HC Deb 16 January 1975 vol 884 cc853-81

11.56 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/1270/74. I am surprised and delighted to find so many hon. Members here to discuss consumer protection at this time of night. I think that it is a recognition of the importance of the item we are about to debate. I welcome the opportunity to hear what will no doubt be the balanced and considered views of hon. Members on the new initiative and new emphasis coming from the EEC on consumer protection.

In opposition, along with many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was frequently critical of the Community for its producer-orientation, and therefore, I am glad, as I am sure most hon. Members are, to see this recognition in the document of consumer rights, not merely in the market place, where, of course, they have their own importance, but—even more important—in policy formation in the Community. Many of us must wonder whether, for example, the common agricultural policy would have evolved into the form we now see had there been proper consumer participation earlier in the deliberations of the Community countries.

I make it clear that this document is purely consultative. If anything, it is a statement of faith as far as the consumer is concerned. It is not a decision to legislate. It lays out a philosophy, a framework and an approach, but it does not require any specific legislative consequence as a result of our deciding that we agree with it.

There may, at a subsequent stage, need to be measures to implement some of the intentions expressed in the document, but any such subsequent policy would have a legislative effect would come separately to this House for consideration. The House will have an opportunity to discuss, express views and, if necessary, vote upon any legislative proposals.

Indeed, many of us will welcome the document simply in the sense that it recognises the need for others to do many of the things we have already done. Much of what is referred to in the document is already enshrined either in our machinery for consumer protection or in our legal defences for the consumer.

The document, as a result of discussion and consultation, has already been amended, but this debate gives an opportunity to the House, before a final document is submitted to the Council of Ministers, to express those views it would like our representatives to take into account in finalising the form of the document which will be put eventually to the Council of Ministers.

As to the precise contents of the document, I believe that its basic assertions are, in general, acceptable to everyone. It establishes that the consumer has the right to protection over a range of subjects which were discussed by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), by myself and by many other hon. Members in great detail during the proceedings on the Fair Trading Act in relation to health, safety and economic interests.

Secondly, it establishes that there should be a right of redress. Not very long ago the House discussed implied terms and legislation to eliminate exclusion clauses in relation to consumer goods. We hope that at an early date we shall have a chance to do the same in relation to services.

It also establishes the right to information and education. This reflects some of the provisions already contained in the Fair Trading Act. Finally, within the EEC concept—which is very important to all hon. Members regardless of their views on the EEC—it establishes that there should be a right to representation. I think that we all accept that over the past development of the EEC there has been a sad deficiency with regard to consumer participation in policy making.

Both Governments have made innovations in the process of consumer representation and participation. The Conservative Government created a Minister of Consumer Affairs. This Government took the matter a stage further and created a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. There is the Office of Fair Trading. There will soon be a National Consumer Office set tip by the Government as a national consumer agency. Our own machinery and legislation already covers much of what is envisaged in this document.

As regards health and safety, paragraphs 16–18 aim to ensure that goods and services are safe for the normal foreseeable circumstances in which they will be used. We realise that need. Indeed in 1961 the Government passed the Consumer Protection Act, in 1955 the Food and Drugs Act, in 1963 the Weights and Measures Act. As a result of those measures considerable protection is now afforded in terms of the composition of goods, additives, contaminants, description and labelling.

One area where we do not, perhaps, have legislative protection is the need for the withdrawal of goods which may represent a health hazard. Until now we have worked amicably and reasonably effectively on a voluntary basis. At this stage I am considering the need for a "seize-and-desist" power to be exercised either by the Government or by the Director-General of Fair Trading. This will provide an important extra armament for the Government. It is an important extra protection for the consumer. It will offer speedier protection.

Since this is the consideration stage, I welcome the views of hon. Members on both sides as to whether they feel that this would, in their view, as in mine, be a helpful addition.

Similarly, in regard to the economic interest of the consumers, as mentioned in paragraph 20–22, we have completed, on the second occasion, the throes of the Consumer Credit Act. We have passed the Fair Trading Act and the Trade Descriptions Act, the Sale of Goods Act, and the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act—which is about to be modified, we hope, as a result of a Private Member's measure. Measures have also been passed to deal with advertisements. The Government will be watching to find out whether the new control system is effective.

In an earlier debate hon. Members criticised the time taken by Treasury Bench speakers. We accept that. Therefore, I shall not go into all the difficulties, which are familiar to hon. Members. However, it may be helpful if I indicate some points of substance where we have achieved changes and one or two areas where we still seek changes.

We achieved a change in paragraph 16 (a)(ix). We found this unacceptable. It required prior approval of an unspecified range of new products before marketing. Although we did not object to the basic protection intention, it seemed to be a sledgehammer approach. We suggested, and it was accepted, that it would be sensible to modify it to allow marketing without the need to go for only positive prior approval where products met already existing harmonised or national standards. It seemed to be a bureaucratic icing on the cake to require this additional procedure where clear standards were laid down and where products clearly met those standards.

Again, in paragraph 18, there has been a modification. This is the proposal for pre-authorisation of schemes for new products used in the manufacture of food, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. In its original form, it was cumbersome and would have restricted product innovation. A less restrictive form has been considered, and, although pre-authorisation will be necessary for certain products, the list is still to be agreed. But it would be absurd if a new type of biscuit, for instance, had to go through this procedure. All we want is to combine sense with consumer protection and to agree a practical common sense approach which will in no way endanger the consumer's position.

