§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)
I had hoped that some of the time left over today might have seeped through to us for this Adjournment debate, but that is not the case and I shall have to leave out some of the things I wanted to say.
Had I been fortunate enough to speak in last Friday's debate on the protection of consumers I would have found myself in the rôle of a prophet, as I wanted to say that the time had now been reached when we should take a further step forward to deal with the problem of the consumer. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade probably knows that I take the view that when the Consumer Advisory Council was set up by the British Standards Institution, at the end of 1954, it was a piece of window dressing by the Government, particularly because that Council was given no power whatever.
Since January, 1955, we have had the British Standards Institution wanting to make progress on consumer protection, but being greatly handicapped by lack of power. I cite, as I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary knows I am going to cite, the almost classic case of the children's shoe manufacturers. More than five years ago I first raised in this House the question of standards for children's shoes. Ever since we have been trying to get something done about it. The British Standards Institution, its women's committee and the Consumer Advisory Council all felt that we ought to be able to do something about it. A questionnaire was sent out recently by the Institution and more than one-third of the replies received stated that people were dissatisfied with children's shoes. That is after five years.
I have put down a Question to the Board of Trade for 7th April showing that we have made very slight progress, in that the shoe manufacturers, after five years, are now disposed to bow to public opinion and have decided that they might discuss a case for having a standard for certain components of children's shoes.
I appreciate the limitations of an Adjournment debate and do not intend to transgress by asking for legislation. This afternoon I put forward to the 1610 Parliamentary Secretary five basic facts which I hope the committee that is in process of being established will consider. I have told the hon. Gentleman what those five facts are, so there will not be any reason for not giving a good answer about each of them. First, I ask that the committee will consider whether it is right that the main consumer organisation in the country—by that I mean the British Standards Institution as at present constituted—should continue without power to deal with manufacturers who refuse to co-operate for the wellbeing of the consumer. I venture the opinion that responsible manufacturers would feel that I am right in raising that point.
I feel that, whatever organisation is eventually set up, it should be an organisation having the power to deal with what I call the day-to-day problems of the shopper. I have four examples here, although we could all add to them. The first is the problem that housewives are growing heartily sick of the super, large, branded, giant, monster packets of detergents. The adjectives bear no relation at all to the contents of the packets. Indeed, the larger the word "monster" is written, very often the less the detergent there is inside.
Secondly, I think that we should have the weight contents of all goods on the outside of the packets. The third problem is that of the registration of certification marks and marks of quality and that, I hasten to add, does not require legislation. I asked a Question about it in the House some time ago and did not get much change in the Answer, but I asked another Question last week when I got a fraction of change. I asked the Parliamentary Secretary whether he did not agree that the number of certifications and marks of approval on goods had greatly increased over the past 12 months, and I asked him what proportion were approved by his Department and what check was made on those not approved to safeguard the interest of the consumers. His first response was not worth very much; he said that some were approved and some were not, some could be actionable under the Merchandise Marks Acts and some could not. Then I asked him whether he felt that he could not go a 1611 little further, and I should like to quote his reply:I agree that these seals of quality which are not certification trade marks are commonly issued without any indication of the tests which have been applied in granting them. The Board of Trade endorses the view that it would be in the interests of shoppers that the tests should be made known."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th March, 1959: Vol. 602, c. 604.]I asked him, if that were the feeling of the Board of Trade, why they did not do something about it. There was no time to pursue the matter then and I hope that he will give me an answer this afternoon.
The fourth day-to-day point which I should like to raise concerns the duplication of consumer research. There is a great deal of duplication, of wasted time and of wasted money. In the first place, we have the grant-aided research organisations of D.S.I.R. The Parliamentary Secretary knows as well as I that these number some 45. In addition, the nationalised industries of gas, electricity and solid fuel are all doing consumer research work. The British Standards Institution is doing research work. I need not mention the Consumer Association which is a private organisation. All these are doing this work. I am convinced—and no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me if I am wrong—that the results of these consumer researches are not made available to each of the bodies concerned, and so it is obvious there must be duplication. I suggest that this organisation which is eventually being set up, and this committee which is considering the setting up of such an organisation, should consider whether the research should be done by one organisation or, if not, how the research which is done should be made available to all.
