HL Deb 03 July 1986 vol 477 cc1029-31

3.15 p.m.

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, further to their reply to the Baroness Burton of Coventry's Starred Question on 7th June 1984 (H.L. Debates, col. 770), they are now able to state the expected date of publication by the Director General of Fair Trading of his discussion paper dealing with trading codes of practice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, I understand that the Director General of Fair Trading plans to publish next month his discussion paper on the concept of a statutory general duty to trade fairly.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am glad we have managed to get somewhere after two years, although I appreciate the delay has not been the Government's fault? However, can the Minister go further? Does he recall that way back on 7th June two years ago I stressed the concern about enforcement of codes of practice and asked whether it would be helpful in general if there were to be an extension of these codes of practice negotiated with trade associations? Furthermore, can the noble Lord tell the House whether the discussion paper that is to be published soon covers that aspect and also the general consideration of the concern felt about traders who are not members of associations?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I do indeed recall the exchange way back in June 1984. Although I do not know the total content of the paper, I understand that it will review relevant areas of law and the experience of the Office of Fair Trading with codes of practice. The paper will also consider parallels for a general duty both in domestic and overseas legislation. It will also outline options on how a general duty might be framed and enforced.

As regards enforcement on companies or traders who are not within a trade association. (I should perhaps put in parenthesis that there are 20 codes already in practice) the director general has powers to seek assurances from companies or traders who infringe and has further powers in the event of those undertakings not being kept.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, may I help the Minister a little more with the Question? Does he recall that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in answering my Question on 7th June two years ago, said that both these matters to which I had referred he understood to be matters which the Director General of Fair Trading is considering? Has the noble Lord the same information and will he confirm it?

Secondly, if the proposals from the director general necessitate legislation, will the Government let the House have a statement as to their reactions on the report when it is published?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, on the first point, I have explained that I do not know entirely what the paper will contain, and since it is to be published next month it is a little late for me to direct the attention of the Director General of Fair Trading to the point raised by the noble Baroness this afternoon.

On the second point, the Government await the publication of the discussion paper with interest. We shall of course consider very carefully any proposals that it contains and any proposals that emerge from the director general's consideration of the response he receives to that paper.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister inform me whether the discussion paper will cover further the items which we discussed recently when this House passed the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Bill, which he agreed was just a first step in this matter? Will this paper on fair trading cover this matter in a wider aspect? If it does, is my noble friend aware how welcome that would be?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I can only say to my noble friend that I do not know exactly what is contained in the paper. It is a paper on fair trading. It is certainly not a paper on consumer safety, so I imagine that the safety elements will not be included. The paper is about fair trading and about codes of practice.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the production of this discussion paper has taken an unconscionable time? Can he give some indication as to the extent, if any, that the collaboration of officials within his own department and from the Office of Fair Trading has contributed toward the delay? After all, we are only dealing with a discussion paper and not proposed legislation. Will the noble Lord define a little more closely the date of publication? He said "next month". Is it to be the beginning of the month or the end of the month? Does the noble Lord know that?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, in reply to the first question from the noble Lord, I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, on 25th March this year that the Director General of Fair Trading has needed a lot of time and has devoted a considerable amount of time to studying what he felt was a very complex matter. There were consultations with many interested parties. I do not believe that there has been any delay that could have been avoided in the director general's consideration. As regards the noble Lord's second question, I am afraid that I cannot tell him any more than "next month".

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister wishes to be helpful, and I do, too. But I think perhaps he did not quite understand the point I put to him a minute ago. Was the answer that he gave to the House that it was too late to ask the Director General of Fair Trading to include something in the report? I told him that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, informed me two years ago that these matters were in the report. I wonder whether he would care to alter his answer.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I have not seen the report. I cannot tell the noble Baroness what is in the report. My noble friend Lord Belstead may very well have said that. I have a copy of Hansard in front of me. I cannot add to what I have said. I have not seen the report.