We are seeking agreement on a couple of other issues. One concerns paragraph 16 (a)(viii). Under the existing form, substances used in food require to be defined and their use regulated by positive lists. We have no objection to positive lists in principle, but we are trying to ensure that such lists are used in a practical way, otherwise there will be a constant stream of applications resulting in an unnecessary log jam. Again, it is a balance of practicality against all-embracing consumer protection.

We are also trying to amend paragraph 16(a)(x). This may be extending somewhat the intentions under the paragraph, but we believe that, in addition to covering adulteration of products in a way which is injurious to the consumer, it is possible to have adulteration which, although not harmful, is still unacceptable, such as adulteration by an unpleasant smell or flavour. An example of this is to be found in yoghurt, which, if packed in certain plastics, takes on a certain plastic flavour. Therefore, we are trying to extend the paragraph to cover tainting. As yet, there is no agreement about it.

The programme before us envisages implementation within a period of four years. Looking at the whole range and remembering our deliberations about our own legislation, I think that that is a little optimistic. But it is optimism that we should not deter on behalf of the Market countries, because I welcome the new degree of priority for the consumer that it recognises.

The document does not preclude the possibility of more comprehensive protection at a later stage, which again this House will have an opportunity to consider and to discuss. This is purely a discussion document requiring no change in British law at present. Any changes which arise as a result of the philosophy expressed in it will have to come to Parliament for scrutiny and discussion. This debate is our opportunity to express our views on the document and even on the shape and form of any consequential documents which may be of interest to hon. Members. The Government wish to support a resolution at the Council supporting this document, subject to the views of hon. Members, which we will try to embody as far as we can in the further discussions and subject to our ability to reach agreement on some of the outstanding points.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Do I have the right document? In the one I have, the last paragraph on the first page says that, in accordance with the obligations which it hag undertaken, the Council is required to take a decision on this draft before 31st July 1974. Could that be explained?

Mr. Williams

If my hon. Friend is referring to Document R/1270/74—

Mr. Leadbitter


Mr. Williams

—he is absolutely correct, but it is purely a statement of intent. It is not a statement that there is to be any specific change in legislation. It merely sets a framework within which any future consumer protection legislation or directives would be devised.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Like the Minister, the Opposition broadly welcome the document and are grateful for his explanation of both the document and its background. I should have thought that the answer to his hon. Friend is that the Council is a little late in approving the document. It was originally intended that it should be approved last summer, but it was referred to a working group, which I believe is still dealing with it. It will come before the Council of Ministers in the comparatively near future for approval, but of course it has no legislative force. This is simply a programme setting out the kind of things that the Community wishes brought in in this field.

As I said, this is a useful and sensible document. It is interesting in that it shows the difference between the European and British approval to matters like this. It has about it a more systematic flavour than ours. We have a pragmatic or selective tradition, picking out the things that we think are worth doing, whereas the Commission tends to go back to square one, work through the whole procedure and produce a tidier approach. Although there are risks in this—it may lead to a bureaucratic flavour—it may be something from which we can also learn.

It is worth asking whether there is any real need for such a programme. Everyone now believes that consumerism—if I may use that rather inelegant term—is desirable and that a great deal of formal consumer protection is necessary. We are all, in a sense, consumers now. But it is worth asking why the EEC should think that this is an area in which it should act.

However strongly one believes in the EEC, as I have come to believe in it, it still makes sense to recognise that the phrase "because the EEC says so" is not normally an all-sufficient answer.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I think that the hon. Member was one who voted for the terms that this country accepted. Does he not realise that, if there is to be equal competition and a market which covers all the nine countries, to have rules, country by country, protecting consumers over such matters as safety, size and standards, would be impossible, and that therefore there must be a complete harmonisation of all sorts of standards, whether a good thing or a bad thing, over the whole area? Surely, if he does not understand that, he has missed one of the objectives of the Market.

Mr. Raison

I was coming to that point. I was going to say that I believe that decisions should be taken, where possible, at the lowest level compatible with efficiency. Therefore, I do not start from the point of view that we should necessarily decide matters on a Community basis. It is desirable to argue the case for deciding matters on a Community basis, and when we can see a case for doing so it is right to do so.

I welcome the statement of Commissioner Gundelach of the EEC that it is not the Commission's policy to harmonise for harmonisation's sake, to order countries to change their legislation for reasons more or less connected with an ideology of integration". That is basically a sensible approach, and people must realise that it is now the EEC's attitude. Nevertheless, we are talking about a common market. The heart of the EEC is the notion of a common market. If it is increasingly to be governed by the same rules for competition as goods and companies more and more cross frontiers, the case for evolving common consumer standards becomes more powerful.

The Minister said that the EEC had tended to be producer-oriented rather than consumer-oriented and seemed to be welcoming something of a conversion. I am not sure that he was entirely fair to the EEC. There is in the Treaty of Rome genuine emphasis on the needs of consumers. The preamble states that one of the basic aims of the Community is the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples". That is a wide generalisation, but at least it has something to say about the consumers.

