HL Deb 30 January 1975 vol 356 cc580-644

3.58 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, the House will be indebted to my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for her Motion which has given us a debate which should be most timely. I believe it would be in the interests of the House if I spoke briefly giving the Government's attitude to the questions raised, and asked leave of the House towards the end of the debate to have a few minutes to reply to specific points if that should prove to be necessary. The Director General of Fair Trading has wide powers in relation to fair trading, but he also has statutory duties particularly in relation to monopolies, mergers, restrictive practices and consumer credit. The Government take the view that in some ways he is a referee as between the consumer interest and trade and industry. His tripartite Committee, upon which are representatives of the enforcement authorities, trade and industry, and consumers, is in some ways a jury. The Government therefore take the view that neither of these institutions fulfil the need for a fully representative consumer body acting for consumers.

They feel that it is urgent that we should have a fully representative body, one which can act independently with authority, and exclusively in the interests of consumers. They set forth those ideas in White Paper Cmnd. 5726. In this White Paper they proposed the establishment of a National Consumers' Agency. Since then they have had second thoughts on the word "agency". In this country, as distinct from the United States, "agency" seems to question independence, and the Government are so anxious to ensure that this body has complete independence that they have decided that it should not be known as an agency but simply as the National Consumers' Council.

Yesterday, my right honourable friend was able to announce that the Chairman will be Mr. Michael Young—who is at present the President of the Consumers Association—and was able to introduce him to the Press. This Council will be somewhat different from the previous Consumer Council; for example, it will not be concerned with the information which is given to consumers. That will remain with the Director General of Fair Trading. It will not be concerned with individual compliants; it will be concerned largely with strategy. It will make a continuing survey of the adequacy and efficiency of the law and the organisation which is available for enforcing the law. In particular it will be in a position to make representations to Central Government and local government, to the Director General of Fair Trading, to trade and industry, to trade unions and to any other quarter where that appears to be necessary. It will be available for consultation by Government; it will represent consumers on appropriate Government Committees, including international committees, and it will review a representation of the consumer interest in the nationalised industries. There will be separate committees for Scotland and Wales; there is already a committee for Northern Ireland.

For over a quarter of a century we had consumer committees in nationalised industries. For the most part they have been unpaid and for the most part they have worked conscientiously in the interests of their fellow citizens, especially those who bought the goods and services sold by the particular industry. I should like at this juncture to pay tribute to the work which they have done over this long period.

There are certain matters about the consumer committees about which we express surprise but need not express surprise. For example, we express surprise that they are relatively unknown. My Lords, that is completely in keeping with the kind of society in which we live. We live in a society which is largely dominated by the motor car, by radio, by television, clubs, package holidays and the like, and the average consumer is interested in consumer protection only when he or she has a complaint to make. It is only then that they are interested in finding that there is machinery. In fact I was astonished to hear as a result of the Which? survey that 8 per cent. knew. I would have expected the percentage to be lower than that.

A couple of days ago I turned up my electricity bill and took a better look at it than I usually do. I found that there was a paragraph in bold type headed, "Enquiries and Complaints". It told me that if I had any inquiry or complaint I could communicate it either in person or by telephone, or in writing to the nearest showroom. It went on to say: The Minister concerned has appointed an independent committee to deal with complaints where you are not satisfied, and if you are not satisfied you can appeal and the address of the Secretary of the Committee is as follows …". It went on further: There is a representative on that committee from your locality and if you want to know his name and address so that you can go and talk to him about your complaint we will give you his name and address at the nearest show room". How far can you go in order to inform the public of their rights?


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend. Suppose my noble friend has a complaint against this particular industry on some matter which he regarded as important and addressed his question to the Departmental Minister concerned. What answer would he expect to receive? Surely the answer he would receive would be, "It is not the business of the Minister to interfere in day-to-day administration". Did it occur to my noble friend to ask the Minister concerned to get such an answer, or was he aware that that would be the answer he would get so he did not ask the question?


My Lords, if I addressed it to the Minister no doubt I would get that answer, but I did not address it to the Minister. I was merely quoting what was on my electricity bill. I would say to those who are so critical of the consumer arrangements within our nationalised industries that I wish only that some of our larger private corpora-tions gave the same kind of facility.

So far as gas is concerned, I have had quite different experience to that of my noble friend, but since the chairman of the Consumer Committee of the gas industry is to speak later in this debate I will leave her to deal with that. I would however mention that so far as the machinery being unknown is concerned the Gas Consumer Committee has put up proposals for publicity which have been accepted by the Government.

There is another thing about the nationalised industries committees about which we often seem surprised, although I cannot understand why we seem surprised. We often seem surprised that the effectiveness of these committees varies from one industry to another. My Lords, the quality of all our institutions, including Parliament itself, depends upon the quality of the people who are attracted to it. Likewise, since the quality of the people who are attracted to the committees in these various industries must vary, we must expect their effectiveness to vary. Even if they had a standard constitution and their powers were identical their effectiveness would vary. Some committees would be weaker than others, and no doubt there would occasionally be a committee so pugnacious and militant that it did not get the best co-operation from the management concerned. That I am sure can happen. I know that when I was in management the people who got the most out of me were those who put forward a balanced and reasonable case and showed that they had some knowledge of the difficulties which I had.

I am also pleased to see that the surveys of Which?, while showing that the consumer representation in the nationalised industries is not widely known, have shown evidence that the overwhelming majority of those who have had to contact the consumer committees were quite satisfied with the result. That I think is something which is well worth noting. On the other hand, it has to be admitted that this machinery, in one way or another, has been going on for a quarter of a century and it is time for a Review. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection intends that immediately the National Consumers Council is set up she will make a reference to it for an investigation of the consumer interests in the nationalised industries. The Review will be completely independent and the Council will be free to review the membership of the committees, the structure, the organisation, the working methods, the resources available, the relationship to the consumer and the relationship to the consumer protection network, so it will be a complete review in every sense of the word.

In the meantime, as from 1st February, appointments to the committees in the nationalised industries will be made by the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. She will do it on the advice of the National Consumers Council and in consultation with the Minister concerned. Also the whole of the cost of operating the consumer interest in the nationalised industries, which amounts to £1¼ million, will become a Government charge instead of a charge upon the industry concerned.

I come now to private corporations and here I will deal with the matter very briefly. Existing company law imposes a duty upon the directors to act solely in the interests of the shareholders as a whole. In these days this exclusiveness is no longer acceptable. In the words of the CBI itself: Companies have a responsibility to creditors, customers, employees and to society at large ". In consequence, the Government are giving high priority to a wide-ranging review of Company Law. In the meantime I would say that there is a case for the boards of our larger private corporations to have a group of directors who are not representing either shareholders or workers but who can take an independent view which embraces the interests of the consumer. May I direct the attention of the House to the view of the European Parliament on the European Company Statutes which is almost in line with what I have said.

Finally, while I may not agree with everything which has been said by my noble friend, I hope she will appreciate the Government's awareness of what remains to be done to establish a firm footing for consumer interest in big business, whether it be public or private. We are committed to this. We shall endeavour to get it right.

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by offering my thanks, and I am sure they are endorsed by the whole House, to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, not merely for introducing this debate at a very apposite time but also for an outstandingly succinct and lucid survey of a most important and sensitive field. I follow her with the greatest diffidence. I say that it is an apposite time, because 1st February represents the beginning of the new regime, and I think that at the present stage of the development of our society there is a blurring of the understanding of the functions of the bricks and mortar of which it is made. Therefore, I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I start with some fairly fundamental statements which may seem almost simplistic.

For instance, in the commercial field businesses exist to make money and the money they make is used, among other things, to pay not only the management but also the work force. Although in some areas this seems to have escaped notice, the fact remains that if a firms' costs go up their prices go up, their sales go down and pressure is exerted on the whole of the industry to mend its ways. It is when this pressure is removed or diminished that the consumer is bereft of his chief weapon, which is the commercial weapon of going to another shop and paying his money to somebody else. It is at that stage that we need to look at the principles of the defence of the individual or the consumer in the face of the corporation.

We saw in the papers only yesterday that the Department of Trade and Industry is anticipating an increase in the number of private companies seeking Government help, and from experience one would say that few flies which enter that parlour will find the door open when they wish to leave. Therefore, the number of corporate or agglomerate bodies with which the consumer is faced will necessarily increase. In my view, Parliament has two principal duties—to preserve and promote the honour, freedom and prosperity of the State; and to preserve and promote the honour, freedom and prosperity of its individual citizens. A good number of the differences between political Parties arise from the areas where these two duties are, or are thought to be, in conflict and we are on that precise ground at this moment.

It is, after all, to State monopolies that private citizens are frequently in danger of losing their freedom of choice, and it is to unprofitable State monopolies that an increasing flow of their taxes are directed. We on this side of the House are particularly anxious that the rights of the private individual should be preserved, whether he is a factory worker, or a farm labourer, or a managing director, or a clergyman, or the wife of any of them. We wish to preserve these rights in the face of corporate pressures, whether they are nationalised or private, and we are particularly concerned to see that the institutions which are set up to perform this function, whether Parliamentary or otherwise, are able to do so effectively, simply and reliably.

All bodies which are set up to act on behalf of the consumer interest, whether in a nationalised industry or in any other monopolistic situation, ought, in my view, to conform to the following criteria. They should be appointed by a body other than the industry with which they are con-cerned, or the Department responsible for it. They should be supplied with adequate funds by a body other than the industry with which they are concerned. They should have the duty and the means both of making themselves generally known to the consumer public, and of making their services readily available to them. They should have the duty and the means to concern themselves with, and exert pressures about, all aspects of that industry which affect the consumer. They should have the right to be informed of and, where possible, consulted about significant changes of policy affecting the consumer before they are embarked upon. Their constitution and composition should be such that their representations cannot be lightly set aside by the industry with which they are concerned. And they must, of course, be sensitive and responsive to the opinions and interests of the consumers whom they represent.

Here we are on common ground on both sides of this House in many, if not in all, areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has expressly adduced a number of these principles, and I am confident that they will be supported also by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, since three of them in print, and four or five of them by implication, are endorsed by Conference Document No. 6 of the Co-operative Party's Public Monopoly and the Consumer, which was printed in 1968 and with which I am sure the noble Lord must be familiar.

Let us see whether the present situation and the projected future situation give us bodies which answer to these criteria in the nationalised industries and in other corporate situations. First of all, the move to make consumer councils report to a Minister other than the Minister for their industry is fore-shadowed in the White Paper. In fact, it answers to this principle and is a step in the right direction. It is a step only which is taken, and it comes as something of a surprise, since we read in the remarkable document which was published for the last General Election by the Party of the noble Lords who sit opposite, "We have … set up a National Consumer Agency." I was interested in the change of name that was announced at the last moment, and I wonder whether this is a case of announcing the birth of a daughter shortly after the conception of a son. However, the child is with us and we are concerned with how it will perform.

I should like to congratulate Her Majesty's Government upon having appointed yesterday the first chairman of the body in question. I have one reservation about this. I see from The Times report, which may not be accurate, that he is retained on a two days a week basis. Having regard to the scope of his duties, the complexity of his work and the amount of work which in any case he will have to delegate, I wonder whether this will be enough time, although I do not doubt that he has sufficient experience to make the best use of that time.

I have another reservation about this body, and it is a much bigger one. It is set up as a body separate from the Directorate of Fair Trading. A new department or a new empire is a new claimant on funds and, like all empires, it will soon contain its empire builders and it will grow. The idea of allocating the functions of consumer protection to the Director-General of Fair Trading with powers of delegation was dismissed in the White Paper to which the noble Lord referred in a sentence and a half on page 4. In fact, the noble Lord briefly elaborated this statement. He said, quoting from the White Paper: The gap left by the Consumer Council cannot suitably be filled by the Director-General whose role in respect of monopolies, mergers, restrictive practices and consumer credit precludes him from acting exclusively in the interest of consumers". A reading of the Fair Trading Act 1973, from which the Director's powers derive, and more particularly of the paragraphs in Section 2 which delineate the general functions of the Director, does not seem to me to preclude this course, or his ability to set up a section of his Department which would act exclusively on behalf of the consumer. When we are always in danger of being overburdened with administrative costs, and when I personally am deeply suspicious of bureaucratic proliferation at any stage, and more deeply apprehensive of overlaps of responsibility and resultant conflicts in advice which I think are inherent in the present scheme, which will result in inefficiency of representation, prolongation of correspondence and multiplication of costs, I wish the National Consumers' Council and their new Director every success that they can hope for; but let them restrain, if possible, their growth. I hope that the Chairman will soon be given the Council of which he will take the chair. In fact, I am happy to hear that this will start next Saturday, 1st February, but I maintain that in the long run they would be both more effective and less expensive had they been a significant addition grafted on to the Directorate of Fair Trading, and not a little acorn planted on its own to wax, as acorns do, into something very much bigger. It is neither their power nor their function that I regret, but their separateness and the need for their own roots, branches and budgets.

