April 1, 1970, after the debate, labouring under the delusion that I was the only person who had taken part in that debate who believed that fact to be true. The Lord Chancellor, if I may take his name in his absence, I will not say supported me, but at least suggested to the House that the question I had asked—which was, was there indeed sending of unsolicited goods which would make such legislation justifiable?—should be asked of noble Members. I was delighted to hear from my noble friend what he said to-night. I do not recall what he said on April 1, but I do not think we were in agreement.
1173 I want to take him further, because he stepped a little deeper into the morass. He went on to the question of inertia selling. I did not know that a note that I had on this point would be necessary, but I brought it; and it shows that if you bring a whole lot of material one little point may be useful. I should like to tell him (and this is going back, instead of forward) that on the Second Reading of the Bill in the Commons on January 30, 1970, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, said (col. 1926 of the OFFICIAL REPORT):We have made some attempts this morning to define exactly what inertia selling means, but it is difficult to find a better basic definition than that used by the Advertising Standards Authority Limited. That body defines inertia selling as the sending of goods which have not been ordered, whether by themselves or with other goods which have been ordered, in the hope that the recipient will be willing to pay for them or to return them to the sender.I give that with my compliments to my noble friend Lord Donaldson.
To-day, my Lords, we have not had agreement on what has been suggested. We never expected agreement; what we wanted to do to-day was to put forward various suggestions to the Government. I am not prepared to go to the stake for mine, and I am not prepared not to support other people's suggestions. We have all put forward something and we have left the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, with many suggestions to be considered. On the subject of militancy, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, knows, militancy can lie behind persistence. I always think it better to start with the persistence, even though perhaps the velvet glove does on occasion wear thin. We hope that it will not wear thin on this occasion. We know what the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has said. I do not think we are in any doubt (if I am not giving a hostage to fortune) about his own personal opinion on these matters. But we all want the Government not only to consider what action to take on what we have said to-day but to go further and take some action. The noble Lord has spoken of the gap, and he said that he thought this was being filled up. I made a little note, "central link needed". I propose to be very militant 1174 about that central link if we do not get something. The noble Lord did say that the situation was being improved at local level. There I agree. But I am concerned about the major filling of the gap that will link all these organisations together.
My Lords, it only remains for me to thank all who have taken part in the debate—and I am very glad, in these days of Women's Lib., to introduce an "anti" note. In this debate we have had fourteen speakers, eleven men and three women. Strangely enough, I am very glad about this because in the past (and I am sure my noble friends Lady Phillips and Lady Gaitskell will agree with me) it has been the tendency with some Ministers—though not with the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn—to ride this off as the women, bless them! having a nice little day out on an affair of no very great importance. I am very glad that we have had a reversal of the balance to-day. I look forward to the time when the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, comes to this House and tells us what it has been decided should be done to fill this gap. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers by leave, withdrawn.