HL Deb 30 June 1983 vol 443 cc361-3
Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to appoint a Minister for Consumer Affairs and, if not, with which Minister the responsibility will lie.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, the Minister responsible for consumer affairs is now Mr. Alex Fletcher. He will report direct on these matters to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry within the new department of that name.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I never expected the Leader of the House to answer this Question, and in spite of the honour he has done us might I ask him if he is aware that those of us interested in consumer affairs and in the consumer organisations will find his Answer disappointing? Does the noble Viscount not realise that, without meaning any discourtesy to Mr. Fletcher, we feel the demoting of consumer affairs from being the responsibility of the Minister of State to a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, however able, may reflect the attitude of the Government towards this important area? Can the matter be reconsidered?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that there is no question of downgrading the position, as she fears. Mr. Fletcher has considerable responsibilities in a new and much bigger department. The Government feel that to have a Minister in a much bigger department, responsible to a Secretary of State with wider responsibilities, does give consumer affairs and competition policy the position that they ought to have.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House who is to answer for consumer affairs in your Lordships' House?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. My noble friend Lord Belstead will be taking the lead on trade matters, assisted by my noble friend Lord Lyell. Questions on consumer matters will normally be dealt with by one of them in the same way as other trade matters.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, listening to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, it might appear that the Government feel that consumer affairs will be better dealt with under this reorganisation. However, that is not the view of the general public, who feel constantly that this Government have taken less interest in consumer affairs. Is the noble Viscount willing to accept that the Government's role in consumer affairs and consumer protection has now been taken over by television? All TV channels now run consumer programmes which are seen by thousands and thousands of people in this country. Does the noble Viscount not agree that these programmes show quite clearly that the consumer has to be considered seriously? Is the noble Viscount aware that these programmes clearly expose abuses of consumers, which need remedying?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not accept the view that because a television company or various television channels take an interest in a particular matter it means that the Government are not doing so. That would surely be a very curious doctrine for us to adopt in Parliament as a whole. I maintain that the Government take considerable responsibilities so far as consumer affairs are concerned and consider them to be very important. If the work of the Government and of the Minister for consumer affairs in the Department of Trade and Industry is helped by these television channels, and abuses are brought forward, then that enables him to do his job more effectively.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, are we to take it from the noble Viscount's original Answer that the junior Minister to whom he referred will now be responsible for important matters such as the funding of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think that I shall be drawn into that argument all over again. The Minister will be responsible for all consumer affairs; but he will be responsible directly to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—and that means that the Secretary of State himself will take a personal interest in these matters.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does my noble friend the Leader of the House not agree that the department of state which has overall responsibility for the manufacturers of goods should also be the department responsible for the consumers of those goods?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I believe that is a very sound point of view.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, might I revert to the point I raised before? Does the noble Viscount not realise the feelings that some of us have? Does he not appreciate that when Mr. Parkinson outlined the duties of the three Ministers of State in his department, we were very worried that consumer affairs were not included in those responsibilities? While, once again, I am not criticising Mr. Fletcher, it does seem to us that this is a dangerous demoting of consumer affairs.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that it is not intended to be so. I will of course have a word with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ensure that the consumer interests concerned fully appreciate that position, and that he himself makes it clear to them.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are obliged to the noble Viscount for all the information that he has given; but will he be good enough to tell the House what Mr. Fletcher's precise remit is and what Civil Service back-up he will have?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, he will have other responsibilities as well as consumer policies. He will also be responsible for some of the radio regulation and radio frequency policies which were previously dealt with through the Home Office.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, as most consumers are also taxpayers, will my noble friend remember that the bigger this department becomes the higher the taxes are likely to be?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, my noble friend has, as always, put his finger on a very important point.

Back to