The second criterion of separate funds is now promised, and we welcome it. It is important that the funds are adequate to meet the fulfilment of the third criterion, which is making the agency or the council known to consumers. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, said that he was not surprised—in fact he was surprised, but in the opposite sense to the rest of us—that only 8 per cent. of the public are aware of the facilities available, on the grounds that things very rarely went wrong. I would say that he is lucky in his experience in that respect, and would point out that the healthiest man around knows where the local doctor lives. So it seems to me that there is much to be said for making these councils very much better known than they are now.

In my conversations with a number of these councils, I have discovered a general concern on this very point. It is my view that they must be able to advertise, not only with the general consent of the monopoly concerned; not in small print on the bill, though I agree that that is a good idea ; not on a sticker peeling off the bus stop—


My Lords, I did not say "small print".


No, my Lords, it may be that the noble Lord's spectacles are stronger than mine, because it is small print on my bill. But I take his point. However, it must be prominent and if necessary must be paid for—in the Press, in commercially produced timetables or in other vehicles of the media.

The outstanding success of the consumer protection programmes on the media, for instance, pioneered in this country by, I believe Bernard Braden, Jimmy Young and Esther Rantzen, has something to teach us; namely, that the media are very powerful, and also that they would not have their following if the present administrative system worked as it should. Publicity is a powerful weapon; exposure results in action, and I have even heard it suggested that local consumer councils should have the editor of the local paper as one of their members. I think that might lead to difficulty, but anonymity is the armour of the monopolists—anonymity of the customer's means of recourse, and the anonymity of the people by whom reparation is due to be made. The corporation, whether it is a State corporation or a private one, is too often a great cliff with no foothold for the consumer to climb up to the top. Too many people will not write to the top, as the noble Baroness has suggested they should, and for those who do not want to or do not feel able to there must be another route.

The fourth criterion is that the bodies must be able to take into their purview all aspects of the functioning of the industry with which they are concerned, and not merely some of them. I think this goes almost without saying. However, there is one reservation; there are many people who have doubts about the pricing policy. Let me take fares as an example. Whereas I think that general public pressure can be left to look after the global sum obtained from fares, because it is usually Government money that is largely at stake on these occasions in the form of subsidies, the fares structure is a proper consideration for a consumer body dealing with buses or railway trains to be concerned with.

Fifthly, the good relations between consumer and supplier will not be properly fostered until the monopoly authority actually discuss their mutual problems in advance before they are resolved—or, happily, before they occur. I will not dwell on this point, because the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has dwelt on it so succinctly and powerfully that 1 do not think it is necessary. But I entirely endorse what she has said, that it is crucial for the consumer to be brought in at the planning stage so that many of the tribulations that would otherwise occur do not, in fact, happen, and it should be left at that.

The constitution and composition of these bodies should be such that they cannot be lightly set aside when they make a recommendation. It is possible that with a new Minister in charge of this whole field, and with the channels now open to the new bodies to the Minister for Prices and Consumer Protection—if coupled with the right to information and consultation, which I have suggested—and with the publicity that I have outlined, this may suffice. In fact, the political channels that are open provide all that our political system can offer, beyond an actual executive authority, which such bodies are not equipped to wield. In the event, however, of unreasonable obstruction in what will come to be termed "the usual channels" in dealing with what the noble Baroness has referred to as "another estate of the realm", it should be possible to find some means of unblocking the log jam. I should like to put forward very tentatively, and only personally, the reflection that since exposure is the greatest pressure which can be brought to bear on political channels, or on the State nationalised channels or, indeed, on commercial channels, a simple statement of the position of the bodies that are party to the argument, statutorily made and published in the Press, might be a very good way of doing this.

Of course there must be great care. It must not become a public slanging match. Only the basic situation may be stated, as opposed to the positions of the protagonists, drawn up in advance through the Press. I wish only to leave that thought with the Minister and anybody else who is concerned with this matter, because it seems to me that the ultimate deterrent is always publicity; properly handled it can be beneficial and indeed, if its powers of deterrence are such as I believe, it will be rarely used. There remains the question of recruitment, and I think we should await the original appointments and observations of the NCC. It is difficult not to speak for too long on so wide a field, but before I leave the nationalised industries may I draw your Lordships' attention once more to the position of the National Bus Company, and ask whether this is an area where a national consumer body should be set up to co-ordinate the positions of the various local bodies?

Turning to private corporations, considerable protection is already available under the Fair Trading Act 1973, where monopoly situations are specifically defined in Sections 6 to 9, and under of the Sale of Goods Act, and the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act. Your Lordships will know that Section 7 of the Fair Trading Act 1973 defines a monopoly situation in respect of services. Your Lordships will, I hope, also be aware of the benefits of the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973. I think the introduction of a parallel piece of legislation, the Supply of Services (Implied Terms) Act, is overdue.

There are many instances of great difficulty for individuals where there is no recourse. It is not a question of not knowing what the recourse is. As an example of this, it is possible to drive into a large car park—and in some cities one may be in a monopoly situation at once when one does so, because there is the choice of doing that or finding a full parking meter or a parking ticket—and when one drives out the barrier comes down smartly across one's bows, the bonnet is crumpled and the man at the guichet says, "I am sorry, but if you read the small print, you will see that this is nothing to do with me." This is the sort of area where much work has to be done.

I am aware that the noble Lord will say when replying to the debate—but if not I will put the words into his mouth—that we await the publication of the second Report on exclusion clauses by the Law Commission, and I am reassured to hear it is thought that we shall have this report within a short time. I hope the noble Lord is aware that we, on both sides of the House, are indeed anxious that work should begin on the Bill. It cannot begin until it is published, but the Report covers a wide field—much wider than this aspect. May I ask the noble Lord to expedite the work in this sphere?

My Lords, it would be wrong to over-look the work of other bodies less obvious than the consumer councils that we have already enumerated. Some tribute should be paid to the admirable work of the British Standards Institution. I question whether the pound for pound grant, in view of the tapering of the supplementary grant in early 1978, will be adequate for this service which benefits far more than the industry which for the most part finances it, and beyond these shores as well. So much of their work is brought in from abroad and is in the co-ordination of international standards.

I should like to quote one example where there is an interplay between the two spheres of the British Standards Institution and nationalised industry. There is a British Standard for coal at the production point. Those of your Lordships who have been in pit manager's offices will have noted the prominence of the quality sheets on the wall, but there is no equivalent for the delivery point. If the moisture content and contamination are the problem which in some places they are claimed to be, it would be useful if this rather difficult Standard could be worked out. This brings me to the sad story of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, though it is not quite so sad as the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, suggested, because she referred to them throughout in the past tense. I am happy to say that I have been in recent contact with them; they are still extant.


My Lords, may I put the matter right? If I did that, I spoke very badly. I said I was the chairman; I did not say the Committee had ceased to be.


My Lords, I apologise. I took the past tense to refer to the time beyond the departure of the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry. This is an interesting case, because the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council was shorn of its powers by the exclusion of discussion of price and quality, the two things which I thought mattered most to the consumer, just at the time when we went into the European Coal and Steel Community. The Treaty of Paris provides for seats for producers, workers and consumer dealers on the Committee dealing with this, but a consumer/dealer is a mer-chant, not a chap who sits by the fireside toasting his toes. The Industrial Consumer Committee in this country went out of existence, being no longer able to discuss quality and price. The domestic consumers continue to be represented, and I hope that they will be reinstated under the new scheme with a voice and influence equivalent to that of the other bodies. I would make two points on this matter. One is that some noble Lords will leap at the opportunity of saying, "Another bad thing for Europe". There are many better things vis-â-vis the consumer in this respect, if only from the reduction of the number of protected monopolies by the opening of competition with concerns across the Channel.

My Lords, I have purposely refrained from cataloguing the record of my Party in consumer affairs, although I believe it to have been very credit-worthy, because on both sides of this House we are at one in our aims. I hope, therefore, that the Government—and any committee they may set up—will pay the greatest attention to everything that has been said from both sides in this debate, I have left much uncovered. There is nothing about protection against overseas corporations operating in this country; I have not referred at all to the Community Health Councils or to education, which is a vast monopoly. I have omitted these because the further we can get them out of politics the better.

In conclusion, I wish to revert to the great and fundamental principles to which I originally referred. The chief duties of our Parliament are to preserve and promote the honour, prosperity and freedom of the nation, and to preserve and promote the freedom and prosperity of the individual citizen. Any committee or council that reports to this House or the other place on consumer affairs is, or ought to be, reporting within those terms of reference. When the individual is ridden over roughshod, either by the State or by big business, tensions are set up which eventually threaten the whole fabric of our society. By extending the help and protection that can be afforded to countless thousands who, without it, would be at a loss to pursue their interest or secure restitution, we render this country not merely happier and better governed, but also more secure.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, who introduced this debate today, not only for the excellent way in which she has presented it, something we have come to know well, but for her bonny fight on behalf of the users of the airport. That she did not entirely achieve her aim is not in any way due to the fact that she did not continue her fight. I have always loved a bonny fighter; I have known her for many years, and I know how she has fought for the consumer.

My Lords, if we live long enough we see things happen that we have hoped would happen. I am in that rather fortunate position. In the consumer sphere, I have been working for a long time to try to improve matters. I have never attained the august position of being chairman of a nationalised board or even of a consumer council, but I have for many years continued my fight for the consumer. Therefore, it is rather marvellous to see certain things becoming realities. We now have a Director of Fair Trading; we have a Minister for Prices and Consumer Affairs; we now have the Consumer Council being set up yet again. So one might well ask, what more does the consumer need? Why do we need to have a debate of this kind? I do not wish to detract from the high level of this debate, but I have always used one measurement in any work that I have done—namely, what is the end product to be? One can set up as many councils as one likes, as many corporations as one likes; but at the end of the day, if the patient, the consumer or the passenger has not got a better service, then in my judgment the exercise has failed.

My Lords, I have been a regular contributor to a consumer "phone-in" for some months now. It has given me a splendid insight into the types of problem with which the average consumer is confronted. Certain goods are always a feature, notably furniture and footwear. These are particularly part of a trade which is traditionally the province of the large corporation, the large group. We have had complaints about electircal goods of all kinds—washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, televisions, transistor radios, et cetera. With all our legislation, at the end of the day I am left with a feeling that too many people have expensive rubbish in their homes which nobody is going to be able to help them to set right. This cannot be a satisfactory state of affairs.

I think that we, the politicians, are in some measure to blame for the fact that with the vast corporations we have been constantly appealing to people's greed. The lowest price is not necessarily the right ideal for the shopper. What the shopper needs is value for money. You can obtain the lowest price for the strangest reasons. You can buy things at a very low price if they have been knocked off a lorry and are rapidly on sale in a market; it is not a particularly good reason for them being there at a low price. It is not always worth buying a large piece of electrical equipment at a discount store (where you cannot even see inside the package unless you demand to do so) if there is in fact no follow-up, no after-service, no kind of maintenance, which has always been one's prerogative in regard to the larger kind of electrical equipment. The constant amalgamation of vast concerns very rarely benefits the consumer. It takes away from him his most valuable weapon, competition. I would commend to your Lordships this exercise: If you go to buy a pair of shoes, you may walk the length and breadth of Oxford Street and Regent Street and you will see many retail shops, all with different names over them, but which all seem to belong to the same monopoly, and therefore you will be offered the same kinds of shoes. You either take them or do without them, so I suppose you can be said to have some choice.