The consumer is more specifically referred to in Article 39 which, after setting out the objectives of the common agricultural policy, states that a specific requirement is to ensure that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices". Article 85(3) requires the provision to consumers of a fair share of the resulting benefit as one of the criteria for permitting "any concerted practice" and certain agreements between undertakings. Article 86 gives as an example of improper practices limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of consumers". Therefore, the protection of consumers was in the minds of the people who framed the treaty. Nevertheless, I agree that the sort of development we are seeing is required.

I accept that it is important to be sensitive when applying or postulating consumer protection measures. We are talking about nine different nations and nine different cultures, and to try to push down the throat of each nation measures which may be generally beneficial requires a certain amount of delicacy. I am not sure why the Commission refers in the document before us to the standardisation and harmonisation of toys. It may well be that there is more to this than meets the eye, but this is the sort of matter about which the Commission must be careful. It is easy for people to say, "What on earth is this all about?" This is the type of point we should take up in our discussions in the Common Market.

The changes which the Minister has told us the Government have pressed for successfully seem, on the face of it, to be sensible. I cannot comment in detail, but I should have thought that in principle this attempt to debureaucratise was proper. The overall impression of the programme is that it is sensible, but it foreshadows for the EEC many schemes which we in this country have already launched. We may be down the growth league, but we are pretty well up the consumer protection league.

I can legitimately claim that what has been achieved for the consumer has been, to an extraordinary extent, the work of Tory administrations, and particularly the last Tory administration. The Department, in paragraph 4 of its memorandum covering the document we are considering, states: In many of the areas where Community action is proposed, the United Kingdom already gives extensive legislative protection to consumers, through measures such as the Consumer Protection Act, the Trade Descriptions Act, the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Credit Bill now awaiting Royal Assent". The last measure has since reached the statute book. I think that I can point out with fairness that the Consumer Protection Act 1961, the Fair Trading Act 1973, and, in effect, the Consumer Credit Act, were all Tory measures, as were the Weights and Measures Act 1963 and a number of other important pieces of legislation.

Mr. Alan Williams

For the record, as the hon. Gentleman seems to have brought in a political dimension, I accept his point about the Fair Trading Act, but surely he will accept that nothing has been more all-party than the Consumer Credit Act, in the sense that the Labour administration set up the Commission to investigate that matter and brought the Act, modified as a result of our consultations, to the statute book. Throughout, I paid credit to the work done by the Tory Opposition. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will give some credit to the Labour Government.

Mr. Raison

In that spirit I am happy to do so, but I think that I am justified in paying particular credit to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) because, whatever our views on this sphere, his contribution has been exceptional. Indeed, he managed to transform not only a great deal of the law, but the whole climate in which we approached the matter.

The Minister has pointed out the extent to which, already, in our legislation, we have covered the kind of matters being postulated by the Community in its programme. I shall not go through the list to reinforce that point. However, we must recognise that we have not done everything that has to be done. It would be a mistake to be arrogant about our achievements in this sphere. I think that we can reasonably expect the stimulus of membership of the Common Market to prove valuable to us in developing our consumer protection policy, just as I am sure that we have a great deal to offer to the Community.

Looking at the document, some critics may argue whether, at times, the programme underplays the power of the consumer, particularly in paragraph 7. I think that those who work, as I did to an extent, in what might be called the consumer-oriented industries, look on the consumer as a more powerful being than paragraph 7 tends to imply. I used to work in the magazine industry where my whole time seemed to be spent worrying how to attract the consumer. In that industry one does not dictate terms to readers.

The whole business of market research which has grown up is, on balance, very much on the side of the consumer, though I am prepared to accept that there are times when that may not be so. Nevertheless, I cannot help admiring the way that the programme firmly quotes from Adam Smith who said, the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. Perhaps, like other observations made by Adam Smith, that sounds a bit strong for modern tastes. Nevertheless, it is not a bad sentiment to find in this kind of document.

The Minister told the House about the objectives which are set out in the programme. I believe that they are essentially sensible and provide a good basis for advance. But, as I have implied, when we implement them it will be important not to be over-bureaucratic. For example, we should use voluntary methods whenever possible. This is a course that we have adopted in our approach to the question of advertising. However, I felt that the EEC Economic and Social Committee was right to stress this point when giving its opinion on this programme.

It is damaging to over-regulate, over-research, and over-bombard the population, particularly when we may feel that national Governments or other organisations are doing the job adequately, because I am sure that there is risk of a counter-reaction.

One point in the programme that caught my eye, my being interested in education, was the proposal in paragraphs 46 and 47 to make sure that consumer education was provided in schools. I belong to the school of thought which, by and large, believes in education in the traditional sense—that children should learn to read and write, and various matters like that.

I am allergic to people who, always with very good motives, come up with brilliant ideas about what should be rammed into an already overcrowded curriculum. Therefore, I would not be particularly happy about the idea that the Common Market should tell our schoolmasters that they must provide consumer education. I am not saying that it should not be provided, but our tradition of seeing that these things are decided, by and large, by our own educators rather than by bureaucrats, British or foreign, is a good tradition. This proposal is not something that I want to see implemented, so perhaps the Minister, in consultation with the Department of Education and Science, will at least query the wisdom of this provision.

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is at least possible that the voluntary code of which he speaks so highly does not work so well in respect of advertising, and that our schoolchildren need innoculation against the advertisers?

