HL Deb 18 July 1984 vol 454 cc1475-7
Baroness Elliot of Harwood

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 they will consider the recommendations for changes in the law regarding the sale and supply of goods contained in the National Consumer Council's recent report entitled Buying Problems.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, the National Consumer Council's report is its response to the Law Commissions' consultative document on the sale and supply of goods. It will be taken fully into account by the Law Commissions in preparing their final report. When that report is received the Government will give careful consideration to its recommendations.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor very much for his reply. This subject has been going on for a very long time, since I was chairman of the Consumer Council some 15 or 20 years ago. I feel very strongly that we ought to take it very seriously and we ought to try to carry out some of the many recommendations which are suggested. I realise that this is—

Noble Lords


Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, would it not be possible for the inquiry to be carried out now rather than waiting until a further report is available?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recollect that there have been numerous amendments to the sale of goods law in recent years, one as recently as 1982. The matter was referred to the English Law Commission. They and the Scottish Law Commission took the trouble to issue a joint consultative paper. The document to which my noble friend refers was the response of the National Consumer Council to that paper. I think it would be discourteous both to the Law Commissions and to the numerous other persons who would wish to make a response to the consultative paper if we were to give priority to any one respondent.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who we do not usually see here dealing with consumer matters, whether he is aware that on the less rarified heights what consumers really want is to buy merchandise which will work and will fulfil the promise on which they bought it. They would much rather not have to make complaints and get their money back. They would prefer to have something which works.

I did not expect the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack to be answering the Question. He probably has not had time to read this report. I do not know whether it is in order to ask him if he would ask the Minister responsible, Mr. Fletcher, to look at what is on page 5 of this report. Could he stress that what the Consumer Council feel is of great importance is the content and the actual specification of labels on goods? If the noble and learned Lord felt able to add his weight to that consideration, I am sure it would be most beneficial to us all.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am not sure how far that is a supplementary question. The noble Baroness will not have forgotten the provisions of Section 14 of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 which gives effect to the desire of consumers to see that what they buy corresponds both with description and with quality and fitness. The question is how that can be improved, if at all. As regards my weight, I should think it is adequate for almost every purpose! However, I am sure that my honourable friend who is, as the noble Baroness says, responsible for these matters will take very careful note of what she has said.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, having had the privilege of piloting through this House the legislation to which the noble and learned Lord was kind enough to refer, may I ask this question. Would he not regard the recommendations of the National Consumer Council and this publication as being a very natural sequel to that legislation and therefore of not great complexity?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, what is or is not complex is a matter of opinion. There were between 48 and 52 recommendations in the consultative paper which are germane to this question and over 110 pages of the report to which my noble friend's Question relates. But of course it was a sequel to that that I think the noble and learned Lord on the Opposition Front Bench probably had in mind when he made the reference to the law commission in January 1979.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, while the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is answering these questions would he consider, on the same subject, taking up the question of Sunday trading at the same time in the next Session of Parliament?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not think I can anticipate the Queen's speech.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, can I chance my arm on another point? I have not forgotten the legislation to which the noble and learned Lord referred. I wonder if I might ask him about what is a very real consumer feeling. This relates to a Consumer Sales Act which consumers would like to see more accessible. As the report says—and I agree with it—consumers really do feel that it is inappropriate that consumer transactions should be governed by a law that is primarily concerned with and interpreted according to commercial practice. Can the noble and learned Lord give some help to consumers on that matter when the whole affair is considered legally?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I suppose, of course, that this is one of the very questions that the Law Commissions will wish to consider in their final report. I think that there is some difficulty in defining what is a consumer. Supposing that you are the owner of a fleet of lorries and that you have paid tens of thousands of pounds for over a hundred lorries, are you a consumer, or is that a commercial transaction? Is the charterer of a large ship a consumer of services, although not of goods, when he charters the ship? There must be some intelligible line of demarcation in order to describe what is a consumer contract, and what is a contract for the sale of goods or provision of services of a commercial character. I do not think that the issue is quite as easy as is assumed in the noble Baroness's question.

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