In this field to try to get a remedy for any unsatisfactory goods is like ploughing your way through the worst kind of red tape of Government Departments. I was one of many who were very sad that services were left out of the Fair Trading Bill, and with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I am very happy if any kind of remedy is going to be introduced. Many people spend a great deal of money these days on services. I was among those who asked that even the professions be included in the Fair Trading Bill. I have been engaged in trying to acquire some office premises for six months, circumvented always by a solicitor, who obviously has a very large out-tray in which our affairs rest at the bottom. It is true he telephones me every few weeks to tell me that things are going on; I am not sure what things. To me this is an example of where the professions should be called into account, and there is no way in which the average citizen can do it.

There are many people who rent television sets, who have package travel holidays, who hire cars, who go to dry cleaners, who go to laundries. If we are not going to have any kind of recourse through legislation, let us have strong trade associations—maybe in the end they will be cheaper than Government intervention—with good self-disciplining machinery, and able to advise and counsel customers if they are having problems. Only today on my consumer "phone-in" I had a case, raising a very prevalent complaint, of the customer who bought double glazing and had it installed. It is giving great concern. The windows do not fit. What happens? The firm says it is the responsibility of the people who supplied the windows. The people who supplied the windows say it is the responsibility of the installer. But in between all this is the unfortunate customer who has spent a lot of money, and nobody seems able to do anything about it.

So we come to the public corporations. I take my homework from the same place as the noble Lord, Lord Elton. It is a splendid document, probably written by Lord Jacques, called Public Monopoly and the Consumer. There is an excellent definition here which says: The mere fact of public ownership will not guarantee that a publicly owned industry will be sensitive to the needs of the consumer Just as in the case of the private enterprise monopoly, the great public monopolies remove from the customer his basic strength, the right to transfer his custom elsewhere if he is not satisfied. If we look at the set-up of the consumer consultative committees, which the noble Baroness outlined and about which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has also given some details, they are not even called by the same names; some are domestic consumer councils, some are consultative councils, others are users' councils. But the end effect is that they are appointed by the Minister; the chairman is appointed by the Minister, and the representatives, although held to be representative of many people, indirectly, of course, come through the Ministry. I am not going to suggest that this in any way impairs one's independence, but I think it is always a little difficult to be completely independent if you feel that the Minister has been the one responsible for your chairmanship.

How do these consultative councils work in practice? We have just had all the trauma of the conversion to North Sea gas. I could give your Lordships chapter and verse of many strange incidents, but the one that rather intrigued me concerns the unfortunate lady who had her gas lighter removed when the engineers installed all the other equipment, and she was given one which apparently was so inefficient that it would not light the gas, Not unreasonably she asked for her old one back. She was told, "Yes, we have had a number of complaints about this new one; but of course this is an improvement". But worst of all, the Gas Board did not seem interested at all. She had to conduct her own fight with the merchants who had supplied the equipment.

We have seen the imposition of the new off-peak charges for electricity. I should like to think that the consultative council put up a fight, and I should be glad to know whether they did. It was not very obvious. I am afraid I cannot be quite so enthusiastic as the noble Baroness—this is the only place where I part company with her—on what the post and telephone services consultative council appear to have done. Quite recently we had an almost complete breakdown of these services. We all know—and this is the frightening part of the matter—that if a consumer argues with the telephone service his telephone will be cut off; he has no chance of any competitive exercise there. If he argues with the electricity or gas board again his supply will be cut off. The powers of the monopoly are great and monolithic and can operate distinctly to the disadvantage of the customer, and in fact they do so.

The fact that these consumer councils have been in existence for a quarter of a century and hardly anybody knows about them seems to me to indicate that they stand condemned as a form of communication. Surely the nationalised industries should have some challenge to their expenditure from these councils. This must be the function of anybody who represents the customer. To take the Post Office, I understand that telephone charges will be going up. But I read that I can do certain things. I can dial-a-dish, I can dial-a-disc, I can get the cricket scores, and I can ask if it is likely to rain—something I probably could tell for myself. But I cannot get a telegram delivered after a certain time on a Saturday, and I know many people who are on new estates who cannot get telephones at all. Is there something slightly mixed up about this? Surely a customers group should have been looking at it.

I thought that one of the excellent examples of how not to spend money was a little circular which came to me, first-class post, telling me they were very sorry that there was a delay in dispatching my telephone bill. This is not a matter which causes me great regret, but it is very kind of them to send it. It read: You may have noticed that over recent months we have been later in sending your telephone bills. This is a result of a backlog due to an industrial dispute. This backlog is expensive …"— this I am sure of— and if not quickly cleared will increase the cost of services. So in order to keep down the cost of services they sent everybody this telling them that their telephone bills will be delayed. I am only a simple woman, but I feel that that might, in some degree, have added to the cost rather than cut it down.

Then we have the very interesting example, which I think the customers should have challenged, of when the Post Office sent out to certain business-men—quite a large number—two envelopes, one green and one yellow. They asked these gentlemen which envelope they opened first, because they felt that this would be very useful information for people requiring mail order. Is this the function of a nationalised board? I should have thought not. When we are asked to pay more for services it seems to me that first we have the right to challenge the way the money is spent. To me, this is the basic concept of a good consumer relationship.

Wages and working conditions in the public services must be good; they must be high enough to attract actively and to retain staff. Workers should have the opportunity for active participation in any plans for change. I was told last week by a worker at our local power station that this was turned over to oil only five years ago. This must have been a period when someone at the top could have sensed that oil prices were to rise. We ceased to use our own indigenous fuel, and moved over to something which must be imported. I can think only that they were great friends of some of the powerful sheikhs. People on the job know more about the problems and difficulties than anyone else. The taxi driver is never consulted about the changes on the London roads. The postman is probably not even consulted about the siting of pillar boxes. There are so many ways in which their comments could be useful, practical and, indeed, money saving. There is no evidence that the nationalised industries use even their workers for effective consultation.

Consumer interests have made great strides in recent years. But their consolidation depends on information and education. It does not matter how many new laws, new regulations, and advice centres we have; if people do not know about them, then they will all be as naught. I am connected with a shoppers' advice centre—indeed, I have the honour to belong to one of the few women's organisations which actually set up a shoppers' advice centre—and therefore I have been in close contact with the kind of consumer problems with which they have been concerned. I should like to quote one brief comment from my keen and energetic little organiser. She says: It sometimes seems that advice centres are also there as a sort of public relations body for Government Departments! There is continual publicity about keeping prices down". However, there is never a full explanation of the work of the Price Commission. This I know to be true. People assume that the Price Commission actually controls prices rather than that they control profits.

I should also say that I am delighted to see that we have the Consumers" Council. I was very sad to hear that yet again it will not be able to take up individual complaints. Who can take up individual complaints? We are told that the nationalised boards can do it in that connection, but when it comes to the complaints concerned with private enterprise we can only hope that there will be enough consumer advice centres throughout the land so that these can be picked up. But there is an ominous sentence in a circular which has been sent out to local authorities about the rate support grant, in which it is suggested that there should be a deferment of consumer protection in the consumer protection field. Where are we getting? On the one hand the Minister is saying that we need these throughout the land, and another Department—a rather feared Department, I would suggest—is telling local authorities that they must hold off. The message that has come through from the splendid introduction from the noble Baroness and the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is that people count; and in the end, whether it be a public or a private corporation, it is there to serve people.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, like others in this House I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for initiating this debate in, as has already been mentioned, her usual brilliant way. I am one who always comes to hear her speak in this House whenever I possibly can, and it is a pleasure for me to be able to contribute in some small way to a debate that she has initiated.

The consumer wheel seems at last to have come full circle. In my young days the customer was always right. During the post-War years we had to take what we were given, often without complaint. During the last five years, however, all Governments have brought forward legislation to protect, educate, and advise customers and consumers, all of which is in the right direction, and is rapidly gaining momentum. But one sometimes wonders whether the consumer is not bemused by the great number of bodies which have been set up to help him.

I have the honour to be a fairly hard-working member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and I should like to take a moment or two to explain how that part of the mass media—and also the BBC, with whom I have had telephonic communication this morning—tries to help the consumer, the listener, the customer. I have discovered that both the IBA and the BBC work on very similar lines although, as your Lordships will know, one has to make a profit or be viable, and the other does not. They are all very conscious of trying to help the consumer, or trying to make themselves aware of what the consumer wants. This is one of those fields where I am quite certain it would not be humanly possible for every customer to be happy on every occasion with every radio programme and every television service, but there are many consumer centres, consumer coun-cils and advisory bodies, from the top right the way through to advisory bodies representing and advising local radio throughout the country. The BBC, as you probably know, have 20 local radio councils and 52 advisory bodies. The IBA will have, when we have finished setting up the 19 radio stations, 19 radio councils. On top of that, there is the general advisory council appointed by the IBA, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Pike, is chairman. That consists of 25 people from all walks of life, representing everybody so far as is possible.

If there is any comment that I should like to make in this context it is that, as so many old age pensioners listen to radio and watch television, I think that at district level and at local radio level, both the BBC and IBA should perhaps get one or two older people on their radio councils. We have two schoolchildren—and excellent they are—on two of our radio councils on the IBA. I do not know whether any notice will be taken of that suggestion but, as I have said, the older people are an enormous part of the listening and viewing audience, and I think that they should have a say in their programmes.

The General Advisory Council of the BBC is entirely an advisory body to the British Broadcasting Corporation as is the GAC to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The mass media, as one noble Lord has said today, are of vital importance, not only for advertising the fact that other agencies are in existence, but in keeping people up to date in general. But both organisations stressed to me that they are enormously grateful to the public at large for being part of the whole set up and the whole team because without them and their contributions by letter and telephone, and being able to be on the other end of the television camera, they would perhaps at times be hard-pressed to interest the public.

My Lords, I suppose that I was asked to take part in this debate this afternoon primarily because, as one noble Lord said, I am national Chairman of the Gas Consumers' Council. When this aspect was mentioned earlier today, there was almost a groaning around your Lordships' House, so I am rather frightened of raising the subject. But I do not think that I need to be worried because we are a very forward-looking National Council. The Council, as your Lordships will probably know, was only set up in 1973 as a result of the Gas Act, but we have gained momentum and grown in strength since then. We have the 12 original councils which are coterminous with BGC throughout the country, under which we have many district councils representing the actual consumer because they are on the ground. The set-up of the district committees consists of local people who are entirely known within their own areas. They are responsible for reporting to the regional councils of the Gas Consumers' Council.

Therefore, all over the country we have a broad network which is very important. Today there are 1,175 people, all of whom, with specialist staff, are well-versed in the consumer difficulties which confront consumers of gas. It seems to me that the most important spheres in which we can help consumers of gas is first of all in the area of safety. This factor is of paramount importance. Many accidents occur. The reasons for those accidents are not always given in the Press. But I can assure noble Lords that frequently their cause is because the consumer is not aware of how to use a particular appliance which he has either ordered or has within his house.

The next sphere concerns spare parts, a matter referred to earlier in the debate. We are pushing British Gas, the makers of spare parts and the trades people, as hard as we possibly can because we realise only too well that even if a nut or a small part of a gas cooker is missing, then that gas cooker cannot be used by that particular owner. It is vitally important to us that every single spare part that is needed, and which is not supplied, should be provided. This is a matter of interest both to us and to the Gas Consumers' Council.

The third difficulty which we have, which has also been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, is the keeping of appointments, usually by gas fitters. We are following up this problem to the best of our ability. I am in constant touch with BGC. They realise the situation and are doing their best to get it improved. I think perhaps this difficulty depends, in certain areas, on the numbers of fitters and others that can be called upon to go to a person's house and perform the necessary repair. In this context perhaps I may say that I have known cases in the conversions of big storey flats where the work has not been able to be carried out because the occupier of one flat has forgotten that he should be in or to leave the key to let in the gas man. This position has meant that the whole of that day's work has been lost. I know this to be a true illustration. On the whole, the public conform with the requests of the Gas Board. I am sure that they do their best, but it is very difficult when people are not at home.

A noble Lord mentioned today that it is absolutely vital that consumer councils of nationalised industries should be seen to be completely separate from the industry with which they are connected. That of course is true, but when one comes—and it is within the terms of reference of the National Gas Consumers' Council—to having to report one's findings on such difficult matters as the increase in tariffs, for instance, it is clearly vital that one should know the way in which, in my specific case, the BGC minds are working. If we suddenly had to write to the Price Commission, with no knowledge from the BGC at all about their way of thinking, then we should be quite useless in that regard. But I am happy to say that over the last 18 months we have been able to establish a very good line of communication, which does not hamper us at all, and we are able to know the lines of thought of British Gas.