The next basic fact which I want the committee to consider is the general question of advertisements. About three years ago I raised with the Board of Trade the question of toothpaste advertisements. With the help of the British Dental Association I put certain evidence to the President of the Board of Trade, and the opinion of his legal officers was that whether or not the British Dental Association and I were correct in saying that these advertisements were injurious, a case could not be won in court on them. The matter lapsed for about two years. About a year ago I returned to 1612 the attack and asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he would consider amending the Merchandise Marks Acts so that the manufacturers of toothpastes might have to substantiate their claims when making advertisements, rather than leaving it to the Board of Trade to prove them wrong.
I got nowhere as a result of my attack, but since then we have had an interesting development. That is that the I.T.A., as the Parliamentary Secretary well knows, has decided that toothpaste advertisements which are considered by its advertising committee to be injurious to health shall not be permitted to appear on its screens.
I want to pay a great tribute to the advertising committee of the I.T.A.—I may not always be able to do so—and particularly to the representative of the British Dental Association on that committee. I should also like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he is aware that the advertisement which has been banned by I.T.A. from its screens is exactly the same advertisement as that which I tried to get the President of the Board of Trade to take action on three years ago.
This was like other advertisements—one may or may not be aware of them—which do not state something but permit an inference to be drawn which is most injurious. In this case it was that if one used a certain toothpaste it did the work of preventing decay and it was not necessary to brush one's teeth so often.
The advertising committee of the I.T.A. has decided that any advertisements which toothpaste manufacturers and possibly others—I do not know—want to put on their screens must first be passed by the I.T.A.'s own advertising committee on which a representative of the British Dental Association sits. That is a great step forward and it was hailed as being a great step forward in all the organs of the Press, which gave it great publicity. I thought this very interesting, because the Press had been giving equal space to those advertisements for toothpaste. Therefore, I think it right that I should ask this committee to consider whether one leaves it to the good sense and the public spirit of the newspapers to refuse such advertisements in future because they are injurious to health or whether the Board of Trade, or whatever 1613 ultimate council it recommends being set up, should have powers to deal with such advertisements.
The fourth basic point with which I want to deal concerns the standard of kite marks and what I call quality standards. Here I have to deal with statements of the Branded Textiles Group to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred last week. They say that the kite mark denomination of the British Standards Institution is something that will bring all goods down to the lowest common denominator, hence the necessity of relying on established brand names. Many of the goods of this group are excellent but it represents a very small percentage of the total output of textiles and related goods. By no means all textile goods are sold under brand names and by no means all brand names are worth very much. Certainly every one cannot afford them.
The standard of the kite mark is too low, as I have often said before, because of the restrictions placed upon the British Standards Institution by the Conservative Government, and it is too low because too many manufacturers have to agree on it.
I have in this House repeatedly put forward suggestions which were then scoffed at and which I gather now are not only possible but may in fact actually be done, and they are that we should have quality standards and that some standards should probably be graded. I was always told that was possible by the technical people and now we have the admission from the Parliamentary Secretary last Friday that that is something they would consider. This Committee has an important additional point to consider here. In view of the attitude of the Branded Textiles Group and its disparagement of the marks put out by the B.S.I., I do not believe that we shall make any real progress with industry, either on the adoption of certification mark schemes or on the level of quality to which they refer, unless we can get across to the ordinary members of the public the message put out by the kite marks. On the one hand, I think that the Minister should consider that we have a shopping public which is assailed by the advertising propaganda of I.T.A., representing many millions of expenditure a year on branded products. On the other hand, the B.S.I. has no means 1614 of similar propaganda. I think the Committee should consider whether a bigger grant should be given to the B.S.I. to do this, or whether the B.B.C. should be expected to do it for nothing.
My fifth basic fact is that in 1948 I was in America and saw how Consumers' Union worked. One of my first speeches in this House in 1950 was on this subject, and a point I made was that I thought the Consumers' Union fell down because of its middle-class membership. In this country we have the Consumer Council of the B.S.I., with a membership of 51,000, and the Consumers' Association with a membership of amout 125,000. That is about 175,000 in all, but as some members belong to both bodies that figure is probably somewhat inflated.