Mr. Raison

I do not know whether I would agree with that. It would be a mistake to get involved too much on that question. If the Government allow us to debate consumer protection in that respect we can talk of such matters.

I welcome the document as a general statement but, absolutely rightly, we shall give particular close scrutiny to its implementation. As the Minister hinted, it raises a very important question which is now beginning to loom large in this area of consumer protection. That is the business of consumer representation and, indeed, participation in important decisions. We are beginning to put our toes in the water here, but we have not got all that far. The EEC Economic and Social Committee has expressed the belief that consumers should have equality of consultation on, for example, anything affecting prices, and that the European Communities should involve consumers in planning medium-term and long-term economic development. In this country we sometimes have rather fevered debates on the question whether, for example, the CBI should have a say in the formulation of the social contract, and so on. We have not gone far in that direction, or in saying whether there should be some kind of consumer representation in the formulation of that kind of policy.

I do not claim to know the answer to these questions. It is a complicated matter. One of the difficulties is that when one talks of consumer representation at this sort of level one must be sure that it is a genuine representation rather than a nominated representation. There are big problems in that respect. Nevertheless, this is an example of the way in which the Community is able to raise with us important questions in an area in which, as I said earlier, by and large we think we have not done too badly. Our membership of the EEC will help to stimulate our thinking on this matter. The kind of steps envisaged in this programme are steps we should welcome, and we certainly do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I remind the House that this debate is to end at 1.25 a.m., when the time limit lapses.

12.28 a.m.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

My purpose in rising to speak is to make a complaint and to point a contrast. The contrast is that the debate which we concluded a little while ago—a debate that affected the interests of consumers in very material ways and which was extremely unsatisfactory in its nature, as are all debates on Common Market matters—took place in circumstances in which the House knew that it was in no position to take any decision which would have any weight or effect. We were participating in that debate, and now again in this debate, in a rather elaborate charade. I do not regard this as a genuine attempt to consider the subject of consumer protection.

We are told that there are no legislative consequences. Our fears are calmed. We are being consulted on a document which refers to a decision being required by 31st July last year. We are being consulted by means of a document on which we are given certain indications that some changes have been made and certain other changes are being sought. Yet we know that whatever the opinion of the House on the matter we have no power to affect the result. The House is turned into an extremely elaborate and expensive pressure group, and that is not the purpose for which my constituents sent me here.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that while the document itself does not require any changes in United Kingdom law, When the specific directives mentioned in the Programme are brought forward for approval there are likely to be implications for U.K. law; but these cannot be determined until the relevant draft directives have been submitted by the Commission. We are spending an hour and a half considering an Alice-in-Wonderland affair. None of my constituents, producers or consumers, will know anything about this debate, and there is no need for them to worry about it because it does not matter twopence. I regard that as a serious state of affairs.

Mr. Spearing

Did my hon. Friend notice that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection was here for the Front Bench speakers? I presume it is my right hon. Friend who will be going to Brussels. She is now no longer here and I am sorry, because my hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and if the Secretary of State is not here how can she take the views being expressed with her to Brussels?

Mrs. Wise

I fully accept my hon. Friend's point. There is an instance of "the truth will out" in paragraph 4 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which states that It is not possible to say, until specific proposals are brought forward, whether Community action in these and other fields will call for the U.K. to adapt its approach to these problems or to alter its existing practices. We cannot decide whether we shall need to alter our laws or practices. We have to wait to see whether we shall be required to adapt our laws in order to fit in with things from on high.

There is also the statement in the Explanatory Memorandum that this very extensive programme would, for the main part, be implemented in the form of directives primarily designed to harmonise member States' laws in these matters under Article 100 of the treaty. The primary objective of the House, therefore, will be to decide not on the best possible aproaches to consumer protection but on how to harmonise our situation with that of the other EEC states. I regard that as extremely unsatisfactory.

There is a certain irony in what my hon. Friend told us about the changes that the Government have achieved or are seeking. Take the example of para. 16 (viii), on page 7, where the document reads Substances which may form part of or be added to foodstuffs should be defined and their use regulated by reference to clear and precise positive limits. If that were a suggestion for legislation in the House I would support it. It seems ironic that the Government are seeking to modify that on the grounds that it would be bureaucratic. What happened earlier tonight makes any suggestion that such lists would be bureaucratic quite comic.

We had an example of the way in which the Common Market matters will operate in relation to the consumer not only earlier tonight, on intervention buying, but a little while ago, on the question of minimum weights. The document before us talks about the right of consumers to have information. We had information about our legal entitlement concerning the weight of many of the goods we buy. The Common Market proposed to take away that right to information. We had the right to redress on that point. We could complain and know that our complaint had substance. That right is being taken away. We are told that if our packet of cereal is a little underweight someone else's packet must be a little overweight. As some one who has spent quite a proportion of her life buying goods in shops, I do not regard that as adding to my rights, but rather as withdrawing important rights with regard to both information and redress. That brief debate took place a few weeks ago.

Whatever the views of the House, when it comes to the crunch we shall not be able to reject this provision, whether we like it or not. [Interruption.] I was not here for that debate. I was in the same position in relation to it as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be in relation to this debate—I read about it in Hansard.