I am interested to know that the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, found on the back of his electricity bill the address of the local consumer organisation. I can assure him that if he is a consumer of gas and eventually has a gas bill he will find exactly the same information on the back of that gas bill. I hope that information will be helpful to him. Also, posters giving the addresses and details of all the local consumer councils will be found in every gas showroom. I wish that the Gas Act 1973 had allowed me, as National Consumer Council Chairman, to be a member of BGC. It would have been most helpful, but it was specifically written out of the Bill. However, the BGC themselves and other people have thought that it would have been helpful if I had been on the inside from the beginning of all their deliberations.

I welcome most sincerely the appointment of Mr. Young as the new Chairman of the National Consumers' Council. We have for some time been waiting to know who was to be chairman of this exalted body. We still do not know the composition of the Council; we hope we shall be told very soon, because, as has already been said, it will have far-reaching implications on the nationalised industries and their consumer councils. But I, for my part, welcome him. I can assure him that the noble Lord, Lord Peddie (who has been referred to in exalted terms by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry) I, and other chairmen of nationalised industries will seek an appointment with Mr. Young as soon as he can possibly see us, so that he may have some idea of what the nationalised industries consumer councils are all about and what we hope to achieve. Presumably he is to be a watchdog over other watchdogs.

My Lords, so far as the consumers themselves are concerned, they are our first priority. From my own point of view, every single person who has trouble with gas matters desperately. We have all been in trouble with problems ranging from the pilot light to various other things which go wrong. I am not inviting your Lordships to contact me if you have specific troubles, but I should of course be delighted to receive letters if any of your Lordships is in trouble. I think that I have been able to sort out some of your Lordships' troubles in the past and I hope that you will not have many in the future.

My Lords, I should like to end by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for giving us the opportunity of this debate.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am very pleased indeed to join with other noble Lords in expressing appreciation of the contribution made by my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry. Her Motion is undoubtedly most timely and I am certain that the House will take full note of the comments she had to make. I also, personally and on behalf of the Post Office Users' National Council, of which I am Chairman, thank her for her kind references to our activities. I shall respond to the challenge she put to me and say a few words about the progress of the Post Office Users' National Council. It is a pity that this debate did not take place yesterday because it was five years ago yesterday that the first meeting of the Post Office Users' National Council was held.

My Lords, I was pleased that my noble friend, in putting down her Motion referred to the "interests" of consumers and did not use that hackneyed word "protection". I join with my noble friend in rejecting the concept of the protection of the consumer as the sole purpose of user organisations. We have marched along quite a good way over the years, though long ago there was probably full justification for the use of that term. Today, we are in a new era with regard to the true and full representation of the interests of the consumer, who is far more powerful than people realised a short time ago. It is a question of harnessing that power, and I believe that much progress has been made in that regard.

In 1962, Molony, in his Report, excluded any reference to nationalised industries and expressed the view that the functions, duties and relationship with the public of nationalised industries were laid down by Government policy and of necessity did not conform to the normal producer/distributor/consumer relationship. He was but partially right. Indeed, I would go further and say that he was hopelessly wrong. There is just as much need for adequate representation of the user or consumer with regard to the nationalised industries as in any other sphere. I know that many long years ago—and I am proud of the fact that I played a part in urging the nationalisa-tion of certain industries—many of us believed that, with the coming of nationalisation, there would be a new concept in consumer relations and that we could all settle back and the nationalised industries would look after our interests very carefully. Nationalised industries have done a remarkable job of work, in my opinion, but, if any body is in a sense monopolistic—whether it be privately or nationally owned—it contains within itself the seeds of future inefficiency and lack of responsibility to the user and probably also to the worker. Therefore, strong trade union representation and strong user representation is still necessary.

My Lords, there was a time, as I have already stated, when there was some need to "protect" the consumer or the user and when "let the buyer beware" had a stark reality. Since then, we have seen a great deal of sound protection offered to consumers through the processes of legislative action, but it is as well to remember that, by the processes of legislative action, we cannot alone truly represent the interests of users or consumers. That is all the more reason why there is necessity for the establish-ment of effective user organisations in the nationalised industries.

My Lords, I am very pleased indeed to note the appointment of Mr. Michael Young. In the 1950s I remember him having discussions on the establishment of the Consumers' Association, of which he was the principal architect. That body has done a remarkably good job over the years. I wish him well in his new endeavours. We have seen some changes over the years: we passed through the period of consumer protection, which I rather facetiously describe as the "SPCC" days; that is, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Consumers! The idea was that they were so innocent and defenceless that they needed protection, but we have moved on from that and today there is a demand for far more positive and constructive representation of the interests of users. I believe that the establishment of the Post Office Users' National Council marked a new era in the development of effective user organisations in the nationalised industries. That was recognised only two years after its formation by the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Nationalised Industries. The Report commented for all to read that the POUNC had established a method of operation which could be accepted as a model for other user bodies.

My Lords, right from the beginning, there was no intention—and this might to some extent be a reply to certain comments about the Post Office—of confining the activities of the POUNC to those of a complaints body. The power and responsibility which it possesses goes far beyond that, and it has a constructive role to play. It is true, as my noble friend Lady Burton indicated, that with the establishment of the Post Office Users' National Council we had the considerable advantage of nearly 25 years' experience of other user councils who had probably less powers than we possessed and who had been ploughing a very lonely furrow over such a long period of time. We had, I suppose, certain advantages. We had statutory powers, but I should point out, as I believe my noble friend Lord Jacques hinted, that the mere possession of statutory powers in itself does not guarantee that a body will function in a manner which would be in accord with what the creators of the body would have wished. Therefore, it depends very largely upon how the statutory powers are interpreted.

It is true that it is stated within the Act that the POUNC has the ability to examine, without any reference by the Post Office, any matter that is of interest to Post Office users, and the Post Office has a duty laid upon it to consult with the POUNC with regard to any change in any major service. But from the very beginning—I want to emphasise this point; it might be of some help to others in the same boat—there was a desire that I should agree, or that the Council should agree, to a definition of the precise areas of responsibility of the POUNC. That we refused to do. It meant that in the early days it was necessary to argue the point as to whether or not we had the right to engage in any particular inquiry, and after a time the Post Office became tired of it and now there is no restriction at all. Therefore, the interpretation is very important.

Secondly, as my noble friend Lady Burton mentioned, we have the ability to call upon outside expertise; and that, I think, was the most fundamental and the most significant decision made in the early days by the Post Office Users' National Council. In making that comment I pay tribute to the previous Government, and the Minister at that time, who willingly agreed to my suggestion that that should be done. If he had rejected it, there is no doubt at all that our powers and our influence would have been severely curtailed, and therefore I pay credit where credit is due. Since then we have had the considerable advantage of successive Governments—and the appropriate Departments—giving us considerable aid.

Reference has been made to publicity. Of course, there is need for publicity, and I think we will find that the Press and the media are only too anxious to give publicity to an organisation like a users' council. Somebody said to us, right at the beginning, that he felt that the POUNC did not have enough teeth. I was not worried about having teeth, but I was concerned about having an effective bark, because if a bark is powerful enough, and the media—as they usually are—are sympathetic, one can rest assured that a powerful, strong bark, particularly with regard to a nationalised industry, is just as effective as teeth. We are not there to control the Post Office. If we were it would be the responsibility of some other POUNC to watch us.

I agree that the appointment of the right kind of people is important. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the persons engaged—the members of the Council—who receive no pay and, believe me, they are worked very hard indeed. I should indicate that the value of the POUNC is not merely in the sense that it is representing the user as such, but I believe that its association with the Post Office has been of practical, material benefit to the Post Office itself. I can give a series of suggestions, put forward by the POUNC and accepted by the Post Office, which have been of commercial advantage to the Post Office. The present basis of the contractual relationship between the Periodical Publishers Association and the Post Office was a suggestion of POUNC, and is now being copied by both the Australian Post Office and the American Post Office. We recommended the elimination of the non-liability clause in the Giro system. It is interesting to note that although the Post Office initially resisted that, it finally accepted it and is now advocating it in international circles. The Post Office accepted our own suggestions for the reconstruction of first- and second-class letter scales of 1974, which avoid unfair progression.

The metrication proposals with regard to the first weight step of 60 grammes—ultimately accepted by the Post Office—was originally suggested by POUNC. The study of metering of automatically dialled telephone calls which involved a long and detailed technical study, was embarked upon by the POUNC and a report published. We are now studying the subscribers' apparatus and the Post Office's monopoly. But, my Lords, I mention that not merely to put it on Record, but to express the belief that the POUNC and, I believe, other user councils are creating at the present moment guide-lines for the development of public accountability in the nationalised industries. To create adequate machinery for public accountability is terribly difficult, and no Government have yet been able to produce a solution in precise terms as to how it can be done. I believe that the development of user councils can offer guidelines to achieve just that, and in so doing will move very effectively towards a real and constructive representation of user interests.

We on the POUNC are urging at this moment—I hope with ultimate success—that we create tripartite discussions between the Post Office management, the trade unions and the user. If that is done it will mark a new development in user relations. It will mean that any fundamental developments—which at present are discussed probably with the trade unions but seldom with the user organis-ation—could mean discussions on a tri-partite basis. I believe that would open the door to enormous possibilities in that field.

There is much more that I could say on this matter, but I end my comments by saying that in the past few years we have undoubtedly developed user representation. If there had been time, I could have mentioned another very significant development, that of the Agrément Board established by the previous Government in 1966. I have since that date been chairman of that Board which, by the process of testing and certification, encourages innovation in the construction industry, and, at the same time, offers a strong measure of protection for the user.

Activities of this kind are going on today, but are not co-ordinated to the extent they could be. I believe that the new philosophy and the new policy of this Government provide the means to co-ordinate them. But in doing that I sincerely hope the Government do not create more harness than horse, and that they are absolutely sure that the type of machinery they create strengthens user organisations, not in any nitpicking way, but in developing cordial relationships—as I believe we have in the Post Office—with the industry concerned, with the full recognition that, in the long term, the interests of the user and the interests of the industry, whether private or public, are identical. With that recognition I am sure one can develop user organisations, not solely on the basis of protection, with all it implies, but rather in the form of a joint partnership that can make for a far more effective economy and far better representation of the true interests of the user.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I first join in the appreciation expressed on all sides of the House for the opportunity that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has afforded us to give our views on this important and topical matter of consumer rights. I am fully aware that there is a widespread feeling that big monopolistic production companies, particularly if they are multi-national, are prone to bludgeon their customers in many ways that are undesirable. My practical experience of trade and industry is that it is very rare to find a production company that has any really effective long-term monopoly; no production company has reached a stage of mature financial stability by exercising the brute power of monopoly. Indeed, very much the opposite is true. I submit that it is only by appealing to the tastes, desires and purchasing abilities of the consumers that industries can thrive and permanently prosper. In my past experience and present judgment, the most powerful force in the whole gamut of trade and industry is the housewife with her shopping basket. It is she who controls what comes across the counter after it has been fabricated or processed in the originating factory.

My Lords, I contend that we want to be quite clear in our minds what precisely we are discussing this afternoon. What the consumer buys can broadly be divided into goods, on the one hand, and services on the other. These can be sub-divided into perishable and non-perishable products; and a different set of conditions applies to each of them. A monopoly in the case of fabricated goods is a very sensitive area indeed. If the buying public, either at first or on the second time round, do not like the product that is preferred, the product does not sell, the producers do not make profits and cannot continue to offer employment. Equally, if the line of goods offered is brilliantly attractive and catches on, some other manufacturer will probably put a similar line on the market; and so the consumer has a choice, and probably a price alternative as well, and the would-be monopolist loses out again.

But when we come to consumer services the case is altered. Here monopolies, most unfortunately for the consumer, can and do react unfavourably. Here is no scope for the shopping basket, or even for window shopping, to sharpen either the appetite to buy or the taste for choice. I think that, executively and functionally, it is much simpler for a small organisation that is privately owned to be flexible in its approach to the customer in matters of service as well as of goods than it is for some monolithic, nationalised business. The legion of customers today who buy coal, gas, electricity, postage, rail travel, air travel and so forth has very little power to influence prices or service right across the board. For any of the things that I have mentioned, and others, you must either take them in the style and at the price offered or go without, which may mean discomfort or even hardship.