The same problem arises here as it does in America. The membership is of the middle classes. The organisations have made practically no impression upon working-class people or upon the working-class market. That will always continue to be the case while the service remains one of subscription, with a journal included in the subscription. Each organisation is wondering how to overcome that, and I believe that it can be overcome only by an organisation being set up which would take in those already in existence.
I want to stress my belief that there is not the slightest use in merely adding another organisation to those we have at present. It should be an independent national body, and its finances should not come from subscriptions. I outlined the details here on 23rd May last, as reported in columns 1710–11 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. If we had the American system here I could ask HANSARD to include these in the report of today's debate but perhaps, as I have mentioned them, anyone interested will be good enough to look at the HANSARD concerned. I think that any such organisation should publish a journal, and suggest that this should be an amalgamation of Shoppers' Guide and the journal of the Consumers' Association.Which?
I do not envisage the setting up of a separate Ministry with branch offices throughout the country, but whatever organisation is set up—and I raised this with the President of the Board of Trade on 12th March last—its reports should be given on sound 1615 radio and on television. I do not believe in compulsion but in an informed public opinion, and the only way to get that informed public opinion is by giving the information through radio and television. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to give me an answer to some of my questions.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)
First, I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) on scoring a "double" today; not only has she got a place in these Adjournment debates, but has also had a letter on the same subject published in The Times today.
Perhaps I may now say a few words about the proposed Departmental Committee on Consumer Protection, which I announced last Friday. As the hon. Lady herself recognises, a great many of her points are likely to come under its scrutiny.
Both the hon. Lady and I share the desire that the Committee should be effective. My only quarrel with the hon. Lady was that she seemed to be telling the Committee, before it met, just what its findings ought to be. Doubtless, however, some of her suggestions will be adopted. She suggested that a national body should be set up. That, of course, is rather looking to the future, and I do not think that I can go nearly so far as that in my remarks.
The Committee will be concerned with some—I will not say all—of the problems that the hon. Lady has raised, and it is because they are very difficult problems that they are being remitted to it. I have, therefore, to be very careful not to be too dogmatic now about the various issues.
As there has been some misunderstanding in the Press, I should like to make it plain that it is not proposed to include weights and measures in the Committee's terms of reference, since this field was covered by the Hodgson Committee. As the hon. Lady also knows, we are about to conduct a social survey to check against present-day conditions some of the Hodgson Committee's recommendations before we introduce the comprehensive new weights and measures Bill.
1616 The object of the survey is to help us to be sure that the whole range of everyday commodities used in the house, not only foodstuffs but other items which are not covered by existing law, are covered. The object is to find out exactly what the consumer wants and what extra protection, if any, is required. It will, for example, cover such questions as whether the housewife prefers to buy cutlets of fish by weight or by the piece, what information she needs about weight in the new types of transparent food packs used in self-service stores, what information, if any, she would like to have on packets of detergents, and tins and bottles of polishes, and whether she requires the contents to be marked. When we have this information we can proceed more confidently than now towards statutory measures.
I should now like to come to what the hon. Lady calls the day-to-day points. One of the points she raised concerned the action which is to be taken if a body that is broadly representative of consumers is unable to agree with manufacturers on a standard, and the instance which she gave—I knew that she would give it because she courteously gave me notice of it—was the proposed new standard for children's shoes. If manufacturers either do not accept that there is a need for a standard or are unable to agree on its technical specification, I cannot see what will be gained by an outside body devising a standard when there is no prospect that manufacturers will avail themselves of it. This is a point in which the pamphlet issued by the hon. Lady's party, "The Future Labour Offers You", is curiously evasive. I alluded to this point in my speech last week, when announcing the formation of the Committee.
As the hon. Lady says, manufacturers are now considering the possibility of a standard for some components of children's shoes, and I have no doubt that she will watch the position and continue to harry them, as she harries me, and that, doubtless, they will take notice of what she says on this subject. After all, public opinion is a far more important means than legislation, and the hon. Lady does a considerable amount of good by focussing attention on this matter. Although I do not always agree with her suggestions, I appreciate the motives which inspire her to raise these problems.