One of the most important statements made in the House since I became a Member was made on 19th December, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, dealing with complaints about the powers of the House to debate Community documents, said: The basic difficulty is that Parliament has lost its sovereignty over this whole area of legislation which applies to the people of this country and the most we can do is discuss these points."—[Official Report, 19th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 1898.] That is exactly the situation we are in tonight. We can discuss. We cannot have genuine or effective influence on the matters under discussion. I regard that as the greatest disservice we could do to consumers and the citizens of this country.

12.38 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise), who is evidently well able to look after herself, is not the only hon. Member who has been struck by the contrast between this debate and the one which immediately preceded it. We are used in this House—it is part of its character—to a quite Galilean suddenness with which calm succeeds storm. But the contrast presented by these two debates—in terms of both their subject matter and their content—is not merely interesting but could be of constructive value for the future. That is why I am particularly glad to see in his place on the Government Front Bench a representative of the Whips' Office, because I know that he—like all his colleagues, but he in particular—is very attentive to note the points made by hon. Members and to report them in the proper quarter. I am sure that the points which have been made by the hon. Lady, and which very briefly I wish to address to the House, will be brought to the attention of the Lord President of the Council, within whose province, more than that of any one else, they belong.

The paper before us, of which we are invited to take note—I imagine that in this case the question will be allowed to be put—is a very remote and tentative document. We read at the end of the Explanatory Memorandum that may be when the working group has completed its work early in the autumn the programme will go to the Council of Ministers and then they may accept a resolution approving the objectives and the priorities, but that will only be the start. Beyond that lie four years during which, more or less, that programme will be implemented, in so far of course as it is not already part of the law of this country, because the Minister said that these points are largely covered by our own law.

So, although this is perhaps an interesting subject of discussion, there is no pressing immediacy about it, and it is a strange contrast to come to this from a document on which a decision is to be taken elsewhere after it has been modified in unforeseeable fashion by the end of this month, a document, moreover, which will affect—and directly affect without further interposition of any kind by Parliament—the fortunes of one of our most important industries and the experience of all the consumers in this country.

With those two documents together before the House in this sitting, it was decided to share equally between the two the three hours which were rendered available in total. There could scarcely be—I say this with all due respect to the contributions that have been made and will be made to the debate—a more grotesque disproportion than that in the allocation of time.

As this matter is remote and uncontroversial, I am sure that the House will be allowed to come to a conclusion at any rate on whether it is to take note or not. But on the last matter, where there was a specific amendment before the House, where the House had the opportunity of taking a decision, that opportunity was deliberately denied to it by the Government, so that in the end the House was left without even having taken note.

I believe that we should point to certain practical remedies, which are within the power of the Government, for some of the cruder aspects of the spectacle this evening of which we are now witnessing the second scene. I put forward two suggestions. Neither of these will in any way impede the total management of time by the Government or by the Leader of the House.

The first is that we should not treat an hour and a half—which, of course, is a figure derived from our proceedings under the negative procedure on statutory instruments—as the modulus for dealing with EEC matters. We might be so bold, sometimes, as actually to allow as much as two hours, or even two and a half hours, for a matter of more importance, even though that might mean limiting to an hour matters of somewhat less importance. You will observe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how modest my suggestions are and how I am deliberately confining them within the assumption that no further time in all is desired to be made available by the Leader of the House.

The second suggestion I have to make is this. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, just because you are Deputy Speaker, were not able to witness—it was a painful sight, and many Members were deeply moved by it—the distress of Mr. Speaker in the Chair during the previous debate, when he found himself tormented by the fact that, quite clearly on a matter of the greatest importance, it was impossible for anything resembling a serious debate to be fitted into the available time. In the course of those proceedings attention was drawn to the fact that more than half the time was expended by those who were opening and closing the debate.

The suggestion which I should like to make is that as a matter of practice we should in this respect follow the procedure in the hour-and-a-half debates on negative motions and Prayers that there should be one speech only from the Opposition Front Bench and that there should be, if possible—this will not always be possible—one speech only from the Government Front Bench. That would lose very little, if I may say so, at least as regard speeches from the Opposition Front Bench, and it would certainly increase the opportunities available to back benchers.

Mr. Alan Williams

I am interested in the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. He is being very constructive, as he has been previously. For guidance, however, may I ask him whether, if there were to be only one speech from the Government Front Bench, it would be appropriate for, say, myself this evening to speak at the beginning to try to pinpoint the items on which we regard discussion as appropriate—or would it be right for me to speak at the end? If I did not do that, hon. Members would say that I was not answering their points. At which stage would the right hon. Gentleman say that it would be appropriate for me to speak?

Mr. Powell

I appreciate the point. It arises to some extent in the discussion of statutory instruments. No doubt the Minister in charge would be able to feel or ascertain what were the wishes of the House. I envisage, however, that the Minister might well need quite normally to seek the permission of the House to speak again. But I submit that two speeches as a matter of course from the Opposition Front Bench are overloading the time.

If I may venture to say so, and perhaps this is the most risky thing I have said, I am very grateful indeed to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having permitted me to use the subject matter of this debate to reflect upon another, because I feel that what I said is in the minds of many hon. Members who take part in these debates and that, although we cannot have a remedy for the difficulty felt by the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South-West without measures very much larger than these—indeed, without getting ourselves out again of the impossible constitutional position into which we have got—nevertheless we can ameliorate things for ourselves, I hope, by agreement during the next few months.