All this comes round almost full circle to the wage element in their price structure, which in turn makes the history of our last half-century of economics such miserable reading. All these national consumer services are labour intensive, which makes the price at which the customer buys escalate in savage proportion when magnified by distributive costs in what is aptly called a vicious spiral. I submit that the basic customer services are far more price sensitive than are even consumer goods. We are apt to chide our British motor industry nowadays for its lack of uninterrupted continuity; but it has at least never tried to monopolise the market and trade by strong-arm methods. Several noble Lords will remember the American car called the Edsel. That was promoted in a blare of publicity and sold, certainly to the American motor trade, in a hard way that could only politely be called forceful. Almost at once customers exercised their right not to buy; and that was that.

In our own motor trade, I suggest that the formation of a big monolithic manufacturing massif has not been too happy. The share price tells the same sad story; but the lessons learned are now being put to good effect, and soon we shall see the results in the shape of cars that offer more customer choice while still benefiting from the economies of higher quantity component manufacture. One of the difficulties nowadays of making changes and improvements in any mechanical device is that the workers on the line want as much take-home pay for fabricating a product with which they are unfamiliar, and therefore slower, as they want for making a model on which they have developed manual and muscular dexterity and therefore are quicker and more efficient. It takes anything up to five years nowadays to get an engineered product from the drawing board to the showroom, largely due to the persistent use of the strike weapon as a blunt bargaining instrument. When big car factories are halted by pressures from the shop floor for a change in status or title by a comparatively narrow sector of workers with specialised skills, it does not really give much hope for an overall economy which is based on power wielded from the wrong end of the spectrum rather than on traditional and well-trained managers and directors who are guided in broad terms by experienced Ministers in Government.

My Lords, it is this kind of caper which makes one wonder whether the nationalisation of industry, of itself, is really beneficial to the consumer. Size is no criterion of quality and if a product is not selling, and is not thereby providing good employment for workers, it does not matter who provides the finance, whether it be private enterprise or the nation's coffers. If the equations of production cost and price achieved are not properly in balance, the actual source of the money supply has no mystique about it—except that private enterprise would probably be more critical and realistic than in a case where finance was made available for other and probably non-commercial reasons.

But let me get back once more to the customer. There is a school of thought that tries to differentiate between the twin terms of marketing and selling by maintaining that selling is a process of bull-dozing or even hypnotising the customer into making him or her take what the producer aggressively wants him or her to take. On the other hand, marketing is providing customers with what they want, starting with information about the product and then seeing that effective means of getting it to the customer are organised, and that good service is given afterwards. The customer's choice is evoked mainly through informative advertising and the steps that have been taken of recent years to make advertising much more reliable and less flamboyant are beginning to work. I think that this is the line of development that seems to be gaining ground today, considerably helped by the comparatively newly-instituted Office of Fair Trading, So far as it has currently operated, the combination of the Office of Fair Trading plus the Monopolies Commission looks like knocking down a lot of the bogies that were raised in the past, and it really seems as though the dangers of a monopolist or giant manufacturer putting unfair pressures on the consumer in this country are receding.

My Lords, this is not a controversial or divisive political matter, because Governments of both major Parties have pursued the anti-monopoly policy. Both started to bring it about and will continue to bring about better conditions for the consumer. For instance, action has already been taken in connection with the prices of detergents, breakfast cereals, colour films, estate agents' charges—to name but a few—and, again, the area of choice, the lack of selection of lubricants and ranges of motor accessories, including batteries, from petrol stations that are tied to major oil companies has been highlighted and the abuses rectified. There is far more information available nowadays, too, about primary battery supply for flash lamps, torches and the like. On the "distinctly household" front, the one-time monopoly of infant foods being available only from chemists it now being rectified.

I see a good deal of hope, not fuzzily on the horizon but clearly in the very near future, for the customer, and I hope that Ministers and the Director General of Fair Trading, who now has the power to launch investigations by the Monopolies Commission, will make full use of their powers to order further inquiries into monopolies which are supplying goods and services to customers. There is still admittedly plenty of scope for action on these and other fronts. I well recall how strongly the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, felt about the closure by British Airways of check-in facilities at the Cromwell Road West London Air Terminal. Only a very big nationalised organisation could have had the effrontery so to curtail the amenities to its customers. I am happy the noble Baroness is to continue her campaign about this.

It had always been my policy during the formative years of civil aviation that it was only by looking after the customer to the highest practical degree that increasing business could be obtained. Many noble Lords will remember how, in the immediate post-War years, British Civil Aviation had access only to outdated converted bomber aircraft to carry passengers, whereas most of our competitors were able to purchase much more sophisticated and genuine passenger aeroplanes of American manufacture. We in Britain in those days had to offer attractions other than speed and long range. So we concentrated on polite passenger service, the provision of good food attractively served, crew courtesy, and competence rather than glamour on the part of the cabin staffs. As a result, we managed to build up a reputation for comfortable air travel, and I am happy to think that cabin comfort has continued into the jet age, which accounts for the very splendid share of international business that British Airways enjoys today.

Without dragging aviation matters into this discussion too boringly, I think it fair here to say that there are still some anomalies, more connected perhaps with airports than actual flying. For instance, we hear a great deal about duty free shops at airports. I suggest that the phrase "duty free" is by no means wholly accurate, because if all the duty were taken off, for example a bottle of whisky, or a scent sachet, or a carton of cigarettes at a so-called "duty-free" shop at an airport, those goods would be a tithe of the price that is charged at the moment. It is almost a misrepresentation of trade description to say that they are duty free, and it would be much more honest if the words "duty reduced" were used and so a false claim remedied and the customer not confused. My Lords, let me conclude by saying again that I think it is very healthy and helpful for points such as these to be ventilated here today, and I look forward with much interest to a continuation of the lively comments which were initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, may I first add my own thanks to those that have been extended already to my noble friend Lady Burton for giving us the opportunity this afternoon to discuss this very important subject. It is a problem that applies not only to the nationalised industries and larger private industries, but it in fact covers the whole of private and public commerce and industry. But unfortunately I think the larger the organisation, the less contact there is with the consumer or customer and therefore the greater the problem. The majority of employers and employees have their own organisations to protect them, to speak for them and forcefully to present their interests. Any or all of such bodies can cause disruption, discomfort and hardship to the consumer. Unfortunately, the consumer does not have a correspondingly strong force to represent his grievances and problems. I sincerely hope that the new organisation to which reference has been made this afternoon may go some of the way to filling that gap.

Usually one finds the bigger the organisation the less concern there is shown for the consumer, who, after all, provides the money for the wage packet at the end of the week, the money to pay in interest to those investing in the company and, above all, to provide a cash-flow without which a company could not survive. You do not have to look very far these days to see the disastrous result which comes very rapidly when there is a falling demand and the cash-flow dries up. Without that all-important person, the consumer, profitable companies would soon become poorer. The poorer companies would soon become bankrupt. Here again, we have not had to look very far in recent times to see that this would have had happened on numerous occasions but for the support from public funds.

I hope that your Lordships will agree with me that one can still do business with smaller organisations and receive excellent service and consideration for your requirements. First, this is simply because in the smaller organisations, the owner or proprietor of the business is closer to the consumer. Secondly, if he fails to satisfy the customer, there is always someone down the road who is willing to take over. Lastly, if his customer relationship is poor then retribution comes to him far more quickly and personally than it does to a large company. In many cases large corporations and nationalised industries have protected themselves by reducing, if not eliminating, competition. Without competition, I believe efficiency suffers very greatly indeed.

Several noble Lords have referred to complaints. I have always found that if you make your complaint through normal channels it is usually dealt with by a comparatively junior official, and I am certain his orders are to keep you quiet, placate you at all costs and see the complaint does not reach the table of a senior executive. If you happen to be fortunate enough to know a senior executive and write in to him personally, usually something happens. Unfortunately, more often than not, the ordinary consumer does not have those contacts. We all know that in the nationalised industries and some of the corporations in the private sector there are, of necessity, very large organisations. Could they be so organised as to be a little less impersonal, not only so far as the consumer is concerned, but so far as industrial relations are concerned and, above all, to ensure that there is greater interest in seeing that the consumer obtains the service for which he or she pays, and consideration in dealing with the company concerned.

May I now ask your Lordships to consider with me what I believe to be the principal cause of many of our difficulties today, not least those of the interests of the consumer. It stems from the general malaise from which this country is suffering at this moment. This applies particularly to the larger organisations. It stems from the fact that the rank and file who work in these very large organisations and nationalised industries are dissatisfied with their lot; and there is ample proof of this. They do not feel they are part of the whole; they do not feel they are part of a team. I doubt very much whether they feel it is part of their job to concern themselves with the welfare and/or satisfaction of the consumer. It is easy to blame them and some of the blame must be placed at their door for this. But I believe the blame is to a greater extent at the door of management. Management today tends to be too detached, too far removed from the shop floor, and too far removed from the people they supply and who buy their goods—the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Your Lordships may well ask: what has management to do with the debate this afternoon? I would say that it has everything to do with it. We are passing through a period of highly specialised management. If we put the clock back for some 25 years, then a great many young men and women left school and went on to the factory floor at the age of 16, and from there they worked their way up to the top of large organisations. We have many men of great ability in business today who did just that, and they have one great asset—they know from personal experience the desires and feelings of those who now work for them. Above all, they understand the requirements of the customer or the consumer who buys the goods their company produces.

Since those days we have made progress, which is fortunate of course, but unfortunately in doing so we have perhaps overlooked one or two things. Young people went on to the shop floor at 16 in those days, because the educational system did not then offer the same opportunities as it does today for them to go to a university or a college of advanced technology. Nowadays, many of them go on further to take postgraduate courses in business studies, and when they have finished they come along for a job. It is not very often that they are prepared to accept—nor would they expect to do so—that they must start their job on the shop floor in order to learn the business from the grass roots. But unless they do this they lose contact, and difficulties arise later both with their own workpeople and with consumers. They do not have a point of contact or the knowledge they would have had if they had spent perhaps a period of only one year at the bottom.

One or two Sundays ago, I studied the job advertisement pages in one of the better known Sunday newspapers. There were 12 pages of advertisements for managers, senior executives, professional and technical specialists, covering 200 jobs ranging from £3,000 to £10,000 a year. The potential candidates were tempted with wonderful descriptions of exotic equipment that they would be designing, building, operating, servicing or selling. Successful job-seekers were required to possess high-level technical and professional qualifications; but not one of those advertisements for managers specified the need for personal qualities which would win respect and inspire those whom they would manage, or those to whom they would be required to sell the products of their companies. One advertisement stated that in business today there is no room for individualists. What a dreadful state of affairs, my Lords! Can you picture your Lord-ships' House if we removed all our individualists? It would indeed be a very dull place.

Most of us would agree that we have a crisis of confidence and morale in industry. Fewer and fewer employees identify themselves with the aims of the company. This also means that they do not identify themselves with the requirements of the consumer. Why is it that this generation of highly educated managers have apparently failed to learn how to inspire their manual and clerical colleagues? Why is it that the gulf between the shop floor and this new class of management is wider than it was even in the old days between the old autocratic owner-manager and his much less privileged employees?

It could be that although they might not have liked him very much, at least they knew him and saw him frequently; and he knew his job thoroughly, having learned it from the shop floor upwards. Could it be that in producing the highly trained managers that we have today, we have somehow forgotten that their fundamental job is to manage, to lead and to understand the fundamental problems of those for whose work they are responsible? Could it also be that we have forgotten the need to understand the require-ments and problems of customers who purchase what the company produces, whether it is goods or services?

Another problem concerning customer relations is that head offices tend to be too far away from the point at which the end product comes out. A few weeks, ago I heard British industry likened unto a dinosaur, with a tiny, intelligent head in London and a massive slow-moving tail out in the "sticks". I would not accept that British industry has a small head—it certainly has an intelligent one and a large one at that—but I think that it has a very long tail.

There is another problem affecting consumer relations; that is, the conflict of loyalties. We are tempted to forget that the only wealth we have comes from the customer. We can produce all the aeroplanes, motorcars, refrigerators and television sets that we like, but they have no value whatsoever unless someone will buy them. I am afraid that at the moment we are passing through a period in time when, apparently, workers do not always think of the company in which they are employed as a unit of performance, whose degree of success will ultimately determine their rate of real pay and also the satisfaction of the customer who buys from them.