1617 Another point which the hon. Lady raised concerned package descriptions. She said that, like herself, housewives and many retailers dislike expressions such as "monster", "magnum", and "giant". Some people may dislike them However, from my own experience, I disagree with her entirely. Most housewives know what such descriptions are worth. However, it may be that this is a point worth investigation, although I do not think that it is very important. It is something to which the Committee can doubtless pay attention.
The question of duplication of consumer research is more important and I should like to give more consideration to it. At the end of her speech, the hon. Lady suggested that there should be amalgamation between the Consumer Advisory Council of the B.S.I. and the Consumers' Association Ltd., which is a voluntary body. It is suggested that these two organisations should be married. I have never believed in shotgun marriages, and this would be such a marriage, since neither party wants to marry the other. I would be averse to trying to wed them forcibly.
§ Mr. Rodgers
The magazines are the private property of the organisations. I cannot see how I can marry them if they do not want to be married.
Another point which the hon. Lady raised and which had escaped my attention concerned the amount of consumer research done by other Government organisations, such as the nationalised industries. The hon. Lady wondered whether their research findings are available to each other. I should like to look into that point further. I have not given much thought to it and I would not like to comment on it. I thank her, however, for raising it.
On the question of marrying a voluntary consumer body with a Government-aided body—it is not entirely a Government body—I disagree fundamentally with the hon. Lady because I believe in competition even in the sphere of research. I do not want to see monopolies of research. In fact, I should like to see other organisations set up to protect the consumer by voluntary effort. I do not have this great faith which the 1618 hon. Lady possesses in legislation. It is certainly necessary to legislate against fraud and things like that, but I believe that an enlightened public opinion allied to competition and freedom of choice is a far greater protection to the housewife than any kind of legislation. This is the essential point to recognise, that Hex Majesty's present Government, at least, believe in competition and freedom of choice. We shall try to preserve that as the greatest of boons that we can confer on the public.
I should like to say a few words about quality standards. The hon. Lady asked what we could do about them and quoted the activities of advertisers of toothpastes, some of whose advertisements have appeared on the commercial television screen. It is for the owners of any medium, the Press, posters or television, to decide what sort of advertisements they will permit to use their medium. I.T.A. is reported—and I believe the hon. Lady is correct in this—as having taken action about some toothpaste advertisements appearing on the television screen and as a result of which these advertisements have either been withdrawn or modified.
The hon. Lady has from time to time suggested that we at the Board of Trade ought to prosecute these advertisers of toothpastes for, as she suggested, applying to their products false or misleading trade descriptions within the meaning of the Merchandise Marks Acts. We have considered this point carefully, and although the experts whom we have consulted in many instances deprecated the claims of some toothpaste advertisers, they were not prepared to give evidence on oath that these claims could be considered false or misleading. In those circumstances, there was no useful action open to the Board of Trade.
Here is another case where adequate protection can be taken by the voluntary bodies, by the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, by I.T.A. and the publishers of periodicals, and so forth, and we should support their endeavours to promote self-discipline in this field. If there are abuses, it is proper that the hon. Lady and other Members should ventilate them in public from time to time and focus public attention on them; then usually voluntary action follows and stops the abuse. It is not always necessary to have recourse to Government assistance in securing the objective which we are all seeking.
1619 I recognise that in the few remarks that I have been able to make I have not dealt with one or two of the five specific day-to-day points which the hon. Lady raised, because some touch on legislation, like certification marks, and I would be out of order if I attempted to give an adequate answer to those points. Perhaps at some time we can discuss them privately, if the hon. Lady would like to do that.
I should like to thank the hon. Lady once again for her co-operation in this matter. I hope that she will continue her good work. I shall press on in an endeavour to get the Departmental Committee established as soon as possible and get its terms of reference agreed and published.
If it is not out of order, Mr. Speaker, should like to wish the hon. Lady a 1620 happy Easter and extend the same to you, Sir, and to all other hon. Members.
§ Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you whether you have heard whether the Secretary of State for the Colonies is to make a statement about the inquiry on Nyasaland? If you have not had any such indication, may I protest against the House adjourning without that statement having been made?
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock, till Tuesday, 7th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.