12.48 a.m.

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) have concentrated on the difficulties of dealing with such a generalised document as is before us and with the procedural problems that the whole debate on this and other subjects concerning EEC documents involves.

I should like, however, to return to the document itself, because certain aspects of it should not be overlooked. I refer first to the comments made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) from the Opposition Front Bench regarding the intentions of the Treaty of Rome concerning consumers.

The tragedy is that they have remained intentions. Had they been otherwise it would not now be necessary for us to be receiving a document which envisages a four-year programme by introducing the very consumer protection measures which to a large extent have already been accepted in this country.

Reference has already been made to the quotation from Adam Smith and the interests of the producer being attended to only in so far as that may be necessary for promoting the interest of the consumer. The objectives of Community policy are to secure for the consumer the satisfaction of his real needs at the best prices by the development of an economic policy which takes his interests fully into account.

The "dropped" document contains the very antithesis of the sort of policy which the Commission document sets out. For example, there is a reference to wine. It is said that it is probable that the present surplus will continue. Presumably a wine mountain is anticipated instead of a butter or beef mountain. No doubt we shall be able to envisage another crisis coming about which will eventually work to the detriment of the consumer in the same way as the previous surplus mountains.

In the final paragraph of the "dropped" document we are told that in 1974–75 in the fruit and vegetable sectors productions will be considerably below that of previous years and that adequate prices can be expected. I submit that adequate prices in that document are contrary to the concept of protection of the consumer in the other documents which we are discussing. There is such hypocrisy in the generalised document that much of it is mealymouthed window dressing. So little of it can be practically applied to consumer problems in this country.

I take up the point of Britain being so far in advance of other countries. In some areas we are in advance, but in others we are not. The whole consumer protection situation is patchy. But that is not to say that others are better off. We have been building up effective consumer protection. I think that we would wish that to continue. There are many areas in which further protection is necessary. As a member of the Crowther Committee on consumer credit, I consider that it was a most important advance to introduce legislation. I doubt very much whether the harmonisation which is envisaged in the Consultative Document will ever give, throughout the EEC, the kind of consumer credit protection that we have given ourselves. I must point out the irrelevance of the document to most areas of consumer protection.

I do not wish to raise any controversy between us, but I must question the claimed attributes of the previous Conservative Government in consumer affairs. I notice that the destruction of the Consumer Council was omitted. If ever there was a disservice to consumers and an opportunity missed to show an example of the way in which consumer affairs might have been dealt with had we been going to give examples to the EEC, that was the chance that the previous Conservative Government deliberately destroyed.

12.55 a.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I fully understand the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that we might have spent rather more of our time discussing agricultural prices within the three hours devoted to the affairs of the European Community. We ought, however, to spend some time giving a welcome to this document, because it is the first statement of consumer policy to come out of the European Commission. It is important that the policy should get off on the right foot and I believe that it has.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) said that the document was mealy-mouthed and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said that it was couched in European language. That may be so. As far as I can make out it is a re-statement of British Government consumer policy over the past five years. I understand that it is a product of a former Secretary of the Advertising Standards Authority, Mr. Jim Braun, who brought to the work of the European Commission a thorough knowledge of consumer protection work in this country. It is not surprising that this document is fully compatible with the work that has been done here. Little amendment of our law will be necessary in the four-year programme.

I share with my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady a dislike of hamonisation for its own sake; yet in this area it is vital for the protection of the consumer that there should be a substantial degree of harmonisation. Consider the issue of safety. The European Consumer Unit of the Consumers Association paid for by the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, has spent a considerable amount of time recently in looking into the whole question of consumer attitudes towards an understanding of household symbols. As products cross frontiers many can be a potential danger to users. It is vitally important that we harmonise the symbols and warn users that they are dealing with something that could be dangerous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury was doubtful about the harmonisation of toys. Unfortunately, toys can be dangerous. The harmonisation proposed here will be on their safety standards, so that if a child licks a toy soldier made in Germany he is at least as unlikely to get lead poisoning as he would be if he licked a toy soldier made in this country.

A great deal of harmonisation still needs to be done on safety. The document is merely a guide. The question is whether it will remain a guide or become the basis of practical work. That depends on the resources that the Commission devotes to the subject in the next four years. I should like to hear from the Minister the Government's view of the amount of resources the Commission should provide. At present the Commission gives a grant of £20,000 a year to the Bureau of European Consumer Unions. That is not much. Do we think that it should be increased? Do we think that the staff of the Consumer Protection Commission in Brussels should be increased and its budget enlarged? Unless that is done the document, which is a worthy one, will remain a document and very little else.

1.1 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I welcome back my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection of whom I made some rather harsh remarks. I hope that my right hon. Friend will read the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) and remember that it was delivered with the clarity of expression which is her own characteristic.

I disagree almost entirely with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). I cannot welcome the document, and I note it with distaste. My hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the distance between the consumer and those who set the standards. Harmonisation takes the decision-making authority even further away from the ultimate consumer. The House will have no power to modify the harmonisation regulations or even to probe them. I do not view the document as a step towards greater consumer protection.

Neither the Minister of State nor the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) mentioned what our consumer organisations think of the document.

Mr. Goodhart

I sit on the Council of the Consumers' Association which has given a warm welcome to the document.