Real pay—although I am sure I need not spell it out to your Lordships—is the pay that a company or a country can afford to pay and remain competitive and solvent. And who makes that possible?—it is the consumer. Without him there would be insolvency and unemployment. Therefore, it is imperative that we should pay more attention to seeing that at all levels in industry a bigger interest is taken in the work, and that employees are in-formed of the end product. I sometimes feel that perhaps the feedback to the shop floor, where men and women often work on a very uninteresting and sometimes dirty job, does not give them enough encouragement. The shop floor people need to be told what is happening within the company, and whether their sales are going up or down. This is something which ought to receive very careful attention. I am certain of one fact. The average consumer today has cause for complaint, particularly as regards the service that is received, but also as regards the attitude towards him when he has the temerity to complain.

In support of what I have said, may I give your Lordships a few facts obtained as a result of a survey which has been carried out every year since 1969. I regret that I do not have any figures later than 1973, because 1974 ones are not yet available. Questions were put to a cross-section of the public in England, Scotland and Wales—if any of your Lordships thinks that I should have used a different order, I will apologise now—and the answers showed that the public accept the economic necessity for larger corporations. As many as 71 per cent. of the adults who were asked agreed with the statement that, large companies are essential to the nation's growth and expansion. Nevertheless, people are not as convinced as they once were that there is an economic necessity for large companies. In fact, in 1969 only 11 per cent. thought that large companies were necessary, and by 1973 the figure had risen to 18 per cent. One may say that that is not a very large increase; nevertheless, it gives an idea of the trend.

Also, there are indications that even if large companies are considered necessary, a significant and growing number of people who were interviewed regarded them as a necessary evil. Large companies are, for example, criticised for being impersonal in much the same way as are Government bureaucracies. Eighty-two per cent. of the adults interviewed in 1973 felt that the larger a company grew, the colder and more impersonal it became in its relationships with people—with not only its own employees but the people it served. The proportion who feel this way has risen annually since 1969 when it was only 73 per cent. The figure has risen nearly 10 per cent. in four years. As I have said before, it is not a big increase but it indicates how people are thinking.

One very interesting outcome of the survey showed that the proportion of adults who believe that the profit of a large company helps to make things better for everybody who buys its products or services has fallen to a marked extent. In 1970, 53 per cent. of people believed that the large companies helped the community; in 1973, the figure was down to 41 per cent.—a 12 per cent. drop. Similarly, there is an indication of an erosion in public confidence by a fall from 75 per cent. in 1970 to 65 per cent. in 1973 in the number of adults agreeing that a company which has a good reputation will not sell poor goods. In this research young people were particularly sceptical. Only 47 per cent. of those aged between 16 and 24 believe that a company's reputation provides a reliable guide to the quality of its products.

Also, whatever criticism consumers had of large private companies, they did not believe that these problems would necessarily be tackled any better by wholesale nationalisation. The consumer's opinion of nationalised industries is clearly lower than that held of private industry. Fifty-six per cent. believe that nationalised industries, generally speaking, are less efficient than private companies. The question was put: Have major companies a responsibility not only to solve current problems at present facing Great Britain, but also a primary responsibility to see that the consumer and the customer they serve receive a fair deal? As one would expect, there was a resound-ing response: 69 per cent. said, Yes; and only 14 per cent. said, No.

All this, my Lords, comes back to what I was saying earlier. I gave your Lord-ships figures and quotations from the survey, because I believe they support my contention that the consumer and the customer have doubts—doubts which are growing—of the large organisation, whether private or national. The general consensus of opinion is that it is impersonal and takes little interest in, or shows little concern for, those upon whom the whole future of its business depends; namely, the consumer. We all know that there are bound to be exceptions to these comments, and those in regard to whom these comments are probably unjust. Nevertheless, they give, I hope, an indication of how public opinion is moving and as such it should not be ignored. If it is ignored, it is ignored at our peril.

May I conclude by saying that I have delayed your Lordships longer than has been my custom in the past. I do not think I have ever been on my feet so long in your Lordships' House. May I end by once again thanking my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for allowing me to take part in what has been a most stimulating debate.

6.4 p.m.


My Lords, may I join in the congratulation and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for her strategy in securing time for so well-supported a debate, and also for the verve with which she opened this discussion. Having been at the receiving end of the noble Baroness's searching questions in another place, I know over how many years she has championed the cause of the consumer, and how persistently she sticks to her guns. My support in this debate stems mainly from my experience, over some years in another place, of the complaints brought by one's constituents. It is an interesting fact that, although we now have a proliferation of consumer advisory councils, it has done nothing to lessen the number of complaints which are lodged with Members of Parliament. Indeed, it is my experience that constituents tend to approach their Member of Parliament when they feel they cannot get redress through the machinery of the advisory committees. It would be interesting to know just how many Government-authorised consumer protection agencies or councils there are; how much they cost the Government, the local authorities or the nationalised industries, and how often their representations on increased charges or inadequate services have produced fruitful results. We have no league table or batting average by which to judge the success of these very many councils.

I was particularly interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, regret that when she was Chairman of the Coal Consumers' Council she was not able to achieve all that she would have wished to. I am quite sure it was due not to lack of persistence or ability on her part, or that of the distinguished people who served with her on that council, but perhaps to the limitation of the terms of reference imposed on many of these councils. They are not equipped to do the job which the consumer expects this kind of organisation is set up to undertake. We have of course a clear division in the two types of agencies to protect the consumer. We have those which are advisory and those who have real statutory powers and teeth—the weights and measures inspectorate, the public health inspectorate and the various safety inspectorates. Their jobs are defined. They have power to correct, to ban, to alleviate and to protect. But too often the consumer advisory councils are denied powers to make their efforts effective. In the case of the nationalised industries, as they are monopolies we have no yardstick to judge them on a competitive basis, like with like.

If I may for one moment return to the subject which always provided the largest group of complaints in my previous existence in another place, I would refer to the transport advisory committees. Through no fault of the dedicated men and women who have served on these committees, they have always been frustrated. In my experience, they have been hitting their heads against a brick wall in trying to achieve any concrete results regarding the vast and tremendous problems of the London area commuter traffic. So much so that in many areas local groups have been formed, quite spontaneously and voluntarily, because of frustration caused by the inability of the transport advisory committees to do anything to alleviate their problems at all. When breakdowns and strikes deny the season-ticket holder his train journey to work, he has to pay again for an alternative transport. I do not know how long a strike has to last before British Rail compensate season ticket holders by letting their tickets run for a period of days after the date of expiry. When trains are cancelled, that is just too bad: one goes and pays another fare somewhere else!

If a theatre has to take off its show, one has the opportunity to use one's ticket another day or to have the money refunded at the box office. If an airport is fogbound and you have a ticket they give you a warrant to go by train, and if you are stuck somewhere overnight they pay your hotel bill. Is this because the foreign tourist is so valuable that the air traveller gets better treatment than the poor, regular British commuter? Whatever complaints the advisory councils receive, the complaints still flood in to the Members of Parliament whether it is delegations, phone calls or, not in frequently, lobbies not very far from this this Chamber.

There is a different point which has caused tremendous frustration to people—the new fashion of a computer. All of us have received beautiful expressions of how much better we would be served by this company, or that nationalised industry, because they were going to install a computer, and all its efficiencies would be wholly to our advantage. I would be the last to belittle the great contribution which such equipment can make in saving manhours by doing electronically in seconds what would take the mind of man weeks to collate, and indeed in saving record space. But the hardware is only as good as the human brain which feeds it.

Why, with all the skills that we are told these computers have, must the records and accounts which they produce be intelligible only to the operational staff who send them to us, and wrapped in mystery for the consumer who has to pay the bills? And why, when through human error a wrong key is punched by a nervous beginner, and a modest but regular credit of a banking account is suddenly turned into a massive overdraft and a dozen cheques are returned "RD", should it take the customer weeks to straighten it out, and months to restore his credit with those who were told he was not in funds? If the computer goes berserk on your Gas Board account, you will be charmingly received at the showroom and will be told, "It is the computer". Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, takes the advice on his electricity bill and rings up, they will ask him to post in his bill with the complaint and will say, "It is the computer". They will promise to correct it and send an amended account.

But before the computer churns out the corrected account it produces a demand note. You ring up, say that you have been in and that you have already phoned. They say again that it is the computer and promise to put it right. But inexorably the great machine churns on and you are then listed as a defaulter, and your name goes out to the engineer who comes around to cut you off. The meter "cutters-off" are a much tougher breed than the meter readers. The latter, finding you out, put a card through the door telling you to read the meter yourself. But those who come to cut you off go down to the basement, find the porter and let themselves in, and you are cut off. You get back, you ring up the board, you give them a piece of your mind and there are then further phone calls, and you invoke the aid of your MP. This is the diary of a case which I had to deal with for a constituent. Finally, your supply is restored. Then the computer plays its trump card—it charges you for the restoration of supplies!

I fully appreciate why the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, is not here and I hope that the noble Lord opposite will report to him, because there were words in his speech which I endeavoured to take down verbatim and which I feel are very relevant to this discussion today. I join in the pleasure with which I saw the announcement last night of Mr. Michael Young as the new chairman of the National Consumers' Council. He is somebody with enormous experience in whom consumers will have great confidence. But, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, destroyed my pleasure by three sentences which he uttered concerning the new terms of reference applying to the chairman and the new Council. I think I am correct in saying that he will not be concerned with information to the consumer.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, for coming back. This is not an attack ; it is asking for clarification. If I may I will repeat that one sentence because I am endeavouring to be proved wrong. I understood the noble Lord to say that Mr. Michael Young, the chair-man of the new Council, will not be concerned with information to the consumer. This I regret, because there are the whole fields of safety and of fuel economy. After all, the head of a consumers' interest organisation would be more impartial in telling us which of the fuels would save us most, and which might be more applicable to certain situations; whereas the three or four different fuel organisations would naturally be endeavouring to sell their own products. I regret that information will not be channelled through this new Council.

Then, if I am right, the noble Lord said that the chairman would not be concerned with individual complaints. My Lords, that is what this debate is about. We are appalled that these councils do not have teeth. The public want to know where they can find some means of getting their complaints dealt with rapidly. They would not need a consumers' council if they were satisfied that industries as such would deal with all their problems. It is because they do not think that they are dealt with adequately that they want a consumers' council.

As was the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, I am appalled that someone experienced—and I was so glad to hear that Mr. Young has been appointed—is not to be allowed to take up individual complaints; he is to be concerned with strategy. I am sorry, but I think the public will be appalled at the limitation of the terms of reference, and will feel that this is not what they expected when this Council was promised by the present Government, when they were led to believe that it would deal with their complaints. The noble Lord said that the Council will be interested in protection within the law. Bad service and high prices, however reprehensible, are not necessarily crimes. They may break the spirit of the nationalised industries' charter but they do not break the Statute Law, and I believe it is a very great short-coming if the limitations imposed on the chairman and his Council are to be circumscribed in this way.

I should like clarification, too, of one other point. I have, of course, read the White Paper and I should like to know from the noble Lord whether the nationalised industries' councils are merely to be supervised, as it were, and amalgamated into one, or whether they will still be independent entities under the umbrella of this new Council. It is an undoubted fact that many of the public believe that the voluntary consumer protection groups are far more effective than the nationalised industries' advisory councils. I say again that this is not the fault of the members of those councils; it is the fault of their terms by which they are proscribed.

I believe it is important that the public should feel that they can indeed get speedier service and better treatment, and should see that their complaints go to the right place and are dealt with more rapidly. It is strange that one critical article in Which? can scare the day-lights out of a private company. But of course that company has competition; that company has to give the consumer what he wants at a price he is prepared to pay. All too often the nationalised industries and monopolies know very well that we have no option but to pay the prices which they impose upon us. In drafting this new set-up, I hope very much that we shall be able to be persuaded that the interest and protection of the consumer is real and not illusory.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, it is now fairly late in the evening. However, we have had a quite fascinating debate and I am deeply indebted to the noble Baroness for having inaugurated it. We have learned the extraordinary amount of knowledge which your Lordships have on this particular subject. We know that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, has wide experience and knowledge and that she has worked indefatigably in this field. There must be few Parliaments which have in their midst someone like the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, who is on a "phone-in-direct-to-the-consumer" service. I congratulate her. She must know far more about the consumer than almost anybody in this House. The fact that she gives this service regularly is of tremendous help and I think she ought to be congratulated for having undertaken that particular job. It must be very time-consuming and, at times, quite trying. However, it shows that in your Lordships' House we have great experts in this field.