Mr. Spearing

I am interested to hear it, but my intervention required that comment to be made. In some ways the document is pardoxical and hypocritical, and I will give an example. When I first came to the House I took an interest in the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council. One of the most remarkable reports produced by the National Board for Prices and Incomes was on fuel prices. It showed that the pithead price of domestic coal was £4 or £5 a ton and the cost to the consumer was £20 a ton. The Industrial Coal Consumers' Council was at least able to consider that report.

I understand that both the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council and the Industrial Coal Consumers' Council had to be wound up as a condition of our entry into the European Coal and Steel Community. I can think of no way in which such an obligation on this country was a furtherance of the principles contained in this document. We traded a real and potential consumer power for a load of possible claptrap.

On 29th November, after an all night-sitting, we debated Commission Document R/2628/73, substituting an average net weight for the present net weight regulations. In this country, if one buys a package which contains less than the contents marked on the outside, one can go to the weights and measures inspector and a prosecution can follow. But Regulation R/2628/73 would ultimately rule that out by introducing average net weight, and there were complicated mathematics in the regulation which I defy anyone, even with advanced level mathematics, to understand. There is no protection at all in that regulation, and the town hall and the weights and measures inspector will not be able to help. If we want real consumer protection, we shall have to keep our own. Perhaps we shall be able to, but surely we shall have to accept the Community regulations as well. But we cannot insist on the net weight protection. I do not know whether the Consumers' Association is aware of that. It should beware of it.

Paragraph 16(a)(1x) of the document is concerned with the safety of electrical goods and the need for some standardisation of safety rules. We know just how dangerous electrical goods can be. There is a European standard, voluntarily agreed, for the wiring of three-pin plugs, and there is some sense in that when electrical manufacturing companies change across the frontiers. But I do not think that it is in a directive from Brussels. I believe that it emerged from consultation between Governments. That is a more appropriate method. Let those who say that anti-Marketeers are not internationalists take note. We are internationalists, and perhaps that is basically why we are anti-EEC.

Mrs. Wise

The need is world-wide. It seems that harmonisation in the Community will not deal fully and adequately with safety matters and that we shall still need the normal methods of international co-operation to ensure proper safety in commercial standards.

Mr. Spearing

I think that my hon. Friend is right, and the point underlines what I am saying. The best and most practical protection should be achieved internationally on a voluntary basis by experts. I am not saying that the Commission will not have vast committees of expensive experts, but let us deal with particular matters on their merits and retain our right to tell our Ministers whether or not they may agree to a certain arrangement which may be made. Under the EEC arrangements, we have not that right.

There will be enormous commercial pressures on those in Brussels who are to make these regulations and draft them. The Council of Ministers will not do the job—it will go down to some advisory technical committee. We in this House know the commercial pressures that can be exercised—hence our proposed register of interests. The commercial pressures on those in Brussels responsible for drafting these regulations will be enormous. This House will not be able to protect the British public, the consumers—our constituents—because our power will be gone.

1.11 a.m.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

Membership of the Common Market may not be congenial to all hon. Members. Clearly it is not congenial to the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise). However, this occasion affords us an opportunity to examine our progress against that achieved by our fellow-EEC member States.

The consideration of this document, which foreshadows the shape and direction of future legislation and is in some ways akin to a Green or White Paper, is not so very far removed from the traditional procedure of this House.

I first wish to venture a caution. It is common ground from tonight's discussion that a number of Acts dealing with consumer affairs have been passed and have achieved at least four major landmarks. This may perhaps be a time when we should not rush ahead but should allow the rest of the field to catch up, because there is more than a hint in this document of a tendency to elevate consumers to the level of a caste, a race apart, the innocence and purity of which must not be denied. If that sounds heretical, it is because I feel that there is a danger of over-simplifying the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) said that we are all consumers now. That is nothing new. The majority of people, at some time in their daily lives, are the producers or providers of goods and services to others. There is a danger that we may by this attitude, by formalising this approach, create the same caricatures as have so bedevilled relationships between landlord and tenant, and manager and worker. We should be careful not to create, by our excess of zeal on behalf of the consumer, tensions and suspicions and artificial distinctions between different members of society by exploiting anxieties and prejudices, real though they may be. There will always be a need for protective legislation, but it seems to me that the consumers' interests can best be upheld in ways other than by means of purely negative protective Acts.

One passage in page 5 of the document causes me alarm. It is not clear what it means. It indicates that one method of achieving the objective of safeguarding the consumer is by means of consultation and participation in decisions which concern him. A certain gloss has been put on that statement by hon. Members. I hope it does not mean the kind of trendy thinking that would put teachers and pupils on boards of governors, undergraduates on the courts of universities, and workers on boards of management, all in the guise of greater democracy, because this very often means a mere blurring of separate responsibilities and functions. I hope that we shall be able to see consumers as members of society who are entitled to legislative protection but who are not incapable of making their own decisions.

Secondly, I welcome the inclusion of education as one of the methods by which the consumer may be safeguarded. However that may be achieved—it may be in schools or elsewhere—it will provide protection. A healthy market depends as much on consumer and producer as on a vigorous and healthy interaction between the two. It is far better that we should have an educated consumer who is able to fend for himself in this commercial battle of wits than an unthinking person who must depend on the State for protection in every action or purchase he undertakes. I would prefer to see prevention rather than cure. We have the beginings of a network of consumer advice centres. That is all very well, but it is expensive. Very often such centres have more experience of dealing with grievances and complaints than of advising the public on the highly technical nature of commercial trading.

I should like to see just one or two small changes of emphasis. This is a consultative document, which is open to opinions being expressed about it, and I hope that we shall be able to persuade our colleagues in the other countries of the Market not only to follow our example in legislation but also to take a different view of the rôles of the consumer and of the producer in society.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

After listening to so many speeches on the rôle of the Community in relation to this country, I am grateful for this opportunity to comment on the rôle of the consumer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) made a significant point when he emphasised that the consumer is not some new invention of the advertising world or some new discovery of the political biologist, but someone with whom we have the closest contact, namely ourselves. Those of us who have spent any time in industry or commerce know that the rôle of the consumer is all-important in relation to the success or failure of a product in terms of its sales and the profit made out of it, to say nothing of the wellbeing of those employed in companies and organisations.

There are two or three matters in the document which worry me. I share the general welcome given to it in that it is a framework within which steps towards greater protection can be made throughout the Community. But we have to consider carefully when the consumer's interest should be considered. In the committees established in Brussels, is his advice to be taken before that of producers or politicians? Is he to have the last or the first word? In developing a process, it is vital to take the consumer into the discussions when his influences can be absorbed and acted upon.

Then we have to get an understanding with consumers through their organisations, which need education as much as anyone else. Reference is made in the document to education being a process by which consumers are informed. But people need to understand the problems of the marketing process so that, if they wish to see average weights removed and net weights substituted, they understand that this may result in an increase in the cost per package, in fewer varieties being available and in a greater standardisation of the product. Although the consumer organisations are very effective, because they are composed of intelligent, hardworking and voluble people, they do not necessarily represent a large number of consumers. In a given industry, a great many jobs may be put at risk as a result of an ill-timed intervention by a consumer organisation.

In page 3 of the document, there are two interesting passages. The first claims that the consumer needs protection because he has … been confronted by a vastly greater range of goods, more complex and designed to meet a great variety of specific uses, produced in anticipation of demand rather than in response to it. But at the foot of the same page, we read: … the producer has a greater opportunity to select his market than the consumer has to select his supplier. Those two statements are contradictory. It is obvious that in trying to put together a consumer programme, many people have failed to identify the real causes where protection is required—in health, in additives, in descriptions of what products contain, and so on.

Then, what is consumer satisfaction, and how can we legislate for it? I may buy my wife a pot of lanolin face cream from a well-known High Street chemist. Although there is no doubt that that will provide the greatest value in terms of pence per fluid ounce, if I buy instead the product of an American fashion house at a cost of many £s per fluid ounce, it is certain that the result will be greater consumer satisfaction. It is impossible to legislate upon such a matter without recognising that one man's meat is another man's poison.

We all understand that it is necessary for us to take the consumer more seriously in matters which are critical. Where opinion is involved, or misleading information of half-truths in advertising, there is probably more control over content than there ever is over veracity. It is in these areas that consumer protection movements and programmes must move with the greatest care. With thaw words, I wholly welcome the intentions of the document.

1.20 a.m.

Mr. Alan Williams

Having acceded to the request to confine myself to a few minutes at the end of the debate, I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I can deal with only a limited number of points. But I will try to deal with as many as I can as quickly as I can.

In answer to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), the resources for this purpose will rise in 1975 from £20,000 to £83,000. It is still not massive, but a lot of the work is done in other Departments and therefore comes under other budgets. But this seems a small figure in comparison with what we might think appropriate. We should, for example, be sympathetic to the suggestion that the staff of the Consumer Consultative Committee should be strengthened.

The hon. Member also mentioned the warning symbols for dangerous goods. I know that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) has several times raised this matter. She knows the division of responsibilities here, with another Department having certain responsibilities, but the Commission has not yet put proposals to the Council on this matter. I am referring to Document 167/73. The House will have an opportunity to scrutinise and debate the proposals when the Commission eventually submits to the Council.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

Would the Minister ask his right hon. Friend to make urgent representations on this important point? Over 7,000 children are killed or injured by these substances every year. The sooner we have the regulations in this country the better.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Lady and I have always shared this concern about the priority which should be attached to the safety of goods. I will make her point of view known to my right hon. Friend and in the discussions in Brussels.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) objected to my calling the lists of additives "bureaucratic". She said that that was comic. I would only say that people might think it comic if every item which could conceivably be put in food had to be listed on an approved list. It is a matter of balance and judgment. My hon. Friend draws one conclusion: I draw another. Inevitably, there will be some disagreement here.

Mrs. Wise

I said what I did in the context of the EEC, which is probably the most bureaucratic organisation in political history.

Mr. Williams

In that case, I am sure that my hon. Friend is with me completely when I say that it is the Government's intention to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy whenever we can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham South (Mr. Spearing) described the document as hypocritical. Perhaps one could also call it a confession of past errors. I fully understand the strength of his feelings about the consultative councils. The Domestic Coal Consumers' Council still exists, although not with its original statutory powers it can still consider matters relevant to the consumer and make representations. But I appreciate his point.

To give hon. Members who wish to do so a chance to divide, perhaps I had better sit down at this point.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes notes of Commission Document No. R/1270/74.