I was particularly interested in the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Mais. He made a number of points which other Members of your Lordships' House had not made. The long experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, in the House of Commons, where she dealt with problems direct from her constituents is, of course, of vital importance. Curiously enough, we are people who have split personal-ties on this subject. Whoever we are, whatever we are, wherever we work, or whatever happens to us, first and fore- most we are consumers, not only of goods but of services, and of all that we have been talking about. At the same time, the contribution we make to consumption depends upon how much money we have to spend, how much we earn, and so on. Very often those two things do not harmonise. There can be conflicting interests, and how these can be brought into harmony is one of the things which consumers, manufacturers, industry and nationalised industry is all about.

I was very glad to read today, and to hear this morning on the radio, the discussion between the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and Mr. Michael Young, on the new council which has been set up. We must hand it to Mr. Michael Young that he has been a pioneer in this work. He pioneered the Consumer Association and the great publication Which? He pioneered the educational side in the publication called Where. He is a man of great enterprise and imagination, and I very much hope that he will be highly successful with this new council.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and also with the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, when they say, "Let us get away from the word 'protection'". It is not consumer protection that we are interested in; we are interested in the place of the consumer in the whole set-up of the manufacturing industry, distribution and services. It is that place which, as consumers, we are concerned about. It is not protecting the consumer. They are not in need of protection. What is needed is an important place in the set-up of the manufacturing industries and the services they provide.

As your Lordships know, I was the unfortunate person who first took on the Consumer Council. There have been many changes since then. I was appointed by Mr. Harold Macmillan when he was Prime Minister. He asked me to be chairman. We had absolutely nothing at all to go on except the Molony Committee Report which was our Bible and which we tried to emulate. The first time that I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, making a tremendous speech in the House of Commons was on the Molony Report. Nobody knew more about it than she did and I was fascinated by what she said in the debate in another place. I do not know whether we were successful or not, but we worked very hard. I had the help of the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, and various other people, on the Council. We did a pioneering job.

I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, asked me to address the Manchester Chamber of Commerce at the very beginning of our activities, in order to try to interest this great Chamber of Commerce in consumer interest. I was the only woman there. There was absolutely nobody in the audience who had thought about the consumer. It was not a very big audience. It was a private meeting. I came away thinking, "Good Heavens! how shall we get these people to realise that the consumer voice is something which is vital to their interests, just as it is vital to the consumers themselves". We toured the country and did our best to try to get across the information about what we were trying to do. We had very little money to spend and we were pioneering. However, we began this work.

I was chairman of the Council for five years only and was succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge. I was disappointed because one of the first things that the Conservative Party did was to do away with the Consumer Council. I do not know why, because afterwards they tried to find ways to bring it back in some other form. Since then there has been a great deal of valuable legislation and there exist all the organisations which have been spoken about today. They have arisen from our original efforts. Now we have something which I hope, with the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, will not be limited in the way which has been suggested by the Government. I hope that they will give further thought to this. They have only to ask the people who worked originally in this field, to understand that unless you are to deal with the individual complaints and unless you are able to deal with a whole variety of subjects you are limiting the value of this organisation. It is much bigger and more expensive than the original organisation.

What has emerged from this debate is that a great number of people have done very active work with the users committees of the nationalised industries. My feeling is that their voice is muffled all the time. It is muffled for the reason that the position of the consumer in industry, particularly in the case of nationalised industries, but also in the case of other industries, too, is on the outside. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peddie. Nobody has done better than he has done on the Post Office Users' National Council. It is an admirable body and it is admirably led. However, the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, is not on the management side of the Post Office. If complaints about alterations in postal services are made, the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, is not in the inner circle of discussion. He has to voice the views of the consumer after decisions have been taken. Just the same happens in other industries. I think it is most un-likely, but I wonder whether in the recent request of unions not to allow the Post Office to buy Swedish telecommunications equipment Mr. Benn has heard the users' views. Presumably he has heard the management's views and the unions' views, but not those of the noble Lord, Lord Peddie, and the Post Office Users' Council, although new equipment might be a very economical and possibly more efficient way to keep down the postal costs, so affecting everyone in the community. Since there is only one postal service we have all got to use it, and it is therefore vital that we get the best value. It is also vital to the Government. We have also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, about gas, and another speaker mentioned electricity, both of which industries have users' councils. Again, they are on the fringe; they are not in the industrial machinery.

A case has been made for the councils to be quite independent. Perhaps, in a way, that could put them in a strong position, but I consider that they would be in a much stronger position if they had somebody who could sit down at the management level with the management and with the unions, as representing the people who are going to use the product. So far as I know, that matter has not been considered. They are in the background, and as long as they are in that position I do not believe that they will ever have the voice that some of us would like them to have.

Many members of the public do consult the users' councils, and I think they are well served by those councils. But the real policy-making committees of industry, whether nationalised or private, are still really independent. They do not have a representative of the users on their management boards. I should like the consumer councils to have the power to initiate as well as the duty to consider representations that are made to them.

I think it is indicative of the rather patronising attitude of all Governments—not merely this Government—that these councils are considered to be good for examining consumers' complaints but not for examining management proposals which will affect the future of the service provided by the industry. I should like them to have that as one of their powers. John Methven, the Director General of Fair Trading, has said that the boards of large British firms marketing products for domestic consumers are too concerned with production and too little concerned with marketing or with the provision of effective after-sales service. If there was someone at board level with those responsibilities for consumer satisfaction—which is not the same thing as being responsible for production or the sales targets—I believe that would be a big step forward in the interests of the consumers.

Much has been said about nationalised industries, but in my view the same faults exist in the large corporations. The chain store is part of modern life, although I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mais, as I, too, have a nostalgia for the somewhat smaller shop. But if the chain store were to pay more attention to individual needs that would be a big step forward. There are some chain stores dealing in shoes, for instance, which do not have telephones. Another retail group has no telephone facilities except for out-going calls. All these things may make the central administration simpler, but to the consumer in a small provincial town or far from the headquarters of the chain, it is leaving the branch shop to be responsible for consumer demands, or complaints with which it may find it quite impossible to deal.

One may say that the size of the modern retail firms makes the personal touch so difficult; yet there are some retail chains, of which one can give Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer as examples, where the principle of the village shop prevails—that is a shop where the needs of customers are of primary concern, and nothing is started on a huge scale which has not been tried out first on a small scale and proved to be what the consumer wants.

In the first Consumer Council we tried very hard to bring about improvements in the representation of consumer interests on boards which control the nationalised industries; to assess the public interest in the case, for example, of monopolies, mergers and restrictive practices. We did not succeed, but that was 10 or 12 years ago and much has been done since. I still think that on many of the boards there are subjects on which consumers ought to be consulted. For instance, if we are considering railways or buses, nobody is ever consulted about fares; equally, the consumers of electricity cannot represent their views when tariffs are discussed by the Electricity Board. That matter was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, when she spoke about the question of electricity for night storage heaters. Also, of course, the passengers of British Airways could not influence the management in regard to stopping the check-in facilities at London Airport; and but for the persistence of the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, the matter would not have come to light. I am sure that she frightened the Board of British Airways very much indeed, although at the end of the day she was unsuccessful.

I do not like the feeling that hard-working people, with no payment of any kind, should be all the time on the fringe and more or less merely a voice crying in the wilderness. They ought to be part and parcel of the management of the companies; they ought to be another Estate of the Realm, as it were, and part and parcel of our industry. We really need a fundamental change in the attitude of management and of trade unions to this problem. In my opinion, the prevailing view that consumers are not fit to take part in management is wrong. Who better knows their needs than the people who buy and use the goods and services which industry provides than those who purchase them? I believe it is high time that someone with particular concern for consumers should be on the board of every major company in the country which provides goods and services, and I hope the new Council will have this as one of their objects when they plan for the future.

6.38 p.m.


My Lords, it is always a humbling experience to rise in this House after a debate in which one has listened to chairmen and ex-chairmen of councils, to Ministers and ex-Ministers, to industrialists, and finally it comes down to me—a pure, simple (if there are such persons) consumer. I am nothing but a consumer. I have never produced; I have consumed. So perhaps although I am humble in the matter it is not inappropriate that at this late stage I should come to support my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry in this debate which she has so excellently introduced.

My attitude towards this is perhaps slightly different from other people's, although I found myself very much in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, in all her remarks. In all these matters I am a Socialist. I approach the whole thing as a Socialist. I am a Socialist because I firmly believe that without Socialism it is impossible to bring about a really good life for all the individuals in the country. Because I am concerned with the good life of all individuals, I am necessarily concerned with the consumer; because in one form or another, we are all consumers. The organisation of our industry must serve the people of this country, and ensure that we, the people of the country, get what we want. I think it was my noble friend Lord Mais who pointed out that industry had no other purpose than to produce those things used by the consumer. Therefore, it is surely the duty of any industry, whether it be a national industry—which is what I should like to see—or a private industry, which perforce we have, to ensure that the consumer gets what he wants.

My Lords, much of the debate has been concerned inevitably with the transport services and things of this type, necessarily so because these are some of the big industries in the country. They are largely under national control. But we have many other industries, equally large and important. The noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, referred to the banks, which play a very important part; they are not yet nationally controlled, but they will be. It will not make much difference from the point of view of the impact on the consumer, because one of the important and interesting points is that most of the problems are problems of size rather than of the particular form of control—although I believe that national control means also that if we insist upon it, we can have better and easier public control.

In the first place, problems arise because whenever there is a large organisation, that organisation runs by itself and it has an impetus of its own; it has a method of dealing with its own procedure. During the last war I went to see a chemical works situated in the North of England. I travelled there with the Deputy Director from the old Ministry of Aircraft Production. We were going to see the production of aviation fuel. We had a very pleasant time there; we were entertained, and had a very interesting talk with the directors. My friend, the Deputy Director, asked them specifically how they ran various parts of the organisation. They gave us a very detailed account. My friend then said, "How very interesting. It is exactly as we work inside the Ministry." That was an important private industry in this country. Indeed, when one looks at the matter, one cannot help doing things that way simply because of the scale and nature of the organisation. But because of this, at all times we must have proper consumer representation and control, not necessarily in one simple specified form. There are many different ways in which we can and, indeed, ought to do this.

My Lords, if we look at the impact of different industries, we see—as I have already mentioned—that we have public services which have been much discussed, including transport. These services can be controlled, partly by legislation, partly by setting up consumer bodies. But there is another point which arises; that is, the local representation. If one takes such an industry as the gas or the electricity industry—where one is concerned with the manufacturing side—the production of gas and electricity is something which has no direct impact on the consumer. It is true that unless this is well done, the consumer does not get the product, or gets it at too high a price. But it has no simple, direct impact. When it comes to bringing electricity or gas into the home, when it comes to supplying equipment, there is a direct impact. Most of the complaints made are made because of the remoteness of the contact between the individual consumer and the supplier.

For example, you want a gas cooker, or something has gone wrong with the one you already own. Perhaps you are to have a change-over to natural gas. As has been described already this evening, troubles frequently arise. There is no easy way for the consumer to go straight to someone and say, "This is what I want done". My sister, who lives at Reigate, ran into this difficulty a few years ago. She tried for six months to find a remedy. It was not until I picked up the telephone, got on to the manager and told him who I was that they immediately gave way and the job was done within a week—after six months' delay. This is highly unsatisfactory. But this arose because the man was not residing in Reigate, but somewhere like Worthing. It is necessary to pick up the telephone to get in touch with someone so far away that he knows perfectly well that the ordinary consumer is not going to take a lot of trouble to pursue the matter further. Whereas, if one can go straight to a local manager and it is the responsibility of that local manager to see the job is done, then one proceeds in a far better way.

My Lords, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, said, I am not satisfied so far as individual complaints are concerned. I am not at all satisfied that a National Consumer Council is the way to deal with individual complaints. It is more appropriate that it should deal with general matters. My own feeling is that the individual complaint should be dealt with locally. These are not matters of principle, but rather of common sense in running something. We must do something like this, not only with nationalised industries—although we must do it there—but also with the big private industries, which should be subject to exactly the same type of control.

My Lords, it is now two and a half years since in this House, under the previous Government, the Gas Bill was introduced. The Gas Bill was concerned with the functions of the Gas Board which, m essence, was really the central manufacturing board; as it were, the board which deals with producing the gas and distributing it to the main regions of the country and to the local distribution bodies. This Bill made no provision for dealing with accidents. I moved an Amendment which was not accepted. I maintained at the time that this Amendment was essential to the interest of the consumers—"consumers" being everyone. I felt that any explosion that took place in a street or outside the premises of the individual, where it is separately dealt with, was the responsibility of the Gas Board. I maintained this to be the case.

Whether it is a private industry or a national one, it is not right that any failure that occurs inside its system should then be thrown upon the individual who is the unfortunate sufferer. If he happens to be driving a car in the street and a gas main explodes, he suffers serious damage. Under the present law he alone has to carry the responsibility. It was said, of course, that he ought to insure against it, but the average person, the pedestrian, does not go round insuring against every possibility of that sort. I think it is essentially something that should be carried by the Gas Board. In the same way, when the chemical industry distributes highly dangerous chemicals around the country, as they do, they ought to be governed by very strict rules, but they are not. They ought also to be responsible for any damage caused by any accident in transport. It seems to me that in these matters we must put the responsibility directly upon the manufacturer, the producer.

I believe that if we do this we move more steadily towards the ideal; that is, that we are running the country, we are running our industry, we are running everything for the benefit of the ordinary person in the country. Of course, there is a corollary—and I again speak as a Socialist—and that is that we will never achieve this so long as we have disparities of income. It is only when people are equal, not only in a nominal sense before the law, but strictly, that we then reach the point where men matter. If I may remind your Lordships of the words of Goldsmith : Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

6.52 p.m.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, I must first apologise very sincerely that I was not able to be present at the beginning of the debate, and I apologise particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, whose speech I much regret having missed. If I may say so without being pompous about it, I was engaged on a public duty which had been fixed long before I knew the date of this debate. I think it is a little sad that, although the hour is late, we have so small a gathering in the House tonight. As I see it, we are dealing with a matter which is central to our ills at the present time, which reflects and is indeed the product of deep-rooted ills in our society.

May I point to two particular facets of this. We have forgotten, I think, in many parts of the country and in many sections of society that work, after all, is valuable only because somebody wants to have it done; in other words, that all work acquires its value because there is a consumer at the end to be satisfied. Listening as one does to so many discussions on these matters of work and the rewards of work, one would think that the consumer was an unfortunate necessity at the end of the line who must be expected to put up with whatever product of work is put in front of him—and that, indeed, is to put the cart seriously before the horse.

The other facet is the extent to which as one of our central problems we are today the victims of monopoly, monopoly among employing groups; monopoly in nationalised industries; monopoly of power within great trade unions. If we could deal effectively with this problem of monopoly, and if we could remind ourselves and act in the light of the fact that work is valuable only because there is a consumer, then we would begin to recover from the malaise, the difficulties in which we find ourselves. May I say that it is not surprising to find a member of my Party attacking monopoly wherever it is found. Reference has been made to the attacks on monopoly by the other Parties, but I think your Lordships will forgive me if I say that the Liberal Party was in hue and cry against the monopolists long before there were converts from either of the other two Parties in this particular battle.

How can we tackle this problem of monopoly in relation to the consumer? I think what has happened here is what has happened so often, that society has changed and the problems of society have grown, but the institutions of society have not kept pace and have not been reshaped to match society's new needs. That is really what we are talking about tonight. I believe that there are two ways—maybe there are many others, but I believe two important ways—in which the consumer needs protection and for which we need institutional changes if this protection is to be made effective.

I am very much in sympathy with the line of argument put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot. I know that a great deal of extremely praiseworthy effort goes into consumer councils. I know that a great deal of money and support is given—at any rate lip service is paid—to the existence of these councils. But they suffer from a fatal flaw. They have no real power base and, as the noble Baroness said, the consumer is not represented when the real decisions are being taken. It really is not much good being the people who criticise from outside the territory in which the essential decisions are taken. You have to be in on the decisions, and you have to be in with a rightful place and have your legitimate interest counting equally with the other interests when the decisions are being taken. You can do something afterwards, but it is totally different to be looking at the problems after the decisions have been made, after opinions have been formed, to be bringing forward your criticisms from outside and without any real position of power with which to act. So I am gravely doubtful whether strengthening the consumer councils as they exist at present is really going to deal with these issues, or that we realise how important it is to solve this problem if we are satisfied to leave it in this way.

This applies to the private sector, but it applies particularly to the public sector, because in our wisdom or unwisdom we nationalised those sectors of industry which were of the greatest importance to the ordinary consumer—transport, heat, power. These are matters of prime concern. In nationalising them and creating them into powerful public monopolies, we removed from the consumer the power, which, after all, he always had outside the monopoly part of the private sector, of voting with his feet. There is nowhere you can go if you find it intolerable to travel on the Underground or the London bus. There is nowhere you can go if you find you get intolerable service, as sometimes you do, from the Post Office. There is no option.

That is why we need to change not merely the way in which the consumer councils are constructed, but to change the way in which the decisions are taken inside these powerful monopoly public concerns. There is much talk of change in the shape of the company, in the way in which enterprise is to be controlled in the future. We have had the Fifth Directive from Europe talking about the supervisory board. I believe that we shall move towards very important changes in this area—whether along the lines suggested by the Fifth Directive I do not know, but changes I am sure there will be. If these changes are to be for the good, then it is highly desirable that we should experiment. I should like to suggest that we take one of these important public monopolies and experiment with the idea of a supervisory board with tripartite representation—representation from the Government, from the trades unions, and from the consumers—so that the consumers would be there arguing it out with Government representatives and with the trade unions when the decisions are being taken. I believe that we should learn a great deal from this; we should learn a great deal about how to protect the consumer. We might at the same time learn a great deal which would be very useful for the reorganisation of the control of industry that is undoubtedly coming.

There is a second way in which I should like to see institutional changes which could really assist the consumer in having an effective say in what goes on. If we worked through the tripartite supervisory board, this would deal with the big issues of policy; but it is not only the big issues of policy on which the consumer needs to be taken into account. There are practices and standards that the consumer ought to be able to require, and, incidentally, for which he ought to have redress if those standards were not met. At present, if a public authority fails to deliver the goods, in many ways it is extremely difficult to get any redress. There are certain circumstances in which you can, but on the whole you have to put up with the service, good, bad or indifferent, and there is very little hope that you will be able to have any come-back.

I should like to see methods developed by which consumer representatives have the opportunity to be involved in the working out of standards. I speak here, and declare an interest, as President of the British Standards Institution where, in the working out of standards, they have developed schemes, which are operating, whereby the consumers sit on the committees working out standards and drawing agreements for standards with the producers and suppliers. Therefore, when those standards are being determined, the consumers at that point are actually taking part. They do not wait until the standards have been set, and then come back in.

For example, standards are being set in such important matters as safety. If you pay enough, you can probably get absolute safety, but it is of great importance that the consumers are able to say: "All right, it is perhaps worth a 5 per cent. risk to modify the cost to that extent, but not a 10 per cent. risk. We are prepared to pay that much, and no more." The point is that in the procedures that have been developed and are working in the BSI, the consumers are there with the producers, with the other interests, having their say when the standards are being set. These are just two suggestions of ways in which the consumer interest can get inside the boundaries, and not be always just talking to the powers and people, employers and trade unions, who are in fact making all the decisions that really matter. Of course they are polite to the consumers, but it is not politeness that consumers want, it is power.

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, before my noble friend winds up the debate, I should like to reply briefly to some of the questions addressed to the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, questioned the two days a week to be spent by the Chairman of the National Consumers' Council. In a reply yesterday at the Press conference, he said that this would be flexible and that in the early stages he expected to have to spend much more than two days until the Council was established. One comment of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, shows that there has been some confusion as to dates. The 1st February is the date when the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection takes over the responsibility for the appointments in the nationalised industries' consumer councils, but it is not the date when the National Consumers' Council will be established.


My Lords, I had intended to imply that. I am sorry if I misled the House.


My Lords, the only date we have for that was given at the Press conference yesterday. In answer to a question, the Secretary of State said that she hoped the National Consumers' Council would be established by early April. I suspect she meant that by then she would have made all the appointments. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, raised the question whether the chairman of the consumer council in a particular nationalised industry should also be chairman of the board of management.


My Lords, with great respect, not chairman of the board but a member of the board.


My Lords, this is a matter on which there is a great difference of opinion. We have tried both methods, and in the discussions that have taken place up to date there has been an almost equal division of opinion as to whether or not it is a good thing. Those who are opposed to it believe that the chairman of the consumer council would lose some independence by being a member of the board of management control. It will be quite within the remit of the National Consumers' Council to give consideration to that when it makes its review of consumer councils in the nationalised industries.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, was critical of the duty free prices. I have a lot of sympathy with him there. The fact is that the Airports Authority has to find its income from somewhere. It feels that it is justified in encouraging the licensees of sites to take what the market will bear for their exports, and to fix its rents accordingly. It points out that if it did not adopt that policy it would have to increase airport fees of one kind or another. The service has to be paid for in some way.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, asked four questions; first, the question why the National Consumers' Council should not be concerned with information to consumers. Here we are trying to avoid duplication. We are not divorcing the Council entirely from information, but we do not want to duplicate the work of other authorities that have both the statutory power and the facilities for publication. You need both statutory power and facilities, and they have both. For example, the Office of Fair Trading has the statutory power as well as the facilities, which of course includes legal advice. The National Consumers' Council will be able to recommend that consumers should be informed about this and that, and it will be for the other media to deal with the publication, so that the Council will not be divorced entirely from publication. We are trying to avoid duplication.

As to the Council not taking up individual complaints, here again we wish to avoid duplication. I must point out that we made it clear in paragraph 11 of the White Paper that the Council would not itself handle individual consumers' com-plaints and cases. There are plenty of bodies which handle individual cases. What is needed is a co-ordinating and rationalising body, and this is to be the function of the Council. The next point was that the Council will be confined to protection within the law. We dealt with this point in paragraph 7(a) of the White Paper, which lists among the Council's functions making representations on the law and on proposed legislation. The Council are free to propose new laws and new ways of enforcing laws. I tried to make that clear in my initial statement, but apparently I failed.

On the question of the independence of the national industries' consumer councils, they will continue to be completely independent. In paragraph 12 of the White Paper, we make it clear that it is not intended that the new Council will either supersede or duplicate the work of these councils. The whole exercise has been one to avoid unnecessary duplication and, obviously, to save expense so far as possible. I have covered the principal points raised, and I hope that my remarks have been helpful.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, sits down, may I remind him of my request, which I think was generally popular, that there should be some expedition, when the Second Report of the Law Commissioners on exclusion clauses is available, in extracting from it the material which is necessary for introducing a Bill on the Supply of Services (Implied Terms) to match the Act on the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) which we already have? It may be that there are channels through which the Report itself can be expedited, but I do not know. But will the noble Lord assure us of early action once it is with us?


My Lords, I will draw the attention of my right honourable friend to that request. I think she may have the necessary bark.


My Lords, will the noble Lord also give me some reply in writing about the rate support grant circular, in which we are told to defer the local consumer advice centres? This is important. I do not expect the information now, but if the Minister could let me have some answer in writing I should be happy.


My Lords, I think I should prefer to let the Minister answer that question. My answer might not be in accordance with Government policy. I do not know. But, quite bluntly, the economic position is such that I would save every damn thing I could, including advice centres.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a most excellent debate. I think we are all agreed on that. So far as I am concerned—and I think all of us—it has been a completely non-Party debate, and this is a non-Party matter. Without mentioning the name, I know of one speaker today who was due to fly off on holiday yesterday, and who, at great inconvenience, deferred that flight to speak in the debate today. I will not even say whether it was "he" or "she", so that the sex will not be known. But I think we have had a very good debate. It came at a most apposite time and I do not think it is necessary to ask the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, about his intentions, because I am sure he will be reporting to his right honourable friend and to Mr. Young on this debate. I hope he will give them both a copy of our Hansard. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.